It Can't Sun All the Time

I'm just going to jump right into this one.

I'm sick of the guilt that is placed on people in our culture when they aren't feeling happy. As if my bad mood or emotional strife could "rub off" on you and surreptitiously steal away YOUR happiness. Well, yeah, maybe. That's called empathy. But it's not designed to make you feel miserable. It's there to make the miserable person feel less alone, and thus, alleviate the suffering instead of prolonging it.

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But this can only happen if the person who is suffering feels free to share their emotional truths with the world. When the world turns its back, all that pain has nowhere to go. Covering it up with a smile is as ridiculous as a hoarder covering her stuff with a bright red tablecloth—see, now, doesn't that make it festive? Doesn't it just SCREAM Christmas?

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I have been shamed and shushed all of my life for being willing to admit to having unhappy feelings. Heck, not too long ago, I was even told "why would you want to post that picture of yourself? It's so unflattering" after finding out that a former student of mine had taken his own life. Yeah, sorry, I didn't realize how uncalled for that was. I should have posted a sexy tap dancing number instead.

This disease that we have, this dis-ease over feeling anything that is not "positive," of insisting that everything

is okay, or fine even, when sometimes, it just ISN'T, is the cause of so much additional suffering and pain and damage and devastation in our lives.

If we were allowed, when we were, say twenty-three, to experience the honest pain of miscarrying a baby at three months, to grieve openly, instead of keeping it a secret and pushing down all the accompanying feelings, maybe we wouldn't be causing so much suffering for ourselves and others in our lives now. Sure, we weren't married, and the father-to-be was a different color, and there's no way he would have been accepted into the family. And we didn't really fit in with his either, due to them being in a higher class. It's enough to make a woman shut down to the possibility of trying again. Even years after the fact, with a loving husband who wants nothing more than to start a family.

Our bodies are strong. They keep going and going. With or without the health of the mind. Until we are automatons, living, doing, acting, machining our way through. Until the mind, which drives the whole train, snaps. Can't control the cogs anymore. Can't get the body to stop destroying itself. Can't get it to do anything.

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That's what happens when you train your body to run on autopilot. It stops listening to the heart-mind.

And the heart-mind gets upset about this. It wants to be part of your life, too. It wants a seat at the table. Even a booster seat will do. Heck, give it a bib, it might dribble, make a mess. 

That's part of life too. It's not all neat and tidy. Better that our emotions are allowed to make a mess from time to time than shut them down, make them play poker, pretend they don't exist. Because if your emotions don't exist, then really, neither do you.

Luke Roberts on Flickr

I refuse to prepare for the zombie apocalypse. I don't want to live among the emotionally undead. Before this happens—people, please, find your feelings. Acknowledge them, let them make you human. And while you're at it, let me have mine.

Even in Southern California, it can't sun all the time. Deal with it. Or since your parents (if they were anything like mine) probably didn't teach you how, maybe it's time to learn.

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Climate change deniers? How about emotional landscape deniers? Maybe we can't accept the reality of what our behavior is doing to the planet, because we can't accept our own feelings or what they do to us when we refuse to see them.

Ready to face your feelings? A good place to start might be donating to Hurricane Relief.

Un Petit Poème

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I take people apart like clocks

To see their workings from inside

What gives him his bright, wide smile?

What makes her unable to cry?

What helps her through everything?

What makes him decide to die?

 

 

If I learn these inner secrets

The mechanics of emotional life

What makes them tick and keeps them ticking

Can I then repair myself?

Comprehend this intricate system

That makes me me and everyone else

 

For we are not just separate clocks

But the web of time itself

No one's hung upon the wall

Or displayed upon a shelf

Not a bunch of cloistered cuckoos

But a symphony of birds

And time is just a notion

Equally this string of words

Not What I Intended

We take ourselves entirely too seriously, don't we?

This is so not the blog post I intended to publish next, but it’s the one that got itself written. (And possibly more entertaining.) So here it is, in all its gory--I mean, glory.

[I don't know why, but this seemed like the perfect song to set the mood for this piece. Take it or leave it.]

My usual Sunday night haunt in the marina has been getting busier, even by 4pm, now that it's summer. Today, I am seated right in the middle of the indoor communal table for happy hour because the hostess insists all the individual seats on the outdoor patio (some of which are clearly empty) are not available.

 What happens to "The Wallflower" when she is moved to the center of the room? What else? She observes. It's a great way to eavesdrop. (Knit in public day? How about dine alone in public day. Does this exist?)

I crack open my iPad and bring up the Kindle app, which opens to the sixth volume of Thomas Merton's journals. Next to it, I have my writing notebook for jotting down my thoughts and responses to the reading. But it quickly starts being put to a different purpose.

“Language! Watch your language! There are children. Somewhere.” A guy has joined the couple who were seated across from me but down one, landing him in the seat immediately to my left.

I consider this the danger seat, since I am left handed and most likely to bump into people on that side. This is why I prefer to sit at the left end of any group table, or better yet, at one of my own. I scoot my notebook, iPad, plates, and glasses over to the right to give him some room.

“So, how are you jaded?” The guy from the couple asks him.

Due to the loud music outside and the volume picking up at the bar, I miss hearing some of the answer, but what I can make out is, “Fears, you know, fears? Even if there was a truth…. which is why I switched to Christianity for a couple of years.”

Mentions of religion make my ears perk up. I am always interested to hear other people’s takes on right and wrong, good and evil, and what they think about living in this crazy world. 

“What I realized through Christianity,” the guy next to me continues, “was that 99% of the people in the church don't know what they are talking about.”

“Religion usually means that 99% of the people pretend to follow it,” the other guy responds.

The woman of the couple does not seem interested in the conversation. She is flipping through SuperFreakonomics (which later led me to this movie trailer and maybe even watching the movie on Netflix, if I ever get this blog post written and get to take a break).

“What makes Christianity the hardest to follow is how certain they are that they are right,” the guy next to me goes on. “Christianity basically says one thing, then proves itself wrong by its actions.”

Eventually, I decide I’ve heard enough, so I go back to Merton, who is having his own issues with authority in the Trappist order that he was a part of, particularly with the Dom, or Abbot.

The other guy’s voice cuts in again, “Selfish is the wrong word.” Followed after a few minutes by, “Everything is selfish--that's what I'm saying.”

Ah, for overheard philosophers. Wine, no dinner, for those guys. When they leave, I rearrange my things back to how they were.

(Want this skull purse? I know you do…)

(Want this skull purse? I know you do…)

A waif-like young woman, probably in her early 20s, sets her purse down on the table directly in front of me so she and her guy can take selfies at the bar. It is a see-through skull clutch and, I think, something that I would have purchased when I was her age, if it had existed then. Studying it further, I notice that I can see her lip gloss, keys, and even her ID inside it, and I change my mind, preferring not to expose the entire contents of my purse for the world to see.

I watch the couple take their pictures, imagining what they look like from that angle. Those photos are what they will see of themselves if they look back in years to come. A picture taken from my line of sight, however, would capture her perfect, tiny butt cheeks hanging (probably intentionally) below the length of her flowy floral summer shorts. Something else I would not put on display, at her age, or any other.

The skull continues its staring contest with me. We like to think we have conquered our fear of death by wearing it in symbolic form on our bodies as tattooes, on purses or clothing, or even by having coffin-shaped furniture in our houses (as I used to). But now, I think, this is a way of covering up our fear of its realness. When it looms in front of us, we play Chicken

And I wonder if the girl would stop to inspect a dead animal, or flower even, and come to see its beauty, or if she would avoid it out of revulsion. I wonder if she has ever held any dead thing in her arms. Something that she loved while it was alive, with such a force that it whips around inside her with no outlet, no home or place to belong, until it has no choice but to be slowly reabsorbed into the substrate that is the essence of us all.

The skull’s grin bores into me. When did my own smile become such a grimace? When did it become so painful to be happy?

The couple finish taking their pictures, and the girl grabs her purse off the table. I go back to Merton.

An older guy sits down next to a pretty woman on the other side of the table, a couple of seats to my right. She happens to be waiting for a guy who was in the restroom, possibly her boyfriend. The stranger tries to chat her up, but she shoots him down. The stranger leaves. She relays the incident to her boyfriend when he joins her at the table.

A while later, the same older guy tries to talk to me across the table, but I have the luxury of earplugs and not giving a fuck and so am able to avoid all of the bullshit weirdness.

He walks away. I commend myself on my ability to be a nonparticipant.

Just when I have begun to get back into the journals, the man takes another chance and leans across the table. This time, he is determined to get my attention.

“You, sitting there, you don't care what anyone else thinks. You are a beautiful librarian.”

I'll take my compliments where I can get them. But still, the check would be nice. Why is it that, as a single person in a busy restaurant, they never seem to want to bring the bill? Even though the parties have changed two to three times all around me, I remain. Do they just not want to offend me by making me think they are kicking me out?

“I'm Henry,” he says, reaching across to my side of the table to shake hands. His arm is brown and leathery. “What's your name?”

Sometimes you try to steer clear of the “fray,” and other times you just have to jump in. Like tonight. I shake his hand and tell him my name.

He says to me, “I've been drinking for the past five hours.”

Looks like a lot more than the past five hours, I think, noticing even at this distance the reddish-purple hue of facial telangiectasia, from all the broken capillaries beneath the surface of his skin.

“I’ve had a hard time since my divorce,” he says, perhaps by means of apology, and I note that his suffering is probably older than the last five years.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say. “Well, you have a good evening.” I try to go back to my reading. Good thing Merton isn’t a jealous lover.

Henry wanders back to his side of the bar.

What servers don't seem to understand is that, as the only person in my party, I cannot get up to go to the bathroom without making them think I am skipping out on the bill. So here I am, staying in my seat after finishing two full bottles of water along with two glasses of wine, trying not to pee on myself because I haven't yet paid.

About five minutes later, I hear someone calling my name. I look up.

“See, I remembered it,” Henry says, from over at the bar. 

I give a light chuckle, and go back to my reading. Henry seems content to leave me alone. For now.

Eventually, I start looking around in hopes of finding the waiter. All I need in order to get out of here is the fucking check. But the waiter is nowhere to be found.

Moments later, I feel an arm around my shoulder, and look to my left to find that the seat that the temporarily Christian dude was in earlier is now occupied by--Henry.

“I'm Henry,” he says again, extending his hand for another shake. “What's your name?” 

“You remembered it five minutes ago,” I say.

“Oh,” he says. “I apologize. I'm bad with names. But you are one beautiful librarian. How tall is your husband?” 

Now, I’m laughing. And once I've started, I find that I can't stop.

“Okay,” Henry says. “How tall is your boyfriend?”

 “Boyfriend,” I say, still in the middle of a laughing fit with no end in sight. Now giggling. Giddy. Why is this so hysterical to me? 

Boyfriend? There is one person that I would be interested in giving that title to, but it is so far-fetched, for so many reasons that I can’t go into right now. Could I just pretend for this instance? How tall is he? Let's see, he's still taller than me when I'm wearing 3" heels, so maybe 6', 6'1"? Then I realize I don't have time to go down that wormhole. Henry is waiting for an answer. 

"6'3," I say, realizing as soon as it is out of my mouth that truthfulness has won. This is actually the height of the last boyfriend, the one from over a year ago who lasted a full, boring, eleven months. But Henry doesn't have to know this, so why deny myself the dream? “My boyfriend is 6’1”,” I finally say, trying to get the words out through my laughter.

Henry studies me and asks, “Are you laughing at me, or with me?”

Those silly Facebook quizzes don’t call me the “Guide of Lost Souls” for nothing. And I say, “I'm laughing because life is funny, and I don't often remember to see this, so Thank You.”

Then Henry tries a different tack. “What are you doing?” he says, pointing at my iPad.

Sometimes, you just can't explain to a drunken stranger that you are reading the journals of a lover from a previous life (aka Thomas Merton), so you just leave it at, “I'm reading.”

To which Henry replies, “How tall is your husband?” And I start cracking up all over again.

The waiter finally comes up with the bill, for which I have my credit card ready. As if to apologize, because he can see how closely Henry is leaning into me, although none of this was his doing, he says, “I'm taking off one of the glasses of wine. It's on me.”

(Side note: Do you know how many free second glasses of wine you can get as a woman dining on your own? No? Well, I wouldn’t say it’s equivalent to the cost of a sex-change, so if you’re not already a woman, I don’t recommend banking on this. Of course, it could just be my adorable cuteness, cloaked in society’s guilty, mistaken beliefs about single women.)

As I wait for my credit card to return, Henry presses on. “What's that?” he asks, pointing at my notebook. “Are you a writer?”

“Yeah,” I say, for the first time in my life. “I'm a writer.” Because, goddamnit, it's summer, and that's what I'm doing, so that's what I am.

For a minute, I feel it. There is a power to being a writer, a mystery to it that seems to awe the general population, readers or no, and I accept it fully. Yes, this is a strange calling, a strange gift. 

Then Henry asks me, “What's my name?” as if giving me a test.

“Henry,” I say.

 And he says, “You're a better person than me.”

People think that every goddamn moment of their lives are so precious, don't they? I am no different. Hallelujah to be a woman in America, who, in a public place like this, is safe enough to not give a shit. 

“Henry,” I say, signing off on the check and stowing my credit card back safely in my purse. “You have a good night.”

After the longed-for visit to the restroom, I continue on my walk around the marina. Alone with my thoughts, I notice, at first, that they are about how I have nothing to offer this person I would like to call “boyfriend,” because of experiences that I have allowed to beat me down over time. Who would want my fearful, negative energy, especially when he is so happy and free?

And then, I see the storyline. I put my finger on the fiction I am spinning out of the facts.

What if I am beautiful? I am soulful, I am intelligent, and a deep thinker, inquisitive about any number of things. These are my gifts, and it’s about time I accepted them and saw them as good enough.

Why is it that whenever anyone delivers up a negative opinion of me, a critique about who or how I am, I embrace that wholeheartedly, but the minute someone points out something good, I reject that notion, expel it from the realm of possibility, saying they are either drunk or crazy, or want something from me?

We are all getting exactly what we need from each other in any given moment. Henry was giving me the opportunity to see myself as intelligent and beautiful, a quiet, deep kind of beautiful. I could write this off as just the ramblings of a drunk, or I could take it as proof I was supposed to be there, that in some small way I had brightened his evening. I choose to brighten. I think that is always a good choice, the best choice.

And, sometimes, you know what? Whether or not I have a love life, I actually do love life. This one, that I am currently living.

I continue the rest of my walk around the marina a changed person. A better one, because of allowing for that experience with Henry. 

Tonight, I wasn’t a Wallflower. Tonight, I was a Beautiful Librarian.

All things are buddha, awake. Even me. If I could just remember this more often.

 

WRITE TO ME:

I have always had to fight against the urge to wall myself in completely. But equally strong in me is the urge to destroy all the walls, boundaries, and borders, including this one called the “self.”

Have you ever had an experience that seemed so absurd all you could do was to open to it? What breaks down your walls?

On Being Born in the Wrong Generation - Part 1

NOT A HIPPIE CHICK

When I was a senior in high school, my Calculus teacher, Mr. A., used to tell me nearly every day that I was a "Flower Child.”

To this I retorted, “I’m not a Hippie,” offended that he could even suggest I would do drugs (smoke weed) and have sex before marriage (free love, with possibly more than one person at a time). That was my impression of what being a Hippie meant, and it terrified me to no end to be lumped in with such a clearly immoral crowd.

Despite the fact that the art teacher, Mr. W., was the most well-liked by the girls, so much so that he was always dating one of the school's most recent graduates, Mr. A. was, to me, the coolest, most laid back teacher at our school, because he respected us for just being kids.

He was like Alice’s Cheshire Kitty and Caterpillar all rolled into one. I still remember those dark brown cigarettes he smoked, although how I would have seen them, I don’t know, since he clearly couldn’t smoke in the classroom or school building. I must have seen him somewhere outside doing this. I do know that he always smelled like cigarette smoke, a smell familiar to me from home, growing up with both parents as smokers, my mom quite heavily then, which I couldn’t wrap my head around since we had just been to her stepfather’s funeral. Lung cancer. The same disease that would kill Mr. A. later on, at the age of 52.

 

Cheshire Cat

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

“You are a Flower Child,” Mr. A. would repeat firmly. “You were just born 20 years too late.”

As strongly as I resisted this, I also knew that there was no one and nothing about my own generation that spoke to me, nothing I really connected with, besides New Wave and the Second British Invasion. (To my mind, we should never have broken away from English rule, if music was any kind of stick to gauge things by. I’d take The Blow Monkeys over Beastie Boys, Howard Jones over Huey Lewis, and George Michael over Michael Jackson any day. )

Whether or not he knew it at the time, music was my mother tongue. And that’s how he weaseled his way in. That is when everything started to shatter--when Mr. A. gave me that cassette.

“Do you know the Beatles?” he asked me one day when I wandered into his lunchtime backgammon club. Even though I had no intention of playing the game, I had no one else to hang out with at lunch, so it was either intrude on Mme. S., my French teacher, yet again, or go into his room and pretend to watch the school’s biggest nerds slide black and white checkers around on a board.

“The Beatles?” I said, thrilled to have an actual conversation with someone, a real back-and-forth exchange of words and ideas that made it feel like I had a purpose for being somewhere.  

“Sure,” I continued. “They were like The Monkees, only British.”

“The… the… Monkees?!?” Mr. A. sputtered, his face turning the same shade of red as his bushy mustache and the wavy hair that brushed his shoulders.

I could tell I had given him an incredibly wrong answer, something he was not used to getting from me in Calculus class. 

“The Beatles were light years ahead of The Monkees, in terms of songwriting. The Monkees were actors,” he practically spat, “two of whom barely even knew how to play their instruments when the show began--”

“Okay, okay,” I said, almost laughing at the order of outrage this had sparked, this passionate proof he was offering to convince me. Out of deference, I tried to force the corners of my mouth to stay down. I wanted him to think I was taking this as seriously as he was. “The Beatles," I continued. "They did that cartoon about the Yellow Submarine.”

This I knew because it was one of the few films the local library owned. They trotted it out every year to serve as entertainment at the end-of-the-summer-reading-program celebration. Most of what I remembered about it was that it was full of colors and energetic songs, but, if it had any real storyline, it was not one that my younger self could follow.

“Yellow Submarine,” Mr. A. repeated. I could tell that he was trying to size up my seriousness, to consider whether it measured up to being worthy enough to receive what he wanted to impart.

But his flush was slowly fading. His neck began to blend in once again with the puka beads that hung around it which were always visible in the v-opening of his Hawaiian shirt (on this day it was the orange one with white hibiscus flowers). “Alright,” he finally said. “But do you know about John Lennon’s solo work?”

“John Lennon,” I said, ever the dutiful student. “He was the one who married that Japanese lady and sang about peace. Sometimes naked. And was shot.” I recited all the facts I knew, hoping this would put me back into his good graces. 

“Yes,” he said, but the extra nasally tone in his voice told me he still wasn’t totally happy with my answer. “I’m going to make you a tape,” he said. “I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”

And, sure enough, he did. The minute I got home from school the next day, I popped the tape into the player and sat under my headphones on the living room loveseat. A gong, or church chime, rang in my ears and then right into... the pain. 

Who knew that John Lennon’s primal shrieking about his parental abandonment would hit me so hard? The rawness of his voice called up all the things I had locked down deep inside Davy Jones’s Locker, a place that, previously, only Kate Bush could take me to, with her Hounds of Love and The Ninth Wave.

That was where the dark things lived. Incomprehensible things like fathers wanting to leave mothers, mothers who were going crazy from perimenopause. Mothers who yelled at or ignored their daughters completely for finding out they had been named after their father’s ex-girlfriends, fathers who weren’t there any more, except on the weekends, because they worked nights.

Hold on, how did Mr. A. know that my grandmother was losing her identity to Alzheimer’s, that all of my best friends had moved away in the previous two years? Was this isolation written on my face? Woven into my body language?

Could he possibly have known about all of my school counselor’s prodding, his constant pleading with me to apply to a university? Had they spoken with each other about my reluctance to pick a career that would pay for an adult life I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have?

How could Mr. A. have known that I was on the brink of giving up on love, because the boy I loved, the one I used to be able to talk to about everything, who I thought loved me back, had started to disappear?

Had he compared notes with my government teacher, found out about the poem I had written in that class about the likelihood of war? The one that revealed that almost every moment of my existence was plagued by the fact that we lived in a time in which countries were always on the verge of destroying each other, and possibly, the world. 

And there was definitely no way Mr. A. could have been aware that I had stopped going to church in the last year--that, in fact, I had quit volunteering as Sunday school teacher to the younger kids. I had done this under the pretense of having too much homework to do for my AP classes, one of them being his, but really, the truth was I just didn’t know who I was or what I believed in anymore.

Like John, I didn’t believe in anything. The dream was over.

And yet, as Mr. A. also appeared to know, there was always another side to the tape. I flipped over the cassette and finally managed to stop my crying. As John continued to play in my headphones, I remembered that I could choose to imagine a world where this wasn’t happening. A world where everyone was safe and we all still loved each other. Where there was no reason to fear or to hate. Where love was the answer and I knew it, for sure.

Holy guacamole, maybe Mr. A. was right. Maybe I was a Flower Child. Maybe I had been born in the wrong generation. But, if that was the case, what was I supposed to do about it?

Just keep on keeping on, I suppose. Which I was a little more ready to do now that I knew I had Mr. A. in my corner.

Thank you, Mr. A., wherever you are now. You are one of my Reasons Why Not.

 

Write to me:

So, how about you? Have you ever had a teacher with this uncanny ability to see into your soul and know exactly what you needed at just the right moment? An interaction with a teacher that changed your life? When was a time that a song, album, or musical artist changed your life? How did you first hear about them? Where were you (mentally and physically) when you first heard the music? In what ways did it change you?