Once upon a time, I dismissed lists as mind-numbingly prescriptive, yawningly obvious or both; borne of the tiresome territory of grocery stores and overdue thank you notes. But I’ve come to appreciate the value of a good list. That economy of information; an externalized catalog of my inner thoughts; a source of immediate gratification with each item achieved and crossed off; the crutch of middle age.
It would be the ultimate list: a list of lists’ merits. I’m not sure I would presume to generate such a thing, but I would certainly start with:
Keeping Track – Just the facts, when and where you need them.
Being Clear – Beyond facts lie desires. Lists help us articulate and solidify our elusive dreams. Just the dreams, when and where you need them.
I created my “Making a List” category as a challenge to myself. Could I create interesting, inventive lists that dissect and reflect on everything from a favorite book to my daily habits? We’ll see.
But forget anything I might have to say and read The Checklist Manifesto. If you’ve ever been inclined to dis the list, this will shut yer trap. Lists save lives.
A crystalline azure sky just about guarantees my good mood. I can’t nurse a grudge, can’t fester, can’t fuss. I feel engulfed by the color, warmed by the sun, lightened in every way.
My personal sound track kicks in, always with Eva Cassidy singing:
Blue skies shining on me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds all day long
And this is what I love about the internet: two minutes, and I have countless alternative takes on this Irving Berlin classic. Try Ella Fitzgerald. I can practically picture her in a sun-drenched, daisy-strewn field, scatting, joyful. Or Willie Nelson, who gets all folksy. Even the World Youth Chorus gives it a whirl in their 2008 concert in China. (Okay, so I’ll confess: this version doesn’t really do it for me, but the point is that there are innumerable ways to experience and celebrate Blue Skies and I love that.)
In his guided meditation, Andy Puddicombe talks a lot about blue skies. A charming animation offers reassurance that blue skies are always there, even when all we see is clouds. It’s a useful reminder.
So I look up, and even when the skies are dark and maybe not so crystalline or azure, I think — no, I know — the blue skies are there anyway. It’s a useful reminder.
Recommending a most favorite book can be a dicey proposition, as you are simultaneously raising expectations and risking rejection. So it was no small matter when K. not only recommended her favorite book, but bought me a copy to boot.
I was not disappointed.
Kent Haruf’s Plainsong is a lovely, delicate tale, as quietly elegant as its title promises. His understated economy of words and deep hold on the world he depicts are both beautiful and haunting. From within this mostly meditative read, I laughed aloud, appreciating the innocence and aching charm of this passage, missing my own once-little boys.
[Set up: Two brothers, aged 9 & 10, living in Colorado in the time of paper routes and teachers’ smoking lounges, are sent by an elderly woman they barely know to shop for ingredients to bake cookies.]
They left her apartment and went down the stairs to the sidewalk and into the sharp winter air on Main Street and on to Johnson’s at the corner of Second. When they were inside the store it was a good deal more complicated than they had thought it would be. On the ranks of shelves were two brands of brown sugar. Also, there were quick oats and regular oats and two measures of the cardboard barrels they came in. And with eggs, three sizes and two colors. They debated the matter between themselves, standing in the aisles of the store while around them the other shoppers, middle-aged women and young mothers, looked at them curiously and went on pushing their full carts.
We settled on the cheap brown sugar, Ike said.
Yes, Bobby said.
And the big one of regular oats.
So now with eggs we take the medium ones.
Because they’re in the middle.
It makes a difference, Ike said. The one between the other two ones. It makes it even.
Bobby looked at him, considering. All right, he said. Which color?
Brown or white.
They turned toward the refrigerated case once more and regarded the tiers of cardboard egg cartons. Mother bought white ones, Ike said.
She’s not our mother, Bobby said. Maybe she wants brown ones.
Why would she want brown ones?
She had us get brown sugar.
Because it comes in white too, Bobby said. Only she said brown.
We did the fear thing; this week it was time for joy.
What would happen if we went looking for joy in our days?
Seems we’d find it. In places large and small, mostly between the other stuff. Wonderful fragments and moments and visions and sounds and smells and feelings and thoughts – all nestled within the hustle, all there for the taking. If we so chose. With each sighting, the next was easier to spot, the day’s trajectory bent.
Saying “Good morning” to familiar but unknown faces. The feel of a favorite T-shirt. Shorts that fit, too. Birds playing tag over fields of silken corn. Bubbles floating by. Painting my toe nails a sparkly lilac. Spotting a pot of daisies in bloom. Genteel crowds dressed in summer finery for an evening performance. Music through an open window.
Rain on the roof at night. A yellow toadstool’s spreading fluorescent cap. Dew on a spider’s web. Loons calling in the dark. Clouds sliding out of valleys and up mountains in the morning. Rich dark chocolate melting on my tongue. New cedar shingles. Old wooden beams. A rocking chair that fits just right.
Poems that resonate. A story well told. Laughing with family. Laughing with friends. Iris at the water’s edge. The dull ache of muscles well-used. Singing really loud in the car. Waitresses with big hair and wide smiles. Quality time with a favorite octogenarian. Blueberries.
Peach nectar dripping from lips. Artisans admiring their own craft. Building new friendships, one insight at a time. The smell of dinner under way. Breeze in the trees, and the whistling it makes crossing my half empty beer bottle. A way-early red maple leaf. Kids splashing.
Lying in bed late because I could. Old men, out and about in bright shirts, white socks and sandals. Flowers blooming in improbable places. Slanted sunlight and long shadows book-ending the day.
Reflections, both literal and figurative.
Life Lesson #17: With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things. — William Wordsworth
Lucky people have Happy Places, those spots on the planet to which they go for fun, fellowship and restoration. Among my friends, Camden Yards, Cape May and their own front porches hold this singular status. I was born in California, grew up mostly in Philadelphia, spent a portion of my youth, all of college and the first two years of adulthood in New England, and now live in Virginia. So of course my Happy Place is in New York.
Almost every summer of my life I’ve headed north (it has always been north of wherever I have been, way north) up I-87 into the Adirondack Mountains. For some of the oldest mountains in the country, the Adirondacks are oddly unfamiliar to most Americans. You might know them as the home of the Lake Placid Winter Olympics (1932 & 1980) or the setting for the creepy climax of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy but other than that, I mostly get blank, polite stares when I mention my beloved range.
It was not always so. In the late 19th century, the area played an important role in the early environmental movement (Thank you, “Seneca Ray” Stoddard) and bringing Americans back into the wilderness for fun — pioneering being a whole 50 years behind them at that point. Outdoor enthusiasts flocked to the area for hiking, climbing, boating, hunting and fishing. William Henry Harrison Murray, a clergyman from Boston, was so persuasive in the humor and charm of his narrative Adventures in the Wilderness, that the place was flooded with what were dubbed “Murray’s Fools” as city slickers headed out to get a piece of the action.
I suppose my great-great-grandfather was no different. A school teacher, he believed in the healthy body/healthy mind and took his students into the wilderness for their betterment. Perhaps Murray is why my great-great-grandfather, a mid-Atlantic gent, found his way to upstate New York and eventually to my favorite piece of real estate – which he bought in the dead of winter for back taxes owed by the logging company that held it. Or something like that.
Which may or may not have anything to do with why the region speaks to me so profoundly.
There’s something about the sight of the mountains as they come into view as we head up the Northway. Something about the view from the lodge porch on a clear day, the sight of the sun on the mist on the lake from the dock in the morning.
Something about the smell, the earthy duff aroma that gets sharper with rain, softer at night.
Something about the feel of the lake, whose waters are always cold, but caressing, capable of washing away every sort of insult and injury.
Something about the sounds of the wind coming across the back ridge, and the loon, and the innumerable young cousins who may be there with me.
Something about soot on marshmallows, the urge to eat large quantities of Wheatena and chocolate. (True Fact: There is a Cadbury bar at the top of every mountain in the Adirondacks. Ask my kids.)
My spiritual homeland, in every sense. I go for my fix as often as I can.
In the steamy, fecund heat of a Virginia July, the milestones drop like ripe fruit from a tree. Three months blogging. Six since the reboot. A year of meditation, returning to work and almost simultaneously deciding to leave. Twenty-eight wonderful years of marriage.
Each among my best moves, ever. Every one of these fleshy, sweet fruit had seeds of fear within them. Fear of exposure. Fear of the unknown. Fear of failure. Fear of success. Fear of never being enough. I bit anyway, choosing to believe more in what I wanted than in what I feared.
In my work life, I learned that the more assiduously I avoided something, the more urgently I needed to address it. The difficult conversation, the simmering cauldron of civic unrest – the more I feared the confrontations and wanted to avoid them, the more I knew I needed to go there. This truth was vexingly persistent, my personal law of physics, as uncompromising as gravity.
So I learned: go toward the fear.
I’ve never regretted the outcomes, only the delays. Inevitably, relations improved, systems thrived, problems resolved. Not always completely or permanently, but progress, always. Always movement toward better.
You’d think with all that positive reinforcement it would get easier, and I suppose it does, but not nearly as much easier as I keep wanting it to be. I try to remind myself that, as Rachel Huber put it, fear is the brain’s way of telling me there is something important for me to overcome.
My community of reflection practice this week is about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.* It’s fertile ground, gotten us all churning and sharing — and daring, just a bit, just enough. Reminding us: we are enough. We have within us all that we need to face, and face down, fear. Or, as M. so beautifully put it, she “locates the origin of fear in our thoughts …Our hearts can cross the gap…It boils down to realizing that I have a choice.”
*My Fear Album: It seems my community of reflection and I are not alone in thinking about fear. A quick scan of the web reveals innumerable sites devoted to the topic. Among so many thoughts, I especially like these:
The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek. — Joseph Campbell
Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.– MarkTwain
The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but, it is fear. — Gandhi
Courage is knowing what not to fear. — Plato
The only difference between fear and excitement is your attitude about it.. — Unknown
If you’ve not already listened to Barack Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, do it now.
The morning after we’ve celebrated our nation’s independence, Obama’s homage to our history, strength, failings and ultimate potential resonates. So much there, but one line — just a phrase, really — speaks to me in particular:
Justice arises from recognition.
Recognition, from the Latin recognitionem, “a reviewing, investigation, examination.” More than just being seen. Connoting some level of knowledge. An admission into consciousness and attention. A formal avowal of approval – as in being recognized as a country.
We celebrate recognizing the idea of ourselves as a nation. We celebrate our independence and our concept of justice. We celebrate with fireworks – a literal bursting forth, busting loose, sending light into darkness, simultaneously explosive and delightful. I watch the ‘works and feel hopeful.
Here’s to our collective and continuing pursuit of justice for all.
Hours of available free time on gorgeous sunny days, and how do I spend them? Reading pretty much anything Nate Silver puts his mind to and admiring the work of Emma Pierson (a recent Rhodes Scholar on whom I’m putting money to find a cure for cancer). All of it in an effort to exercise my statistical chops, thanks to my Coursera Model Thinking course. Let’s just say I’m following more of the math, tho’ perhaps not all of it.
All of which has got me thinking about Big Data and how it is collected and the potential of personal technology like smart phones and when someone will figure out hot flashes.
Hah! Didn’t see that coming, did you? No, me neither.
And so it goes: there I sit, diligently working my problem sets when –zzzapp!– I’m all ablaze, arms and legs tingling, brain cells cooking like so much porridge, and not a thing to be done about it.
Way to take a girl off her math game.
And that has me thinking: who’s working on hot flashes? Where’s the research? Who’s got Big Data? Is there an app for that? With the advent of Fit Bit and Jawbone’s Up, surely the technology exists to monitor, and thus to mediate? Why not an app with which any (peri)menopausal woman on the planet with access to a smart phone could document her hot flashes and send that data to some scientist in the sky who would go crunch, crunch and figure something out?
I confess, I’ve got research on the brain. I’m reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks*, feeling mindful that the medical establishment hasn’t always been good about informed consent (or, for that matter, any consent at all) but grateful for the advances of science. I have a deepened appreciation for the complicated questions of personal versus intellectual property, commercialization, and the common good. I’m not sure where I stand on much of that debate and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like a good portion of what transpires among those intent on promoting themselves over the rest of us, but I do think intentional participation is important. I like knowing that my happily-former, fibroid-ridden, cancerous old body parts now sit in some high-tech cooler and might someday contribute to the greater good. Imagine what might be possible if we were all actively involved in knowledge gathering on a regular basis.
So I’m coming full circle: scanning ClinicalTrials.gov to see where I can contribute anew, where my curiosity and technology and those damn hot flashes can actually, finally, have something in common.
*I know, I’m way behind the times. If, like me, you have been under a rock for five years and not yet read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, do so. It is a remarkable, wonderful, infuriating and poignant story. Timely, too, given recent events in Baltimore and Charleston. We all owe thanks to Henrietta and her family.