Every Day is Saturday

The joy and heartache of working for myself from home

Dubai – The Emerald City of the Middle East

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The Burj Al Arab and Jumeirah Beach Hotel

I’ve been away for the better part of the last two weeks on a trip to the other side of the world. My business partner lives in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. It’s on the coast of the Persian Gulf, tucked in between the capital, Abu Dhabi, and some lesser-known emirates. The UAE itself is bordered by Saudi Arabia and Oman. Iran (f/k/a Persia) is just across the gulf.

Here’s a link to a good map. Go ahead and take a look; I’ll wait.

Yes, it’s a very small country. You can drive from Dubai to Abu Dhabi in an hour (traffic permitting). Dubai itself is long and skinny; most of it hugs the coastline. That makes sense because you don’t have to drive far in the other direction until you’re in the desert. Way out in the desert.

I went to Dubai to get some face time with my partner and friend; it had been at least 2 ½ years since we’d seen each other. We’d done all of the foundation work for the business mostly over Skype. We’d accomplished a lot, but we’d reached a point where we really needed to spend some time in the same room. So, armed with a pile of airline miles, I made my way to the Middle East.

To say I didn’t know what to expect is an understatement. My friend has lived there for the past ten years; she’s British, and has always said that, for the most part, she likes it. I was curious and a little nervous about going to an Arab country for the first time. I’m aware that Americans aren’t wildly popular in a lot of places in the world, and I always feel as if I have to be on my best behavior, just in case I have the opportunity to change somebody’s mind about us. And I was really not looking forward to the heat.

My first impression of Dubai was that the parts I saw, which initially were the downtown area and the marina, don’t look entirely real. It looked to me like some futuristic version of what somebody thought a city should look like. As we were driving into downtown one afternoon it struck me that if you bunched up the buildings a little more and painted them green, it would look a lot like the Emerald City from “The Wizard of Oz”. See for yourself.

Dubai skyline Wizard 6 Emerald City

Ok, well, maybe that’s just my fancy getting the better of me, but I did feel like Dorothy come to Oz. Everything was new, and fantastical. But also unsettling in a way I wasn’t prepared for and couldn’t identify at first.

It took me days to figure out what was really bothering me about the city, but I finally realized it’s because everything is new. Nothing I was seeing was more than 15 years old. Not one skyscraper in the marina area had been there only twelve years before. This is the skyline I mean:

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Let that sink in a moment. Not one of those buildings was there in the year 2000. I don’t know why, but that thought gives me shivers.

The other thing that made me feel off balance is the sheer wealth of the place. There is crazy money there, so much money you can almost see it floating on the gulf breeze, or hanging in the shimmering heat. Or being sucked into the air conditioning vents (which is where a lot of it must go – keeping the denizens of Dubai cool is a colossal undertaking). I don’t live in that world of luxury high rises and expensive cars and marathon shopping. It was hard for me to not feel self-conscious about my modest means when surrounded by so much opulence.

My friend, thankfully, lives in the real world, so staying in her home was a welcome refuge from the overwhelming excess I saw every time we went out. Her house is lovely; it’s in one of the “older” neighborhoods, which means she’s only minutes away from anywhere. Her villa is surrounded by a high white wall (as is everyone’s) which encloses the house, the drive, and the yard. In front of the house is a beautiful tree that is full of birds; you can hear them singing even through the sliding glass door. One evening as I stood looking out at the tree, the sound of the birds chattering underscored the call to prayer from a nearby mosque, and the mingling of those songs gave me an unexpected moment of joy. After that I started to feel friendlier towards the place.

It wasn’t that I didn’t like Dubai, it’s just that I couldn’t relate to it. Until I got into the old part of the city.

Dubai was originally the home of fishermen and pearl divers. The oldest sections surround what the locals call the “Creek”, which makes that body of water sound much more modest than it really is. Here’s a picture so you know what I mean:

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Finally, I found something that looks like what I you’d think a Middle Eastern city should look like. I was so relieved! Here are some images of the city I could finally relate to:

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Dubai has a lot of history if you go looking. The culture is deep and strong and beautiful. It is truly a melting pot; different people began coming to Dubai long before they found oil under the sand. There is a lot to recommend it, truly. And don’t let me fool you, I did get a kick out of some of the crazy new stuff, like the indoor ski slope (“Ski Dubai”), and I was completely obsessed by the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. I couldn’t quit gawking at it. It’s amazing, an incredible achievement in design and engineering, and worth the trip just to see it towering above the downtown skyline.

But being totally honest, I can’t say I loved Dubai. I liked it, and I’d like to go back, but I didn’t fall in love the way I love other places. London is my home away from home. New Orleans is my favorite city in the U.S. I left a piece of my heart in Venice. I’ve been so blessed to have been many places and to have had so many experiences, and I am constantly grateful for them. I find I’m intrigued by Dubai, but I’ll never be more than a tourist there. Or that’s how it feels to me.

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All photos except “The Wizard of Oz” and Dubai downtown skyline (C) 2014 Amanda Taylor Brooks

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Making Peace

Doc Banksy

My life has been crazy for the last few months – stolen car, travel for work, uncertainty about my future, constant anxiety over the sorry state of my finances – and I keep trying to be at peace about it all. I still seem to think I can will my mind into a peaceful state, which is, by definition, impossible to do. Shouting “Be at peace!” doesn’t do anything but make me even more aware of how much turmoil I feel. And the more rattled I am the harder it is to accomplish anything, which leaves me feeling even more anxious and upset. It’s a vicious cycle.

And then the other day I woke up in a state of peace. Nothing about my situation had changed since I went to bed the night before, I just suddenly felt ok about it. I wondered what could have happened to change my attitude so completely from one day to the next. After thinking about what had happened the day before, the only possible source of this new-found peace I could identify was that I had spent most of the day writing a story. That was it – I wrote a story. It’s a simple little story that I rushed through; when I re-read it yesterday I saw its many flaws. But as I was writing it the day just slid by.  Time seems to speed up when I’m engrossed in putting words on (digital) paper, and when I looked up, the afternoon had passed. I had to rush around to get supper ready before going out that evening, but I had such a sense of accomplishment. When I went to bed that night I fell asleep quickly (which almost never happens), and I woke up feeling like everything was going to be all right.

Of course, that little story I wrote probably won’t change my life in any tangible way – it isn’t going to make me famous or earn me lots of money (not in its current form, anyway). I had to conclude, then, that it was simply the act of writing that put me in that peaceful frame of mind.

Why would that be? I’m not sure, but I have a far-out theory, which is this: I believe that I get peaceful when I’m doing what I should be doing in my life.

It’s always been this way, and I’ve talked about it before now, but, you know, I can be a slow learner.

From the time I became self-aware enough to think these kinds of thoughts, I have paid attention to how I feel about the life decisions I make. Do I feel peaceful about what I’ve decided to do? If I don’t, the venture in question usually either doesn’t go anywhere or ends in tears. Often, too often, I ignore the voice in my heart that tells me that what I’ve just decided to do isn’t the right thing. It may not be wrong or bad, per se, but it’s not going to get me where I should be going. Where I want to go. Where the universe wants me to go.

So if this deep peacefulness I am still feeling is an indication of the “rightness” of writing, then I have to accept that writing is what I should do. Not only that, it’s what I need to do. Whether I’m any good or ever make any money at it is entirely beside the point. That’s where my peace is. I can’t “make” the peace; I can only discover it and join with it. It’s always there, waiting for me to get out of my own way.

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photo credit: Jeremy Brooks via photopin cc

 

 

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‘Tis Better to Give

Girl with present

A couple of weeks ago I got a package in the form of a padded envelope in the mail. The return address told me it was from one of my most enduring friends, someone who has been special to me for thirty years. I couldn’t imagine what she would be sending me, and I quickly opened it.

There was no letter inside, just a handful of greeting cards in individual envelopes. They were from different people, mutual friends from high school. Still not understanding what I was holding, I opened each one in turn.

The cards were about friendship and variations on the “hang in there” theme. All of them had hand written notes; my friends had sent words of encouragement and support, mostly surrounding the recent adventure of having my car stolen (and recovered).  And, as if that wasn’t enough, inside were gift cards in various amounts for gas stations, the grocery store, the movies, and even one for a spa.

I finally realized what had happened. My good friend had reached out to this circle to tell them I was struggling and to ask them to help however they could. Their response was to send me their love and concern, and a little financial aid. I was overwhelmed. As I opened each card and read the messages inside and found the gifts all I could do was cry. I don’t know that I have ever been more touched by anything than I was by receiving those cards.

As I stood in the kitchen sobbing in gratitude for these friends, a thought popped into my head. “What did I do to deserve these amazing people?” I couldn’t think of a single thing I had ever done to warrant this expression of love from this particular group of women, some of whom I have hardly spoken to in many years. A part of me couldn’t understand why they would do what they did for me. I didn’t feel worthy of their kindness.

Then one day not too long ago I was telling my mother about my feelings, and she said something profound (like she does).

“I’ve found that acts of kindness like that say more about the person giving that the one receiving,” was what she told me.

You’re right, Mom. Of course you are. My friends’ generosity and willingness to help doesn’t have all that much to do with me; I’m sure that they would do the same for anyone, if asked. That’s just who they are – kind, giving, and concerned for others.

My friends didn’t take the time to pick out a card and write those lovely notes and buy gift cards and send them because I’m so great. They did all that because they are. I don’t  deserve their kindness; I’ve done nothing to earn their generosity. I’m just lucky to know them.

I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of help over the course of my life, from family, friends, and total strangers. Sometimes I ask for it; other times it is just given. I have given help to others when I can. I find I’m much better at giving help than receiving it. Giving makes you feel good; receiving can be more difficult, especially if you have no immediate ability to reciprocate.

I don’t know why I find it so hard to gracefully accept a freely given gift, and why I sometimes refuse offers of help even when I need it. I see this in other people, too, this difficulty accepting that someone genuinely wants to do something nice for you. I struggle against my instinct to refuse an offer of help by putting myself in the giver’s place and acknowledging that by denying that person an opportunity to do something nice for me, I have denied them a moment of joy – and that’s a terrible thing to do.

There’s a lot of talk these days about who “deserves” to be helped. Apparently, you have to meet some impossible standard of moral purity and total desperation to be deemed worthy of your neighbor’s assistance. By that definition I am not worthy of any kindness; I am mostly self-absorbed and forgetful of others. I am deeply flawed and I fail constantly to be the kind of person I want to be. I have no right to expect that anyone not located in the close sphere of family would have a single thought to spare for me, much less go out of their way to show any concern for my wellbeing. That’s how I know my friends’ kindness is not about me. It can’t be.

So why do we constantly ask those who need our help to prove they “deserve” it? Instead, we should just help them. In the end it will say more about who we are than who they are. I think that’s a better way to look at it.

Wouldn’t you rather be kind than right?

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photo credit: tobias.fuchs via photopin cc

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Poetry Schmoetry

Shelfie

This is a picture of the books I have right now on my desk; a “shelfie” you might call it. Most of them are books of poetry; you’ll find Sylvia Plath, Billy Collins and Seamus Heaney here. I also have the three most recent editions of the annual anthology “The Best American Poetry“, as well as the volume that came out last year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of that publication. There are books by writers about writing – Stephen King, Margaret Atwood and Steven Pressfield are evident. There is a book about memoir writing called “Handling the Truth“, which title I can’t read without picturing the actor Jack Nicholson, red faced and yelling.I keep my Elements of Style close to me. David Sedaris is here as well, in case I need a quick dip into whimsy. At the end are various notebooks where I scribble things I then forget I’ve written. I probably ought to look through them sometime.

I have read most of these books in their entirety at least once (except Sylvia Plath, whom I admire but good grief she’s a lot of work sometimes). I have found inspiration in them, and joy, and wistfulness, and hard truths. Mostly, I feel like there is never enough time to read everything I want to. I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” three weeks ago and have yet to crack the cover. I need to read William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, because really, how can I call myself a writer if I’ve never read Faulkner? And don’t get me started on all the poets I’ve never read! That list is impossibly long, and it seems to get longer all the time.

I keep all this poetry close to me because I believe that all good writing is inherently poetic. All writers struggle with describing the truth of something. In poetry, it is the truth of the emotion or event or observation. In fiction, it is the truth of the characters in the story. Memoirists try to capture the truth of their own life stories, at least as they see it.

I also keep the poetry close because almost every writer whose advice I’ve heard says that to write well, you have to have a sense of poetry. You don’t necessarily need to write it, but you do need to read it, and read extensively. I have come to love it, and to respect it, and to want to do it. But I’m frightened; the idea of writing poetry feels like jumping off of a cliff to me, but it’s the only way to find out if I can fly.

I wish I could explain the desire I feel for poetry. It’s like falling in love; I want to know it, to understand it, and for it to understand me. How can a poem understand me? Well, that’s the magic, isn’t it?

What poets or writers transport you?

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Photo by Amanda Taylor Brooks (c) 2014

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Letting Go

letting go balloons

I’m not good at letting go of people or things that have been important to me, even if they take up unnecessary space in my mind or in my closet. I’m not talking so much about the physical things that I carry with me forward through time (that I mostly keep in a big box under my bed); I’m talking about the memories I have of cherished friends, past loves, treasured times with my family, and the wonderful trips my husband and I have taken. When I’m weary of the present nonsense I know I can close my eyes and summon the memory of a time when I was excited, or joyful, or serene, or content. I don’t just look at the picture memory, I invoke all my senses to recall details like the temperature outside, what I was wearing, the feel of a stone wall or the sea rushing around my feet, or the smell of the desert, or the sound of the laughter of people I love. I will never let go of these moments; they bring me comfort sometimes when nothing else can.

On the flip side, I’m very good at shedding things that hold no meaning for me. I have a visceral need to not burden myself with a lot of possessions that keep me rooted in one place; I think I must have been a gypsy in another life. For a long time my mantra was “if it doesn’t fit in my truck I don’t need it”, and I was true to that for a number of years. As time goes on, though, you tend to accumulate stuff, and then, as George Carlin said, you have to buy a house to put all your stuff in. I still think that, if needed, I could put everything I value into a single vehicle and drive away without a thought spared for the furniture and dishes and bric-a-brac I would leave behind. I just don’t care about it.

Somewhere in the middle of all this is deciding what ideas about who I am and what my life is supposed to be like should I hold on to or discard. This is very, very difficult, and I struggle with it daily. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m mostly wrong about a lot of things, but I find I’m having a much harder time letting go of some of my deep-rooted attitudes than I think I should have.

And I have learned that just because I have a realization about myself does not mean that I will immediately begin to act on it.

Insight is not change. Insight happens in a flash; change takes time. I think we often make the mistake of believing that the moment you have the flash of insight into whatever challenge you are facing it means the battle is won. Certainly this is how it’s portrayed in stories – the hero is confronted with an inescapable truth, or they finally realize what their struggle is all about, and suddenly their behavior is transformed! They immediately begin to act from a place of this new perspective, and presto – happy ending! I wish it was that easy.

The insight is just the beginning; the real work of change happens (or not) depending on how much you are willing to work at letting go of your previously held beliefs. And I assure you, doing that is much, much harder than arriving at the moment of insight. But we don’t talk about the work part much – not very sexy, is it?

One of the ideas about myself I can’t seem to let go of is that I’m not a creative person. I’ve written about this before, but I’m still pushing against this barrier in my head that won’t let me believe that I’m capable of creating beauty, or of finding the words that will express my truth. I know what I need to do – every writer whose advice I’ve read agrees that the key is to write every day – but I haven’t done it. I know what I need to do, I just haven’t broken through that barrier in my own head that deep down believes that I don’t have anything original to say, and that I will never have even half of the facility with words that the writers I admire seem to have so effortlessly, so why bother, really? What’s the point?

I do push against this barrier. This blog is the evidence that I take a run at it once a week. But it’s not enough. I’ve had the insight, I know I have stories of my own to tell, I just haven’t done the work to make the change in how I live. And that’s what it takes. It’s slow, and painful, and takes a tremendous amount of perseverance and faith. It’s easy for me to tell others to keep the faith. It’s easy for me to keep the faith for them, my talented friends whose work I admire and whose success I hope for daily. I just can’t seem to do it for myself. It is indeed “The War of Art”, as so brilliantly described by Steven Pressfield in his book of that name. And it is a war that, so far, I’m losing.

I’m losing the war because I haven’t let go of the belief that to be a writer, other people have to think you’re good. That’s actually not the case. I have met some writers who aren’t very good at all, but I still think of them (and they think of themselves) as writers. Although everyone who wants to be a writer obviously wants others to think they’re talented (and publishable), this really shouldn’t stop anyone from trying.

I have always been the kind of person who, if I couldn’t be the best at something, just wouldn’t try. Math, for example; I never gave a damn about math because I wasn’t good at it. I’ve always been a good writer, but that’s not enough for me. If I’m going to fancy myself a writer, I have to be the best. Which is ridiculous, of course – that determination is (mostly) subjective. I think it’s an excuse not to do the work. Or I’m afraid to fail, or humiliate myself, or some other imagined outcome that seems so awful I’d rather not risk it. Or I don’t have time, or I don’t feel like it today, or any other of a thousand excuses that keep me away from doing what I profess to love.

I would normally say now that “I have to let go of the fears and beliefs that are holding me back from doing what I know I should be doing”, but you know what? The truth is I don’t have to let go of anything. I can keep on doing what I’m doing now, living my life, pursuing my career, taking care of my house and my family. I can do that. It is the easier choice, certainly. And it isn’t evil. Not wanting immortality isn’t a bad thing. Not wanting to change the world isn’t a terrible way to live your life.

But I know this to be true about me – I am never satisfied. I can get distracted, bogged down, temporarily defeated, but eventually I can’t take it anymore and I do drastic things to change my life. Sitting down and writing every day might not seem drastic on the face of it, but it is. It is a rejection of the status quo. It is an act of defiance. It is not allowing my life to be absorbed by the mundane. It is taking a stand against the forces that would keep me from becoming the best version of myself I can be.

And, finally, there’s this – we all make the same choice every day, to explore the divine within ourselves, or not. Choosing not to take up arms against the mundane isn’t evil. It’s just a waste of potential.

So, in a spirit of defiance, I give you something I’ve been working on. I don’t expect anyone to like it, but I’ve decided to share it with you anyway. I’m not really happy with it, but I’m not sure I ever will be. I have to get used to that.

The Words

I know they’re out there, somewhere,

waiting for me to find them.

They hide in the noise.

Sometimes they stand in front of me, hoping

to be noticed, but I look past them.

I look for them behind my eyelids.

I borrow them from other people.

I want them to want to be with me.

My wish is that one day I will just

sit still

and they will come to me, silently,

and curl up in my lap

like a cat.

 

photo credit: alexisnyal via photopin cc

 

 

 

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The Dog Days of Summer

dog days

What does that mean, anyway? According to Wikipedia:

“The Dog Days originally were the days when Sirius (the brightest star in the constellation Canis Major) rose just before or at the same time as the sun – which is no longer true, owing to precession of the equinoxes. The Romans sacrificed a red dog in April to appease the rage of Sirius, believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather.

Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time “the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad, and all other creatures became languid; causing to man, among other diseases, burning fevers, hysterics, and phrensies.” according to Brady’s Clavis Calendaria, 1813.

In Ancient Rome, the Dog Days ran from July 24th through August 24th, or, alternatively, from July 23 through August 23rd. In many European cultures (German,French, Italian) this period is still said to be the time of the Dog Days.”

I was telling my mother earlier that I’ve felt like August has been the longest month I can remember. Today is only the 19th, but it seems like two months have passed since I got back from my big trip to New York on the 1st. She told me something I didn’t know about her, which is that she’s always disliked the month of August. She said she seems to get in a funk every year at this time. That’s what got me wondering about the “dog days”.

I’ve never really noticed if I seem more prone to feeling down during this time of the year. I do always feel sort of let down after my birthday passes on the 8th of July; the rest of the summer seems empty until we finally get to Labor Day. And it gets hot here in the Southern United States. So hot that you’d rather sit on the porch in the shade than go play in the lake. When we get into the dog days, most of the time even the shady porch is too hot, and you wind up spending all your time moving as quickly as the heat will allow from one air conditioned space to another. It’s hot y’all.

And there’s been a lot going on lately, most of it not good. If you read this blog you know about all the drama with my 20-year-old Honda Accord (which from now on I will always refer to as the “stolen car”). You also know that my dear sister-in-law is in treatment for cancer (and blogging about it most courageously here). You know that my self-employment journey has been one of tremendous ups and downs – and I’m on a downswing at the moment which is no fun even though it is most likely temporary. I’m trying to be helpful to my family and my friends, but I feel like I’m not doing anything particularly well at the moment. Dog days, indeed.

Of course there are good things. I’ve had some wonderful times with great friends over the last few weeks. I had a huge breakthrough in the novel I’m working on – I have finally realized what it’s actually about. Now that I know where I’m going, I can get back on the road with it. My business partner and I are moving ahead with our plans for the future; we may leave some clients behind, but that’s ok. We know we need to keep moving forward. It’s scary, but exciting, too.

So even though I do feel stuck in the doldrums, I know the breeze will kick in soon. It always does, and when I’m sailing along I’ll look back and think, “What was I so worried about?”

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photo credit: mstephens7 via photopin cc

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If Only

Field of Flowers

I think it’s perfectly normal to occasionally spend time thinking about what your life would have been like if you had made different choices. Most of us do it at one point or another. I admit to wondering where I would be now if I hadn’t made certain career decisions based on my head and not my heart, if I hadn’t given that ultimatum to the man I loved all those years ago who wasn’t ready to commit when I was, or if I hadn’t got so caught up in the politics at my last place of employment that I was burned in the fallout. I only do this when I’m going through a rough patch. Questioning my life’s trajectory becomes part of reconciling myself to whatever is going on because when I play this game, I invariably realize that my life is pretty good and I have nothing of any consequence to complain about. So for me, the “if only” exercise is ultimately a positive one. But that’s not true for a lot of people.

I know people for whom the “if only” game is one of never-ending self-flagellation and despair. They constantly obsess about the “mistakes” they’ve made in life – romantically, professionally, or with their families. They find these moments in their past that they can point to and say “My life would have been so much better if only I had ___________ (whatever, you fill in the blank).” I am so sad when I meet someone who thinks this way, because there is very little anyone can do to change their minds. Especially if the imagined moment of truth passed many years prior; reliving those missed opportunities or bad decisions or episodes of humiliation over and over gain wears grooves in someone’s mind and heart, until the trenches are so deep they can’t see over them anymore.

There is also the “if only” that comes when someone else makes a self-destructive choice and you think that if you had only seen the signs or called that night or had paid more attention to them when you met for lunch last week, that whatever it was they did (leave their family, overdose on drugs, or commit suicide) could have been prevented. YOU could have stopped them. If only you had known what they were going to do.

I imagine that Robin Williams’ family and friends are suffering through their own versions of “if only” right now. I’ve never lost someone so close to me to suicide, so I can only pretend to understand the hell they’re in. There’s so much flying around about Robin’s death, and the need to pay attention to people who are depressed and to get them the help they need. Yes, absolutely, we should be much, much more aware of the mental health challenges faced by so many people, and we should, as a society, be open and accepting of those of us whose lives are a constant battle against overwhelming despair.

But we have to acknowledge that sometimes you can’t help a person in the depths of emotional torment no matter what you do. The love of his family didn’t keep Philip Seymore Hoffman from sticking a needle in his arm over and over again. Success, fame and universal adoration didn’t keep Robin Williams from deciding that there was no way out for him, that taking his life was the only response to the demons that had plagued him his whole life. By all accounts he was loved by his family and cherished by his friends. He was kind and generous, and he appreciated what he had, but for whatever reason, for him, it wasn’t enough. He gave so many people so much joy; I guess he didn’t keep any for himself.

As a final thought, I chose the photo that accompanies this post because it reminds me of the movie “What Dreams May Come”, when Robin Williams goes to heaven. If you’re not familiar with the origin of the title, it’s from the famous speech in “Hamlet” by William Shakespeare. In this scene, Hamlet is contemplating suicide. I guess Robin decided he preferred to make his own quietus. I hope he is at peace now.

To be, or not to be, that is the question—

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die, to sleep—
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The Heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely,
The pangs of despised Love, the Law’s delay,
The insolence of Office, and the Spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.

 

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photo credit: Rusty Russ via photopin cc

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Wake Up Call

Alarm Clocks

I’ve lived a month in the two weeks since I posted my last blog entry. Here’s a rundown:

Two weeks ago my husband and I were woken in the middle of the night by the police banging on our door. It seems that the officer who was shining his flashlight into my husband’s face had pulled our car over for speeding, but when he got out of his own car to approach the driver, our car took off. He traced the license plate to our door, and after a few minutes of conversation we convinced him that we were not the criminals he was looking for. Our car had been stolen from in front of our house.

I’ll tell the story in full at some point (because it isn’t over yet), but in summary, we got the car back within 36 hours or so of being taken, and it was entirely undamaged. I figure somebody up there likes me.

As all of this was going on I was working hard to finish the details of a meeting I was putting together for a friend that began the following week on Long Island, New York. My flight left Sunday morning. After arriving, my friend and I ran errands and put the attendee packages together and dealt with the last minute drama that always happens before an event like this one. The event was in a beautiful location, and I was staying at an historic inn on the shore of the Long Island Sound. My room was big, with a great view of the marina, but as I opened the door and walked in I noticed that the carpet was damp in places and there was an unpleasant smell in the room – like a floral scent had been used to cover up a chemical one. I called the front desk to ask if the carpet had been cleaned in the room that day, and I was told that, yes, it had been. Based on this information I supposed that the damp carpet would dry and the smell would dissipate, so I tried to ignore it and do what I needed to do that day.

What I needed to do in addition to setting up for the event was to draft an amendment to the contract my company has with our biggest client. I had to get it done before my business partner went on vacation, which was happening at the end of the week. So instead of collapsing into bed that first night, I fired up the laptop and tried to get all of the things she and I had discussed into the document. I eventually got it done and sent it off.

The next day we finished up our preparations for the attendees’ arrival; some people were coming in that afternoon, some that evening, and some in the next morning, the day of the event. Also during the day I changed hotel rooms because the smell had become unbearable. I found out later it wasn’t from any carpet cleaning; apparently the old-fashioned floor unit air conditioner was leaking. Great. I breathed that all night. I’ll let you know if I sprout an extra head.

That evening we had dinner in the hotel restaurant with everyone who had come in at that point. It was a very enjoyable evening, with great food and interesting conversation. I was feeling extremely confident about the next day when I went back to my room that night.

Before turning in I looked at my email. I’d seen it on my phone of course, and there was a communication I needed to deal with before I went to sleep. After doing that I clicked on a message that I had originally intended to ignore, as it looked to be just a regular communication with a group of friends about a gathering I couldn’t attend since I was out of town. It wasn’t.

It was a request for prayer, sent by my husband (who had forgotten to take me off the distribution list). He prefaced the message by saying that I was out of town and therefore didn’t know what was going on. The prayer he requested was for my sister-in-law, my sister’s partner, who had been told that morning that she had cancer.

I called my mother immediately. She told me what they knew at the time, which was that the doctors were pretty sure it was cancer and they thought it might be really bad. But they didn’t have any of the tests back so they didn’t know exactly what was happening, and they wouldn’t know until the next day at the earliest.

My husband was trying to keep the news from me until my event was over, and I appreciated the gesture, but in a strange way I was glad to know what was happening. It gave me a chance to pray for her, too, which is what I did until I finally fell asleep.

The next day I got up very early and went to the venue to set up for the meeting. Everything went smoothly, but I didn’t tell my friend what was going on in my family. I didn’t see the point in upsetting her, and I was very happy swimming in de-Nile for the time being. Half way through the morning I got a call from my mother with the wonderful news that the cancer wasn’t the horrible scary type that we had feared, but a kind that could be treated and that had very low rates of recurrence. I guess I had been wound up more tightly that I realized, because when she told me the good news my knees buckled and I started to cry.

My sister-in-law’s story is far from over, but it isn’t my story to tell. She has decided to tell it herself. You can find her blog here.

I went through the rest of the day with a much lighter heart. The event finished off the next morning with breakfast at the hotel, and after it was done I hugged my friend goodbye and headed out. I was going to visit a dear friend at his family’s home, and I was glad to be going at all; I had decided the day before that if the news about my sister-in-law was bad that I would change my flight and come home immediately to be with my family. The good news allowed me to stay for the extra day and a half I had planned.

The rest of my trip was a boon. I had a great visit with my friend, and I got some rest. I approached that time with the focused intent to enjoy it as much as I could since I figured my life and the lives of my family would be anything but normal when I got back. And that has proved to be true.

Cancer is a horrible, destructive, frightening disease, because it seems to customize itself to its host. And even though they have statistics and they can chart probabilities based on the unfortunately large sample size of those whose cancers have gone before, it doesn’t make it much less scary than if we knew nothing. And even though I’ve lost other family members to cancer, this still feels completely unreal. It’s not something one gets used to outside of the oncology ward I reckon.

I suppose you’d expect me to wax eloquent about this being a wake-up call to pay more attention to the things that matter in life. The title of this post would suggest that, and I apologize for the bait-and-switch. The thing is, I don’t need a wake-up call – my alarm has been blaring for ages now. I do know what’s important and I believe I am successful in keeping those things in the forefront of my intent. I cling to my family. I revel in my friends. I believe in the power of love.

My sister-in-law’s cancer isn’t about me, so I have no great insights for you. What I do have is some anger and some sadness, and a whole lot of desire to be helpful. That’s it. I hope that’s enough.

The one thing I will say is that everything that has happened in the last two weeks has re-confirmed my commitment to living the life I want to live. It’s the only one I have and I can choose to live it fully or not. Because you never know what might happen, good or bad. There’s no point being afraid; shit happens whether you’re ready or not.

That’s it then, the great insight. I already knew it, but that’s not the issue. The question is, every day, do I live it?

 

photo credit: las – initially via photopin cc

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Peaks and Valleys

from the blog www.stuckincustoms.com

Lately I’ve become distressed about the impact that relatively minor physical discomfort and mood swings seem to have on my ability to get shit done. I’ve been telling myself that when I used to get up and go to work in an office every day I didn’t have to fight through periods of extreme apathy like I sometimes now experience, and a headache would rarely cause me to miss a day of work. Of course, I’m older now, and I believe I’m in the beginning stages of what is delicately referred to as “the change”, so it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. However, I’m worried that I am in danger of giving in to my lazier nature, which I absolutely cannot afford to do. What happened to that girl I think I remember, the one who would drag herself out of bed no matter what?

Yes, I did push through headaches and shoulder stiffness and sinus congestion and all that other stuff. I did force myself to get dressed and drive to the office and sit at my desk when I would have rather been pretty much anywhere else. Yes, I did that – we all do that because we have to. When I compare my recollection of what it was like to have to go into an office each day whether I felt in top form or not to how I react now when I’m not feeling my best, it seems like I’m ever so quick to take an aspirin and go back to bed, just because I can. Is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t I just make myself get up and go downstairs and fire up the laptop and get on with it?

Or am I remembering it all wrong?

One interesting facet of working from home is that you have an opportunity to really get to know your body’s rhythms. There are days I wake up and I feel ready to leap tall buildings. I approach my tasks with relish and I seem to get everything on my list done, and more. Then there are days when I can’t focus for five minutes on anything; my thoughts rush from one thing to another, and I start tasks only to quit and pick up something else that I also don’t finish. Then there are days when I just don’t feel well in my body. I’m tired, and things are sort of achy. I hate those days. I try to push through them, but I find that the quality of my work is lessened, and I make mistakes that I would never make on a good day. I’ve learned not to push too hard, and that looking like an idiot in front of a client isn’t worth losing an hour or so of my day to a nap.

Now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I had these same sorts of days when I went into an office. I definitely remember days where I felt as busy as a bee but I didn’t seem to get anything accomplished; I just buzzed from one thing to another in rapid succession. I remember days of my brain being so foggy that I would look for things to do that didn’t require much thought, thereby minimizing the the chances of making an embarrassing mistake. I remember days of feeling ill, but since having a nap wasn’t an option, I’d just suffer through and be totally unproductive all day. At least now I can go lay down for an hour; often I come back feeling refreshed and am able to attack my to-do list with new energy.

So, maybe it’s not that I used to have some superpower that allowed me to push through the down days, maybe I’m just better at acknowledging them and reacting appropriately. Sure, there are lots of times when I have conference calls or deadlines that force me to keep engaged when I’d much rather watch TV or take a nap. But I’ve come to accept that my work day doesn’t just happen between 8 and 5; I can, and do, work very odd hours. In addition, when I’m done with my work for the day I’m done; I don’t have a boss who wanders around trying to catch me goofing off. I still sometimes have that mindset, that I’m required to sit at my desk for a certain number of hours, being available in an instant in the event somebody wants something from me. The wonderful truth is that I don’t have to do that. If my head hurts, I can take a pill and go lay down until it passes. If I can’t focus on a particular task, I can put it to the side and do something my reduced attention span will allow. If I’m on fire, I can work ten hours straight without a break. It’s up to me to choose how to respond to the context of each day as it happens – to go with the flow of the highs and the lows.

What a gift.
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photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

 

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Life, the Universe, and Everything

don't panic

Every year since I was fairly young, 10 or 11, my father has asked me the same question on my birthday:

“What have you learned this year?”

I look forward to this annual ritual, and I usually start thinking about it some days ahead of time. Well, today is my birthday, and my Dad reads my blog, so I’m going to go ahead and answer the question now (Dad, I look forward to discussing it with you later!).

This year I’ve learned some harsh truths:

  • Hard work isn’t always rewarded in the way you hope it will be;
  • Adults in professional situations will smile in your face and lie about you behind your back (yeah yeah I know, but it still surprises me);
  • I am vulnerable to feelings of powerlessness.

I’ve also learned some wonderful truths:

  • I’ve learned not to panic when things go wrong – the situation is rarely as bad as it seems at first;
  • I’ve learned how to embrace my disappointment and move on;
  • I’ve learned that gratitude is the best defense against despair;
  • I’ve learned that what I think is a mistake may actually be just a guidepost on the way to a better destination;
  • I’ve learned that I’d rather be happy than right;
  • I’ve learned that a simple act of kindness, shown to a complete stranger, is the greatest power in the universe.

I don’t have the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but I do know this: if you are lucky enough to have people in your life who you love and who love you, the best use of your time on this planet is to protect and nurture that love. By all means do your work, engage in thoughtful debate, support the arts, give to the needy, explore the sacred divine, take care of your body, but – even as you pursue these good things – never forget to love the people in your life.

And never underestimate the impact you have on other people whether you know them or not. It’s a responsibility we all have, to lead with compassion, to listen in order to understand, and not to add to the conflict and turmoil in the world. This is what I’ve learned. My hope is that I am able to live it every day.

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photo credit: Old Ben Kenobi via photopin cc
 

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