Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Phone Scares Me

Charlotte is scared of rational things. As irrational as they may feel, they're all based in some pretty normal fears. She's scared of airplanes, earthquakes, natural disasters, war. She's scared of death and of dying. But I sit over here on the other edge of the world, on the lip of the biggest ocean with enormous trees waving in the wind and and I'm scared of some insane, crazy shit.
I'm scared of moths. There, I said it. That's the fuzzy comfort of having a blog nobody reads but us. Here I can unload my freakish fears without worry someone from fourth grade will come running up to me spewing aloud my deepest secrets. Even if they do read and yell, who cares, we're old now. So anyway Moths, go figure...something to do with a short story by Arthur C. Clarke or H.P. Lovecraft when I was seven or eight. Soon afterwards I read 'Portnoy's Complaint' and was intrigued by liver, yes, yet never afraid of it. Hmmm, what else?
I'm scared of car accidents which is ridiculous when you live in a country so dependent on automobiles. Scared that someone I love who's five or ten minutes late is actually dead in a car and I'll find out at any moment. The knock on the door. The phone that rings late at night - there it is again, that ringing.
I'm scared that I'll jinx things by thinking about them or not thinking about them or saying them out loud or not giving them the reverence they deserve. As in 'Wow, we just made it to the airport in time! And brr, look at all that freezing rain coming down in absolute sheets. Thank God there's no chance whatsoever that our plane will go down! Look, there's someone from ZZ Top going into first class - and he's bringing his guitar. This will be the safest, fastest flight ever!" But in this above-mentioned fear I do take comfort being joined by roughly 25,000,000 others who throw salt over their shoulders, never walk under ladders, and talk to their own, individual, listening, nodding God. Perhaps I underestimate their number.
What else? I'm scared of turning on the TV and seeing the hunting channel or the fishing channel or anything to do with a trapped, wounded, scared, attacked, dying animal of any kind. I'm scared somebody will steal one of our dogs (twice now instead of 'dogs' I typed 'gods'; hence my point) so that when they're in the car and I leave, I hit the 'lock' button four, five, six times in a row as if my hand has a mute kind of Tourette Syndrome.
And I'm scared of the telephone. Not in some Tippy Hedren-it's-going-to-attack me phobia but what you have to do once you pick it up. You have to speak into the damn thing, and I hate it. Hate that it should be a comfort and connection and I fear I'm bothering the other side. Are they listening or have you interrupted them during sex? Are they thinking about the sex they just had, mulling it over as you speak? Do they want to talk to you or were they hoping you were the repairman? Do they want to listen or talk or both or neither and is this a good time or is the repairman coming over for sex? So many questions, so many ring tones, I hate it.
And yet the telephone is still a lifeline. Almost everyone I love lives far away. Charlotte in Italy and everyone else scattered from NY to Boston to LA to San Francisco to Seattle and Bend to Hawaii to Portland. Even if they live close by, a phone comes in handy. For years I'd tell my closest friends that I almost called them, I really thought about calling them, isn't that fantastic, the way other people think of sending a letter or card or trying out for American Idol. Derek and Kevin repeat it to this day: gee, I thought about calling you...isn't that enough? Yet for me this is truly sancrosanct: if I love you, you make it all the way to actual thought. But to press those numbers, well, it takes something out of my soul. Does anybody else do this? Mean to write, call, connect, approach, hold, make meaningful, keep thinking they'll always be enough time? And when did it change? Remember grade school, junior high, high school, rushing home to talk to the friends you just saw all day long in class? Remember pressing the phone against your head for hours until your ear was practically on fire? Practically sweating? And how can ears even sweat? Remember your parents screaming for you to get off the goddamn phone to eat dinner? Do homework? Texting, twittering, it's all the same thing just with a slightly different device, although no sixteen year old will ever understand outrageous ear heat. But it's connection, that thing Charlotte talks about, that way we reach out to someone else we trust, regardless the miles. The sound of someone you love on the other end of the phone is a gorgeous thing. The thought that anyone loves you enough to call when they could be doing something else, that's wonderful. Why would I be afraid of something so beautiful? Spontaneous? Alive? Maybe the saddest sound is a phone that never rings at all. That and a moth, trapped and scared beating against the light. Which is another reason to keep turning the lights off.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Another cycle to contend with.

O.K. So in addition to the fear cycle, the menstrual cycle, the climactic cycle and the motorcycle, there's the happiness/success cycle. Or so I'll call it. 

Recent research at the University of Virginia has revealed that "moderately happy people, while less successful in relationships, tend to achieve more, because being a little disgruntled can serve as an incentive to improve."

On another front, Jonathan Haidt, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, "argues that humans have evolved to live like bees in a hive—in tight, cooperative groups. Haidt has found that many people, when asked to remember the happiest time in their life, will refer to an intense, hivelike group experience such as military experience, a band or just a time when they had a close group of friends. 'During the Enlightenment we busted out of the hive and created modern, independent ways of living,' Haidt says. 'Now we fly around asking, 'Why am I not satisfied'?" 

These two tidbits, thanks to my Spring 2009 issue of the University of Virginia Magazine, make great and disturbing sense to me. They explain why, when I was in my late twenties and early thirties, I lived through a heady period of creativity (i.e. success, in my mind) at Wieden + Kennedy which left me both exhilarated and constantly frustrated (read: miserable, despite my success) but which I have continued to search for elsewhere in life. I remember it as being a deeply happy and rewarding. 

In retrospect, I think what was rewarding was what I achieved, and, yes, the amazingly tight relationships which were formed and which continue to grow and deepen even today. My friendship with Janet, for example. (Thank you Dan Wieden for "giving" me Janet.) But what I have now—a deep, abiding and loving relationship, two beautiful children and a curiously fulfilling life in Italy—provides me with a greater happiness. I couldn't have had this profound happiness without giving up that earlier phase—that literally buzzing hive of group activity.

Flip side: I'm often not as creative, I fear, in this happy hive as I used to be in the disturbing one. When I confront the shift in personal creativity, I get grumpy, grumpiness spreads, and before you know it, something creative pops out of it again. I feel happy. The smiles come back, I enjoy life, creativity ebbs. 

Around and around and around. Happy - creative/successful - happy - creative/successful. And so we go. How lovely it would be to be happy and to feel creative, be creative at the same time. —Charlotte

Monday, May 18, 2009

Repeat after me.

My grandmothers, Rosa Sanders Thomas (left) and Gladys Hartz Moore (right).

Long time. No hear. Sorry about that. 

When last we spoke, I was tamping down various fears in order to go visit my mother in New York. Suffice it to say that once again the trip was well worth any pre-travel jitters. It was full and rich and meaningful on just about every level. 

I found my mother well, but contending with some degree of memory loss, which became in a way the centerpiece of my visit and of my thought-process even now long after the bags have been unpacked. I won't go into the details of why or how, but I will say this. Having a mind bent toward the metaphorical, I even see memory loss as a sort of metaphor, but also as a tool of nature to force human beings into a pattern of behavior that might serve our survival, or at least, the quality of our lives. 

The metaphor is that memory loss is a sort of editing tool that forces our minds in older age to focus on the things that matter. (The name of that woman you just met at the newsstand five minutes ago but have already forgotten? Probably doesn't matter. It's taking up disk space. Let it go.) 

The survival tool is this. I noticed with both my grandmothers (one who probably suffered from Alzheimers and the other who was mentally clear into her 100's) a tendency to repeat themselves. But what they repeated weren't grocery lists, phone numbers, or plans for the day. What they repeated were stories. Family myths. Personal tales of passage and growth. In the case of my forgetful grandmother, these stories were burnished and shaped by the passage of time and the loss of memories less important. In the case of my mentally acute grandmother, the stories, I realized later, were pertinent to my own growth. She knew exactly what she was saying, and she was going to say it as many times as possible before it was too late. In both cases, the stories in question were repeated to me over and over and over again. I always listened, aware in some way that they might serve me later, aware too that my grandmothers were telling me who I was and where I came from. 

At times it was boring. I sometimes wanted to say, "I know, I know. You told me this already." But I tried not to. I hope I didn't. Because what I realize now, is that my own mind needed that repetition to make the gist of the stories stick. Here I am, decades after their deaths, and I can't repeat the details of what I thought would be permanently tattooed on my gray matter, but I can remember the over-arching themes. I can remember the point. I can recall some of the texture and color. The emotion. I am beginning, as an adult, to relate to more and more of the "why" behind the telling. 

So. It dawns on me as memory problems plague so many of our parents, that perhaps nature has a plan. The American Indians kept their culture alive by listening to the stories of the Elders. Stories were told over and over and over again. Talk-story it was called. Lectures hidden in tales. Lessons interwoven in drama. History, not boring, but entertaining. Again and again. Repeated and repeated until it wasn't so much learned as absorbed. 

Now as my mother-in-law tells me daily of her life in France during WWII and my mother tells me one more time about her favorite teacher in high school, I realize that there is probably a deeper reason—a reason bigger than simple loss of memory or the need to talk—for the retelling of these particular tales. My survival will be served well by listening. My going forward will be informed by what they have to say. 

It's Nature's will that we forget, it seems. It may also be her will that we repeat what we remember. Because if we're not going to choose that the oral repetition of these stories be part of our way of life, if we're not going to formalize the passing down of these words, Nature's going to choose it for us. Because I'm sure, very sure, it is her will that we listen, learn, absorb, then tell again when it is our turn. —Charlotte