Sunday, July 27, 2014

Secret Self

A friend recently made an observation about me, just an offhand comment, that stuck in my mind because it was so far from the truth. I find myself dwelling on this. At first I was a little angry. How could someone I thought knew me so well be so off base about who I am and how I function in the world? I felt as if my friend wasn’t paying attention, was so caught up in their own business that they did not see me. I felt as though we had become distanced in a way that I had previously failed to notice.

After a few days, my anger subsided. I realized that the person my friend sees is the person I present to the world. I began to consider some of the things that I have done and said over time and how those actions created a certain image of who I am. My friend efficiently bought the image of myself that I have consciously created. How can I blame a friend for that?

The next thing that I started pondering was whether or not I want to maintain that image. Long story made short, the image I have constructed is that my life is an open book; that friends as well as strangers will find me in my writing here on the blog and in my novel and in essays I have written. Emails. Letters. Memoirs. Conversations even. That all these words that bubble forth from me contain my most intimate self and the private details of my life and the lives of my family members. But nothing could be farther from the truth. I think of myself as a private person. A person who often goes a week at a time without leaving my house except to go for my morning walk. I think of myself as a semi-recluse. A person who steps carefully into conversations. A person with secrets. I find it astonishing that the image I have projected into the world is apparently so different from that.

I share many of my thoughts, but keep my emotions close to the bone. I try to be honest, but there are many topics I avoid and will not engage in discussing. I am adept at sidestepping. I frequently talk too much when in the company of others (a nervous habit), but I am always working on that, trying to shut up and listen. There are certain opinions I will not share or that I will only share with certain people and in certain contexts. I do not think of myself as abundantly forthcoming.

What muddies the waters is my weakness for a good story. I am at heart a storyteller and I can rarely pass up the opportunity to build a good story from the raw materials of everyday life. I believe in the function of stories to deeply nourish the soul and to launch positive change. Telling stories can be like walking through a minefield, however, because stories belong to people. They come from somewhere. They are revealing. They involve exposure, which results in vulnerability to judgment. People don’t want to be judged and found lacking, deficient, failed. Hence secrets. People don’t want their business in the street, interpreted, handled. We humans fear revealing our human frailty. We fear that someone will think we did something wrong and think less of us. Sometimes we fear that if others discuss features of our lives that the very discussion will somehow change the outcomes. The storyteller must tread delicately.

Do we fear the storyteller? Perhaps we fear that if the storyteller takes our story and shapes it into a certain form and puts a particular order to it and a particular ending on it then it will impact what actually happens in our lives. Stories have been known to do so. As a fiction writer, I take the real chains of events, the real people, the real material of life, and I alter it with my imagination for the sake of the story. I am very concerned about truth but not so concerned about what really happened. My imagination works on reality and creates a new reality within my words. For a purpose. I have been known to do so with “nonfiction” as well. Hence the little thought with which I end most of my emails:  The lines between fiction and nonfiction blur and in the end all that matters is the story itself; how much of it is truth and how much imagined is of little consequence.

As I turn around and look at where my thoughts have taken me, where I have wound up from where I started on this page today, I feel comfortable with having a secret self and I feel comfortable with having an outward image that this is not the case, that I am not so full of secrets. To reach this level of comfort, I have to let go of my anger at people when they reveal the fact that they don’t know me as well as I thought they did. I also have to live with the fact that I have chosen to take certain secrets to my grave and to leave an image of myself behind that is not entirely my true self. Finally, I find that I wonder how well any of us really know each other.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Befriending the Dead

I made a new friend this week, an unusual friend. In fact, she’s dead.

Let me explain. I’ll start here. Ron and I looked at houses for months and did not see any we liked well enough to buy. We need to sell our house before we can buy anything anyway. Tricky business. Meanwhile, the housing market changes rapidly and situations raise possibilities. Our house is on the market and quite a few people have come to see it. We are presently in discussion with a buyer who is seriously interested, so maybe something will shake out. This past week we saw a house that we liked well enough to imagine ourselves living in it. The situation is such that we can reasonably make an offer on it contingent on the sale of our house.

Let’s call the house we are interested in the J-House. The woman who owned the J-House for the past 15 years died suddenly at the age of 70 several months back. Her son inherited it and he doesn’t live around here. So he put it on the market. No one is living in it. No one has made an offer on it in over two months. It’s a bit of a secret gem for reasons too complicated to explain here. The son has been slowly emptying out his mother’s things. I’m sure his mother would have cleared it out and made things easier for him to tie up had she had time before she passed.

The house has a rich history. It’s in one of the oldest neighborhoods in town. I was curious, so I went online and started reading about the neighborhood. In so doing, I stumbled upon the obituary for the woman who died so suddenly who owned the J-House. Looking at her picture, I realize that I know who she was. I saw her around town over the years. I never spoke to her, even though we have many mutual friends. Let me refer to her as Ms. X. Ms. X was quite beautiful in my opinion. Oddly, I am getting to know her and I am beginning to feel as though she is a friend of mine.

Things I have learned about Ms. X from viewing her house are:  she played the piano and enjoyed music; she loved to garden (grew lots of roses); she liked found art; she had a sense of humor; she loved her children fiercely; she believed in community and the importance of building community; she valued books and enjoyed reading and sharing books with others; she was inclined to unplug electronic devices and focus on live relationships; she had a strong aesthetic sense and created beauty in her surroundings; she wanted to live near fruit trees and to eat things she grew in her yard; she liked to sit outside in the evening and enjoy the natural world; she was smart; she was compassionate; she was generous; she was practical. I have learned a lot about her by poking around on her property.

In her obituary I read that Ms. X was raised by leftwing Jewish parents. Ms. X was a political activist and a teacher. She had a college degree from UCLA. She created a neighborhood association and worked to make it thrive. She was active in local policymaking and she worked for the Democratic Party. She loved to dance and she took advantage of most opportunities to party. She had many friends and a strong positive presence in the community. She liked to go hiking in the mountains. She was on the Board of Directors of the local soup kitchen and she had a reputation for helping others less fortunate than herself. She was known as an advocate for individuals with mental disabilities and their families. She left behind shoes too large to fill. Her friends were devastated when she died.

I feel as though I know this woman personally and I mourn her passing. But even more than that, I mourn our missed connection. I am deeply sad that I never got to know this woman while she lived, that we never became friends. I would have loved her, I think. We would have had some good times together and we would have been kindred spirits. Now, as I think about these things, I feel a bit like I have befriended her even though she is no longer among the  living. If we actually buy her house, her imprint on the world will remain a part of me for many years to come. My new, dead friend.

I am reminded that there are is an abundance of extraordinary people in the world and not enough time or space to get to know them or to include them in my life. I am ever more grateful for those I have befriended and spent time with, grateful for the people who populate my sliver of the world, my moment of existence.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Who's Counting?

I keep thinking about a headline that caught my eye this week. During the 4th of July Weekend, over 80 people were shot in over 20 shooting incidents in Chicago; and 15 died of gunshot wounds. Yet the President did not visit the families of those who died (nearly all were black and Latino men in their teens and twenties) and those who were killed have not been pictured in the national news, their lives spotlighted, their loss mourned, their fathers quoted in the press, their mothers shown holding portraits of them. Is this any less of a tragedy than a mass shooting at a predominantly white elementary school in Connecticut or a movie theater full of white people in Colorado? Doesn’t it tell us something that 5 of those shot and killed were shot by police officers?

These shootings were largely dismissed by the ignorant as “gang-related” and those who died thus devalued because “they must have been involved with gangs.” But who is qualified to judge what the lives of these victims are “worth”? Who among us has been given the power to decide what lives should be mourned and what lives forgotten? It’s not OK to just throw people away. How are those who were murdered (whether or not they were in gangs) any less valuable than the college students killed in Santa Barbara in May? In truth, most of them had nothing to do with gangs.

Michael Lansu at the Chicago Sun-Times Homicide Watch Blog had this to say:  “Police will say that the victim is a documented gang member, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the shooting was gang-related. Gangs are not basketball teams with rosters. The lines are blurry.” Lansu explains that if a young man lives on a block where gang members live, then members of rival gangs see that he lives on that block and they assume he must be a part of the “clique” on that block. They don’t make any distinctions between gang members and other people who live in the same neighborhood with gang members. Gangs are territorial. There are over 600 little gang “sets” in Chicago these days and they each “control” a very small turf. So if a young person crosses through a different neighborhood (for instance to walk to school), then they might be crossing a territory of a group that has something going on with the gang members in that young person’s neighborhood. And that young person, who is not affiliated with any gang, is automatically implicated by geography.

In Chicago, victims of gun violence are treated as statistics rather than individuals. You would not be likely to see their photos in the newspaper or witness any public mourning for their loss. In June, seven people were shot outside a laundromat in Chicago, but it was never referred to as a mass shooting. If it had happened in an upscale white neighborhood, you can bet it would have been called a mass shooting.

Similar shooting numbers are frequently posted elsewhere, like in Oakland or New Orleans. But again shootings in these places are not referred to as mass shootings and the individuals who are shot or killed do not receive individual press. Their families do not experience a nationwide outpouring of support and sympathy. They are merely a statistic. Last year on Mother’s Day 19 people were shot in New Orleans at a parade. This was never referred to as a mass shooting. This was never treated as an American tragedy of note. Perhaps it’s just that this is the new normal. It seems that a mass shooting is cited in the media nearly every week. It’s impossible to absorb this information and keep functioning with some semblance of enjoyment of life. Seriously. I try to limit the negative news to which I expose myself because it’s just too depressing.

But I’m taking a moment here to point out that “tragedies” don’t seem to happen in Oakland or Chicago or New Orleans. “Gang-related shootings” are what happen in these places. And it seems that deaths from gun violence are highlighted in the news when they occur in sleepy all-American towns, when, let’s be real, they result in the death of white people.

The good news is that the homicide rate in Chicago is actually over-rated. It’s made out to be this horrific violent city, but in fact when you look at the number of shootings per capita, and compare to other places, the only reason Chicago looks so bad is that it has such a high population. The per capita numbers of shootings is relatively low. And based on the number of deaths from shooting, the violent crime rate is declining in Chicago. However, interestingly, Yale sociologist Andrew Papachristos, who has studied homicide in Chicago, reports that while the number of shooting deaths in Chicago has fallen, the number of shootings has not fallen. Papachristos says that “you usually see four shooting for every fatal homicide, but in Chicago you see about eight per homicide.” How to explain this phenomenon? I wonder if it’s because shooters in Chicago have bad aim or never learned how to shoot a gun. Sorry, I guess that’s some awful gallows humor.

It seems to me that 15 people dead in one weekend is a pretty big tragedy. It seems reasonable to expect to see their pictures and to hear their stories and to see a national outpouring of support for their families. The death of a mother’s son is the death of a mother’s son, no matter how much money that mother has or does not have and no matter what color she or her boy are.

A feature of last week’s shootings that has not been trumpeted in the news is that five of those fatally shot were shot by police officers. One was 14-year-old Pedro Rios, who had a gun and reportedly would not put it down when ordered. The other was 16-year-old Warren Robinson, who hid under a car when pursued by police, who claim he had a gun, but witnesses say he did not. This is under investigation. Robinson was riddled with over 20 bullets. How is this any less of a tragedy for the families of these boys than the shooting of the college students in Santa Barbara? Who has the authority to measure levels of grief?

I don’t know the answers. I’m just posing the questions. I’m just allowing myself a moment to grieve the loss and to rage against the injustice, before I push on with my charmed life in paradise. I do pray every day that my black son living in Oakland is never misinterpreted or mis-identified, that he remains safe from harm.

I find it interesting that when I searched for photos of Robinson and Rios in the online news, I found nothing. The only photo I could find when I searched Robinson was this photo of his mother being comforted by her family just after receiving the news of her son’s death.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What Makes You Happy?

So what is it? I’m not talking about the lofty goals you come up with when you overthink happiness. (“I would be so happy if no child ever went hungry.”) I’m talking about the things that make your day, the things that right there, right then, in the moment, make you feel very personally and specifically happy to be alive. I’ve been pondering this lately since I recently read a thought-provoking article about happiness.

Every time I get together with any of my children it makes me so once-again-surprisingly happy that it takes my breath away. I could just watch my children talk to each other or their father for hours. They are still such extraordinary, luminous, beautiful creatures that I remain in wonder that they came from me and Ron and that we raised them.

My children are a big source of happiness in my life. But there are also an abundance of trivial moment-to-moment sources of happiness, like eating organic dark chocolate, evening walk at Coyote Valley Dam with Ron, completing a work project and knowing I rocked on that particular job, solving a problem, petting my cat, a long drink of fresh pure cool water, first homegrown tomato of the summer, listening to music, cooking for my book group, crawling into bed with a good read. Those are a few that popped into my head.

UC researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky lists the following practices as the top things that she found that the happiest people do:
1)    They spend a lot of time with family and friends, nurturing those relationships.
2)    They frequently express gratitude.
3)    They step up to help others often.
4)    They remain optimistic for the future.
5)    They savor life’s pleasures and try to live in the present.
6)    They do something for exercise at least a few times a week, often daily.
7)    They remain deeply committed to their lifelong goals.
8)    They find constructive ways to cope with the challenges and trauma of everyday life and to remain hopeful in spite of these.

Apparently it’s important to make happiness a habit. We can consciously practice happiness to increase its presence in our lives. (That sounds good to me because I have been meaning to eat more dark chocolate.) We often form habits that prevent us from experiencing happiness. Instead, we should make those things that bring us happiness our habits more often. One happiness expert suggests that we take a moment in the morning to think about the upcoming day and to find or create opportunities for happiness that we see possible as part of that day and then to anticipate them. Look forward to something. And if you find nothing in the day to look forward to, then add something into the day to look forward to. Evening walk with a friend. Fresh peaches after dinner. Changing the sheets to enjoy a clean bed. Phoning Dad who lives far away. Looking through an old photo album. Or plan an event in the future to look forward to, like a dinner party with good friends (call them up and invite them).

There are many sure-fire research-proven paths to finding happiness in the moment, such as exercising, dancing, singing, savoring good food, spending time with a friend, spiritual practice, doing a good deed (like helping someone out), being generous, setting and meeting a personal goal or challenge, and completing a good project. One research-based proven source of happiness that I find intriguing is finding meaning in life’s tragedies. Apparently people who find some benefit in their struggles are generally happier people. I would guess this is connected to that whole optimism-hope-positive thinking cascade. Lyubomursky found that men between the ages of 30 and 60 who had a heart attack and who perceived this as a wake-up call to slow down and enjoy their family and their life were in greater health six weeks after the heart attack (and less likely to have a recurrent heart attack) than those men who blamed their heart attack on other people or blamed themselves for getting too worked up but did not view the heart attack as an opportunity to change their lives for the better.

Austrian Jewish concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Man’s Search for Meaning was originally published under the title (in German) Nevertheless, Say “Yes” to Life:  A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp. Given his extraordinary luck at not being murdered or taken ill, Frankl clearly survived and made a future for himself with his positive attitude.

I have read quite a bit about retraining the brain to function in new ways. Since we each live in a reality created mostly by our own perceptions, it would be correct to say that we create our own reality. We create our days. We create our lives. We create our measure of happiness. If you want more happiness in your life then invite it in. Put some good music on and have some dark chocolate (the nutritionista says more than 70% cacao is the healthiest).

This is my current favorite dark chocolate:  Theo Brand. Organic. 70% Cacao. Delish!