I think we all need to go to Athens…or have a thirty second dance party with Galliard Syndrome

I’ve been reflecting and reading over some of my writing. It’s heavy. Sometimes it takes me days to recover after writing a chapter of a new project I’m working on. I thought my last two projects were dark. Not like this one.

Life is too short.

I sat on the bus and mentioned to my husband the other day all of my nevers. I’ll probably never read War and Peace or Les Miserables, especially in the original languages. I’ll probably never be fluent in German or French or learn Italian, Russian, or Greek. It was a little sad to think about all the things I’ll never do.

People do say, never say never.

Someone also once told me, as I wrote in a previous blog, that “Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

I just wrote my cousin who is in the band Galliard Syndrome. I told him how sane and happy everyone looks in the music video of Velvet Rings. They’re skipping through Athens with an adorable beagle and drinking beer outdoors. Who can resist the Athens architecture and sapphire-enameled sky? I realize how peculiar this sentiment is. Yet look at the drama around us in the microcosm as well as the macrocosm. Maybe we just need to chillax (as my officemate at McGill would oft tell me, which is really embarrassing and telling since she was an immigrant from the Lebanese war-zone).

Yes, I realize I’m very privileged which is why I’m so at odds with my daily struggles. My husband tells me that my feelings are valid as I’ve encountered nontrivial challenges since birth. But as I wrote my cousin, in the video they really look like they’re living life, really living it. How many of us do this? How many of us just try to survive each day, even if we might be privileged and our problems less blatant?

“Life sucks, you’re going to die, so you might as well have some fun in the meantime.”

Never say never. I got out my Greek course and started to study it. I think maybe we should all go to Greece and have a καφες. Or at the very least spend an evening listening to Galliard Syndrome and have a Grey’s Anatomy thirty second dance party.

And it’s time to write that romcom novel that’s been bouncing around in my mind.

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Canada Day 2017: Happy 150th

As a Canadian, I have a number of rights and responsibilities which I could rattle off to you if you wanted. One of them is to work to the best of my ability and to take care of my family as best as I can. My plans for today were to honour these responsibilities by doing work on revising my book and relaxing with a movie and maybe some games with Andrew, my family. But this morning I awoke with more energy (or extra coffee) and decided to clean as well, which feels important in taking care of my family. I seem to do a lot of thinking while I clean.

It was a conscious decision to concentrate more on my career, writing novels, than writing without compensation. Too often in my life I’ve been solicited to do research work or other work without monetary compensation. Would we expect the same of others whose work we consume? So why am I writing this? Writing is isolating, and I find it rewarding to write blogs for feedback and for the feeling that I’m making a contribution, no matter how small it might be. Maybe I promote a novel I love or a musical performance that has transformed me. One of my responsibilities as a Canadian is to volunteer. I think of my pro bono writing as a way of contributing to my country and the arts organizations that I find so critical in a world that can seem bankrupt of valuing beauty, poetry, creativity, and art. How much value do we place on art? Is something’s value only commensurate with how profitable it is? Of course not. Society seems to place importance on financially lucrative pursuits, but there are so many significant entities that come unattached to price tags. Like the invitation my friend extended to coffee when I told him I’ve been down. Or a free concert I recently saw featuring the sensitive soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, and incomparable pianist and maestro, Alexander Mickelthwate. Value is inherent in art that moves us, the music that sustains us, and the books which teach us about other cultures, experiences, and relationships.

I went to Paris in May for a change of scene and to give myself a fresh start and rebirth myself from the stagnant quagmire in which I was mired. It worked for a little after my return, but on occasion I reverted to old ways and old thoughts, old patterns. This process of becoming and growing seems to occur in fits and starts, plateaus, and ascents. An occasional descent. And it’s not without its surprises. It’s a process, continuous like the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than discrete as in something quantized.

I am gradually changing. Emerging from my cocoon and truly understanding who I am and how I wish to contribute not just to Canada but to my family, friends, and beyond. I take each day one day at a time and squeeze in my novel writing or writing research, physics, and music whenever I can, letting it buoy my mood by being immersed in endeavours I find valuable. Everything we do which raises us from the quicksand we can so often revert saves our lives. Writing does this for me and also the feeling as though my writing resonates with others. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an ambivalent relationship with exposing my vulnerabilities and innards through sharing my writing, but somehow I’ve been training myself to do so and feel gratified when I can connect to my audience, that it touches people.

While cleaning, I meditated on how I don’t have a schedule any more. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I try instead to just do whatever I can each day to feel like I’m making my contribution to my work and my family and my family which is Canada. To do the best I can. I don’t take a single day for granted nor a single moment with my loved ones. I’m discovering new friends who reach out to me and offer their friendship which I return with love. I’m discovering there are pockets I haven’t explored yet and still more lessons to learn. This is another reason why I write, to learn from my characters. They all have something to teach me. My aunt always says everything is a learning experience, and it is.

Today is a historic day. I will finish my cleaning quickly and then celebrate at the zoo and a concert a friend invited me to. I’ll watch a movie and work on my novel.

My gift to you is these words. Don’t take a single moment or your loved ones for granted. Find honour in your rights and responsibilities and work every day to do your best to fill your life with meaning and joy and following your principles. Live a life and value the music and poetry that surround you. And when your mind is shrouded by darkness, hold on to the thoughts, memories, people, places, and experiences that can get you through until a beam of light can shine through. Life is short. And perhaps meaningless. So distill meaning from the little things. Even if it’s just improving your immediate surroundings.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: My celebration of Canada Day was even more memorable than I had anticipated.  Instead of going to the zoo, my friends and I stayed after the concert among the politicians gathered for the occasion.  First we proudly sang O Canada as a united group gathered outside all in red and white to be followed by the inspiring words of her Honour the Honourable Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon.  She urged us all to use our voices, a major theme in my fiction.  If memory serves correct, the Honourable Premier Brian Pallister welcomed the diversity which makes Canada Canada.  But what resonated the most was His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to action for all of us to think of three things we can do to contribute to our country this year.  What are you going to do to add to Canada’s story?

Rejection and Relationships

I wrote the following as an email to one of my closest friends who has been going through a break-up, and on reflection, I’d like to share it with you, my dear readers in the blogosphere, as well. I decided to retain most of the email in its original form, though I changed my friend’s name to Sophie, the protagonist of my first novel and my third and current novel. I did edit some of the letter for privacy as well.

This letter is for you who might have experienced rejection from family, friends, or a romantic partner. It is for you who feel alone or who might not feel as though you experience all the types of relationships you yearn for in life.

Dearest Sophie,

I have spent a lifetime trying to find substitute family-figures. I am so grateful for Andrew, for he was the first person to unconditionally love me and has been there for me for the long haul, but I feel sad when I see others with a close loving family and friends. We’ve moved around every few years, so it’s been hard to make lasting friends and to have a real community. I remember in a previous email I mentioned it gets me down a lot. And then you email me and fill my world with light and love! I’m introverted, so I typically only have one good friend with whom I hang out a lot at a time. And I’m intense with my friendships as well, which might turn people off.

In this new year, I’m coming to some revelations about people and relationships which I’d like to share with you. Although I understand your situation is more severe than mine, as yours was a romantic attachment and my relationship issues are with family/friends, I think these thoughts might help.

1. In Buddhism they say that everything changes (see recent blog entry on change). We can look with loving eyes at the relationships of the past, but realize we and the other people have moved on and evolved and no longer belong in each other’s lives. It’s okay to be sad (I think of the memories in the movie Inside Out turning from joy to sadness) and nostalgic, but we must live in the present and put the past behind us. These people are part of who we are but also a part of our past, they don’t belong in our present except in how they changed and touched us.

2. We must accept rejection, no matter how much it hurts, and treasure those who truly appreciate and accept us for ourselves in all our messy imperfections and flaws. We only really need one or two people in our lives who accept us to feel we share meaningful human connections. Not everyone gets the ideal family, romantic attachments, and friendships maybe in a lifetime, but if you can have one or two people from one or two of these groups, that’s enough. We need to focus on the people we do have in our lives and not the people we don’t have. The ones who reject us might have poor judgement and don’t deserve our love (platonic, familial, or romantic). We can be sad but need to accept the truth that there will always be people we like more than they like us. But there are some people who reciprocate our affection (like you!), and we should concentrate on connecting with these people. Some people don’t have any meaningful relationships, and we need to be grateful for what we have and focus on our gratitude rather than focusing on what we don’t have.

3. I think forgiveness comes in somewhere. We need to forgive ourselves for desiring the company of those who reject us, and we need to forgive the other people for rejecting us.

4. It’s good to exercise or do something to distract oneself from being lonely sometimes. And to get an Alicia Keys Girl on Fire attitude. The best way to fight feeling badly, the best revenge, is success (I learned this from the Hugh Grant movie, Music & Lyrics). In becoming who we are meant to become. In doing great things.

5. And finally, in seeing the sadness wrought by rejection (which I’ve had from family and friends), we learn to appreciate the people who unconditionally love us (people like you and Andrew and some others for me). Maybe we need the sadness to appreciate the joy? Like we need night time to appreciate the day? And even in night there is a sky full of stars…I don’t know what this means, but maybe it’s my way of saying there is a silver lining.

Much love and light and gratitude to have you in my life,

Becca

Be bold. Be fearless.

I don’t think we ever really need an excuse to reflect or turn our lamp inward to assess and to consider. Yet as the days are spent as much in shadow as in sun, and we mark the completion of the elliptical path of the earth, we can generally find such a reason to ponder our personal journeys as well. A year ago I committed to a new year’s resolution essentially not to make any specific goals for the year, not to try to confine my aspirations to a specific elusive routine, plan, or agenda.

And, indeed, I succeeded.

At times I might have temporarily relapsed and tried to write an algorithm for living my life, but I always surrendered these prescriptions in favour of living more organically, naturally, and less punitively. I finally accept that my spirit and moods don’t thrive caged by routine. It’s not to say I didn’t make general goals for the year which I compiled in a list and dutifully checked off to help steer my course, but they were more stones I placed on which I skipped across the stream, rather than some overarching plan. For example, I intended to write at least one blog and one Wellesley Underground interview a month, to read books on a list I made, to write my second novel and to submit my first, to earn pay for writing, and to do more music, all of which I completed. I also aimed to prioritize with the thought that should I perish in six months time, I would die without embracing regrets. I mentioned this philosophy to a friend recently who reminded me of it at a later meeting. I conveyed to her that my intent is to live such that when I die I’ll die with a true acceptance of my life and without wishing I had lived differently.

Be bold. Be fearless. My voice teacher advised me of these principles to live, or perhaps sing, by in a recent lesson. I think most of her instructions are geared more towards my approach to singing, but I find them even more relevant to moving through life.

Be bold. Be fearless. Should we die sooner rather than later, what would our legacy be? Is it what we would hope for it to be? What would our epitaph be? What truly matters to us? Would it be that we were beloved by a partner, family, and/or friends or would we want to be defined by some specific achievement? What do we value? What are our priorities? Do we try year after year to achieve the same aim (perhaps some number on a scale, either figuratively or literally)? How do we remove ourselves from possible recursive loops in which we might find ourselves? Or worse yet, an infinite (to) do-loop (sorry, I’ve spent most of my life computer programming)?

Maybe figuring out what we don’t want is easier than figuring out what we do want. I don’t want to be static. I don’t want to self-sabotage. A former voice teacher once told me she learned at a workshop that when we choose to spend our time one way, we choose not to pursue some alternate activity. This makes the question of self-sabotage difficult, because we might think we are acting to fulfill one dream, and yet this expenditure of time and energy might deprive us of satisfying another. I also think we make many choices in our life based on psychological blocks and saboteurs who reside in our heads. I know this is the root of my obstacles in music as well as elsewhere.

Be bold. Be fearless. I guess directing my life with these words as my guide is my new year’s resolution this year. Whatever your resolutions are, or if you choose not to make any, I wish you a bold, fearless, lovely journey.

Happy New Year!

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast

Maybe you’re like me. I experienced a major life event a few weeks ago followed by a host of increasingly exasperating minor (hopefully) health issues, some of which are not only uncomfortable but affect morale as well (i.e. being extremely limited in my diet, which, though bad for the last five years, worsens).

Maybe you’re like me. Your life has become unstructured, and you become anxious or down about things those close to you feel are unworthy of your concern. You are accustomed to pressuring yourself with deadlines and goals and have removed these in an effort to assuage stress, but this has translated into your routine collapsing into a mayhem and a disorder that dominate your days. You’ve slipped out of your usual routine. Maybe you’ve become distracted by the endless web of links on social media which can devour hours of your time.

Maybe you’re like me. You are connected to people who are experiencing depression, and you feel helpless to raise them from their quagmire. May is mental health awareness month, but mental illness seems to prevail, and the war to restrain its greedy talons feels dauntingly unbeatable.

Maybe you’re like me. You feel the sentence of mortality keenly which impels an internal impetus to achieve and to accomplish by cramming. You feel you have to fulfill your dreams by a certain age or accomplish arbitrary goals by a deadline. The frenetic pace at which your mind dictates you should conduct your life leaves you too depleted and starved for the necessary emotional space to begin. So you dangle, seemingly in an abeyance of activity, though the clock of your heart unfailingly counts the minutes passing anyway. Tempus fugit, the Latin saying goes, has guided your approach to living.

Maybe you’re like me. You need some stimulus to reboot the hard drive. In the last forty-eight hours or so, I’ve encountered a number of experiences that have triggered me to evaluate how I need to reboot. These included attending the Sarasvati staged reading of Breaking Through, the reading and book signing at McNally Robinson of editors Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini of their book on Carol Shields’s writing notes, Startle and Illuminate, writing emails regarding self-care, and posting my Wellesley Writes It interview of the Why.Race.Still.Matters blog founders, Bai Kamara, Portia Allen-Kyle, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin just moments ago.

Andrew and I attended the Sarasvati staged reading yesterday of Breaking Through, aimed to break the silence of mental health issues. In this play, one message was that “silence is the disease.” Other messages included that you are still loveable even if you struggle, that not everyone will be understanding or compassionate, that one in four Canadians will suffer mental health issues, that people, even those close to you, might say insensitive things which you need to accept and perhaps not take personally, that you still have a voice, that you’re not selfish because you’re suffering and might need the help of others. My notes to continue this dialogue include: Would you blame a cancer patient for being self centered or accuse her of crying for help because she requires aid? Would you ever blame someone for developing cancer because she is sick and compare her to other people who didn’t acquire cancer? Would you think less of her because she is sick or accuse her that she is responsible for her illness? And another message in the play was that maybe, just maybe, your distress, be it OCD, hearing voices, or possessing a distorted body image, is due to irrational thoughts, a disease, rather than an actual identifiable danger or accurate perspective of reality.  And perhaps it is safe to disclose your vulnerabilities. That the only way to move towards an acceptance of what many struggle with daily is to discuss it. And to accept that maybe your struggles will shadow you throughout your life, and your coping with them will be lifelong, that there might not be a cure in the end, but rather an acceptance, much as the character John Nash accepted his hallucinations at the end of A Beautiful Mind and recognized their presence but acknowledged that they were delusions and lived in spite of them.

At the McNally Robinson reading, Anne and Nicholas Giardini discussed how Carol Shields did not embrace the principle of Tempus Fugit. It seems as though she lived her life deliberately, moderately, and without rushing. In the end, her life was somewhat short: she lived to be 68. But would she have profited from a higher quality of life had she pressured herself more and felt the grips of time? Of course not. And perhaps her discipline of writing and editing one or two pages a day was more effective than those who aim to cram ten pages a day, feel overwhelmed by the task, and don’t even begin, or whose work suffers in quality. I recall Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who cautions Romeo by stating, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

Then there were the emails I wrote to others regarding self-care. It occurred to me, that without realizing it, my attempt to relieve pressure also removed the self-care structure I need to ward off my internal opponents. I had slipped in the last few weeks into making ambitious schedules regarding my music, novel-writing, and research goals. The plans were as equally ineffective motivators as the idea to remove all pressure by structuring much less into my days. What do we need every day? We need exercise, good food, hydration, healthful comforts such as tea, and some movement toward our goals. We need social interaction (which is different from mindlessly clicking online links but could include online or email connections we’ve made or phone calls). And we need some minimal goals and structure, taking at least baby steps toward productivity and progression. When I think back to doing scientific research, typically on any given day I saw little movement toward the completion of the project. But the daily work accrued, and in time I finished the project. Even just working on a few paragraphs of the writing part of the project a day, a typical paper can be written in a week or two. There is a delicate balance between pressuring ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burn-out and not disciplining ourselves enough, regardless of motivation levels, to engage in a minimal amount of activity in an attempt to thwart gravity’s force on us downward.

The final motivator I had to reboot was posting the Why.Race.Still.Matters interview. I am very shy and a bit hesitant at self-promotion, reluctantly forcing myself when necessary, but I realized as I was posting the article to Wellesley Underground that I had to share the piece with the Wellesley FaceBook Community, something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before with any of my articles. This article, I realized, was significant. I think about race a lot, worrying that in some subtle ways I’m as insensitive as others are to me about my anxiety or gender. Do I behave in subtly insensitive ways? How can I be better educated about race issues? What do people of non-European descent have to deal with on a daily basis? How can I help? These are the questions that motivated my queries in the interview. As I proof-read the article one last time and put it together, I acquired a perspective about the concerns that precipitate my anxiety and realized how irrational they are. As I read Portia Allen-Kyle’s words based on her powerful post, “I am Sandra Bland,” I realized I need to redirect my energies from distorted worried minutiae to the bigger picture, to trying to make some small contribution to the world, be it through words, physics, music, or living a healthier lifestyle, so that I can be my best self to help others. I still need to read Daniel Deronda, but in the film, I remember the title character suggesting to help others and to look outside of yourself as way to find meaning in your life and to counter your inner struggles (and perhaps emptiness). So, as I often conclude in these blogs, Wellesley has it right: Non ministrari sed ministrare. Looking outside yourself and helping others really is the keystone to a good life.

Do you need a reboot? I recommend, though I’m not a professional in the area, to be compassionate with yourself and with others, to recognize what worries or comments from others can be irrational, to slow down, to find a cause larger than yourself to engage in, to make small doable goals every day, and to try your best to live in a healthful, constructive way.

What is one thing you can do to make it easier to be you?

Do you ever find it difficult just being you? All the parts of your life might be ideal, others might envy you, but you find the daily experience of just being you to be too much to tolerate? I never begrudge anyone else her life because you never know the challenges that someone else might secretly be battling. We have very few pinholes into others’ lives. Although we live in a voyeuristic age of social media, an era where every step we take and each breath we breathe is documented, it’s generally only the superficial which we choose to share and expose with others. We don’t really glimpse into others’ internal workings except in the most shallow of dissections. In a way, the manner in which we choose to communicate and share with those who are in our circles, through electronic and social media, transforms our lives into some kind of reality show.

So I don’t know what it feels like to be you. And you don’t know what it feels like to be me. But if I asked you one question, if you could think of one way you could be happier being you, what would it be? Do you know the answer?

I know my answer. It’s the buzzword of the century, but it’s the truth, to be more mindful. To take each hour one hour at a time. To fill each hour, one at a time, in a meaningful way.

You see, I’m an expert at wasting time. At letting my mind spin. I’ve tried the thought diffusion techniques, the ones where you picture your thoughts on leaves floating down a river. My river got clogged. I’ve tried labeling thoughts that were judgments. I think in about ten minutes I had gathered about twenty thoughts that could be depicted as judgmental (mostly negative ones concerning myself). I know, I know, in Eastern philosophical thought one goal is to minimize thoughts that put a spin on life, either as good or bad. These types of mindfulness exercises are ineffective for me, and I’ve tried them for years.

But why should every exercise work for every mind? My ballet classes certainly didn’t do it for Andrew, and as I lack the coordination to follow flying objects, his ultimate games would certainly be a failure for me to glean enjoyment and exercise. We are individuals, so I don’t see why the same mindfulness techniques would work equally for everyone as well.

What does work for me is to take life one hour at a time and to fill each hour in a way that feels meaningful. If I can lose myself in that hour in some activity, it is much easier to tolerate what my acting teacher last year called the horror of existence, while we were preparing scenes from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

If you think too hard about it, existence is a very messy affair. We eat and dispel squishy, wet objects. We experience physical and emotional pain and trauma. Life, like our pets, might play roughly at times. We all have our battles and demons to fight. I thought it would get easier with age (I started this line of thought in elementary school, surely junior high would be easier), but, with time, life, in some ways, just gets more complex and disarranged. We experience more loss on every front and are burdened by more baggage. For every generation, it seems, the world has crept toward more pessimistic outcomes. We might not be able to save the world from disaster.

But what can I do, right now, for the next hour to make my world or someone else’s world more bearable? To me, mindfulness is concentrating just on an hour in front of me and exploiting it without being ensnared in an obsessive vortex. Mindfulness to me is the answer to the question: What is one thing you can do to make it a little easier being you?

Resolution Check-In

It’s been almost a month since I last wrote my intent to embrace the philosophy that we are human beings not human doings (an idea I gleaned from someone long ago). This has been harder than I anticipated, but I continually gently remind myself to return to this idea. We fall victim to measuring our worth in all the things we do, our accomplishments, degrees, publications, musical pieces learned, prestige, income, and all kinds of other activities which we do, instead of experiencing the simple act of existence.

I’ve made many goals in the last few weeks, but I have discarded them as well. I’ve filled up my calendar with plans and covered it up with scrap paper, writing down only appointments. I planned on taking music exams, and then gently returned back to reminding myself that what is meant to happen will happen in its own time, without extra pushing.

We are like a harmonic oscillator. Imagine a parabolic container with a ball in it. You hold the ball on one of the hills of the well and let it go. It will pass through the bottom (ground state) and then roll up the other hill. It will oscillate around the ground state. Eventually due to friction it will settle at the lowest point. I think making a change is like that. And my natural ground state is not one of a peaceful position, but one of high energy and an impulse to do.

The question is, can we really accept ourselves without accomplishments? For many, a job title is a vital constituent of identity. The first thing anyone asks you when you meet them is what you do for a living. I’ve listened a lot to the teachings of the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who discusses how our actions define us, or at least are our only belongings. In an acting class this week, the teacher said actions, otherwise known as behavior or the actor’s business, are what makes a scene interesting. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting this, but I’d like to suggest that just being is also fascinating. Maybe our pets are the truly enlightened ones. My cat doesn’t make a to-do list or schedule how productive she will be in a day. She is loved unconditionally, has no possessions besides some catnip toys, and spends her days doing what comes naturally to her.

Of course, as adults we have responsibilities too, so we cannot spend our days sleeping, licking catnip pillows, or sitting in people’s laps, nor would we want to. But so many of us take on so much extra, rather than gently seeing what we feel inspired to do. There are so many quotes from Mahatma Gandhi to Marcus Aurelius that distill into the advice to live for today because there might not be a tomorrow. Apparently I misunderstood these instructions, as I felt it suggested I had to cram a life-time of accomplishments into a day. But I think it really means to live a life of quality, incorporating the precious moments of true beauty into each day rather than living as an automaton making to-do lists and scheduling and accomplishing goals.

So how am I doing with my New Year’s Un-Resolution? I am a work in progress. But I keep settling back to that state of not aiming for music exams or a certain amount of music practice and not aiming for certain writing word-counts a day. I am settling into removing schedules and making it my aim to be.

And I did not schedule writing this blog.