10.30.2012

The Day (they wished) the Music Died

I'm pretty sure that if past lives are really a thing, I lived one as a Malian. Taste in music is probably not the proper way to make such sweeping declarations, but if it were...

As I begin to write this, I'm sitting in a bagel shop with one browser opened to YouTube, listening to the music in this video of Rokia Traore:



Go ahead, click on it and listen. Take a little journey with me.

Or try this one. You will have no idea what she is singing about. You may cry anyway:



I was first exposed to Rokia Traore about 10 years ago, when I was looking for some new music in the way that people USED to look for new music, the days before YouTube and Pandora and so many other wonderful means. I just grabbed a few CDs (CDs, hah!) from the world music section at the library and took them home to have a listen.

A few months before or after that, I was exploring new music in the OTHER way that people used to do so: the listening stations at Borders. It was there that I came across, and took home with me, a CD of the album Moffou by Salif Keita. No, I don't know what he's singing about, but just listen to this. I can scarcely think of a song I've found more beautiful or touching.



Or this one:




A couple of years ago, my brother shared with me and album called Amassakoul by the
Tuareg (nomadic people of northern Africa) group Tinariwen. Somebody somewhere along the way plugged these guys in, and the resulting, rough amp sound makes my soul sing:



All of these artists are from Mali, which makes me think I need to go there. In fact, I'd planned on it. The annual Festival au Desert, in the southern Sahara, which you have to travel by caravan to attend and where these and other similar artists play, has long been on my bucket list.

Except for this...

A few weeks back I was listening to a radio program called The World, when I heard a disheartening story.  In case you've more pressing things to do than follow that link, the headline of the story is "Music in Northern Mali is Silenced by Islamic Extremists."

It's what it sounds like. Extremists from a group called Movement for Oneness and Jihad (MOJWA) working to enforce Sharia law in Northern Mali have imprisoned local musicians, breaking instruments and punishing by force those caught listening to or creating music. That festival in the desert? Canceled.

Typing those last words while listening to Salif Keita's song "Yamore" has brought tears to my eyes.

Mali's musical contributions have not been quietly coasting under the radar. Mali is recognized by many as having an especially rich musical legacy (especially when considering the number of artists whose reach has spanned the world, relative to its population). That any single person--let alone an entire group of people--would want to silence that haunting and wonderful sound is almost beyond comprehension.

The story I heard on the radio mentioned that under MOJWA's interpretation of Sharia law, only the singing of Quranic verses is permitted. I referred to what appears to be the go-to internet source for answering all Islamic questions WikiIslam (yes, it's a thing, and it looks uncannily similar to Wikipedia, undoubtedly regarded as evil by virtue of its Western-ness, according to Sharia law. But I digress), to find out whether that was true. According to WikiIslam,
Music, and some other forms of art (including Tattooing),[81] under Islamic law are forbidden. Western music[82] and movies In particular, have been declared as corruptive influences by Islamic clerics. The vast majority[83] of Islamic scholars and all four schools of Islamic jurisprudence[84] are in agreement that listening to, or playing musical instruments, and singing is forbidden
Take heart, though. There is good news. Again, from WikiIslam:
The only exception to this rule which can be extracted from the hadith is the permissibility of singing acapella accompanied by a duff (a hand-held one-sided drum) on special occasions (i.e. on weddings, Eid, during jihad etc.)[85] This form of song is referred to as a Nasheed (نشيد), and the striking of the duff is permitted for women only[86] and must not be done in the presense of men
Nothing says musical celebration like the twice-yearly striking of a one-sided drum.

You know what? Sarcasm aside, the striking of a one-sided drum by women singing A capella is a beautiful thing. I've been witness to it at a couple of Mendhi ceremonies.

It is a beautiful tradition, but it is not enough.

During the month I spent in Pakistan back in 2006, I wondered at the lack of music in the country. 

Music, dancing, are releases, outlets for joy. And while some people were privately listening to music on their computers at home, secretly engaging in guilty pleasure of watching Bollywood movies (replete with high-energy, highly sexualized musical dance numbers), there was definitely a sense that the public appreciation of music was a big, big no-no. And Pakistan isn't even under Sharia law. Not most of it anyway.
Ali Farka Toure

How can the people of a country like Mali, formerly able to dance freely to the likes of Ali Farka Toure, be expected to sit still now? How can anybody believe they will be the better for it?

Simply, I think.

Religions, no matter what book they have been founded upon, are owned and operated by their believers. Their believers are humans. Humans crave and enjoy power. Power is maintained through population control. Population control and art do not belong in the same sentence except as a means to point out the deep contrast between them. (That is, unless the art is being mass-produced and fed to people by their controllers.)

Music is an art that represents unbridled possibility. Untold potential loss of control. Of course it does. I've felt it myself while dancing. When the music slowly, unrelentingly seeps into my soul and drives my movement, when my hair becomes damp with sweat and I have finally forgotten, or ceased to care that anybody else is present, when for those suspended moments I begin to believe that truly anything is within reach, or will be soon--those moments are the best kind of scary.

Unless you're trying to control a population. Unless the thought of a woman bringing men to tears (for example) using nothing more than her voice is so threatening, you are willing to devote all your resources and risk your life to put an end to it. Unless you feel the relevance of your religion's most conservative interpretations, of your bully tactics, of your facade of wisdom and power beginning to slip away. Unless you are a young man in a world whose women are finally, finally beginning to know and understand and use their power--then it's the worst kind of scary. And like something out of your worst nightmares, your cowardice begins to show.

But this is only partially about women. The news story mentioned only one woman artist who has been forced to live exiled in a small room so the extremists can ensure she is not secretly enjoying life through music. Many men have lost out as well through this silencing. But these are men who surely, through the force and provocation of music alone, must have by now become aware that the world is changing.

These men and these women understand that you can force people to stop listening to and making music, but you can't make them forget its existence. You can silence people's radios, their instruments and their voices, but you can't make silent their desire for what music brings them: the joy, even the sorrow.

The people of Mali will always remember that there are multitudes of things, of concepts, of people, of states of mind in this lifetime worthy of praise, apart from God. And there are bodily expressions, apart from prostration, to show the full gamut of human emotions.

To the members of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad, I say good luck. Perhaps if you'd really been listening, you'd know that the music of Mali holds more power than you could ever dream of containing.

8.19.2012

That Which Has Been Your Delight

I don't remember a lot about the night before my Grandpa's funeral.  In accordance with Catholic tradition, we were at the funeral chapel holding what's called a Rosary, where the deceased person's loved ones (the Catholic ones anyway) get together to pray on his or her behalf.

What I remember from that night were the tortured noises coming from my Grandpa's then-girlfriend, Dolores, who'd flung her body across the casket--like a woman straight out of a telenovela.  She made wild, guttural sounds--banshee-like, agonized.  It was a wailing, really.

It was the sound of loss.

I remember glances exchanged between (particularly) my female family members.  I remember disgusted whispers.  To this day I don't know whether those looks and disapproving whispers had to do with the sounds themselves--quite dramatic and unfiltered when compared to the more reserved outward mourning of everyone else there--or the fact that they were coming from a woman whom most of my Grandpa's loved ones had yet to accept as part of his life.

Maybe it was because I was his granddaughter, one generation removed from my Mom's, from those who still had difficulty picturing my Grandpa with anyone other than my 8-years-deceased Grandmother.  Maybe it was because, since I can remember, I've always felt I had one foot inside any given situation and one foot outside--the disinterested observer, looking in.  Whichever it was, I was not bothered by Dolores's display.  On the contrary, I felt myself drawn to it.  It was almost like a power source I felt I could draw from.  It was just so, so raw.  So unapologetically passionate.

It was the sound of loss, yes.  But to me, it was also the sound of love.


***

When I was in high school, I was introduced to a book called The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran.



It was full of some of the most beautiful poetry I've ever read, and one of the very memorable pieces I read was the following, the main character's (the "prophet's") view on joy and sorrow:


Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was often times filled with your tears.And how else can it be?The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain...
...When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.   

I think of those lines often when contemplating loss.  I think about how little I've felt or mourned the loss of things.  I've never loved things.  But now, when I contemplate the idea of lost loved ones, I can't help but remember that my sadness is felt in proportion to the joy I felt in their presence and which I may have experienced, generally, through having known them.


***

Two weeks ago I was out to breakfast with my family.  We were talking about parenthood and I suddenly found myself with tears in my eyes.  Specifically, my heart was heavy with the kinds of doubts that often plague parents: the second-guessing of my disciplinary decisions, the constant questioning whether or not, in every turn, I've done right by my son.

The emotion was right there on the surface, such that I couldn't even contain it in that very public place.  I felt those questions so deeply because there is so much at stake--because the well-being of the little person I love most in the world, who's a true part of me--hangs in the balance.

I was sitting there trying to hold back tears and hoping nobody would make me explain them in that very moment, when something kind of strange happened.

I looked up from our table and noticed a man in his 60's or so, who must have just been seated in the previous couple of minutes.  He was directly in my line of view and nobody else at my table could see him from where they sat.

What caught my eye about this man--who was sitting there with two women, one roughly his age and one a generation older--was that he was weeping.  I mean...weeping.  I couldn't hear him from where I sat, but I could see his shoulders hunched over, his whole frame shaking as he bowed his head in his hand, pressing on his eyelids with thumb and forefinger as if to cinch off tears.

Instantly, I was rapt.

How often do you see a man weeping?

You never see a man weeping, especially in public.  Why was this man weeping and who were these women he was sitting with?  What could cause a man that kind of pain?

But even as I silently asked that question, the answer was right there: It was love.  It could only be love.  And, following that love, loss.

Maybe he had just lost somebody, literally.  Maybe he'd just learned of a loved one's fatal diagnosis.  Maybe he'd just learned of his own.

In any case, it was love.  It had to be.  No man weeps like that over stocks gone bad.  And even if he does, it's not the loss of money he's mourning but the fear of the loss of respect, possibly the loss of the love of those who stood to benefit from it.

In my heart, though, I know this man was weeping for a person, for somebody who had once been or was now still, for the time being, his delight.

And I felt suddenly alive, suddenly infused with a sense of connectedness, of shared humanity.  I wanted to know this man and every person he'd ever known.  I felt my own worries in that moment lifted as I was reminded that all is well and would be well in the world my son and I live in because we are sharing the experience with the whole of humanity.

There would be sorrow, for sure.  But there would be love and, in Gibran's words again, "the sharing of pleasures."

I mentioned the man to nobody at the time.  Selfishly (and until now), I wanted that moment just for me.  I wanted to savor the joy to be found in it, that reminder.  I knew I'd need a little time and distance to realize just how meaningful it was.

If you ask me a million times, a million times I'll choose to take all the pain this life can possibly bring, in exchange for its pleasure.  Whoever you are reading this, wherever you may be, I'm thankful to be sharing the experience with you.

8.16.2012

What's in Your Wallet?, Who's Got Your Back?

12 days ago I dreamed my purse was stolen.

6 days ago my purse was actually stolen.

The morning after my dream, I woke up with a terrible feeling of helplessness.  My family and I left for L.A. early that morning, and I spent the first 1/2 hour or so of the trip thinking about what a huge pain in the ass it would be to lose my wallet.  I thought of the 40 or so credit cards, gift cards, membership cards, reminder notes, business cards, photos, etc. therein contained.  And then I thought, 'I really need to take a few minutes to write down all the 800 numbers on the backs of my credit cards so I can cancel them right away if I ever lose my wallet.'

You would think that with 6 hours ahead of me as a passenger and a thought like that, I'd have acted on that thought.

You would be wrong.

Last Thursday I packed up my son and I and met my boyfriend Kevin and his son at Lake Temescal, where Highway 13 meets the Caldecott Tunnel, between Oakland and Berkeley.  Without thinking too much about it (clearly), I left my purse on the floor behind the passenger seat, shielded from view by both my darkly tinted windows and a wardrobe bag that was hanging, covering the window.

About two hours later, I picked up my phone to check the time and read a text from my bank asking me to reply 1 if I'd indeed just made a $440 charge, 2 if not. (Not!)

Somehow it didn't occur to me in that moment that my purse had been taken.  I thought somebody had somehow fraudulently used a debit card I have never once used, online or elsewhere, though that thought was completely illogical.  I honestly wasn't all that worried about it.

The whole thing made more sense when we got back to my car and found the middle third of my rear passenger side window punched out, wardrobe bag still in place, flapping in the wind, tiny pieces of glass covering the rear seat and floor, sparkling in the sun on the sidewalk next to the car.

For a moment, I was just a little confused.  I nudged Kevin and pointed.

Even after the moment that I knew what had happened, I was slow to react.  I didn't know which action to take first.  I ended up on the phone with my bank, registering in some part of my brain that Kevin's 11-year-old son was keeping my son distracted and away from the glass, while Kevin removed what was left of my window, scooped the broken glass out of my car, and moved my son's car seat into his car so that he could drive him to our next destination.

Registering in some part of my brain was the knowledge that teamwork was happening, that my son and I were being cared for.

I spent that evening making calls to other banks, to my insurance company, to glass fixing people.

Since I'd lost my checkbook in the deal, I closed my bank account the next day and called still more people to cancel various things.  By the weekend, when previously made plans had us leaving town, the mess of my financial affairs was pretty much settled; I had only to bring cash and my passport for ID, and to silently sweat the fact that my license was gone and that I could--at any point from there on out--fall victim to the dreaded "identity theft."


What a strange concept.

***

Here's the thing about when you lose your "identity."  You realize the photo ID card in your wallet has nothing whatsoever to do with your identity.  You realize that the touchable, seeable person you are and the thoughts and feelings housed within are all there really ever was.  You realize that plastic cards swiping away invisible money have little bearing on things that really matter.  And you realize that what was last week a terrible nightmare, come true, is in reality just a semi-complicated annoyance.

And here's what else you realize:

1.  You should never have had that much of your personal business in one wallet in the first place.  And you have no business using credit cards at all.

2.  What the hell were you thinking, leaving your purse in the car?

3.  It matters.  Having the solid support and clear-headed thinking/action of a supportive partner matters.  It matters a lot.  When we got back to Kevin's house, he'd ordered a pizza and left cash to pay for it while he took his son to buy a few things needed for his departure to camp the next day.  While I bathed Kalil, he found some old clothes of his son's for me to dress him in (the change of clothes I'd brought were also stolen in a second bag that was sitting on the rear seat). He filled his car with gas so I could take it home instead of subjecting Kalil to a windowless ride home on the freeway.  And while I was at work the next day, he took care of the glass replacement and brought my car to my place of work.

This is not meant to be a post about how great my honey is (though he is).  But I did find that, a mere day after the coming true of one of my nightmares, I was sending a message of thanks to the nethers for the chance to see a part of what makes him so great.

"They" say that before you decide to get serious about somebody, you should take a vacation with him or her.  I suppose this is to see whether or not he or she will be a control/itinerary freak, be a planless loosey goose (if you yourself are an itinerary freak), wig out on the locals, embarrass you and your countrymen, etc, etc.  I personally think you should also see your partner with alcohol in his or her system and also have some decent conflict (resolution (hopefully)) before deciding to get serious.

But this experience made me believe that you should also first see your partner in action in a time of (semi- or major) crisis.  You should see how he prioritizes, how he reacts.  You should see how he measures your state of mind and strives to fill in the gaps.  You should see how he checks in on your welfare in the aftermath and how well he can keep his own responsibilities in view at the same time.  You should see if you feel supported and if, in the wake, you have the knowledge that the two of you can handle this and so much more, should it come your way.

You will see that he is just who you want by your side in such a time, and you will pledge to be all of those things to him, when it's his turn.


***

When the fun of the weekend was over, there were more automated menus to deal with.  Two days of that (I had to spread it out.  One can go crazy with automated menus) led me to some more realizations.

1b.  It's very possible that the whole point of my losing my purse was for me to get the kick in the ass I needed to make the last remaining official name changes I still had outstanding, following my divorce.  It was also the kick in the ass I needed to close the checking account I'd long meant to close but stopped short of doing when I thought of all those damned automated menus I'd have to navigate in order to cancel about 10 different autopayments.  Turns out that, back against the wall, that dreaded bullshit wasn't all that bad.  (Isn't it that way with just about everything?)

2b.  Once the menus were navigated and I was in touch with actual humans, I got the chance to appreciate just how helpful and concerned customer service people can be.  I don't care if they're paid to be that way or even paid to feign they are that way.  I really and truly appreciated their kindness and the fact that they made it as easy as possible for me to make the changes I had to make.  Also, there were a total of 5 fraudulent charges made to my various accounts in the hour or so following the theft, and every single one of those charges was flagged and restrictions placed on my cards before I even contacted the companies.  So thank you, also, for sophisticated loss-prevention algorithms.

Two days into the following week, all that was left to do was visit the DMV.  I was still nervous about my license floating around who knows where.  And who knew how savvy these thieving thieves were?  In any case, I needed a replacement.  I was washing my car in the front driveway, trying to decide if I'd head to the DMV right after or keep my appointment for the following morning, when the mailman walked up.  He handed me a stack of mail and then held out in his hand a beat-up looking envelope, addressed to my first and middle name only and with the street name misspelled in shaky-looking penmanship...that of an elderly person or somebody who simply doesn't do a lot of writing.

"Is this you?" the mailman asked.

I tore open the envelope to find this:




And I felt about as happy as I look in that license picture.  The cards were useless by that point, but I felt much better knowing the crooks were simply after the 3 iPads they managed to purchase, rather than my "identity."

More than that, I was thankful for whoever took the time to gather up my cards and send them back to me.  Somehow I had the feeling, as I handled the envelope, that whoever sent my cards back was somebody possibly related to the thieves--a grandpa or somebody who knew this happened often, felt bad about what his relatives were up to, and was doing what he could to make it better (an arrest would be ideal, of course, but family loyalties are complicated, I understand).

My suspicions were at least partially confirmed when I realized that one of the credit cards I received in the envelope wasn't even mine.  It belonged to an unfortunate Elizabeth whose things were probably also stolen and whose week, I imagined, had gone a lot like my own. I hoped she had somehow found something meaningful through it all.

I took the envelope and taped it on the wall above my bed.  It's there to remind me to focus on the good--in life and in people.  It's there to remind me of how amazing the people in your life are, and just when you need them to be.  It's there to remind me that, all things considered, it was well worth all that headache to spend even a few hours at the lake with some of the people I love to be with most.

When I contemplate the idea of my "identity," of who I truly am, I know that I am so much more than my driver license and my credit score because I have had the fortune to love and to be loved.  Which is what (haven't we all agreed on this by now?) matters most of all...


5.25.2012

If Loving You is Wrong (Javert), I Don't Wanna be Right

It’s possible I’ve written about this before.  Because certainly I’ve *thought* about this before.  With ten years of blogging now under my belt, it’s entirely possible I will prattle on about things I’ve already covered most thoroughly.

No matter.

A few weeks ago I decided to enlighten (torture?) my two-year-old son with his first listen to Les Miserables.  I’ve been a huge fan of the musical since high school, when my parents took my bro and I to the show after we finished studying the book in our English class.  Very cool of them.

Since then it has been the over-the-top accompaniment to many a bathroom and closet cleaning session, the thought going something like, ‘If these people can risk their lives (and syphilis) through the course of the French Revolution, I can sure as hell get this damned closet in order.’

Or something like that.

Anyway, as I sat taking in my son’s varied reactions to the songs (from total apathy to downright glee), I considered, once again, Javert.

If you’re not familiar with Victor Hugo’s story, I will give you the very briefest summary of the part of it most relevant to this post:



  • Jean Valjean stole some food for his starving family and was arrested.  He tried to escape prison a number of times and by the time he was finally released he’d spent 19 years in the slammer.
  • Javert was his jailor and became what would be the equivalent of Sheriff Joseph Arpaio in our times.  He hated Valjean with all his passion and dedicated his life to ensuring that Valjean--who performed one minor transgression after being released from prison and before his final enlightenment--be found and made to serve more time in prison.
  • It is revealed that Javert himself was the son of criminals, a past of which he is deeply ashamed.
  • Valjean and Javert finally come face to face, and instead of killing Javert, which Javert himself expects Valjean will do, Valjean allows him to go free.
  • Javert, unable to come to terms with Valjean’s mercy (especially in terms of its contrast to Javert’s own single-minded hatred), commits suicide.

Now, I know I’m supposed to love Jean Valjean.  And I do.  Jean Valjean is the picture of reformation, rebirth, reconciliation.  In the wake of his final forgiveness at the hands of a bishop, he makes it his life’s mission to repay his debts to society; the effects of his efforts are felt widely, and most profoundly by Cosette, the young girl he raises as his own after her own mother dies.  It would be really, really, really hard not to like Jean Valjean.

But here’s what I love about Victor Hugo (and about Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil as well, who took this story and translated it into the musical so many have come to know):

Their portrayals of Javert--their allowing him to tell his own story, however bitterly and tragically--make it possible to love Javert as well.  It’s a weird kind of love.  The kind of love you feel for Grover of Sesame Street, well-intentioned but annoying as hell.

A lot of people would probably disagree with me about Javert’s lovability, too.  I’m thinking, specifically, of my Aunt, with whom I went to see the musical most recently, back in 2004.  She’d been introduced to Les Miserables when I sent her the book during her then most-recent stint in state prison.  She loved it, and we made a pledge that when she got out, we would go see the musical together.

Sitting next to her in the balcony, I found myself incredibly reluctant to reveal my affections for Javert.  I put myself in her shoes and imagined Javert to be every ex-con’s most profound pain in the ass.  A one-man parole board from hell whose suicide was his singular redemption.  There are good guys and there are bad guys.  And Hugo’s tale would seem the quintessential pulling off of the good guy/bad guy role reversal.  Presumably, we sat in an auditorium filled with Valjean sympathizers.

Yes, he epitomizes black and white thinking.  In this case, the grey would be the space in which one considers that Valjean was only stealing bread to feed his family.  One would take into account the hundreds of good deeds that followed Valjean’s less brag-worthy acts.  The grey lense would find a man full of compassion and contrition and self-sacrifice.  As readers and viewers we are beyond frustrated with Javert’s inability to see the full scope of Valjean’s character through and around his illegal acts.

Here, however, is where the “bad” guy requires us to also widen the scope of our own sympathies.  First, let us consider modern society without the Javert’s of the world.  The free-for-all that would ensue if the ends were just, on the subjective view of the transgressor, allowed to justify the means.

If you put the cruelty of his approach and delivery aside (think of the asshole Highway Patrolman who *could* just give you a ticket and send you on your way but instead decides to give you a lecture and is rude, to boot), you have to respect his sense of justice.  In his own eyes, Javert IS justice.  “I am the law and the law is not mocked,” he sings in the musical.  Of course the law is mocked, is mockable...sometimes.  But for the most part, the fact that we have laws written and people dedicated to seeing those laws enforced and their breakers punished...well it’s a good thing, right?



C'mon, just feel him for a minute:



Beyond that and more profoundly, however, I like to consider Javert from the therapist’s view.  It seems clear that Javert’s deep-seated need to see Valjean brought to justice is at least partially owing to the shame and self-loathing that he felt from being the child of lawlessness himself.  It’s as though he feels he can right the wrongs of his lineage in so doing.  Do not forget that Javert’s dedication to justice is not felt by Valjean alone.  It is, indeed, his life’s work.


I love that Hugo understood this about his character.  I love that Hugo himself loved Javert enough to let us understand what drove him in life, and what ultimately drove him to death at his own hand.



Again, if you please, consider Javert's plight--his deep ambivalence--as interpreted in the musical:




I think in showing us the depth of Javert's neurosis, as well as giving us an inclination as to what may have helped give birth to it, Hugo does two things. First, he challenges us to empathize with Javert as we have so easily found ourselves empathizing with the criminal Valjean. Second, he shows us the dangers and the pain that come from single-minded thinking. When it finally dawns on Javert that there is more to Valjean than the crimes Javert condemns so thoroughly, it is more than he can bear. Black and white is just so much easier to sort and categorize and know how to approach.


I can think of many politicians and so-called world leaders who would have done well to study and learn from Javert's example.


I am in awe of Victor Hugo. One reason I probably never consider writing fiction is that I find even the thought alone of creating full-bodied, dynamic characters nearly overwhelming. How to avoid the pitfalls of making an overly simple protagonist and and equally flat, evil antagonist? How to create people rather than caricatures? Sometimes, I understand, these easy-to-digest players might be just what a reader is in the mood for. But mostly, I think it's the complexities of characters like BOTH Valjean and Javert that make them stick with us. They allow us to acknowledge our own nuances and hypocrisies and just plain wrong-headedness. They remind us that the experience of being human and of trying to figure out right from wrong, of morality for ourselves and society at large are among the most difficult--and the most worthwhile--experiences of all.


Now, go start a revolution or somethin', would ya? (this song give me chills every time)



4.25.2012

Again, on Gratitude

The other day I was helping a customer when I asked her about her last name, a short, one-syllable name I'd never seen before.  She told me it was German.  "I was married twice," she said.  "This was my second husband's name."


After a meaningful pause, she went on.  "They both died."


She told me she had known her second husband for ten years but that they'd only been married three when he died.  I could see in her eyes the wound was still tender.  "We were only married for that brief period, but I have a lot of wonderful memories from that period.  We got to travel a lot together."  She looked at me.  "I'm very lucky to have fallen in love again.  I'm grateful for the time we had."


With that, she left.  And in that moment I felt all of the stress of my day melt away to be replaced by a warm and secure and absolute feeling that everything would be all right.  That it always is, somehow.


For this woman, probably one of her worst nightmares came true.  Twice.  The death of a spouse is probably something a lot of married people worry about.  They wonder if they will have the strength to deal with it if it should happen.  I'll never know how that woman coped with those deaths at the time or how long it took her to be able to have casual conversations about them with bank employees, but what's clear is that she has emerged with gratitude.


To me it seems at once the most difficult thing to do--to let go of attachment--and the simplest.  Having had the experience of losing or having stolen significant possessions, I was surprised to find myself not only not crestfallen but with a strange sense of relief.  The relief of the burden of having to safeguard the thing in the first place.


People are, of course, infinitely more valuable than possessions.  It seems a different thing entirely to lose a person, or to lose one's own life.  And yet I love the idea of being ultimately able to handle that loss in the way this customer did.


About love, about this whole experience of living, I hope I can hold her message close to my heart: I'm grateful for the time I had.






3.11.2012

Not Trying to Freak You out on a Lazy Sunday, but...

Over dinner recently, my friend Je and I were discussing the subject of infinity, and I shared how absolutely terrifying I find it.  I can remember being 6 or 7 and lying in bed, trying to grasp the idea of forever.

ForEVER!!!

Seriously, just humor me and spend 2 minutes with your eyes closed, trying to really appreciate the notion.

As a child, I was pondering infinity because I’d learned that—according to my faith (and if I played my cards right), I could spend eternity in heaven.  This was supposed to be a good thing.  I could spend the rest of forever in paradise.  It could be partially due to my inability to even imagine the kind of paradise that heaven (if it exists) could offer, but the longer I thought about spending eternity ANYwhere, the more I began to feel crushed under the weight of the concept.  I was probably close to hyperventilating, picturing in my mind as far as I could see or imagine on the horizons of both time and space, and then trying to imagine time and space beyond that, and beyond, and beyond, and beyond.  Forevvvvvvvvvver.

Forever in silence, forever in dark are also ideas I’m not keen on.  Because there is at least a 50% chance that when it’s over, it’s really just over.  Now consider THAT idea for a few…

I think I may have written about this before, but I’m at least somewhat alarmed every time it comes to mind.  Dig this for a second:


I think that if you’re my age and you aren’t afraid of death—at least a little bit—you’re just not thinking about it hard enough.  You’re not really and truly letting yourself imagine what the beyond may (or may not!) hold.

I’m open to hearing other opinions on this, but despite what anyone may tell me about what he or she has come to believe about the afterlife, it seems to me that all reasonable people have to agree on this: nobody is absolutely sure.

Related to that, Je and I discussed the possibility of non-human entities being able to house the essence of a person.  

Plenty of people have imagined, even predicted there will be a day when machines can not only think and react like humans do, but can feel and empathize and surmise and love and anticipate and change their opinions on subjects like humans do.  And if a person’s essence could truly be bottled up in this way, we would have in effect discovered the fountain of youth, no?

It’s possible this movie already exists, but the idea definitely got me thinking about the decisions people would be faced with if these technological possibilities were ever realized: would you rather spend the rest of however long this planet/universe is around perfecting and experiencing life in this known/comfortable realm (and housed in some semi-human form), or would you like to take the gamble on death in the hopes (or with the faithful knowledge) that something better lies beyond?  If this movie hasn’t already been made, I’d like to see it happen (hopefully not starring Arnold Schwarzenegger).

It’s impossible for me to say what I would choose, and I’m not sure I like the idea of messing with the life spans we’ve come to know and work within (beyond advancing medicine to alleviate a lot of suffering and extending people’s lives long enough for them to experience the joy of grandchildren).  How long is long enough?  What will we do with an extra 40, 60, 200 years that we wouldn’t do if only expecting the standard 70 or so?

Unless of course there is NOTHING after, in which case we should live it up and stretch it out as long as we can!

Oof.  What a dilemma.

Until I reach that place that many elderly people arrive at—satisfied with the lives they’ve lived and left at peace with the fast-approaching end—I will remain thankful for the not knowing.  Not knowing is what drives us to create.  To procreate.  It’s what’s kept me from settling for less-than-ideal and what makes me want to meet and know people.  It causes me to just go for it when presented with amazing, terrible-for-me food, but it's also what drives me to the gym the next day to make up for it.

Not knowing is the best possible incentive a person can have.

If that’s true by chance, how lucky we are for it.  If there is a God and this is God’s design, well that is just the trickster scheme of the century.  Of infinity!

I kind of hope nobody ever figures it out…

3.02.2012

New Beds Don't *Usually* Make Me Cry

I very rarely write about motherhood.  Here’s why:  I think about parenting and related issues—on some level—all day long.  They’re in the back or the front of my mind (or just right there climbing up my leg) at nearly every moment of every day.  The time I take to think and write about other subjects can be a welcome respite.

And even if that weren’t the case, there are thousands of entire blogs dedicated to the subject of motherhood.  There are straight forward, this-is-the-daily-life-of-a-Mom blogs.  There are I’m-the-mf’n-BEST-Mom-check-out-the-cherry-pie-I-just-whipped-up-in-20-minutes-while-my-4-year-old-was-reciting-verses-from-The Illiad blogs.  And there are blogs that turn the whole thing on its head, owning up to the challenges of parenthood and very deliberately making the whole business sound like the hot mess it can sometimes be.

What can I possibly add to this millions-of-years-old conversation?

And yet.  And yet.  Here I go…

This week saw a big milestone in my young son’s life.  My parents bought him a toddler bed, and while he was away last Friday, my Dad and I took apart his crib and built the bed, which uses the same mattress as the crib but takes up far less space in the room while also screaming I’M NOT A BABY ANYMORE.

That’s where my son’s milestone became my interlude of cloudy-eyed disbelief—as I stripped the sheets, took down the crib bumper, and tried to remember a time when he was so small and powerless over his faculties, I actually worried he’d conk himself into a stupor.

It wasn’t just that.  It wasn't just his former small, lying-and-doing-nothingness, replaced by the skinny, tall-for-his-age, chatterbox whom I’ve come to now know.  It was the idea that this crib and the tiny baby who first came to rest his head in it belonged to what feels like a different lifetime.

It was one in which I was married and headed down a more traditional path.  It was a lifetime I can scarcely recognize anymore, and that crib was the largest physical reminder of that lifetime existing outside of the storage facility where the rest of that lifetime now sits, motionless, waiting for me to decide whether I’ll chose to reclaim it.  In that moment—folding up, disassembling, adding to storage that physical evidence—I accepted one more layer of the life I’ve come to know.  And along with it, I tried to chew thoroughly and swallow down the idea that my baby is growing up.

I can’t say it was a *super* pretty scene.  Unless of course, you’re drawn to emotional breakdowns and the red-faced, swollen, teary eyes that can accompany them.

In which case it was beautiful.

When the new bed was assembled and the new, outer space sheets tucked onto it, I took to plastering the two nearby walls and the ceiling above with glow-in-the-dark stars and planets.

Then I busied myself for the two days until my son would come back, trying to imagine his surprise and contemplating whether he’d be down to stay put in this bed, now that he’d have options.

As I’d hoped, he was very excited about the bed and eager to sleep in it from the first night.  And so far, bedtime has yet to include any episodes of bed dwellers gone AWOL.  All of that went about as well as I could have hoped.

And then there was this little bonus bit, a realization I made as my son lie down to sleep the very first night.  For as long as he’s been able to roll over on his own, Kalil has slept on his left side, which always left him facing me.  When we put his toddler bed in, the head of it was oriented the opposite direction that the crib had been.  To my surprise, that first night and every night since, he has gone to sleep on his right side.  It was with more tears in my eyes that I realized he wasn’t partial to sleeping on his left; he was partial to sleeping facing me.  Oh my god I could cry just thinking about it now.

Before I became a parent, I would not have been able to empathize if someone had described the kind of closeness one can feel to her child.  I almost feel like, since he spent all of that time growing and developing inside my own body, part of him will always exist within me.  I’m sure fathers feel a similar closeness that could be described in a different way, but not being qualified to do so I won’t venture to describe that.

The weight of responsibility for a child's emotional and physical well-being is heavy.  That's an understatement, of course.  It can be all-encompassing.  It can be alarming!  It can stop even a fast-talker like me mid-sentence, as I suddenly wonder whether my son should hear what's already come halfway out of my mouth.  It can lead to epic tests of will, as my son tries to wriggle out of my arms and I keep insisting he look at me before I deliver whatever message seems incredibly important at the time.  If I let it, it can cause endless self-doubt, worry, and fear of judgment by other parents (Yes, I just watched  my son gobble down a cake pop in two enormous bites--and despite the fact that he didn't finish his dinner.  Crucify me!!)


As my son grows and learns to articulate his thoughts, he says a lot of interesting (to me) things.  He also repeats a lot of things he hears.  So I can’t say for sure whether or not he knows what it means when he says “I love you, Mama.”  I thought about that this morning as I was leaving for work, leaning over him in his new bed to plant a kiss on his flushed, warm little cheek.  

If he says the words "I love you" to me, it means he's hearing them.  It means his environment is a nurturing one, where expressions of affection fly freely.  And I thought that it truly doesn't matter at this point whether or not he means it or knows what it means to love me, just so long as he can feel that I love him.

And I’m pretty sure can.

Yes, he's growing faster than I can register sometimes.  Yes, his crib is already gathering dust.  Yes (of course), he will always be my baby (cue Mariah Carey) no matter what.  Thank you for sharing this moment with me, as I paused to meditate on the idea that he and I are on this journey together...

1.15.2012

Not Your Mama's Hooah

A couple of days ago a woman contacted me to say she was conducting a background investigation on the son of a friend of mine, who just enlisted in the Army; she wondered if I were willing to meet with her to share what I knew about him.


The young man in question had aced the ASVAB like a boss, and as a result had opportunities of the more sitting-in-front-of-a-computer, intel variety available to him.  It makes sense they'd want to check he had a clean background and that upstanding citizens were willing to vouch for him if he were going to be involved in any kind of classified work.


Even so, I was surprised at the speed at which this thing moved.  The investigator was willing to meet with me any time, anywhere.  The US Army don't mess around.  My friend told me that after asking her a bunch of questions, the investigator called to say she'd neglected to ask one thing, and that she drove all the way back another day to do so because the questions had to be asked in person.  With that kind of seriousness abounding, I was naturally curious to see how this whole thing would go.


I'm not allowed to discuss the questions I was asked, but I can say the quick transition from mundane to life-or-death was truly startling.  It was a little like being on a first date and having the conversation go from "What kind of music do you like?" to "Would you like to join me on a second, naked skydiving date tomorrow night?"over the course of a single bread stick.  Lil unnerving.  Still, I was happy to help out.


Yesterday morning I got a message from my friend, the young man's Mama, which was sent out to a bunch of friends and family members; in it there was a link to her son's Battalion's Facebook page.  Yes, you read that right.  The US Army has joined in the fun of social media, which I find both odd and a little reassuring.  Odd, of course, because the ass-kickin' fear-inducing boot camp days seem a little tempered if there's somebody taking pictures of it all and posting them online, where proud Mamas and Papas and friends and family can make comments like "We miss you Benny!" and "C U doing rope things!"  And they do.  Of course they do.  You can bet I would too, if that were my little monkey out there, but probably only because I'm sure they don't let the actual enlistees read these comments.  Not yet anyway.  I'm sure it wouldn't bode well for the cultivation of fearless soldiers.


I'm sure the balancing act is an incredibly challenging one, but I'm happy to see that the Army is doing what must be necessary to attract and serve well the people who have volunteered to serve for them--people who could have chosen so many other, less dangerous options.


I was talking to my friend's son just before he shipped off and after he'd already had to do some online training at home.  What he described were videos of the "power of positive thinking" variety, which, I think, caught him a little off-guard, but which I was happy to know were now part of the drill.  I mean, c'mon...who could argue with the idea of positive thinking?  I found it much more appealing than the idea of drill sergeants standing with a foot on the neck of some terrified, floundering kid, screaming obscenities and insults about his Mama.  I mean, that's probably part of it, too.  But again...balance.


It seems that all the way around, the Armed Forces are learning to grow and change with the times.  I was talking to a customer the other day and learned that he's long been a pharmacist for the V.A.  I told him I imagined he's seen a big increase in prescriptions related to mental health over the years and he shared that he had indeed.  This made me sad, knowing that so many soldiers return from service suffering the effects of PTSD, but it also gave me some sense of comfort to know that mental health care is finally being offered.  Because, of course, it's not that soldiers haven't been returning from war with PTSD for many hundreds of years; we just didn't know how to diagnose and treat it.



As I write this, controversy rages on over a viral video depicting US Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.  It's terrible, embarrassing, disgraceful.  And the only upshot I can see is that it did cause outrage, and that the Marines identified in the video will likely have charges brought against them.  I'll call that a certain kind of progress.


I don't know that I'll ever sort out how I feel about the Armed Forces.  I will always, always advocate for the advancement of peace wherever there is conflict.  I will likely always think our tax money would be better spent educating children than getting involved in foreign conflicts (with a few exceptions).  At the same time, I do have a certain admiration for people who are willing to risk their lives fighting what they must believe are just wars, on behalf of others.  I may not agree with them, but I know I'll never embody that kind of selflessness or valor.  And though I'm not sure how it affects their ability to cultivate fearless soldiers, I have to say I do like the kinder, gentler version of the Army I'm seeing.


And to my surprise, when my friend told me about a year ago that her son was considering enlisting in the Army, I was shocked to find myself in strong support of the idea.  He wasn't interested in college at this point, didn't know which direction he was headed, and could use a little, I don't know, molding.  It was a big plus that he did so well on his exams, he was able to go into a field that will likely keep him out of combat.  I am an auntie to this young man.  I want him safe.  I want his talents utilized.  I want him happy.


I was especially proud that the young man, whom I've watched grow up from a little boy sitting in pajamas playing video games, to a teenager sitting in pajamas playing video games, to a young man, fresh from graduation and with the whole world of options available, was able to make this decision for himself.  Proud that he took a step in the direction of his future--one that will hopefully help him discover some among what are sure to be many callings throughout his life.


And I feel lucky that I'll be able to be among the supporters seeking out his young, still-full-of-trepidation face among the other full-of-trepidation young faces in photo albums on the Battalion's Facebook page.  I wish all those among them the finding of fulfillment in the midst of this phase of their young lives.








Is this an appropriate time for a battle cry?


Uh....hooah (!)

1.06.2012

(Again) On Happiness...

Ok, if you know me or have been following my blogging in even the vaguest of ways over the years, it probably seems I harp a bit on this subject.


That's because I do.


That's because I simply can't see any point to this life if it isn't to find joy, through any/all (prudent and preferably legal) means.  For some people, joy comes by way of career fulfillment, for some love, for some artistic expression, for some family time. For some it's the carnal pleasures of sex and food and wild abandon-type dancing.  And come to think of it, I can't see why it couldn't/shouldn't be all of the above.


Tonight the fam and I watched a show my Mom had recorded that was basically a report on neuroscience and social science studies of happiness (incidentally, the latter found that the happiest people in the world reside in Denmark, where taxes can cost up to 63% of income, but citizens walk around feeling "tucked in" (was how they translated the idiom) and secure, where women leave sleeping babies parked alone in strollers *outside* of the cafes where they dine and people rarely lock their bikes; where there is an actual societal value that advocates against one's feeling superior to another, and where bankers make the same money as artists, so people choose professions based on what they most enjoy or feel called to do.  Sounds like a pretty nice place to be).


Anyway, the show got me thinking about the subject of happiness (again).  Often at my job, customers politely ask me how I'm doing during a transaction.  You should hear the responses I get when I respond that "I'm happy."  Some seem almost troubled, or at the very least incredibly curious.  The number one response is "Why?  Did something happen?"  I understand where they're coming from.  "Happy" seems to be a state reserved for special circumstances.  But I kind of feel that nothing great needs to happen in order for a person to be happy.  The absence of any bad news is usually sufficient for me.


I think sometimes the expression of happiness is shied away from for cultural reasons, even in a country where happy face emoticons are the law of the land.  A lot of people perceive smiling people to be fools, smiling fools who must not know what's really going on in the world.  And some people truly do feel the pain of the world very deeply, such that the simple knowledge of somebody suffering somewhere could keep them from feeling contentment themselves.  I admire people like that in a certain way.  But I am not one of them.


I've written before about the concept of gratitude journaling: the practice of recording a few things every day for which you are thankful.  The idea is to focus on what is good in your life, even in NOTHING seems good in your life, in an effort to magnify those positive experiences and diminish those that lead to feelings of sadness.


Between the ages of 18-19 I experienced a sadness so deep that nothing could make me feel happy or even imagine a future happiness.  But even in the midst of that sadness, I *appreciated* music.  I appreciated that certain music I listened to could heighten even the experience of sadness, because it made me feel that somebody somewhere had known what I was going through.  My gratitude for music--that and an old typewriter I'd picked up at a thrift store on The Strand in Manhattan Beach, its keys making the most satisfying of clicking sounds--was really what carried me through those dark days.


But gratitude journals aren't only for the gloomy times.  One thing tonight's show highlighted was the concept (partially arrived at through the studying of twins) that one's propensity toward happiness is 50% determined by one's genes.  Only 10% is determined by life circumstances (wealth, partnership, children, satisfaction with one's physical appearance).  A full 40% is determined by choice, by attitude, by one's willingness to make the decision to be happy.  (I'm really not sure how clinical depression factors into this.  Perhaps it can fall into the first category, since it often has to do with chemical imbalance (though that's not genetic..I don't know...seems like a fuzzy zone there)).  So I remain a firm advocate for focusing on the positive on a daily basis.


I have friends who are annoyed by other people's constant expressions of happiness on Facebook.  Yeah, I get that.  I'm similarly annoyed by people's constant expressions of fml-type sentiments or disdain for any number of things.  But those who freely and frequently declare their feelings of hope and joy bring me little uplifted moments myself.  I don't see happiness as coming in limited supply.  It seems to me that the more of that type of thing that's spread around, the less of EVERYthing negative there is or is potential for.


This is what made me happy today:  taking care of three giant, glaring bits of business, all of which will nicely support my New Years Resolution to get my finances in order, then having the entire remainder of the day to spend with Monkey (who has been the sweetest of sweeties and who's talking all the time and making amazing eye contact.  Parents out there will feel me: there is just nothing like the experience of your own child looking you in the eyes.  It's this recognition and familiarity that is unmatched--like the feeling of total warmth).  When I put him to bed and told him "I love you" and he said, "I love you too, Mama"...I think it's safe to say that was the highlight of the day.


And this is what is bringing me happiness right now, in this very moment: feeling, well, snug in the Dodgers snuggie my Ma got me (one each as stocking gifts for Kris and I), listening to jazz on my headphones while the rest of the house is quiet, having a friend I can say the most ridiculous and embarrassing things to and not feel judged, realizing I'm thirsty and seeing there is a 20-ounce bottle of clean water sitting about 6 inches from my hand (when we're talking gratitude happiness, no thing seems too small to mention....after all, there are so many people in the world for whom this remains a most out-of-reach luxury).  If these were the only things in my life I had to be happy about, I would still be a fortunate woman.




Just love the joy in that image.


I hope the New Year is treating you well so far and finding you with much to be happy about...




Oh, and here's a little something for the Kids in the Hall fans :)