Friday, June 27, 2014

"You Don't Meet Nice Girls in Coffee Shops"



I've got this old copy of The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut - an old paperback with yellowing pages and that deliciously musty, old book smell.

Jason gave it to me back in 2006. I don't know Jason very well, or even really at all, but his name is inscribed on the inside cover of the book along with his number and email address. (Facebook wasn't a big thing yet. Neither were Kindles).

I met Jason - whose last name is a mystery - one night in coffee shop where I was sitting alone, reading a different Vonnegut novel. He asked me how I was liking it, (I was loving it), and being a Vonnegut fan himself, struck up a conversation - one of those genuinely interesting, unforced conversations that occur mostly when you've had either just enough caffeine, just enough alcohol, or just enough sleep. 

As I got up to leave, Jason said I should borrow his copy of Sirens to read. I said I didn't know how I'd get it back to him. Then he wrote his information inside the book and handed it to me with a smile.

Pretty smooth.

I didn't call him, though. I knew what calling him would mean, and I was already seeing someone with whom things had just gotten serious. I never ran into Jason again, and I don't really remember what he looks like. The book sits on my shelf now, between Tolstoy and Woolf, and, not often, but every once in awhile I wonder what if I had called that Jason.

It's not unlike that silly old romcom Sliding Doors, that one with Gwenyth Paltrow? (I know, I know). In the movie, her life goes one way if she makes the train one morning, and goes a very different way if she doesn't. We get to see both variations. Hilarity ensues.

Well, so far, my life has gone a way in which I'm pretty damn satisfied. I've got a roof, I'm not hungry, I get and give love, I'm artistically fulfilled. A little bit more money would be great. But the relative hardship and significant heartbreak I've suffered on my way to the this current moment has given me a backbone to be proud of.

Still, it's a very human thing go about "what-iffing." Many of our choices are influenced not only by our needs and ambitions, but by our various relationships, and I wonder, at times, how my life might be different had they been influenced by a different choice in that coffee shop, or by different choices made at myriad other unassuming crossroads. 

Would I be living in South America now? Would I be a rich divorcee in a Texas mansion? Would I have become a social worker? Would I have five children? Or would it not have mattered at all, and I'd be in the same place that I am today, same person, same neuroses, same happiness?

I don't get too far down that rabbit hole before I discover that it's a pointless and imaginary one. In regards to the past, "What if" is a useless thought because there is no rewind button. There is what you did and what you didn't do, and the consequences there of. For the past, there is no "What if." There is only the "What." And this, this right here and right now is the "what." This is what. 

Going forward...who knows?

So there Sirens of Titan sits on my shelf, full of expired possibility, for which I have no regrets. 

Onward.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

30x30: Live the Questions



On my 16th birthday, Andy Grenier gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. 

It was an old edition, a paperback, published some time in the 60s. It's pretty delicate these days, and it's one of the most important things I own.

Someone had given it to Andy, I think, and had inscribed a quote from the book on the inside cover:

Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Looking back, I realize how much this idea has informed the trajectory of my life. Not that I've always done that good a job at taking the advice that it offers. I can be impatient and would prefer clear, concise answers to most problems, delivered in a timely manner. And the older I get, the more the problems multiply, the more I need solutions, and then there's this annoying backlog of both practical and metaphysical questions. It's easy to get overwhelmed.

Where did I put my keys?

Do I love him?
Do I believe in this?
What's the plan, then?
How much do I want this?
Now?
When?
Why?
Will there be snacks?

Receiving that book, though, and feeling those words resonate activated some mechanism that set all my wheels and cogs in motion towards the series of events that have been this cumulative experience so far. On my best days I remember that there's no other way to do it - that there's no other option for any of us than to go through it and figure it out as we go along.

There is a freedom in not knowing. There is permission to fuck up and try again, and fuck up and try again, and see beautiful things, and meet such interesting people, and to fall like a trust exercise at summer camp into the kaleidoscope of all these years just flashing by, laughing and giving and loving through the hardest parts.

I look at what's now. And I wonder what's next.


Original illustration by Isabella Rotman




Friday, April 4, 2014

30x30: Remembrances of Things Past: The Game



Instructions

Roll a pair of die for each decade of life completed. If you're 30, there will be three rounds. In the first round, roll the die once and record that number. In the second round, roll the die twice, add the two numbers, and record the total. In the third round, roll the dies three times, add those numbers, and record that total.


You should now have three numbers. They should roughly correspond to an age within the three decades you have completed so far. If they do not, you can repeat one or all rounds to try for better corresponding numbers. When you get them, for each age, record a memory of how it felt to be that age. I'll go first.


Four

Being four was like being on a tilt-a-whirl almost every second of almost everyday. Everything and everyone was bigger than me, and I liked that I fit into all the nooks and crannies of the world. So many things were still new and incomprehensible and therefore wondrous. There was so much time to do everything. I was small and noticed small things like a ladybug crawling on a blade of grass and the individual fibers of the carpeting in the living room.

The world was as treacherous as it was wondrous. I was always scraping an elbow, cutting a knee, spilling something, getting sick, and given to fits of ugly crying because life wasn't fair. 

But there were also caterpillars, and I liked caterpillars very much. Mostly I remember feeling very loved. There were lots of hugs, and I remember having a general excitement about the vast expanse and coming adventure of life.


Eleven

I felt vaguely embarrassed most of the time. I probably had a crush on John Freundel. I had braces and glasses. It was not my best look.

In school, the mean girls were starting to surface. I was probably a bit of a know-it-all, and this did not endear me to them. I became more retreating than is my nature. I liked writing; I wrote a lot. I did not like to be touched.

But in the spring, there were still the honeysuckles that grew along the fence at the far end of that field at school, that field that never grew any grass, and we'd gather the blossoms in the skirts of our uniforms and we'd go sit under a tree eat the nectar.


Twenty-eight

I was living alone in a beautiful apartment in Chicago, in Andersonville. One bedroom, wood floors, back porch, all the sunlight you could ever want. Lots of time with friends. Lots of time alone.

I was in love again, reluctantly, after feeling for some time that love was a racket. I listened to him play music on his guitar. Everything seemed sparkly.

I was listening to TV on the Radio and Florence and the Machine and Raphael Saadiq and The Decemberists.

I was worried about money.

I was working, I was performing. I was living the life I imagined I'd live. I was content. But I wanted to do more. I wanted to make a mark. I was restless. I was that too.

Your turn.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

30x30: Ramah


He has said to me "You are my greatest love." To which I replied, "And your biggest challenge."

I'm no easy wife. I'm moody, I like things just so, and happy is not my default disposition. I also don't cook much. But still, he comes to me with this love.

It's a quiet love, but a tenacious and insistent love.
An imperfect and hopeful love.
A hard-fought love.
A sincere love.

Our third date was in January. It was early on enough that everything or nothing was still altogether possible.

He was driving us in his car. We were going south on Lake Shore Drive and to the left was Lake Michigan. It was night and the sky and water were both black and blended into one another like the darkest ink. To the right was Chicago, all lit up, sparkling, promising us all the things. We drove down in between them.

He let his hand rest just above my knee. I thought this was very forward as it was only on our third date but, after a moment of not being sure, I decided that I liked it there, so I let it stay. We drove down that way. I was wearing a short black dress. It was from Target, but it was nice.

Now we have this home filled with guitars and books and art and food, and there is even a little girl who lives in one of the rooms. Life is so surprising sometimes.

Sometimes the air is tense when we are dissatisfied or angry or when we are trying too hard to wring too much from life, and two sensitive artist-types make for exquisite tension, let me tell you. But when everything eases again, there is still this irrational love. 

This love that cooks the meals and wants to know did I like it.
That wakes up early and takes me to work when its cold.
That leaves me alone when I need to be left alone.
That insists on us when I won't.
That waits for me.

This determined love that rises above all subterfuge, this love that when I ask why do you love me, there is no answer, there is only that love's existence, there is only that it is such.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

30x30: Can I Get a Ride?


I'd rather do it myself, if that's alright.

Having a sense of independence has always been a big deal to me. Even as a toddler I wanted independence. I did not want to hold my father's hand when walking up the big marble staircase at the Old Post Office. I could manage the steps myself.

I still prefer it that way. If I can count on anyone to come through for me, it's me. And if I don't come through, there's no one to blame but myself.

I accept help reluctantly. I don't want to feel beholden to anyone. I don't want to feel less than capable. At the same time, I try to be generous. I like the feeling of helping someone. Life is mostly hard, and to craft a moment of ease for someone else, even if it's small, is good for both the helper and the helped. The acceptance of that help is half the beauty of such moments.

Like that time I could've taken two buses to get home. The North Avenue bus to the Damen bus would've gotten me almost to my front door. But it was February, it was freezing (like polar vortex-style freezing), we'd gotten out of rehearsal half an hour late (10:30 at night), who knows how long the North Avenue bus will take to get here, and I'm not even sure how much longer the Damen bus will be running.

And I would've waited for the buses, gotten home close to midnight with work the next morning, if a cast mate hadn't insisted on giving me a ride home, even though it was out of her way.

I have to say. It was nice sitting in a cozy car cabin instead of freezing my eyeballs on the corner of North and Halsted, waiting on the bus. My cast mate was good company, and our brief conversation was so much nicer than staring down silently under the florescent lights of the bus. It's nice, sometimes, to accept a hand with humility and grace.

Being excessively independent and capable is cold and lonely. Sometimes I'd rather be cozy. And when I say yes to someone doing something for me, I then have a stronger impulse to do something for someone else. To keep the good will going and hope it comes around again. If for no other reason than to keep the universe in balance, help make it a little warmer.


Original illustration by Isabella Rotman

30x30: The Brain Wars


"I'm right-brained! I'm creative and intuitive! I suck at math because of my brain! Hahaha! Right brain!"

is a decent synopsis of how I've understood myself for a long time. Turns out, it's mostly b.s. As it happens, the whole left brain/right brain theory is b.s. 

The idea of dominant brain hemispheres took hold in the 1960s when neuroscientists were studying epileptic patients who'd had their respective corpus callosums severed. They discovered that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for certain functions like contextualization and interpretation, while the left is responsible for others, like language and logic. Subsequent extrapolations led many to conclude that those with creative strengths have a higher functioning right hemisphere, while those who excel in numbers and logic do so because Left Brain!

Now, however, research has shown than the two hemispheres of the brain work together to complete most functions. For instance, while the left side comprehends the sounds that make up words, the right side interprets the tone and rhythm that give them meaning. For full understanding and communication to occur, both sides have to work. Essentially, we don't tend have "stronger" sides. Our tendencies to excel in one field or another seems to have more to do with the quirks of our individual brains rather then a ready-made hemispheric theory.

But my personal understanding of having a stronger "right brain" has permeated so much of my self-perception. I took a certain measure of pride in being "right-brained." I liked the idea that science backed up my creative proclivities. As a bonus, it explained away my weakness in math. My struggle in math is totally not my fault! Can't help it! I was born this way!

And maybe I not-so-subconsciously used it as an excuse to not try as hard as I could in math. And maybe by not trying as hard as I could in math, I cheated myself out of the chance to acquire strength in math, which cheated me out of an opportunity to excel in subjects in which I still have deep interest like physics and economics.

What a shame for others, too, who are told early on, "Oh you're just left-brained so creative writing will be hard for you," or, "Science isn't your thing; you're more of a right-brain person." 

What a shame for a pseudoscientific half-truth to be such a thief of one's potential.

For the most part, my brain is balanced. So is yours. And even into late adulthood, the brain (and body) is able to learn and adapt and change. I hardly want to adhere to limits that actually do exist; why would go on adhering to imaginary ones?

Both hemisphere's of your brain are hardworking and fabulous. Don't believe the hype.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

30x30: An Evolution of Faith


                     


As in all things, what and how I believe has evolved. With any luck, it will continue to do so.

FOR ME, THE TRUTH WAS ONCE:

A singular God that lived in heaven, which I approximated was located somewhere in the vicinity of the clouds and sky. When I pictured God, God was a "he." He was white. He wore a white robe. He had a white beard, because, obviously, he's very old.

That the earth was formed in seven days.

That a woman named Eve and a man named Adam were convinced by a snake to eat fruit that they were told was off limits, and by doing so they ruined it for all of us.

That if I was good I'd go to heaven. Heaven was like walking around on clouds all day and it was there that you were reunited with the ones you loved.

That if I was bad, I'd burn eternally in the fires of hell. That in hell, I would be consumed in despair and pain from the moment of my death until the end of all time.

That I was a sinner.

That willing the death of his son on the cross was God's proof of his love for me.



THERE WERE TIMES WHEN I WONDERED:

If having Jesus die on the cross wasn't a little extreme.

How - if Jews and Muslims and other groups believe in their faith as strongly as we Christians believe in ours - how we know we're right.

Why God lets bad things happen. Like droughts and cancer.

If the Bible suggests that God used to talk directly to people - like with a voice and not just signs - why did he suddenly stop?

If heaven reunites us with loved ones, what is the reunification protocol for people who have been been married more than once?

Why, at communion, the blood of Christ tasted like wine instead of, well, blood.

About the inherent conflict between God's unconditional love and the relegation of "lost" souls to an eternity of physical torture.



FOR ME THE TRUTH IS NOW FOUND:

In the validity of theories yielded by centuries of scientific curiosity and study for the origins of the world, the universe, maybe even the multiverse.


In nuance and relativism.


In recognizing the adherence of the gospels and other religious narratives to The Hero's Journey.

In the law of the Conservation of Energy, which plays a part in my hunch that when we die, we die...but that the energy that sustained our lives simply changes form - - that we don't go up to heaven or down to hell, but simply "out" into the world again. It is what leads me to believe that any life after death is not conscious, but energetic. And that's beautiful to me.

In the idea that that which is before me is already holy.

In nature's brutal and elegant design.

In the beauty of all ways of believing that promote peace and understanding, and do not espouse hate, violence, or discrimination.

In letting go of the need to know anything for sure.

In doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.