Tuesday, November 26, 2013

On Alpacas, Cats and Patience

Selling handmade accessories crocheted from alpaca fiber in a small city in Vermont holds you to a high standard.  Anywhere else, the handmade aspect alone would be impressive, or the fact that I am the sole proprietor and entire staff of an extremely small local business, or that all my items are one of a kind and designed by me, and I sometimes, but not always, source from small local businesses for my materials. I even walk the three mile round trip to market and back each Saturday carrying a duffle bag full of wrist warmers and scarves, some of which I just finished that morning. It doesn’t get more honest, natural and down to earth than that.  

But this being Vermont, I know the next question to follow “do you live here?” and “do you crochet these yourself?” will be “are these made of fiber from your own alpacas?” And my proud yesses will be followed by a somewhat apologetic “no, but” followed by what I hope is an earnest friendly explanation that hopefully redeems my fiber artisan cred, because while, no, I do not own my own alpacas, or shear them, or spin or dye my own fiber, I did once apprentice at a farm where I spent a lot of time with alpacas, and even trained them, which has to count for something.

You may be wondering where I’m going with this, an essay on the politics of the fiber world, or the importance of supporting small local businesses, or how much I love doing the weekly Vermont Farmers Market, or exactly why it is that I am not the owner of an alpaca farm using my hands to care for the herd and process their fiber instead of typing on a computer as the sun rises. But actually, it’s about what came to me as I was lying in bed in the pre-dawn dark this morning with my cat Henry standing on my chest and holding his nose to my nose with the kind of trust not often found among felinekind, about what my time with alpacas taught me that I can apply to life beyond the farm.

Alpacas, although they are a prey animal and find safety and comfort in numbers, are a lot like cats, highly intelligent and extremely resistant to training. You get to know pretty quickly that this is not an animal whose will needs to be broken to get it to do your bidding. It will never follow you around obediently like a dog or set aside its wild nature to work for you like a horse.  You won’t get adoration or service from an alpaca.  But you can get a surprising amount of affection, and you can even get them to do what you want them to do, provided it is also what they want to do. Which pretty much makes them large fuzzy cats with very long necks.

I think my experience with cats helped me a lot when I worked with alpacas. I knew I wouldn’t get anywhere with a bold imposing approach. I would have to let them come to me on their own terms, that patience and consistency were key. In the mind of an alpaca, anything sudden or different can pose a threat, and words and gestures mean nothing. They can’t be lured by treats or coerced with discipline or domination. The way to earn the trust and acceptance of an alpaca is just by being there, alongside them, and proving to them that nothing bad happens when you are around. And once they accept you, and behave in their natural way, you can slowly direct those behaviors towards what you want them to do.  They don’t even notice that they are wearing a harness and are attached to you by a leash because you’ve become part of  their movements and their comfort zone and not only is there no reason not to trust you, they even kind of like having you around.

Henry has been with me for only 3 months and even for a cat of great confidence, he has already accepted me with a depth of trust I did not expect for several months, maybe even years. The more I leave it up to him to figure out the boundaries of our relationship, the more permeable those boundaries become. Cats love routine and an unchanging environment and I am such a big part of that formula he now frets when I leave the house for a few hours. Wherever I am in my apartment, he usually picks a nearby spot to recline. This does not mean he wants to be approached and attended to, just that having me where he can see me makes him feel good. And that makes me feel good too.

I have not always been a patient person, waiting for things to come to me. I much prefer the active approach to life, reasoning that any gesture, declaration or initiative is better than just sitting around doing and saying nothing. But some situations call for the less is more approach, and I am glad I have had experiences in which that approach proved so successful and rewarding. I have been living on my own in this small city in Vermont for a few months now, and I have found that people are accepting me not because I have gone forth and cultivated friendships aggressively, but because I am simply, consistently there. Vermonters are a lot like alpacas, they stick together, do not respond to the heavy-handed approach, and they are slow to trust, but once they do, you are one of them. 

Lately, as I move through my days, I am remembering that first day I went out into their enclosure on a snowy day in Maine with my camera and walked among the alpacas I was going to be working with for the next few months. I walked with even steps and made myself very quiet inside. I stood motionless a lot of the time. They stopped running away to the furthest distance they could manage and eventually forgot why they were trying to get away from me. Then something magical happened. I was in the middle of a herd surrounded by these magnificent creatures and moving among them as if I were one of them. I could feel their strength and heat and hear their low humming vocalizations. They were looking me in the eye, at first with misgiving, then with curiosity, and then with what was clearly approval. That day, I brought back some amazing photographs, and so much more. And now I am getting that feeling again, that things are on their way to me, and if I am just very quiet inside, magic is going to happen.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Right and Wrong

Right and Wrong

They say that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. Personally, I have had more than my share of past situations that I would very much like not to repeat if at all possible, which is probably why I spend so much time, in the aftermath of something that has gone horribly wrong, doing my best to confront, review and thoroughly study its history in hopes of learning whatever it is that will protect me from ever having to go through it again. If what they say is true, all I need to do is carry those lessons around like snapshots, or mugshots, and whenever I am about to make a decision to go ahead or run like hell, I can pull them out, hold them up, and if anything matches, choose that second option without doubt, hesitation or remorse.

We all know how it feels to find ourselves suddenly in the middle of something that has gone horribly wrong, whether it is a job, a relationship, a living space, an activity or item acquired or pursued with a considerable expenditure of good faith, time, effort or material resources. You do your best to get over the shock of yet another failed enterprise, make changes in attitude or behavior, and if you have been down this road as many times as I have, once an acceptable amount of wallowing in self-pity and giving things a second and third chance, and weighing the good and bad to be had in staying or going has happened, start creating a ruthlessly practical exit strategy.

The nice thing about an exit strategy is that during the period when you could be either talking yourself out of leaving a bad situation or beating yourself up because you can’t catch a break in life, you can instead apply your mental and physical energies to things like looking for a new job, or packing up your belongings, or coming up with a new budget, or investigating new endeavors and places in which to do them. It also protects you, during that transition time when you are literally neither here nor there, from feeling the full impact of exactly how horribly wrong the things you are not quite free of yet have gone.

It is a facet of human nature that, (gloomy malcontents who thrive on seeing and perpetuating only the negative regardless of how good things are aside), most of us try to see the good, or refuse to see the bad in a situation clearly disintegrating before our eyes, whether out of optimism, denial, pride or a sense of survival. It is only once we have cut ties and know we are soon to be released that the true extent of the wrongness becomes clear. And once we are indeed completely free and no longer need to protect ourselves, we discover that this clarity increases with the amount of time and distance we put between ourselves and the wrongness. Soon we have to ask ourselves why we tolerated something so clearly wrong for so long? When did it go wrong and how can we recognize and act upon that kind of moment sooner and spare ourselves so much grief? And then, how can we keep ourselves from getting into it in the first place so we won’t have to spend seemingly more time in life getting out of the wrong things than enjoying the right things?

I have had jobs, relationships, living spaces and all manner of pursuits go horribly wrong, and every time I have looked back and wondered if I could have done something differently, seen the signs sooner, not just to spare myself future grief, but to keep myself from coming to the tempting conclusion that I have not learned a thing in all my years and all my past studies, and remain the worst judge of character, situations and circumstances on the planet, and given my dismal track record am really no better off than the dangerously thoughtless heartless hapless people who bulldoze through life lacking all self and other awareness and to whom I have no right to consider myself superior. 

I know this is not true. But what can I tell my friends and family when I have to report another thing begun feeling so right and yet gone horribly wrong, and more importantly, what do I tell myself? Was I blind, or too optimistic and patient, making excuses for every sign that I can now see was there right in front of me? Was I tired of creating exit strategies and hoping I could ride this one out? Was I ashamed of the explanations I would have to make to family and friends and preferred to suffer a private hell than admit to it? The problem with explaining to friends and family what has gone horribly wrong is that if you are honest about exactly how bad it is you look like an idiot or a masochist for getting yourself into and remaining for so long in such a situation, and if you lie about the severity of your suffering, you look like a self-limiting perfectionist or an outright flake for jumping ship at the first sign of what sounds like minor trouble. To get at anything close to the full truth, you have to commit to a lengthy philosophical presentation, when all anyone requires is the quick and easy version of the story.

So here I am now, free of all the recent wrong things I have had to separate myself from, starting all over again. I am unemployed, single, and living alone in a new apartment in a city, and with acquaintances, I have not known very long, and while I am looking forward to all the new things that are going to come into my life, I am also looking for where, when and how the signs of things going wrong will start to appear, wondering whether I will recognize and act on them sooner rather than later, wiser for my studies of the past, or whether these signs are not always so obvious, not always a matter of  wise recognition and decisive action, but plain old dumb luck, the sad fact being that even the best persons places and things change over time in ways you could not have seen because they simply were not yet present or revealed to you.

And that is the quick and easy story I am telling myself and anyone who asks about my last job, and my last relationship, and why I am back at square one in middle age, and how things that start out so right can go so horribly wrong. And in the end, there really are no good, full or right answers. Whatever I have learned, whatever I encounter in life, I am still far more likely to go ahead than run like hell. But I have a traveling bag full of snapshots, and a process of elimination is in motion. If I can keep surviving, identifying, and subsequently avoiding the wrong, whatever is left has to be right.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

One or the Other

One or the Other

Anyone who has been kind enough in recent years to listen graciously when I am in one of my philosophical moods has heard me declare that people can more or less be sorted into two basic types: perpetrators and accommodators, and while the latter all know who they are, the former rarely do. Just as, if everyone who considered themselves a giving honest easygoing person really was, sales of hard liquor would plummet.

Perpetrators act without thinking. Accommodators think without acting. This isn’t just about the old divisions between extrovert and introvert, for I know plenty of clueless introverts so self-absorbed and aggressively passive that they require a coterie of accommodators to get them through life. I also know plenty of thoughtful extroverts who may be sociable, vocal, assertive and often impulsive, but will take into account the effects of their actions and words on others the way no true perpetrator ever can. The true perpetrator, regardless of personality, has long since learned that there is no benefit to factoring their effect on others into their journey in life. It is always and only about the one. And they are as self-assured on that point as the boulder in the stream around which the water has no choice but to flow. 

We all have perpetrators in our families, circles of friends, workplaces and bedrooms.  They are the ones who barrel along in life unchecked thanks to a combination of the politeness, fear and indifference of others, never getting called out on their bad behavior and attitude, their unique skill at making everything about themselves, everything someone else’s fault. From the sibling who gets all the attention by misbehaving versus the one who quietly takes the role of peacemaker, to the parent who responds to appeals for sympathy as if they were an unreasonable interruption or affront versus the one who explains, adapts and apologizes to keep the household in harmony, these patterns get set so early in life, it seems wherever there’s a perpetrator there have been accommodators from the very beginning enabling their worst habits.

They are the co-worker who does all they can to make sure everyone knows they are there, loud on the phone, physically omnipresent, never satisfied, from the micromanaging boss to the fussy colleague who takes a day off and the entire office breathes a sigh of relief. They aren’t necessarily a bad person, you just feel like whenever they are around all the energy in the room goes to dealing successfully with their quirks, upsets, or impositions. They can be mildly annoying with their complaints and incompetence, or they can be outright bullies whose inappropriate tantrums needlessly undermine everyone else’s well-being.

They are the friend no one cuts off because they are a well-meaning sort and often quite fun to be around, but they have ruined countless social occasions by acting or speaking up in one way or another that requires others to hold their tongues, do damage control and later make rounds of apologies. Whatever the pretext of the gathering, it becomes “that night so and so made a scene.” It seems cruel to avoid them, but one day you realize that whenever you are with them, one way or another, something unfortunate happens and you go home saying “never again.” You have a friend like this. Terminating the friendship feels like more trouble than it’s worth, and yet, you hold your breath whenever you know they are going to be joining the party.

They are the partner whose habits and moods and life goals and choices eventually take precedence over yours because it’s just easier that way, because they would not have the first idea how to anticipate and prioritize your needs even if it occurred to them that this was a necessary and natural part of being in a relationship, being a good person. It is always about them. When you need them most, they can’t be bothered to comfort or console. They tell you they have things to do. They work hard. They struggle in life too! No one ever helped or made sacrifices for them when they were down!  More likely than not, this type of partner had a particularly egregious perpetrator for a parent so in some ways they don’t know any better. But in other ways, we can all overcome the conditioning of our childhood, and even our adulthood. Not knowing better is no excuse. It is never too late to learn how to be a person who thinks of others before they act for themselves.

Being an accommodator may be my biased preference, and birthright, but it is no picnic. You can be the most passionate determined person on the planet when it comes to your own affairs in which no other people are involved, but when anyone else’s needs or feelings are in play, you seek the path of least resistance and most assistance in all things. You gladly cede a point or your place or path not because you are weak or indecisive, but because it seems that very few things are that important that they are worth a pitched battle so someone can be declared a winner. You don’t care who wins, you just want everyone happy. But sometimes a policy of deference, concession and compromise means you lose, not only the argument, but yourself. The urge to help, to fix, to give, no matter how worthy, can be dangerous in a world where only some of the beneficiaries will prove grateful, worthy, responding in kind by either giving back to you or to someone else. And the rest will drain everything they can from you and leave you wishing you could be so blissfully free of conscience and sympathy. Some perpetrators are just accommodators who got tired of being downtrodden and switched sides. Believe me, I’ve considered it. But the mere fact I considered it first, and all the people it would affect, should tell you how that turned out.

Accommodators may be the counselors, volunteers, mediators, caregivers and healers of the world, but the flip side of this coin of service is that the perpetrators are left unchallenged in their mission of absolute self-absorption. Constant awareness of how our choices affect the lives of others is a distraction, yes, but it also leads to ruthless self-examination which eventually leads to self-improvement and the greater good.  To perpetrators, when things go badly it’s the Universe not giving them a break, or how they were brought up, or the conditions they are forced to work within, or other people overreacting. And when everything works out okay in the end, what’s the fuss? Where’s the need for self-scrutiny or change?  They make messes the invisible elves clean up every night, so why learn to clean them up themselves, or think of ways not to make them in the first place?   

Sadly, for every accommodator who walks away from a particular relative, friend, co-worker or lover they are tired of enabling, there is another ready to take their place. The messes continue and the elves never sleep. If they got more sleep, just think of all the good that could be done helping people who actually need and appreciate it.

Just walk away. It's not easy, but I can tell you, it is always for the best.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Troubled Sleep

What's Supposed to Happen

It has come to my attention through various recent news stories about the mass consumption of sleep aids and my own informal studies among friends and family that no one sleeps well anymore. As with so many other things wrong with us, we may just be more likely to admit sleep deprivation than we used to, and seek help for it, or just seek sympathy through the many social media channels that remove the shame factor from all sorts of confessions and complaints. But the fact remains that, conversationally speaking, whether online or off, a day doesn’t go by that I am not made aware of someone suffering the ill effects of having spent the previous night staring at the ceiling.
Are we all really that overstimulated and overanxious that we can’t shut our overworked brains off at night, or just more forthcoming about it? Now that I can be entirely honest in the comfortable albeit miserable company of my fellow bad sleepers, I admit that good sleeping is a mere fraction of my total lifetime sleep experience, and not just because bad sleeping tends to weigh more heavily on and loom larger in memory. I know this because when I fall asleep quickly and easily and wake up in the morning eight hours later with a refreshed body and mind my first waking thought is “what the hell just happened??” But in reality, what happened was absolutely nothing, which is what’s supposed to happen. Nights like that, I don’t even remember dreaming. 

 Eyes Wide Shut

Ah dreaming. With the exception of artificial interference like a late afternoon cup of coffee or the kind of large multi-course holiday meals my mother used to make which left us all lying in bed after midnight feeling like a pot bellied stove stuffed with three days’ worth of logs to burn, my sleep issues fall into two categories, plus an especially pernicious hybrid of the two, which is to say that what keeps me awake is either my conscious thoughts run wild, or my subconscious conjurings run even wilder, or on really bad nights all essential barriers between the two broken down, leading to vivid dreams that feel real and muddled reality that feels dreamlike and eventually getting out of bed so I can figure out definitively which state I am indeed occupying. 

Which is sometimes exactly what I do within the most insidious of these dreams. I have sometimes been left in such a lingering state of uncertainty, I would not be surprised to discover I am actually in a dream while writing this, or that my dream life is my real life. But that is, in more ways than one, neither here nor there. Both my dream life and my real life have each had their share of the wonderful and the horrible, the dull and the brilliant, and each holds memories and possibilities that are ultimately mine to create, so it doesn’t really matter which is which. They are like two cities I split my time between and can both call home. Maybe the reason I am okay with troubled sleep is that if it originates from the same subconscious responsible for such a rich dream life, it’s a price I am more than willing to pay.


Dreams aside, having just spent eight hours in a state of self-generated unrest gives you a weird perspective on the daytime outside world and its people. First of all, you’re just plain tired. Second of all, your body and mind have not had the opportunity to repair or resolve whatever yesterday did to you, so you feel as if everything you take on is doubled, like your day is twice as long and burdensome as everybody else’s because at least they got a break halfway through, which sets you apart, and not in a good way. That is assuming five out of ten people you deal with did not also just have a bad sleep. If you hang out in my kind of circles, that number goes up to nine. My friends are the type whose brains are working overtime all the time, day and night, and feeling weird is pretty much business as usual, well-slept or not. If we all got a good night sleep on the same night, the world would end. Thoughts like that are common among people who see 3am on the clock as often as they see 3pm.

But maybe it’s like high school, where everyone is trying to be cool and thinks they are the only one who feels uncool, and it turns out 25 years later at the reunion that nearly everyone considered himself a misfit. Is anyone a perfect fit? Is anyone sleeping well? Or are some of us just better at faking it – or blaming it on someone else, the kids, the cat, the neighbors, the neighborhood, the snoring spouse - than others? My theory is that just as in high school where everyone was walking around trying to hide feeling uncool, we are all walking around trying to hide being failures at something so natural and simple a child can do it. 

 The Nocturnal World
Not that I slept any better as a child. I think I sleep better now because my standards have dropped and there is less of a struggle against or harsh judgment of my irregular patterns. Four hours of motionless unconsciousness is a triumph. If I manage to pull two of those in one night with a break of any duration, there is a good chance the next day will be experienced in a state close to what I consider normal, that is to say, anything better than feeling like someone just pulled me from my grave or dropped me from an alien planet. 

Nowadays, as part of my general campaign to give myself a colossal break, my approach to sleep has changed. I tell myself that I would much rather have thoughts that can keep me awake at night than thoughts I can nod off in the middle of, like a bad movie. There are some amazing aspects to the nocturnal world that sleepers will never experience, and face it, a lot of what happens by day you really don’t need to be all that alert for. I no longer believe in chasing after the perfect sleep, any more than I believe in trying to squeeze myself into some perfect one size fits all success in other areas of life. Rest for the mind and body is essential, but no one ever said we all need to get it in the same amounts, on the same schedule or in the same manner. Naps have never really worked for me – I’m either going for as good and long a sleep as I can or going without. Naps to me feel just as bad as waking up in the middle of the night after only an hour asleep. It’s just the middle of the day instead, which feels even more of a rude and disorienting awakening.


What does work for me is meditation for the mind and relaxation techniques for the body.  I’ve had sleepless nights during which I had the good sense and focus to use these methods and ended up feeling more rested and refreshed than I would have following a traditional eight hour sleep. Of course the sleepless nighttime mind doesn’t always know what’s best for it or feel like doing it.  The wakeful daytime mind is not much better, as I know for a fact that my sleeping improves on a parallel course with better exercise and eating habits, which won’t necessarily keep me from skipping my workout and eating something that has no resemblance to anything found in nature. 

But at least now I know what to expect. I know not to increase my own uneasiness by worrying about or resisting wakefulness, however inconvenient and unfair and uncool it may seem. When I wake up at 3am, or when I am pretty sure by the sound of the gears grinding in my brain that it will take until 3am to fall asleep, I’ll give up the quest for the perfect sleep and read a book, or check Facebook to see who else is not sleeping. And some nights I’ll just lie in bed releasing the tension from each of my muscles in turn, then clear my mind of whatever I’m thinking and tell myself a story that, if I am lucky, will turn into a beautiful dream, and if I am very lucky, will really happen.  

Tuesday, September 3, 2013


courtesy of www.cainer.com

I know my life is in a state of profound uncertainty when I start checking horoscopes with increasing urgency and reading them with a lot more serious attention than they deserve. Fortunately I only follow a few select astrologers and they are more about providing responsible spiritual and psychological advice applicable in just about any situation than predicting specific events I will then anxiously await. But in desperate times, afloat in the sea of life, any flotsam and jetsam will do, and I will reach out and grab whatever I can, even though what looked like a raft approaching was just a piece of driftwood unable to bear the full weight of my unfulfilled and utterly undirected desires.

 autumn around the corner

Granted, I have just survived the shipwreck of a relationship, and relocation to a new home, and for things to be less than settled in all ways is a perfectly natural albeit uncomfortable circumstance. But I am not the most patient person on the planet, and now that I have spent the entire summer of 2013 in the process of mentally, emotionally and physically dismantling the life I was leading the past 18 months, a life that itself required dismantling to exist, and actually, for the past 4 years, putting so much effort into understanding, attempting to improve, accommodating and then extricating myself from a situation that was unhappy and unhealthy, and finally installing myself in a new life designed specifically to contain and cultivate only happy and healthy things, part of me now wants to just get on with it. And having been in my new place for a month now, and autumn around the corner, I feel I am still treading water and getting nowhere.

 two weeks in France, September 1995

The price you pay for a life in which amazing things happen out of the blue, and you often do more living in one intense life altering week than most people experience in whole decades, is you have to put up with the dead times in between. I am accustomed to the unexpected and incredible, the intense and the exhilarating. So many times, in so many areas of my life, just when it seemed all was lost, something, or someone, amazing arrived and changed everything. Maybe I was built for and attract moments of wonder, or maybe I have grown into it, but in so many cases I have looked back at those magic crossroads and humbly, gratefully acknowledged that it could have been otherwise, that the smallest of circumstances could have pushed me into oblivion. It’s an extreme pattern to be sure, but after decades of being on this rollercoaster, I have faith that the terrifying descents are always followed by exhilarating ascents. The only trouble I have is with the seemingly endless flat stretches, because I never know until the last second whether I am headed for a rise or fall.

 the ride of my life

By the way, I hate amusement parks. Love the atmosphere and appearance but hate the rides. I live those rides in my everyday life, why pay to simulate them? And I hate those flat stretches, because for all my adaptation to a life of the unexpected, I also hate surprises. In general, I would rather know what’s coming and prepare for it.  If I am to play a waiting game for the rest of 2013, until my destiny is revealed to me, at least let me know what I am waiting for and I can work towards it, or let me know that this is it, that there will be no more ups and downs to this particular ride, and I can adjust accordingly. It might actually be nice for nothing amazing to happen, just roll along secure in my modest routines and engagements. A girl could get used to that.

 Henry when he was Rascal waiting for me before he met me

Perfect apartment, check. Perfect cat companion, check. Both came into my life by means fully within the patterns of incredible timing and coincidence and luck and fate that my life follows, as if both were already waiting for me. But job I have none. Man in my life I have none. Historically, I have done a lot better finding good places to live and good cats to live with than I ever have finding jobs or relationships. Most of the places I’ve lived, I had no quarrel with and left only because the relationship with the man I shared them with ended. My longest happy cohabiting relationship was with my cat Marlowe, who shared my life for 14 years, most of those when it was just us two. He saw me through 2 jobs, 3 apartments, 2 cities of residence, and a lot of men who didn’t last long enough for him to bother to befriend or defend against them, in all that time, my one constant. The only thing he ever did to hurt me was to get old and sick and leave a hole in my heart by dying.  

 Marlowe and Me in NYC, ca. 1998 (look ma, no tattoos!)

Jobs and men also come into my life in encouragingly fated ways, but unlike apartments and cats, they tend to reveal all sorts of hidden liabilities over time and what once seemed a perfect match turns out to be something I can only tolerate by secretly plotting my escape. It is a cycle that goes from wondering what is wrong with me that everything good always goes bad, then wondering what is wrong with this place or person, and then wondering what is wrong with me for sticking around so long.  By the time I have decided to leave, I am over the disappointment, and over the self-blame, but no wiser as to why this cycle persists.

Better choices perhaps? And yet all my choices have been based on available, promising information and a great deal of reinforcement from the man or the job in question. And of course, when one is in need of income or companionship, waiting forever for the perfect situation is not an option, so maybe you start altering your standards and overlooking whatever wisdom you have acquired. Which brings me to now. There are two big missing pieces in my life. A steady means of income which will not only not suppress, depress or interfere with but actually encourage and enrich and reward who I am and what makes me happy, and a man that pretty much answers that same description.

  in the wonderfully fake land of Las Vegas, 2009

I guess a modern woman is not supposed to admit that she places a good man right up there with,  maybe even higher than, a good job on her list of priorities. I am supposed to be complete as long as I have fulfilling pursuits, friends, a cat, a nice place to live, and my health. Having lived without a man in my life way longer than I have lived with one, I can tell you, it is possible to lead a full and fulfilling existence alone. I have had some of my best adventures, discoveries, triumphs and joys not only in spite of being alone, but because of it. There are many liberating factors to argue for a life alone; there are many limiting factors to argue against a life shared. I’ve lived both, I know. 

 Mystic, with bird friends, ca. 2007
But it comes down to love. I love being in love. I love giving and receiving and thereby increasing the general universal levels of love. I love meeting someone I feel I already know and having a first conversation that feels like it’s been going on like a brilliant crackling fire for centuries, and flirting irrepressibly and shamelessly with everything to gain and nothing to lose, and observing someone from across a room knowing that I have knowledge of them no one else recognizes or imagines, and sharing a glance that speaks without words, and the electricity that travels my whole body when he first takes my hand and I finally know for certain what the very air around us, and probably everybody we know already knew, that we are more than just friends. Maybe this isn’t how everyone is made, but I am and will ever be thus.  Blame it on my Mediterranean blood. Blame it on too many 19th century novels. There is no lukewarm love for me, only lukewarm lovers. 

 creating a stir

I love my friends and family, and my perfect cat Henry, and making beautiful creations that make people happy, and crossing the finish line of a marathon, and taking a train to a new city, and music that stirs the soul, and the kindness of strangers, and the gift of having the senses and intellect to appreciate all the natural and manmade awesomeness that life has to offer. But I am the first to admit, unapologetically, that I am fifty years old, deeply cynical, fiercely self-reliant, and nobody’s fool, and still nothing compares to a show of interest from a man I like so much I am actually enjoying the sweet torment of not knowing how he feels because it is just so good even to know him at all. I might as well be a kid again. It’s like a fresh start for the heart, every time. Decades of disappointment and hurt erased with one “I was just thinking of you.”

I just read a horoscope today that said all that I am seeking is also seeking me, that it has been waiting for me for a long time, and if I sit still it will find me. I am not good at sitting still, but here I sit. Find me.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To Read or to Re-read

Reading List from Half my Life Ago

To read or to re-read, that is the question. Or so it was when I found myself giving to a man half my age a book I myself had read half my age ago and could not remember well, except that I must have liked it a lot to have placed so many penciled exclamation points in the margins while reading. As soon as the book left my hands, I envied the man his first experience reading this book, but soon realized that my old concern that there were certain books I would never again have that first reading experience with may have rendered itself, while I was too busy getting old to notice, moot by the sad fact of my lately not being able to recall what I had for breakfast, much less a novel I read when I was 25.  

Books I Have Yet to Read (except for Goethe's Young Werther, Been There, Done That)

There are so many books I have yet to read. Too many. But now it seems there are also an equal or greater number of books I have already read but need to re-read because I have forgotten them, or first read them as quite a different person in quite different circumstances. There are now 12 boxes of these books in a storage room waiting to be donated or discarded. Of 1000 books I once owned, 400 were left behind on my last move, and now I have cut an additional 350 from the herd. The 250 books now in my apartment do not necessarily represent my favorite or most significant reads of all time. They are mostly editions I doubted I could find again, or have been signed by the person who gave them to me, or for some reason would not leave my hands and go gently into that good cardboard box.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase One
Fortunately the book I gave to the young man made the cut, which is good because not a week after it made that cut I found myself trying to quote it and needing to consult it and then give it away to just the right person at just the right time. It must have remembered me better than I remember it, but books are like that sometimes, entering your life – or remaining in it – with impeccable timing. I have never been one to give my books to other people. I’ve done it twice this year and if I had all the time and space in the world I would keep those 12 boxes as a ready supply for 350 such future instances. But my moving house process was such a strange combination of intense focus and stupefied detachment, I am not quite sure which 250 books are with me here, much less there. I am sure I will look soon for one of those “surely I did not send that one away!” books and find it absent, or find some “what was I thinking?” books given prominent shelf space. I accept that whatever is here is here for a reason. And maybe for a re-reading too.
Like the book I just gave away, which will be for the man something entirely different than it was for me, and has some passages in it that were so well written, that on at least two occasions I actually can recall to this day, I was in such a state of reader’s delight and writer’s envy, I had to put the book down and call my mother just to read them to her, just to share the joyful burden. That is an experience worth re-living. There have been so few books like that in my life, ones you have to put down because they are so physically and intellectually stunning you don’t know what to do with yourself, you feel made and unmade, you need to take a break, you want to make it last, but you keep eyeing the closed book on the coffee table because it calls to you with its remaining promise in a voice you can’t resist because it is your own voice.

 What I'm Reading Now

I wonder if I will have a read like that again, the way one wonders at a certain age whether all kinds of experiences can ever feel as breathlessly intoxicating, as irrationally irresistible, as destined and delirious. As your memories of experiencing such moments increase and then fade, leaving behind an attitude of wistful muted recognition when they again present themselves, do you require thrills of greater rarity and intensity, or can you hit the restart button on your emotions and get the old heart to leap again as it did half its life ago?

Some hearts are born old and grow young. The reason I collected all those books was that they did all my living and loving for me. They knew things about me that I knew without having actually experienced them. They were my travels, my romances, my tragedies, my follies, my lessons. Half my age ago I had done nothing, gone nowhere. The novel I was working on, as of course I would be, was about a recluse retiring from the world at 25 surrounded by books and collecting quotes and so completely living the lives and thoughts of others her physical self fades bit by bit and is replaced by that of whatever author she happens to be reading or pondering, which, in New York City, turns out not to be an unmanageable affliction, as her infrequent outings are hardly noticed, whoever she happens to be at the time, wrapped up in a dark 19th century coat with collar turned up and a hat pulled down over her eyes.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase Two

The problem with the novel, which I called “Driftwood : A Life in Fragments,” was that it could not end well, and frankly, as a great believer in the power of the written word, I did not like that I was, by writing this novel, writing a version of myself I was in danger of becoming, which makes for a great plot line but not such a great life. I abandoned the novel. Most of it was transcribed quotes, which would have presented difficulties with copyright anyway had I tried to publish it. I turned my energy and attention to living my own life. And it turned out I had plenty of real travels, romances, tragedies, follies and lessons to experience. In a way they were like re-reading a great book in which you find the self you knew you were all along, for while I was never surprised by anything that happened, I was still astonished. 

Perhaps the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is that it is better to read than to re-read. There will be time decades from now to sit in an armchair and review my book life and my real life. For now, I want new adventures, new astonishments, in books and in life. Joys so great they have to be shared. Things you call home about and say “are you sitting down? You are NOT going to believe this.” 

This post is dedicated to G on his travels. Bring me that book back read, and some even better stories of your own.