Monday, November 19, 2012

To Love Strong and Do Right: Or, When I Nearly Peed My Pants

This post feels hard to start. I can't let on to too many details (which is already part of the problem) but I hope to write. I need to write. So let me try.

For the past couple of years I've been thinking and writing about many of the same topics: Academic philosophy. Graduate school. Relationships (that start and end). What I'm doing with my life and what I want to do. Where I'll be when I do it. About a year and a half ago I noticed that the nature of my posts was starting to change. Rather than reflecting on the philosophy that I was reading and writing about how it relates to real life, I started to simply write about real life. This blog went from somewhat academically-informed to pseudo self-help insights from a twenty-something-year-old.  That slow distancing from academic philosophy in my blogging reflected a slow separation from academic philosophy in my personal life.  I stopped reading philosophy because I got bored with reading philosophy. Even the stuff that was aimed at me--as a member of the target audience of academic researchers interested in Nietzsche, rhetoric, and writing styles, for instance--was painful to get through. When I would force myself to go to public talks or conference presentations, I found myself getting frustrated and angry. Even the stuff by feminist philosophers seemed to be too insular, too arrogant, or the comments and questions that followed too self-aggrandizing or too antagonistic (and I lost all hope for other philosophy that didn't even try or pretend to be relevant to life and interests outside of academic philosophy). The summary of my relationship with philosophy over the past year goes something like this: I haven't been feeling very inspired. Like a stale marriage, philosophy, it has seemed, just got too far removed from my life. I'm around it all the time. I force myself to keep working at it. I try to make it exciting and plan fun activities whenever I can. Overall, though, we're probably heading down the path toward a divorce. But that's not the part that's hard to write.

In the past couple of weeks my life has taken an unexpected turn. It's not the kind of turn that would immediately change everything in my life like a terrible car accident, getting married, or winning the lottery. However, it could have been. And nevertheless, this event has changed my life in a different way. On the surface, for those who aren't receiving phone calls from me every few days, it very likely appears as though nothing has changed at all. But for me, something very, very big has occurred that has forced me to look deeply, carefully, and lovingly at my life. I've been taking stock of where I am, what I am doing, where I am going, and where I want to be. Same old, same old, right? Wrong. Because this time it's serious. Rather than just musing about the possibilities in a free-floating kind of way that is kept afloat by a low-level, ever-present anxiety about the unknowns of one's future, this is is a type of reflection that takes priorities, values, needs, goals, and dreams very seriously into account. It's the kind of thinking that functions as if you just realized that you're heading into some rapids and you don't have a raft. You start thinking, "How the hell do I get a raft?" or "I need to get off of this river."

These types of moments call for a real practical kind of reflection. One person referred to it as a moment for "course correction." You realize that you are in a place where you don't want to be and never wanted to be. And you come to the painful realization that instead of boldly walking toward your next goal you have been timidly dancing around in circles like a child who has to pee. My apologies for taking this image too far, but these past couple of weeks have been the metaphorical moment when I nearly pissed my pants. Fortunately, I found a really nasty bathroom. It was unpleasant to say the very least, but I'm lucky I could find a bathroom before it was too late. Again, no one need be the wiser about the fact that I almost peed my pants since I'm not walking around with that embarrassing mess all over me. In the public eye, when things are smoothly humming along, "going to bathroom" is one of those things that we have the privilege of forgetting that everyone does. But my goodness, now I know for sure that the next time I'm dancing around in circles it better be out of joy for putting my skills to good use, following my passion, living each day filled with gratitude, and having confidence that if I ever have to pee that badly again that I've already cleaned up my own bathroom, installed a skylight, and decorated the counters with fresh wildflowers. (Sorry. I've been known to take metaphors to the extreme.)

This delicate little branch has been around my neck for over a week now. In that time, it's taken on a symbolic meaning as a reminder to love strong and do right.
With great surprise, and also an unexpected amount of relief, my recent experiences have reinvigorated a deep appreciation in me for philosophy. After all of my years of doing philosophy while saying that it can be incredibly helpful and therapeutic by providing ways for people to think through their experiences and understand them in new ways, this return to philosophy was almost instinctual. In fact, I might even say it was necessary. I started to talk and process and think about what I was going through in ways that called into question the cultural values that perpetuate a kind of shaming silence about our experiences (and how this silence reinforces politically and ethically problematic structures that also maintain an unfortunate--if not unjust--status quo). Suddenly, I was very grateful that I had the tools within myself to understand my own situation in a philosophical way that helped me see how there are identifiable reasons that would typically seem "unrelated" but that are part of why this has been such a difficult situation. Thankful for my own ability to see a picture that went beyond pitiful-ol'-me-who-unexpectedly-had-to-pee, I was reminded that there are many, many, many important issues that affect lots of people's lives in profound ways. Rather than embracing the notion that "ignorance is bliss" and acting like these things don't affect us or the people we know and love, I remembered just how important it is to raise awareness and encourage a kind of public discourse that empowers, supports, and honestly addresses people in thoughtful and helpful ways. In short, thanks to the difficulty of recent events in my life, I have suddenly felt very much inspired to do philosophy.

As part of my effort to build up a better bathroom for myself and others, I'm refocusing my energy on what I'm good at, what I value most, and how I can best use the skill set that I have been gifted through my experiences. (Did I say I would quit with the metaphor? No. Is it confusing if you don't know what I'm talking about? Probably. Here's a hint: "bathroom" refers to a number of things so don't think about it too hard. Just keep reading...I'm almost done anyway.) I don't know if this means that I will be doing professional academic philosophy. But I really want it to mean that I find a way to help people think about their experiences in ways that inform practical ways of living that are empowering, therapeutic, and transformative on social, political, and personal levels. In other words, my goal is find a way to keep doing philosophy that remains true to the real reasons why I got into it in the first place. That way may be known by a different name but I want philifesophy to be at the heart of it.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

True Story: Is This Real Life?

An unusual even happened a couple of weeks ago. I watched two movies in one night. Although I'm not much of a movie buff I do have a clearly demarcated "genre" of movies that are likely to get my two thumbs up--I love comedies like Matilda. Liar Liar. And dark dramas like Magnolia. The Squid and the Whale. As it turned out, Goats fell right in line with my favorite sort. Then She Found Me isn't the best movie ever, but I conceded to watch it for the second time in my life because it contains one of my favorite scenes of all time....

If you can't already identify some running themes, these movies are the kind that address relationships, especially family relationships, and highlight the drama of building trust, enduring let down, and struggling with abandonment. One thematic angle often reveals the selfishness of childish parents that puts pressure on the children as they grow up. The wounds these children incur from primary relationships during their formative years provide the hook of vulnerability cum hardness that evidences itself even if the children are five or fifty-year-old grown adults. In any case they are often forced to grow up too soon from having to deal with the unfortunate consequences of the decisions made by those around them and out of the need to take care of themselves when no one else can or will. For this reason, and because I think it is sometimes the case that maturity comes with experience, I can't help but feel a bit of sadness for the more precocious type of child-characters. While the wisdom, resilience, and confidence that some of these characters embody can be judged as character strengths, the subtle thread of hardness (which is sometimes, I think, misidentified as strength) that has held it all together --the story, and them--can also be seen to affect their other relationships, present and future, in rather predictable ways. The effects of being a child-who-had-to-grow-up can still be identified through  interactions with friends, romantic partners, and their own children such that one begins to appreciate how the "story" continues and extends beyond the written plot of the movie.

Look at us 1st grade kids. So young. So fresh. So much to learn.

However, if the movie is any good, it is typical for another theme to be slowly uncovered. The delicate exposure of "the other side of the story" reveals that another truth has been developing in tandem with those of the children all along. One learns that sometimes, or even most times, the parents were actually trying their best. Either they didn't know what to do, didn't have a whole lot of options, were stuck dealing with the intensity of their own painful struggles, or their efforts at being "the good parent" and doing "the right thing" were thwarted by others. Internal and external forces can be overpowering. In some cases, with a twist of responsibility, the presumed deceivers and betrayers, the absent fathers, the aloof mothers, those who upon first glance are the most irresponsible and detestable characters were actually deceived, betrayed, or simply portrayed by others in ways that made them out to be that detestable. When their attempts at reaching out to the children were denied, dismissed, and never mentioned, they simply appeared to be absent. Or, faced with pressures from others who had more control and power over them, they had to make decisions which seemed selfish but were actually chosen, in good faith, under the assumption that they would promote whatever was in their child's best interests. What others, including their children, see on the surface of their actions hardly depicts the depth of their own experience. Maybe it is the case that they simply are, to the core and for whatever reason, lousy parents. But maybe not.  If nothing else, a good story will involve characters who, often incapable of being described as clearly "good" or "bad," are complicated.

Here is my terrific father.
And this is my lovely mother.

The stories of supporting characters are even more difficult to fully present. With so much time and energy dedicated to filling out the complexity of the main characters' emotions and experiences it is hardly possible to retell the histories and thoughts of those who remain on the periphery of the main plot. Though they may remain underdeveloped, the secondary characters are by no means insignificant to how the story evolves. For example, did Miss Honey ever date anyone? Was Jerry always so awkward? And what choices were made in Goatman's life that led him down the path of becoming Goatman? Since these aren't the main characters of the stories, the answers to these questions are hardly provided and they appear to be fairly irrelevant anyway. Of course, one should assume that there is an entire back story that informs the motivations and reactions of these apparently two-dimensional figures, but those are things that good actors have to figure out in order to be compelling. For the audience to understand their stories would require a whole different movie (and that's why there are such things as prequels and spin-offs). Such unknowns just have to be taken for granted in an effort to appreciate the specific story that we are trying more fully understand as we watch it unfold. Nevertheless, what should not be overlooked as that understanding develops is that the roles of these supporting characters are very relevant to the lives of the main characters. Regardless of how or why they got to be the way that they are, their choices, words, and actions still have significant effects.

This meta-movie analysis seems helpful for understanding how real life works. Taking the movie as a metaphor for life, we can see that we each have our own story, that our stories are shaped by those around us, who also are the main characters in their own stories, and that even "supporting characters" are significant to us. Furthermore, we, as supporting characters in the lives of others, should appreciate the effects that we can have on shaping the experiences of someone else, even if we never become intimately involved in their story. And obviously our "supporting characters" can change. At some point those on the periphery of our lives can become central figures and vice versa; the most engaging, significant, meaningful, and central people in our live can eventually fade into the background. On one hand, the cast of extras can seem to walk through a revolving door, just passing through for the time being. In that time they might share with us conversations, insights, pains, challenges, wisdom, and memories. On the other hand, the change can be concretely seen in the characters themselves.

For example, I've been consumed lately with thoughts about previous influences in my life, people who at one point in time were central figures in my story and whose presence, even fifteen years later, is still felt on profound levels. One of these people was a kid when I knew him best. But, as one should expect, he grew up, got married, and is now a parent himself. Although common sense and everyday experience consistently demonstrate the simple truth that things change, this didn't mitigate the shock I felt when I finally learned that things really had changed. Over the past number of years while we were out of touch it almost felt as if our stories froze where we had left them. But that doesn't happen. It took catching a glimpse of him now, and not simply seeing him in my memory, that forced me to reckon with that harsh and wonderful reality that life does go on. People change. These shifts do not necessarily mean that people become more or less significant to our story on the whole, but they may be related to the changes that occur to and within us as our story changes. We change, and as we do, the roles that people play in our life change, too. Perhaps we should remember that those changes need not, and should not, be resisted. (To help prepare us for these things, perhaps we should also remember that in life there can be no such thing as a spoiler.)

In addition to thinking back on what I was like as a kid, the other kids I knew, the various parental figures who surrounded us then, and how we kids are now becoming parents ourselves, my attention has also shifted over the past few months to some children I haven't met yet but for whom I really want to eventually play a positive, supportive, and loving role. I've become even more sensitive to the narratives that these children might be forming regarding their own experiences. If there's any chance that they feel like that have to grow up too fast, I wish for them to know the truth of how the situation that they are in right now has come to be. And I desperately hope that if they don't understand or feel it now that someday they will be able to appreciate that the people in their lives were doing the best they could. But in the likely case that the "truth" will never been understood in full, thinking about these children in particular has helped identify a deep hope of mine. I want for these children to somehow, at sometime, appreciate that lesson that takes many people a very long time to learn: parents are people, too.

Being involved in the everyday life of their father who lives a few hours away from them, I exist on the periphery of their stories in a way of which they are hardly aware. This situation has helped deepen my appreciation for the lives of parents. Our parents have complicated stories filled with many unique scenes, characters, and turns of events. Not yet being a parent myself, it's something that I have grown to appreciate in relation to my own parents. I think it's amazing to have also gotten to a place with my parents where they talk to me about their experiences with their parents. I've also talked with my grandmother about her experience as young parent to my mother. I think these types of conversations help build understanding and compassion, and I think they help strengthen the love and bonds that define what it means to be a family.

Our family relationships may not be picture perfect (although they actually are often the type of relationships that we see in the movies), but they are very real in the sense that they involve real feelings and shape us all in real ways. Since we are all some one's child, no matter what the nature of our relationships have been, I hope that each of us can, in some way, come to this level of understanding, which can happen even if the whole of our story or theirs can never be fully known.

This notion of appreciating the complexity of the characters who influence the story of our lives has helped me hone in on a few things that we should already know and live by. We can take care of ourselves by taking care of our stories. With our children, parents, friends, and acquaintances, we know that people care about us when they show that they really care to know our story. We should surround ourselves with people who love us as our stories, who want to watch, listen, and understand us for who we are, as we are. And we must strive to never forget that everyone has a story of their own. As we struggle to understand our own experiences and how they affect who we are, the stories of so many others constantly surround us in their unarticulated silence. That they are unknown to us does not mean, however, that they are insignificant or of little consequence. The opposite could not be more true. So, when we can, we should try to learn, listen, watch, empathize, and imagine the stories of others. It is clearly impossible to know and understand every one's life story, but if we are granted the opportunity to participate and witness even a scene of their lives, we should take it in with as much compassion and understanding as we can muster. Regardless of whether that scene in their story is lovely, disturbing, romantic, frightening, funny, difficult, confusing, or poignant, it is an important part of their whole life. At that moment when we can learn about and participate in the lives of others, we are placed in a position of deep responsibility, for in that moment, we can take care of another by taking care of their story.

Finally, I want to highlight one important implication about the nature of truth that has been animating my words. When we think about the narratives of our experiences we are engaging in a kind of story telling. This creates a complicated status for the truth of our experiences, for our stories are important to us as stories. They are not necessarily the archives of real events. Or, at least we need not think of them in such terms. Instead, we should see that we can only ever tell always-incomplete stories that are riddled with gaps, ambiguities, and many unknowns. We might try to fill in the holes and narrate over these lapses. Sometimes therapy sessions are helpful for filling in the gaps with insights about how and why things happen in ways that we might not be initially inclined to see. However, as is frequently noted in conversations with one of my best friends, the need for "coherent narratives" can serve as a type of defense mechanism.  We say things like, "If I can explain how and why I did something or responded in a particular way, it helps me feel more in control." It's a way to rationalize, organize, compartmentalize, and "clean up" the messiness of our lived experiences. My favorite philosopher, Nietzsche, is quick to argue along these lines. He notes that the degree of our need for coherence is often a sign of our weakness. We often fabricate--read: falsify--the nature of our experiences in ways that help us deal with life. Simplification through falsification may "help" us such that error, ignorance, and deception may not be unfavorable things, but this of course changes the nature of "truth."  Hence Nietzsche's famous question, "Why truth?" and his inquisition on the value of truth.

As we listen to the stories of others and tell and retell our own, we may fight at times over what one person claims to be true. But arguing over the truth of another person's account does not resolve any real issues, for the phrase, "There are always three sides to any story--yours, mine, and the Truth" is totally wrong. When it comes to down to it, there is only yours and mine. I think this idea is best captured by Tim O'Brien in The Things They Carried. In the section titled, "How to Tell a True War Story," O'Brien writes, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed...The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed." In war and life, there's no arguing with the truth as it is experienced, as it seems.

I guess this is why I love those hard, dramatic, emotional movies about relationships. Although they are just stories that people are paid to write and direct, the best of these movies manage to convey experiences that we actually have in real life. They capture the truth of our own stories, why it is important for us to tell them, to have them be recognized by others, even in their incompleteness. As O'Brien explains, "I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Found From a Summer of Floundering

At present, I sit to write for the first time after an entire summer of new experiences and unexpected changes. The lack of words I have produced this summer does not, however, indicate a lack of thought or learning. To the contrary, my growth, happiness, capacity for love, and levels of contentment are at a new height. As such, this post is a way to finally mark and celebrate the months that have led me to this place in an ongoing journey that is still characterized by numerous big unknowns. Fortunately, the angst that I typically experience in light of such unknowns has been quietly dissipating.

Since January the plans for my life have felt quite unsure. Looking back, a short review includes how a year-long relationship ended and then, after another season of effort and frustration, ended again. My dissertation started with the new year but by May the progress I had made in writing abruptly stopped and took on a new direction, which still has yet to develop in any significant way. Plans to relocate to another city for my final year of grad school were thwarted by numerous external forces, and the summer grant that I had applied for didn't come through leaving me without a teaching assignment or a source of income for a couple of months. At the end of May I went back to Idaho for a week, and as usual, it brought up some difficult emotions. The hardest of them arose when I learned that one of my longest sources of feeling the security of "home" wasn't actually where I thought it had been for so many years. In terms of things falling away, then, I felt vulnerable and insecure from the inside out. Relationships with partners and my most inspiring philosopher-friends no longer felt close. The places where I knew or thought I would be most comfortable where far away ( in terms of geographic locations and even classroom spaces given that I took a teaching-release last semester to write my dissertation and haven't taught a class since last fall). Six months prior to the start of June I could not have anticipated that I would be single and wary of having any new love interests, that I would have no usable pages of my dissertation, or that I would be waiting tables in State College, Pennsylvania. Such is the case, I guess, when one is struck with a period of floundering.

Looking back on my posts from the winter and spring, the predominant theme is that of letting go and gracefully wading through the unknown turns of each passing month. Strangely enough, it has become more apparent to me this summer than ever before that many, many of my friends are also "floundering." Of course, Facebook assures me that plenty of people with whom I went to high school are married, having babies, and buying homes (as if such things are mutually exclusive from the experience of floundering...). I can also see that it is possible to finish a dissertation, earn that PhD, and even get a job at some university (I know a small handful of people who have actually done it!...though I'm skeptical that this alone prevents them from being flounderers, too). But I also know slews of really smart and talented people who are reluctant to go to the top-rated graduate program that accepted them for this coming fall. I know a lot more who are already in school and reluctant to finish, or if they plan to finish, they don't have any intention of pursuing the career that presumably follows the degree. I have friends who have quit their jobs and moved to different cities. After a few months, some of them moved right back to where they were. I've seen people pick up a trade, start their own businesses, create their own niche, and promote the shit out of their homemade goodies on their personal blog. I've watched people my age and others who are well into their thirties and beyond stay single, stay in obviously dissatisfying relationships, end seemingly working relationships, start new ones, call off engagements, get married, and get divorced. Sometimes kids are in the mix: people marry and have kids, they get married with kids already in the picture, they parent children who are not their own, or they hold off on having kids all together. The theme now and again: Life, work, and love are not necessarily linear in their progression.

As the summer wanes and I prepare for another academic year (I hesitate to say "my last academic year" for I do not know for sure where I will be this time next year) I am setting to begin writing another first chapter to my dissertation and will soon begin reviewing the syllabus I wrote for my fall classes. I am in the same house that I have lived in for the past three years in the same town but I am accompanied by one of my best friends and my boyfriend (the one I was reluctant to fall in love with at the beginning of June). I have committed to love and be loved by him for every day that I am, and we are talking about plans to someday have our own restaurant. The rest of the story is not simple by any means but I'll save the details. In short, six months ago I couldn't have ever guessed that I would be right where I am. I wouldn't have expected to be smoking again. I couldn't have anticipated the things that I worry about now. I didn't expect to lose touch with and then reconnect through a heavy sort of conversation with so many of my also-floundering-friends. I would have been disappointed beyond belief in myself by the fact that I haven't gone dancing in almost two months. At the same time, I wouldn't have believed it possible for me to feel this loved, understood, supported, and appreciated, especially not after the May that I had (or, let's be honest, after the many years that I've had in relationships). I didn't know that there were so many wonderful people already around me  whom I would soon be eager to call "friends" and "family." And I could have only hoped that I would be so blessed to fill my days with such great food, great conversations, great hugs, and great moments of trust, compassion, love, and genuine excitement for each day that has been, is, will soon be, and are yet to come. I didn't know that in spite of so many unknowns that are still ahead and how many things still feel out of my control that I could be so deeply fulfilled and happy.

here are two happy pictures to break up the apparent heaviness of this post.
filled with happiness and cheese
I'm thrilled to feel so good and safe in my situation right now, but getting here was hardly by my own doing. Without a doubt, the lessons I've learned this summer have been inspired by the complexity of the experiences of those closest to me. By seeing how others have moved through the past years and months, these thoughts have occupied the forefront of my mind all summer: Fortunate things like meeting someone truly incredible, feeling uplifted and inspired by what surrounds you, and being able to do what you absolutely love for a living do happen. At the same time though, unfortunate things happen, too, like accidents, jail sentences, identity theft, layoffs, infidelity, debt, disease and medical emergencies, death, divorce, addiction, bankruptcy, and even the stuff that we really can't anticipate like corrupt institutional scandals that undermine the well-being of entire communities, violent hate crimes, and movie theater massacres, just to name a few from recent weeks. Maybe my heightened exposure to the lot of difficult life-things is a product of the poor economy and the negative messages that saturate our news media. Or, maybe I'm hanging out with the wrong crowds, the ones comprised of indecisive, unambitious, confused, and perhaps even slightly masochistic folks who don't know the difference between the good and the right decisions and the bad and the wrong ones (though I highly doubt this). Or, maybe it's just that the veil is finally starting to lift and I'm beginning to see more clearly how hardly anything in life works out the way we were told it would or expect it to. Maybe that means that life is hard or that nothing in life works out at all. Or, maybe that's just how life works.

As my awareness grows to how much I haven't known about the "adult-things" of real life thanks to my youth, my path so far, and no doubt  to my own privilege and concomitant ignorance, I am gaining a much greater respect and admiration for those who continue to approach each day with strength and resilience, even in the face of a long list of unfortunate twists and turns that have shaped who and where they are today. I'm impressed by those who can continue to plan for life with a sense of optimism and hope despite how their experience has already proved to them that things will often be more difficult than they are easy. My guess is that, at times, this optimism is probably supported by a deep appreciation for the fortunate things that do of course happen in life (yes, the big things, but especially the small things, too), but also from an appreciation for the fact that even unfortunate circumstances can give way to really terrific things; the proverbial lotus flower grows from the muck and mud. Perhaps most inspiring, even if a bit counter-intuitive, is the possibility that those who have maintained their resilience through adversity are more in touch with their strength and trust enough in themselves and in life to rest assured that whatever comes their way, they will be able to make it through. 

Appreciating the challenges that other people face, and not to mention taking into consideration how content I am right now with where I'm at, I feel silly and slightly embarrassed about how worried I was for the first half of the year and how frantically I wanted to secure where I would be, what I'd be doing, and who I would have around me. Of course I know it's foolish to deny that things change, but I think the redundancy of my writing over those months was a reflection of just how hard it can be to openly accept each day as it comes. With respect to each of those factors in my life that felt so out of my control, I had to heighten my response of graceful patience precisely because, deep-down, I wanted so much for them to stay on one predictable course and run in one predictable way even if it meant that I would ultimately be doing things that I didn't really want to be doing or would be in situations that weren't really good for me. Now, I think about my friends who are struggling in light of their own floundering. Some are staying in relationships and ultimately settling for someone who doesn't appreciate them rather than taking the risk that they can be happier with someone who is yet unknown to them. Some are really apprehensive about their commitment to an academic program or a job rather than considering that an opportunity for something that engages their passion and interest has yet to present itself (or they have yet to see it before them already). In other words, loads of my friends are too afraid to see what can be found if one really flounders.

No matter how corny it sounds, in situations like these it might be helpful to remember that life changes everything and everything in life can change. We will encounter unexpected challenges so we don't need to make it any harder by keeping ourselves in situations that are already difficult and unhealthy. It might behoove us to save our resilience for when we really need it. On the other side of that same coin, though, is the point that we don't need to be be afraid of choosing a healthy change for ourselves. Rather than merely crossing our fingers and hoping that it will happen somewhere along the way, we can take the risk for something different, something better.

A line that I always repeat to myself, my friends, and my students is, "Something will happen." After this summer, I'm realizing that one can also add, "No matter what happens, something will come of it." Those two seemingly vacuous statements become more meaningful once we learn to appreciate that "good" and "bad" are only relative terms that take on new meanings and new appearances with each passing day. We just have to be patient enough, and strong enough, to make it through.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Difficult Silence of Ineffability

my heart, my body, my brain
The waiting of three months with not-knowing certainty pushed me to new limits of patience and understanding. With its end came sadness, but at least also a sense of finality. In the three weeks that have passed I've been trying to openly embrace my transition into a different phase, but here, it's been difficult. Arriving at this new place meant acknowledging that the few things I held close were more deeply falling away. Truthfully, I can muster heavy welcomes to greet these changes, and despite my wish to be filled with the lightness of being, I'm holding breath with my insecurities. Keeping them next to me without pushing away means finding new resources of courage to battle the loneliness of independence. In the meantime, I've managed to maintain. It results, however, in a penetrating silence.

At once, I turn to write. To explain. If only through signs and gestures.

What one fears must not be stated was admitted in these past few weeks. Numerous times. It's been no secret, however, that the narrow path which leads to a well-outlined yet seldom-realized future has always stirred up fears of compromise and settling in me. Nevertheless, the audience changes everything. Lest one be confused, I'm referencing multiple things, for the pattern is similar and provides a structure for one big picture. Within a matter of days I managed to articulate my biggest worry of becoming something that I never wanted to be--pushed further ahead, yet at the same time away, by the expectations of what it means to do philosophy. Without missing a beat, questions of love, passion, commitment, insight, creativity, and utilizing one's strengths immediately come to the surface. Not surprising, of course, because strengths serve as anchor points. They find holds, take root, and support successes. Like seeds, they are what nourish any amount of life, growth, and change, and once planted, something can emerge. The matter for consideration is where to do one's planting. In whom and under what conditions. At the same time, I wonder if one can wait to realize a different when.

At these moments I can feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and weak. It's not the levels of complexity that I see which feel burdensome, but rather the inability to share with others what is burgeoning within me. Words cannot be robust or quick enough. They would each need something like four dimensions in order to reach across the overlaps and  the scope that constitutes the nexus within me. So I turn elsewhere for inspiration. As I hold my exhale, I read.

Thinking back on all that I have gained in the last year and the efforts that I put in to bear those fruits, the light falls on my relationships. But my sadness is compounded by the fact  that one of my most unique relationships has had to be reshaped, relegated, and in a sense, released. For years I longed for time enough to develop a sufficient amount of understanding, to acquire the required sense for feeling meaning and living theory, and finally, after five months of realizing this profound connection, my own experience has left me speechless. The reality is that I am not capable of overlooking this insufficiency. It seems strange that the words of another who is so different could resonate so intimately, and yet like any love relationship, it takes effort and commitment to meet with someone in this space. That, no doubt, is a rare achievement. Don't let another beat skip. You might mishear what I mean. Nevertheless, I feel something like a sense of...betrayal, for his words have wrapped me in a contradiction that is nearly too difficult to bear. A 'Yes' means I do, and the affirmation reaches to my bones. But simultaneously, such an affirmation leaves me feeling alone. The deeper I go, the harder it is to wear the necessary masks and perform. I do not resent him for sharing his wisdom, and I know that my task it to go on, but for the next year, I am making it all up from a false start. And I anticipate what a struggle it will be to remain on the surface and play as I outline the contours of these errors. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Amor Fati

There are many things that I don't get very well. I don't understand how or if the mass of the planet and the speed of the earth's rotation compel me to stay stagnant to counter how much I'm already moving, or if the gravity of the sun which keeps our little ball in orbit affects my moods more than the rise and fall of its good mornings and good-byes do. Maybe it's the the tug of our growing and fading moon which hovers around so silently yet stirs up the crashing of waves that pulls my spine upright as I exhale the fog of my mind away. Perhaps it's as simple as the tectonic plates that move at the rate of a fingernail's pace that won't let my heart feel fully grounded. In precisely one year, I've taken a wide revolution around the sun while ten million breaths have come and gone, and after it all, I'm still right where I had begun. I've found myself here again. The air remains crisp, sometimes too thin to bear, but upon this return--  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Rats 'N Cats

This is a new project I am doing with a friend. We are having a ball with it!!!

You can also 'LIKE' us on Facebook now...because we have a fan page.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Past That Led to the Future From Here

A deceptively simple picture of the next year for me looks something like this: Get favorite local friend to move in, enjoy the summer months with boyfriend before he moves to Boston for dental school, finish out last year of grad school, collect some PhDs, then move after May 2013 to the next phase of my life, wherever that may be.

Simple enough.

But two weeks ago the picture of my future looked totally different. It was rushed, panicked, scary, unknown, with lots of loose ends and multiple possibilities that kept getting thwarted, changed, surfaced, or foreclosed. That's because the past two months of my life have left me consumed with unexpected changes that have invited new imaginings and called for attempts to solidify new future plans. Three weeks into the new year, my relationship was abruptly ended, meaning my plans to move to Boston in the summer to be with him where suddenly blocked. Since I had been planning to move for a while, my roommate set her housing plans for next year and signed a new lease, which wasn't a problem since I was still planning on moving for my own professional and personal reasons. In the meantime, I visited Chicago, fell in love with the city, and pretty much decided that I wanted to move there. Figuring out when I could move was hinging on a grant that I applied for. And other summer plans were still to be figured out--namely, my plan to drive my car back to the west with him in May and take a one-way flight back to PA together was either going to require me to 1) cut my losses and waste his ticket, do the cross-country trip solo, and relinquish my car then and make do for the rest of the summer, or 2) buy another one-way ticket there and figure out the how to get rid of the car before moving to Chicago (or just take it with me). But it was only a week or so after we broke up before he and I started spending time together again, so it might also be possible that 3) we still end up taking the trip together.  After about five weeks he and I eventually got back together, the possibility of me moving to Boston was reintroduced, I had applied for a summer grant, and he would be auditioning for a summer gig in Cape Cod. If we both got what we were shooting for, I would have money (good thing) and be locked into staying in town for the summer, and he would get paid (good thing) but would leave town in May, cutting even more into our time together, time that would be very helpful in terms of us getting solid again in our relationship, especially if I were to move to Boston.

With all of this up in the air, I was already feeling dizzy. Do I move to Chicago for myself, a city that I love, with friends, and a place that I could afford? Or do I move to Boston for a relationship that's better now than ever, but I'm still recovering from a break up, not to mention that Boston is expensive, I'd have to live with stranger-roommates even though I'm at a place in life where I want to have my own place? What if I get the grant? What if I don't and I could leave sooner (but to where)? What if he goes to Cape Cod?  In order to avoid having more than one panic attack, I tried hard to breathe, wait, be patient, and trust myself to make a good decision when I had to. And I turned to Twitter for my venting.

so i drew this picture of rising balloons on a paper towel
As each day would bring new information, new feelings to consider, and new options, I had to allow myself to settle into a feeling of release. Nothing was settled, and try as I might to make plans, something would change. Like when the airlines called me one afternoon to explain that they were no longer servicing flights from Boise to Philadelphia, and they couldn't change my ticket to another airline. The only available option was to give me a full refund on those two one-way tickets. Perfect. I may have been the only one to be relieved by that drastic business failure. And then I was reminded in a very tangible way that one can always depend on the fact that something will happen. Things change.

On one particular day a couple of weeks ago, my boyfriend-again and I managed to swing free tickets to Boston for the weekend of his audition for the a cappella group enabling me to join him for the trip. Maybe he would get it, maybe he would take the Cape Cod gig. Maybe I would fall in love with the city. Maybe I could see myself living there by the end of the summer. Maybe we would end up in Boston after all. Big maybes.

But the day before we left (the same day that I learned that I didn't get the grant I had applied for), I got an email from my advisor giving me an early heads-up about some policy changes in our department that, if (but more likely when) put into practice would drastically affect the possibility of me relocating at all. In short, even if I got assigned to teach online classes, I would have to stay in this small little university town in order to continue getting my health benefits and a paycheck. If I wanted to move then, I would have to find compelling academic reasons for moving that the administration would be willing to approve (and other professional or personal reasons won't seem to carry much weight). So, bon voyage to Boston, a place where I couldn't live even if I really wanted to! Talk about feeling like walls are being thrown up around me.

The Boston trip was good. It involved some really amazing and meaningful opportunities for us to be together. Perhaps it was the policy changes in my department (or the entire situation actually) that afforded a unique kind of distance. I felt that, in a way, the weekend enabled us to witness the great, the good, and the room for improvement in our relationship. By the end of the weekend I was feeling closer to him than I had over the past two months, more confident in us, and more available to the idea of us being together for the long term than ever before. And, ironically, at the same time it became clear to me that I couldn't see myself moving to Boston this summer, even if my department would allow it. It would feel too rushed, too fast, too risky. If I were to force a move anywhere, it would be to Chicago. In the interest of us, it seemed like the best option would be for me to stay at Penn State.

Yet, over the weekend I explained to him how I was feeling like nothing was presenting itself as a viable option. Everything felt far-away, unlikely, or that it would take the will of a god to manufacture and manifest into reality. To take a step in any direction felt like forcing it.

I usually make my decisions with a kind of ease. It's because I really value what the Taoists call "wu-wei," or "effortless action." (Read the Tao of Pooh if you want a decent introduction to Taoism. I love it.) It involves working with the circumstances, yielding to the elements that one encounters, and using the structure of the situation that surrounds you to accomplish your goals. It's not about being completely passive. You don't just float like a leaf or a dead corpse down the river. But it's not about "taking the bull by the horns" and asserting oneself to command a situation either. If you battle a bull or swim up stream, you're going to expel a lot of energy, tire yourself out, struggle, and end up feeling pretty defeated without actually getting that far in the end. More than being completely passive or completely "active" by manipulating and orchestrating a situation, the idea of effortless action is to go with the flow. It's cliche and we've heard it before, but there's wisdom there.

Upon the evening of our return from Boston, the pieces finally started to fall together and I was beginning to see the structures within the situation. My department won't let me leave unless I become a certified miracle-worker. But if I don't try to work a miracle, I would end up teaching students in three more classes, face to face. In other words, I'd be doing what I love for another year and conveniently still have my car, still get paid, still have health insurance, and still save money. Since he couldn't commit to two summers of singing in Cape Cod, he didn't get in the group, which means that he'll still be around until August. In other words, we have more time together, and when he moves to Boston, maybe we'll be strong enough to endure ten months long distance. One of the final loose ends to wrap up would be finding a roommate who isn't a total loser, slacker, or scumbag. And wouldn't you know it, upon my return from the weekend trip, one of my best friends decided that she didn't want to make a drastic move to Chicago just yet either, and the best and easiest option for her would be to stay in State long as she could find a place to stay. So, things can and do work out. Now all I need to do is find a way to make money this summer.

For the past two months I have tried very hard to discipline myself to be patient, stay open, to wait, and put enough trust in myself to know that I will make sure that I am okay. There were more times than I can recall when all I wanted to do was make something happen, start putting plans together, take steps in any direction at all. But as I said before, the anxiety and stress of waiting, and even of being open to him again, was rooted to the intense vulnerability of my position. For that reason, I knew that to make a move in any direction would at the same time mean that I turn my back on other possibilities. I wasn't ready to take the bull by the horns and do that just yet.

I'm not saying that everything happens for a reason in the sense that God had a plan for me all along. Despite often feeling like the World/Universe/God/Fate/Stars/Chance were all working against me or sending me signals in the form of little hindrances and gigantic roadblocks, neither do I think that one has to posit some kind of transcendent intentionality behind the happenings of the past two months. What I can say is that things change. In spite of those changes, and because of other changes, I'm finally feel like things are settling after a very tumultuous two months. I can breathe again, my head is cleared, and I am happy with the picture of the next year that is projected before me. Of course things will still continue to change and I can't predict where I'll be in two or twelve months from now or who will be with me, but at least I like where I am now. I love those who are next to me. And I feel like I can finally take steps on some reasonably solid ground.
In order to get here, I've had to discipline myself to this lesson: There is ease in letting go, patiently waiting, and gracefully embracing the spirit of each new day. Doing so apparently leads to moments and places where you can snap pictures like this, which I think somehow capture the essence of what it feels like to go with the flow of life.