Monday, February 20, 2012

"When Time and Space Don't Matter, Meet Me at The Bean": An Exegesis

On the feels-longer-than-nine-hour drive back to Pennsylvania from Chicago, Bryn asked, "So what are you going to name the album for all of these pictures?" I didn't know, and after a moment or two of pondering album titles, I stopped thinking about it. "They usually just come to me on whim when I'm uploading the pictures. I'll wait and see, I guess."

As usual, this title presented itself to me rather spontaneously. But I didn't feel very content with it at first. I liked the title well enough but it struck me as long, corny, and vague. When I thought about it some more, though, I realized that it was actually sort of complex for a title, and that was what mattered most about it. "When Time and Space Don't Matter, Meet me at The Bean" captures a lot about the trip for me--comments, memories, future possibilities, and current feelings. That's what makes it complex, and because of this, I really like it now.

Here's one surface reading of things: A friend accompanied me on the drive to a multiple-day philosophy conference in Chicago. Once we got there, we stayed with some of my friends. While we were there, we visited the Bean. A lot.

All of that is true. You could just stop there.

Part of the more surface reading also includes these bits of commentary from the car: In Ohio we realized that time and space were doing weird things. In addition to our biological clocks being thrown off from each of us getting up earlier in the middle of morning than we had anticipated, and the fact that the car, GPS device, and cd player clocks were all reporting different times and various expected durations of travel, we noted that by then we had been in the car for nearly five hours, yet in our anticipation, it felt like maybe one had passed. We were far from PA, moving through states on a Wednesday morning, leaving behind our normal routines and typical worries, wondering "how did we get this far already?" It's weird to just be able to jump in a car, hit the road, and go. You end up somewhere so totally far away from where you usually physically and psychologically live your day to day. It reminds you that such changes are not only possible but quite do-able. Despite my attempt to recall how I addressed McTaggart's Time Paradox in my metaphysics class during my senior year, it didn't get too philosophical. That much was saved for when I presented at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

In the car, though, I simply said, "Welcome to Ohio, Bryn! Where time and space do weird things."

Here's another important element of the trip that relates to the title: The day that I presented my paper at the philosophy conference was the very same day that a friend of mine from high school turned 26, and a birthday celebration is a perfect reason to travel from Pennsylvania and reconnect. Even though facebook allows me to be in pretty regular contact with some people from Eagle, Idaho, there are very, very few among those historical peers whom I actually see on a yearly basis when we go home for the holidays. Lee was in my class and he is one of them. He went to Cal Poly for college, moved to Chicago to do improv, and put Bryn and me up for the four nights of our visit. Luke, his older brother, is another one of those friends from high school. He went to Gonzaga in Washington (the state) and has been living in LA for a few years now. The youngest of these brothers, Matt, graduated high school one year after Lee and me and went to college at UC-Boulder. Even though I was just north of him by a little over an hour at Colorado State for three years, we actually didn't see each other much after high school. Lucky break, then, that he also now lives in Chicago. Our Idaho roots brought us from the east and the west to the windy city, where we also reconnected with the other Luke from our high school theater group. Go figure, he moved to Chicago a while back, too. (All three of these brothers were mentioned before in this blog post. They are all still doing very well for themselves.) (It turns out that a couple of other people from theater also live in Chicago. While a key member of our group of friends from theater is currently in Scotland, we missed her and she was there with us in spirit. Furthermore, on the morning that I left, Lee got a message from our other senior class valedictorian informing Lee that he just moved to the city. I didn't see him, even though it would have been totally awesome.)

 Much more than ten years have passed within our various friendships, but this was the very first time that we all met up in a different place. A different city. Even if we didn't actually all go to The Bean together. 

There were a couple of one-on-one meet ups with people who have unique space/time significance for me: I had brunch on Friday morning with someone whom I hadn't actually met before face-to-face. We have been friends on facebook for a number of years now thanks to similar personal and philosophical interests. She is from and lives in Chicago, and while our paths have been aligned for some time, they never quite crossed (she was a participant in PIKSI, a summer philosophy institute at Penn State in 2006. I did PIKSI in 2007). I had dinner with another friend from Halifax, Nova Scotia. We met at Penn State as graduate assistants for PIKSI in 2009. Since that one week that we had together, we've made it a point to try and meet up for an annual coffee or dinner date whenever we find ourselves at the same conference. Apart from our time at Penn State then, this means that I've only had the pleasure of her company for something like ten hours or less, which took place in DC, Montreal, and now Chicago. In a strange way, we've only ever met in time and space. Nevertheless, she is one of my dearest friends for whom I care very, very much.

In addition to my high school friends, one has to remember that newer friends were part of the whole ordeal, too: Bryn and I met just barely over a year ago through a mentorship program at PSU. Now that she's been my mentee and my student, she's also one of my best friends, and it was awesome that she was part of the weekend that I will now lovingly describe as "when friend worlds collided." She met my old friends. We met Lee's improv friends. They were all so cool, so fun, and so chill that we all started acting like fast friends. Brothers, roommates, college buddies, improv teammates, and lots of other relationships from various different places and times meshed together for four days. And that collision was awesome. Seamless even to the point when one of Lee's friends was sitting shirtless at a table in a bar with us (it was for good reason) and he exclaimed, "Man, I just met you guys a couple of days ago and I just feel so comfortable around you that I don't even feel weird sitting shirtless at a table in a bar with you." He was right. It was like that a lot of the time with pretty much everyone. I met Lee's college roommate on this trip, but after seeing a video of him years and years ago I told him that I already felt like I knew him. Bryn and I danced all funky like with one guy who also ended up being our bartender on another night. We all took shots together. And that's pretty much how it went for the weekend.  I suppose it boils down to this: The collision of friend worlds can be great when you have great friends in your worlds.

So here's the summary of a more sophisticated reading of the title, "When Time and Space Don't Matter, Meet Me at The Bean": One of my favorite things about this trip was that all of these relationships, connections, intersections, and run-ins have their unique locations in time and space, and they all converged over the five days that it took to drive from PA, walk for miles around Chicago, go to three improv shows, a funk dance party, a philosophy conference, share lots of meals and beers, see The Bean multiple times, and drive back. Some of those connections have been long running, filled with years of memories or only a few moments from all of those years. Some were familiar for a while before they were realized, while others felt familiar immediately once they happened, like a really pleasant surprise. Being someone who values connections and  the ability to laugh, dance, share, and play with others above pretty much all else, I can easily say that this trip was nothing short of terrific. It felt comfortable. cozy. easy. fun. For being in a new place, it felt like the complete opposite of that alienated feeling that so often sets in when you go to different cities. In many ways, it felt warm and fuzzy and welcoming and familiar and lovely, like home.


And here's one more thing that I really love about this trip: There are lots and lots of pictures. That may not seem like a big deal. If anything, coming home with 450 pictures from 2 whole days of driving and only 3 days of actually being in the city might make it seem like we just senselessly felt the urge to capture every inane moment. But beyond the fact that each day, from the 9am start to very late end, was filled with nonstop moments that were definitely photo-capture-worthy (many of which were not even captured, such as the most amazing omelette of my life on the morning when we left), the point that is really cool and new for me is that there was a "we" that felt the urge to take all of those pictures. I love photos. I have photo albums filled with the photos that I love. So of course, I take pictures on every one of my trips. But on this trip, I wasn't the only one using my camera. Never before, in all of my years of taking pictures, has someone asked to take my camera from me for more than a quick second. Yet here there were periods of time during the parties, the walks, the adventures, and the visitations at The Bean when I didn't have my camera. Someone else was taking pictures. The brilliant effect of this is that the photos from the trip come from multiple perspectives. I spent six hours today going through those hundreds of pictures. While I ended up deleting more than half, of the 200 that I kept, many of them were taken by others. It is awesome to see how other people handle the act of collecting time and space in individual frames. And it's very cool to recognize that as my friends on facebook flip through the album, they often won't know who was behind the camera.

For me, there's something very poignant about being in front of the camera on this trip. I often take photos of myself in different locations, usually on timers or through reflections in mirrors, windows, and puddles. But on this trip, and in a new way than before, I have pictures of me there. Seeing myself in my own photos feels different, like seeing how I'm seen, but somehow different from simply being in other people's pictures. I want to say that it feels like a gift--that my friends were there, taking pictures not for themselves on their own camera, but for me on my camera. In a number of ways it feels like an act of sharing; by taking my camera they helped take in the surroundings and all of its happenings. It also feels like a lovely experience of letting go; giving up my camera, being vulnerable enough to be in front of it, and welcoming whatever image someone else takes. I can't dictate the framing, the timing, the spirit of the picture when someone else takes it. Instead, I just really appreciate the moments and images that my friends collected. The point is that the pictures themselves represent a lot of the meaning in the title for me. In a way that feels almost too indulgent, they are little, individual moments in time and space that have taken place and been given back to me, by and with friends.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

To Let.

I'm grateful for being dumped.

Not because I was terribly miserable in my relationship. And not because I was dating a complete jerk. Neither of those statements are true. In fact, I have never experienced so much fun in a relationship, such stability, and such a great amount of my own ability to trust, support, and love another person. We were often very silly. In terms of drama, it was minimal. We didn't fight. When there was tension, we acknowledged it, not as something scary that would be big enough to break us but as the very typical and expected kind of tension that can arise when two people have to consider each others' feelings and needs. And we were pretty good about communicating and checking in even on little things when they would occur. I always really appreciated how neither of us would get defensive when we would bring up concerns, worries, or minor hurts. In short, it was the best relationship I've been in so far for lots of reasons. It was in many respects the healthiest. And honestly, it may have been one of the only relationships where I actually put myself into it. Which is perhaps the very reason why I'm grateful for being dumped.

I'm grateful because I was wholly invested in it. In other words, I wasn't thinking of ending it.

But don't let my gratitude fool you into thinking that I haven't been going through a painful process. As a natural romantic, I'm anything but a heartless robot. And just because I can say that I am actually grateful a few days after the fact doesn't mean that I was deluding myself all along into thinking that I had feelings that weren't really there. Of course, I was confused, hurt, and sad and it was precisely because of my investment that the sudden end to the relationship was bewildering, hurtful, and extremely saddening. If anything, when a break up is unexpected, such feelings are to be expected, for when you are met with a decision and not a discussion from the one you love about how your relationship cannot continue, there is very little that you can do. You lose a sense of control, of participation, of choice. Someone chooses for you what you would not have chosen for yourself. I was, and I think understandably so, shocked, disappointed, and angry all at once.

But I wasn't feeling all of those emotions out of a stupid fear of being alone forever. And since I'm one to respect such a decision when it is made, hurtful as it may be, I'm not one to cling and beg and plea or try to convince anyone to stay with me. I knew that my world wasn't going to end right then. I knew that I had put everything I had into being the best partner I could have been, so I also knew that I couldn't take it personally. This means that I trusted even when that old cliche saying,"It's not you, it's me" was said. More than anything, it was the shock that hurt the most. I was angry that I wasn't part of the process, which I read as not being treated with a fair amount of respect. And my sadness was rooted to the simple fact that I had no other choice but to yield, to let. To let--something and someone whom I love--go while I was the one being left.

When I experienced my first wave of gratitude, it was because I quickly saw how my investment in the relationship meant that I would have remained in a situation even if I was the only one in it. Clearly, this is not an ideal scenario. But after years of growing and learning to be a better me, I wasn't in a place to decide against the continuation of everything that we had, not with my hard-fought, newly-found, and highly-cherished levels of patience. I could have continued on for who knows how long. I was willing to move to different cities, to offer support for many more years through debt and the acquisition of more degrees. So, despite often feeling like I was waiting for him to be in the relationship to the same extent that I was, it came down to the simple matter that he would have to gauge his own levels of commitment. If I was fully in but he wasn't, he would be the only one to truly know. And he did. On a whole other level, then, and this one is a bit more complicated, I'm also very grateful that he didn't continue on any longer out of a fear of losing me. No matter how it all went down, at least he also got to a point of being willing to let me go. There's truth in that other old saying, too, I guess, that if you really love someone, you have to be willing to let them go. I know that he loves me, and his ability to make a decision that actually keeps my trust in him intact shows an undeniable amount of respect. So for my sake, in terms of what I was not thinking to do myself and what he eventually decided to make happen for us, I'm very grateful for being dumped.

In all of this, I have been reminded of conversations with my students from last spring in my Asian Philosophies class. I used lots of real-life examples to illustrate how to break the cycle of dukkha (dis-ease, unhappiness, anxiety, fear, and suffering). As one would expect, in an attempt to relate to young college students, heartbreak in relationships was a common theme: "Imagine if you found out that your boyfriend or girlfriend was cheating on you. And then you broke up. How would you feel? What would you do?" As one would also expect, students said that they would be anything from really hurt to really pissed. Images were conjured up of infidelity in a bar scene where punches were soon thrown. Some students who thought themselves to be more enlightened said, "You should just hold it in then and not make a big deal out of it, otherwise you make things worse." Other responses went something like,"To punch someone in the face would only be contributing to more pain. If someone cheated on you, they probably weren't good enough for you anyway." And there we encountered the most subtle slip, one that goes from non-attachment and seeing the intricacies of the situation clearly to simple rationalization. Students wanted to explain it away by asserting things like, "Yeah, you can't really be hurt because it's their loss anyway" and "You shouldn't be upset because you have to know that there are better people out there who would treat you right." However, the skeptics said, "There's no way I couldn't be hurt by that! How are you not supposed to feel hurt when someone hurts you?!?" (To be clear, infidelity was not the cause of our break up. This was only one of our examples from class.)

I have caught myself in these superficially affirming modes of rationalization: "I deserve to be appreciated," "I wouldn't have been happy in the long run," "It's better off this way...." All of those may be true, but I feel weird settling into such statements as if they are magical explanations to make oneself feel better. And I certainly am not the faithfully future-oriented sort who says, "Everything happens for a reason, you just don't know it yet" so that's not going to cut it either. For me, non-attachment and the ability to let is certainly not a passivity founded on blind faith. If anything, it can only grow from a ground of seeing things deeply and clearly. And non-attachment is not the same thing as detachment or apathy. We still feel things, and should feel our feelings without bottling them up or denying them. This helps make clear why the "skeptical" students were not getting things when they assumed that one wouldn't ever feel hurt. We can still, and will, experience painful things, but if we do not cling to the sources of our pain (or even our pleasure for that matter), then that pain can be experienced apart from any kind of suffering.  And finally, non-attachment is very different from rationalization. This is perhaps the hardest one to get, but for me, to let refers to the willingness to see, to encounter, to embrace all of our experiences, even the most painful ones, with a sense of understanding that allows for love, gratitude, and compassion to take the reigns. Rather than bitterness and resentment which foster greater negativity, and rather than rationalization which is more than anything a sign of denial, aversion, an attempt to turn away from and explain the pain away, non-attachment allows us to appreciate everything for what it is.

I'm not a sociopath who is grateful for being dumped because I don't feel any human emotions at all. Neither am I a masochist who is grateful for her pain and desires more of it. Right now, I feel a whole lot. But those feelings are no longer dominated by sadness, anger, or even confusion. I'm filled with love and gratitude for him, for my very supportive friends, and for myself.

And I'm happy.