Groupthink

August 29, 2009

hands
You don’t get harmony when everybody sings the same note. ~Doug Floyd

I have just read Doris Lessing’s Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, and it has caused me to reflect on my relationship to family, community, and groups over the course of my life. “Very few people indeed” Lessing says, “are happy as solitaries, and they tend to be seen by their neighbours as peculiar or selfish or worse.” She concedes that we are group animals, and the problem is not in belonging to groups, but “not understanding the social laws that govern groups and govern us.”

For groups exert pressure to conform. In groups, we believe we are acting as individuals, and can point to our differences of opinion as evidence. But there are underlying assumptions and sacred cows that are never discussed–that are usually not even noticed–by those within the group. Lessing holds that there are very few nonconformists, “original minds,” and that “on them depends the health, the vitality of all our institutions.”

I am in a period of very little interaction with groups but have felt hungry for community. Can I move back into community with an open heart that will also accommodate a cool, self-aware head? One encouraging passage in Lessing reports that “researchers of brain-washing and indoctrination discovered that people who knew how to laugh resisted best.” People who don’t laugh at themselves, she says, include fanatics, bigots, tyrants, and oppressors. “True believers don’t laugh. Their idea of laughter is a satirical cartoon pillorying an opposition person or idea.”

May I embrace my “group animal” nature without succumbing to groupthink. May I laugh open-heartedly and open-mindedly at myself!


Plain, Common Work

May 26, 2009

The best things in life are nearest; breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life’s plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

I can hardly believe it’s been 21 days since my last post. What happened? Busy-ness. Vacation at Fort Mountain State Park. The Evergreen (software) International Conference. Excitement about the idea of starting my own consulting business. Family caretaking. Not enough yoga. Out-of-town meetings. Business lunches (fortune cookie: “A bold and dashing adventure is in your future within the year.”). Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival. Too much Facebook. Lots of reading (Olive Kitteridge may take its place among my favorites.).

Daily duties, daily bread. Sweet.


In Praise of Slowness

May 4, 2009

There is more to life than increasing its speed. ~Gandhi

For fast-acting relief from stress, try slowing down. ~Lily Tomlin

Carl Honoré gives us a wonderful introduction to the Slow movement with his book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed. For a long time, I have included on my blogroll a weblink for Slow Down Now, the delightful “official” website of The International Institute of Not Doing Much. Honoré has produced a more serious work on this topic, described by the Minneapolis Star Tribune as “part reportage, part manifesto…an engaging, well-written journey into the various ways that people around the globe have attempted to live more patiently.”

Honoré is not against speed on principle, pointing out that “speed has helped us to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating,” using the examples of the Internet and jet travel. He just cautions us against “accelerating things that should not be accelerated.” He is against overwork, sleep deprivation, children coming home to empty houses, and our society’s loss of the art of doing nothing. We must use speed and slowness in tandem to avoid the crazymaking do-everything-faster mindset. (The author’s wake-up call was when he found himself elated to discover “One-Minute Bedtime Stories” to read to his two-year-old son.)

In one of the bleaker passages he writes, “Time-sickness can also be a symptom of a deeper, existential malaise. In the final stages before burnout, people often speed up to avoid confronting their unhappiness. [Milan] Kundera thinks that speed helps us block out the horror and barrenness of the modern world: ‘Our period is obsessed with the desire to forget, and it is to fulfill that desire that it gives over to the demon of speed; it picks up the pace to show us that it no longer wishes to be remembered, that it is tired of itself, sick of itself; that it wants to blow out the tiny trembling flame of memory.'”

I do think we often use speed to avoid living fully, to “temporarily” escape the awareness of death, to self-stimulate. Honoré reminds us, “All the things that bind us together and make life worth living–community, family, friendship–thrive on the one thing we never have enough of: time.”

May we be mindful of our obsession with speed!


Lost Fathers

November 23, 2008

I believe in stories. The world has enough dogma. It’s stories we need more of, stories that reverence the still, small voice that sings our life. ~Sue Monk Kidd

Sometimes I am astonished by synchronicities and things that come to me when I need them. I’m not even sure how I heard about the book on writing by Laraine Herring that I loved so much and mentioned here. When I read it, I felt as though I had a new friend! And now that book has led me to another book by her, Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal From Adolescent Father Loss. Today I read it in one sitting. (That’s not entirely true; I stopped between chapters to have lunch!)

I even began doing the writing exercises at the end of each chapter, the “re-storying” Herring suggests. I was doubtful that I would find anything new by writing about it, as I was pretty certain I’d been sufficiently over this ground. But I was wrong. I am looking at my experience from a new perspective, and so discovering new things. As Herring says, “Time shifts our stories.”

And so today I’m grateful for Laraine Herring and this book, for writing that helps me discover and connect with feelings, and for the opportunity to “re-story” my life in a way that is in alignment with who I am now.

If you think of your life as a storyline, how is the story different today than it was at other times in your life?


Memorial

November 16, 2008

No person was ever honored for what he or she received. Honor is the reward for what he or she gave. ~Calvin Coolidge

Yesterday, there was a lovely memorial service for my sister-in-law at the family homeplace. She lived less than five months after her diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and it is still hard to believe she is gone. It was gratifying to see the many people she had touched and to hear their testament to her passion and fierce advocacy for those with disabilities. We all learned something new about the meaning of her life.

This was my contribution:

So strange–that small, still space
your ashes now inhabit. We had no time,
no time to solve for x: the family minus you.

I want to remember how you rose early,
mornings at Edna’s, and made the blessed coffee,
reading us the headlines from the kitchen table.

I want to remember how you insisted
we always decorate a Christmas tree,
all of us glad for our effort in the end.

I want to remember how you doted
on your mackerel tabby,
before the pain made you push him away.

I want to remember how we could taunt you
with bananas, before the cancer
stole your appetite, wasted you.

I want to remember how you could make me laugh
without fail, even when you had little
left to laugh about.

Though I know almost nothing,
of this one thing I am certain:
There is laughter where you are.


Deeper and Wider

August 19, 2008

You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth. ~Shira Tehrani

I have been considering death and dying a lot lately, as death’s shadow falls on members of my family. Of course, mortality and the knowledge of our mortality are conditions with which we all have to contend. As a young person, I remember thinking I had some sort of “edge” on understanding it because of losing a parent at 14. But midlife brings a new level, a new way, of understanding. Life is a spiral, after all.

Given that the length of my life is an unknown, I am cheered to think about having at least some measure of influence over the “width and breadth” of my existence. Learning every day is one of the most important ways I sustain myself and engage with the world. Writing is one way of learning, as I write into understanding, not from it. Today I am profoundly grateful for learning, for writing, and for you, the imagined reader.

Namaste. (All that is best and highest in me greets and honors all that is best and highest in you.)


Health

July 27, 2008

Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open. ~B. K. S. Iyengar

If I’d known I was going to live so long, I’d have taken better care of myself. ~Leon Eldred

When I was very young (no older than 5, I’m sure), I spent one afternoon learning to ride a bicycle–under conditions that were hardly ideal. At that time, I didn’t have a bike of my own, so I learned on a 26″ model that belonged to my older sister. Luckily, I was a long-legged kid, so I could (just barely) reach the pedals. But I had no access to pavement, only a grassy slope on which to practice. Over and over, I fell, I got up, I walked to the top of the gentle hill, got back on, and tried again. I wanted to ride that bicycle more than I wanted anything that day.

An alarming thing happened at Pilates class last Thursday. I began sweating and shaking, turned pale as a ghost, and thought I would either throw up or faint, I wasn’t sure which. I know blood sugar dips, since I have had to pay attention to those for many years, and it wasn’t that. I attributed it to overdoing when I was depleted already, possible mild dehydration, and forgetting I was out of shape and no longer 18 years old. But the more disturbing thing was that it happened again Friday night, when I awoke from sleep in that condition. I am feeling much sturdier today, but am resolved to see my doctor.

There is a rash of health-related problems in my family at the moment. Stroke, dementia, and pancreatic cancer, to name a few. And it makes sense that illness in those close to us (and especially those close to our own age) can make us feel vulnerable and anxious about our own well-being. It feels impossible to separate the effects of the mental state, the worry about health, from those of the physical condition itself.

I have practiced healthy living only sporadically at best, and it is not for lack of information. I know what eating plan works for me, what things I should avoid (sugar, alcohol, the high-fat foods I love so much), what exercise I enjoy and am most likely to stick with (yoga), and what helps in controlling stress (mindfulness, connection to others). Yet I have fallen down on this grassy slope over and over, and I have to think it is because of some inability to fully commit, to want health more than anything. Though what could be more important in this life than what opens the gates of the soul?


Conformity

June 2, 2008

We forfeit three-fourths of ourselves, in order to be like other people.  ~Arthur Schopenhauer

My mother used to tell a story she found amusing. It was about coming to fetch me from school in the first grade. I was standing in front of the class when she arrived, pretending not to know my colors. I don’t remember this event, but this is one of the saddest stories I’ve ever heard.

For I had been happily reading at least since age 5, had known my colors for far longer, and was academically way ahead of most of my first-grade class when I began school. But I had been admonished so strongly not to “show off,” to be like others so I would be liked, that I had hidden my abilities in the quest for acceptance.

It was many years before I was aware of my conditioning, and many more before I could move beyond it. Even still, I find myself thinking, “How will this look to others?” when I decide on a course of action. This is actually a skill that has served me well in career and political situations, but I have had to come to an understanding about the limits on its value. And I have suffered from applying it in situations where it is not needed.

I think this explains why authenticity is so very important to me now. I cannot bear to pretend any longer that I am something I am not. I actually think age is helpful in this regard, as we who are in public service approach retirement and can be whoever we are. How do you deal with this dilemma, in a political world?


Community

April 19, 2008

Once we become relatively independent, our challenge is to become effectively interdependent with others. ~Stephen Covey

Woke to gentle rain
Mist obscures the distant hills
Funeral today

We have lost something in our movement away from communal living. A lone city dweller might argue that the extended family brings too much closeness, calls for too much conformity, but (paradoxically), through it we may actually learn to be more tolerant of differences. Take the “crazy aunt” or that “funny cousin”–yes, they were labeled and talked about, but were still accepted as part of the family, and could count on the support of the group in times of crisis. Robert Frost said it well: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

I have had a love-hate relationship with community and family all my life. Because I felt like the “different one” in my immediate family, and because we had no extended family in our town, I have always had a certain craving to live anonymously, to be left alone, or at least not discouraged in becoming who I was to be. It is probably a big reason I didn’t have children of my own.

I am grateful, though, for my socialization, my ability to “look like” part of a group, to fit in where I can without self-betrayal. And I am so very thankful for my husband and close friends, who serve as my chosen community/family. May I continue to nurture my close relationships, and also be more open to the larger community around me.


The Beauty We Love

February 20, 2008

Today, like every other day, we wake up empty and frightened.
Don’t open the door to the study and begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

~Rumi

What a beautiful last line. It almost makes up for Rumi’s dissing of reading! 😉 And just look at that first line that describes the human condition–not one that’s special (“like every other day”) nor one that is unique to us as individuals (“we wake up”). The question Rumi begs here, of course, is “What is the beauty you love?” This poem is one answer for me.

Only in midlife have I begun to understand that this is the right question, much less to consider the answers to the question. As a child, I don’t remember having dreams about what I would be when I grew up. It didn’t occur to me to aspire to anything in particular, even though I came from a solidly middle-class household that valued education and achievement. Possibly this was true for many girls, whose socially acceptable options typically consisted of teacher, nurse, wife and mother. Most certainly, though, the question in my family would have had more to do with accomplishment as measured by society than with the beauty I loved. 

So…what is the beauty I love? Poetry, words, music, textural arts (fiber, glass, multimedia), laughter, yoga, living spaces with feng shui, human connection, singing. What is the beauty you love?


Home

February 5, 2008

Our stories tell us who we are.  ~Donald Davis

I’ve been around this world in more ways than one.
But when I’m with you, it’s like I’m right where I come from.
 
~Iris DeMent

What would it be like to reclaim home? I couldn’t wait to get away, I never go back anymore, and yet most of my dreams are still set there.  

The truth is, I have been returning in subtle ways for a while now: I bought a painting of the marsh; wrote poems about my grandmother (and the marsh); hung the amazing charcoal drawing that Christy did at eight years old, partly because it reminds me of the bank of the creek where I grew up.

I find home in my husband, am “at home” with my friends, have stories beyond my childhood home that tell me who I am. But a huge part of me was shaped by the place I grew up. I may finally understand this poem I wrote in 1991.

Marsh

Morning shone on the coverlet
The near corner, fluttering
An entrance–or an exit.

Noon bared the muddy theater.
The brazen crane strutted,
As if on his last promenade.

Green-yellow, faded now
The marsh hens trip like debutantes in the fringe
But fear a miring in the middle.

Come night, great equalizer
Bring easy honesty
When entrances and exits are the same.

(originally published in Georgia Journal, Summer 1991)


Holidays

December 22, 2007

Anything is good material for poetry. Anything.  ~William Carlos Williams

Holidays have always been hard for me, since they involve seeing family. I remember a number of years when it was the end of February before I felt fully recovered from the experience of visiting family at Christmas. Ram Dass (with tongue in cheek) invites anyone who thinks they’re enlightened to spend time with family. At any rate, holidays remind me of family, and family reminds me of this poem.

Elegy For One Aggrieved

Yours was the sin of age.
Sedated in your easy chair
you had the eyes of the wild raccoon
on the screened-in porch
when the children blocked her escape.

Taken for a walk on forgiving ground
you suddenly knew what to do.
I tightened on your forearm to keep you
from lying down in each leafy depression
to die.

Later, in an unholy place,
people scurried to preserve your pulse
while you stared, leaden,
at the silly tins of peppermints
and would not eat.

Mine was the impotence of youth.
Now, on fall afternoons,
I lie in those leafy places
and cradle your grandmother bones
and softly, to your spirit, sing.

(originally published in Habersham Review, Autumn 1991)


Merging

October 3, 2007

If you forget yourself, you become the universe.  ~Hakuin

Crabbing with My Grandmother (in the marshes of Glynn)

With rattling traps, chicken necks, and string
We descend the ramp to the floating dock
Aground now, on the bank of heavy, black mud.
Scrambling fiddlers brandish white claws.
A crane rises from the bend.
Something splashes at the edge of low tide.

Only the sun can find us,
So my grandmother ties a straw hat
Under her wrinkled chin
And I wear a skimpy bathing suit
And curse the oyster bed
For cutting my feet when I swim.

My grandmother laughs and forgets herself.