Death And The Narratives We Tell, Part II

redtreegrave

It’s funny how you can write something with one intent and it can be interpreted different ways, depending on the viewer’s filter.  My last post was not meant to be depressing or dark.  Despite how it may have appeared, I don’t actually spend too much time reliving sad memories–but reflecting on my past does shape how I carry myself in the present.

And the thing is, I do still think a lot about death, but in a totally different way.  I think about it as the end bracket to my story, and what to I want to put in there before it shows up?  Because the tomorrows do run out, and that’s not a bad thing or a good thing–it just is.  That’s what I think about.

When my grandmother died, it was a really good death.  A good death, because there was nothing left unsaid, nothing I regret about our relationship.  I got the memories of her house and sitting out on the back porch as the sun was setting, watching the bats fly around the giant tree in her backyard to the barn next door.  Memories so ingrained that they still show up in my dreams.  My ten-year-old self talking to her grandma-self, and it didn’t matter that there were 70 years between us.  The wheel of time shifts, and it is hard to say goodbye.  It’s hard accepting that nothing ever stays the same.  But here is my now, where I’m watching Shark Tank with Rowan on Friday nights, my 40-year self talking to her 10-year-old self, joking and discussing the businesses we would invest in.  This connection is just as wonderful, the love just as deep, even if the circumstances and characters change.

Our whole existence is tenuous.  Not just even that there are accidents and cancer and you know, always the minute chance that a giant asteroid will crash into earth.  It’s that the only thing that makes you you is the continuity of your perceived experiences, and even memories are less like a video recording and more like a play.  When you’re five, there aren’t many memories to even fall back upon, but as you acquire more data points of your life, you can’t possibly keep all of the relevant ones in your head at any one time.  I wonder if that’s why time seems to go faster the older you get, because you have to sift through more information and can only pay attention to so much.  And then add on that memories, like a play, change a bit in every reactment, so choosing which ones to even revisit changes you.  Then add on how each one supports your story – because it is not your brain or your body or even your atoms that make you the human you are, it is the wandering thread in the unknown tapestry that ties those experiences into you, into me.

And that’s why I am conscious of death, and it doesn’t fill me with fear or avoidance or make me unhappy.  I figure that when the time comes, it will be an experience you simply surrender to, like birth, because you have no control.  In the meantime, I have some big goals and small goals.  Really living each day like there’s no tomorrow, living only on whims is not sustainable–but big future plans have to be in balance with the here and now.

So for my thread, I want more of this.  More of having people over for dinner, talking late into the night.  More of enjoying early mornings, making tea, reading with a purring cat.  More of wrestling with my kids and doing food experiments.  More of lovemaking.  😉 More of keeping connections to old friends and always being open to the new.  More of new places, new friends, new tastes. More of enjoying lazy weekends with friends I’ve had for years.  More of making small steps to big dreams.  More of love and light, wherever I am.

This is still on my bucket list

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I’ve seen an article on this before, but the New York Times printed an article on how you can fall in love with anyone.  I have to admit, I’m intrigued.  For maximum effect, you should ask each other questions first, and that makes sense.  It’s all about priming yourself to bring down your boundaries.  I can’t recall ever doing the staring-into-each-other’s-eyes for four minutes with any man.  Four minutes is a long time.  But, I actually have done this with Rowan.

For a long, long time–since I’ve been a child–I’ve been obsessed by eyes (okay, and skulls too).  Growing up painfully introverted, eyes were a sign of judgement, disapproval, or ridicule–and I feared them.  Now, as an adult, I like to paint and draw them, and I like science macro pictures of them in all their filament glory.  But looking directly into someone’s eyes for a prolonged amount of time is a vulnerability.  It can be hard to go that deep if you’re afraid to be seen.  I may find it hard to do with adults, but I don’t worry about it with my girls.

A while back, Rowan had a school concert.  One of those things where I ended up losing half a day, because it was 2.5 hours longs and they had a dental appointment afterward.  As soon as she entered the auditorium, she looked for me.  I’m always near the front, and difficult to miss, so she found me.  That whole concert, she had her eyes locked on mine and I could not stop from tearing up.

It wasn’t about the songs, it wasn’t about the audience–it was about us.  For me, having kids breaks all those walls apart.  There is a vulnerability and a raw power to a child’s love.  I know that Rowan sees me, sees me as I truly am, and yet still loves me.  That may change as she grows older, and I accept that.  But still, to sit in semi-darkness, with her full gaze boring into me, I realize that I have forgotten that this is what is real.  I don’t know quite how to describe it.  I don’t believe that she belongs to me–she belongs to herself.  I am her steward.  But she is my daughter and we are bound together in this life.  It is beautiful to be bound so.

If there is one responsibility I have to her, it is to teach her to love.  I consider these years as setting the blueprint.  To feel what it is to be loved, so that in the future if there is a “love” that robs her of her dignity, of her respect and of herself, she will be able to tell that it is a fake love.  Love requires work and effort, but it should not require that she diminish herself.  I always tell her the truth, even all the complicated bits–and I assume she can handle it.  She will need to someday.  I love loving her, and it’s great that it is so easy to do so.  It may not always be that way, but right now, I enjoy this part of my life.

What’s interesting is that I can fully jump into this for her, but it can be harder to do it for me.  I remember talking to my doctor when I was so unhappy and considering divorce.  She pointed out that kids observe everything–that my staying in something where I was miserable was teaching them that this was normal.  Would I want them to be going through this?  And having made the choice to end it, I made sure that when the divorce was happening that the kids could see how adults would handle something so painful with integrity.

But now that chapter is done.  I am blessed with great friends and family who truly love me.  If my world was crashing down at 3:00 am and I needed help, there is more than one person I could call.  The love I have in those areas is stable and wonderful.  The great thing about love is that when you have it in one area of your life, when you feel that stability and acceptance, then it is easier to take risks with your heart.  Because like most anyone, I would very much like to be in a romantic love relationship.  I would like to experience love again, I would like to be seen again, I would like to connect to someone in that deep way.  And for that to happen, that means being open to possibility.  Knowing that you can’t always direct the flow of things, but you can be vulnerable, without walls–knowing that nothing in the future is set, but that every moment can still be enjoyed.

We’re not all like that

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I was reading an interesting article on Thought Catalog entitled, “This is How We Date Now.”  It was about frivolous connections, frivolous dates, and that such aggressive romantic screening can screen out real possibilities.  I think the beginning part might be true for some, but not much for me.  Perhaps because I am older, perhaps because I am geek, perhaps because I used to be a gamer–but that appears to be an article about the woes of beautiful people and how impatient some can be.  However, I do agree that we adopt a public persona that sanitizes the sad parts and bad parts that we don’t want to talk about.  And I agree that we all want true connection.  Connection is a very powerful word for me.

I like Facebook for notice of births, weddings, and death.  I don’t expect it to give details.  I don’t expect to have deep friendships on there – but it can provide an introduction, which can grow offline.  I like too much of the senses.  I like the sight of a person not filtered by a screen.  I like to hug and cuddle people.  I like to hear a true voice and I like to smell the whiff of someone’s cologne, or shampoo.  That requires an investment of time. . . my favorite memories are often of people visiting me at my home, or me visiting them at theirs.

Time is one of the most precious resources we have.  It’s why with romantic relationships, I never do long distance because I need the physicality of presence.  And it’s why with platonic relationships, the ones who I am closest to are often close to me in location.  We just never know how much time we have.

Last year, when I used to take Rowan to her old school, we would have some time in the car together in the mornings.  One morning I was driving behind a semi-trailer from a safe distance, and as it approached a curve ahead of me, it suddenly put on the brakes and drove off to the side.  A cloud of dust came up from the gravel on the encroachment.  I slowed down, and prepared to stop.  I was thinking maybe a tire had burst, so I let the car creep up slowly.  But as we got closer, we could see a couple of smashed up cars beyond the semi.  At that point we turned around and took another way to get Rowan to school.

After dropping her off, I went home a different way.  It passed within sight of the highway, and I could see it was already cordoned off.  When I got to work, I was curious about the accident.  I found out that heading east, a man was trying to turn left into a residential driveway on the cusp of the curve.  A woman came up behind him, but she wasn’t expecting a stopped car, and the eastern sun was up and came into full view right around the curve.  Momentarily blinded, she hit the car in front of her.

He was already partially turned, so when she hit him, it catapulted him into the opposing lane–where the semi saw him too late and crashed into him.  He died on the scene.  He was a 40-something from Mt. Horeb, had a family, two boys.  Liked to coach their sports.  Just like that, on a day like any other, he died.  It was an accident all around that turned into a tragedy for that family.

And that’s the way it goes, doesn’t it?  No money can bring that life back.  His kids had him for a little while, not long enough.  All of us, like him, can remember the past, but we don’t know our future.  We never know when it will end.  And maybe like me, you wonder about your purpose.  It’s an ironic thing for me that I spent so much of my younger years thinking about hastening my death.  Now I expect I will live to be a ripe old age, barring accidents.  But of course, the price for living a long time is getting to witness the death, and sometimes sufferings, of our friends and family.  I expect I will outlive my brother–I don’t smoke and he does.  I certainly hope to die after my parents and not before–both for their sakes and sake of my children.  It just seems more natural that the earlier you were born, the closer to now you will die.

I guess that owning up to your mortality can really cause a person to go into two extreme directions.  One is screening your life for perfection, but then nothing is good enough.  Nothing gets through.  Or the other, being so open to potentiality–and fantasy–that nothing really good comes through.

It’s a balance.  What is it that you really want?  And is what you really want attainable?  Or worth what you would have to give in order to get it?

Then sometimes, what you really want just sort of happens.  In August, I went to a Conscious Life Workshop hosted by Steve Pavlina.  I’ve followed his blog for years.  The purpose of the workshop was to get clear about the kind of life you want to lead, and then you can screen what you accept into your life based on that.  For example, an 80 hour week corporate job is not a good fit for me–I have too many other interests to devote that much to one thing.  But my current 40 hour week corporate job, with a boss who never gives me grief about child care or sick days, is an excellent fit for me.

In the workshop, we also talked a bit about relationships.  What is it that you really want?  What is a dealbreaker?  A divorced man is not a dealbreaker for me, but a man who would want me to have his “own” kids would be.  In fact, I would probably prefer someone like me, divorced, who would get where I’m coming from and understand that journey.

Steve also talked about how he broadcasts his desires and is very open that he is polyamorous and a cuddleslut.  So the first day, I emailed and sent a cuddle invitation.  I can honestly say I’d never done that before – and was a bit afraid I would get rejected.  After all, this is a guy I’ve only ever known through his blog, not the real deal, not the real presence, and he might be different in real life.  Or, though I hate to admit it, I was bit afraid I might not be good enough.  Not intelligent enough to match wits, not pretty enough to pique his interest, or not evolved enough to be a good match.  I know I still have hangups sometimes.

But we exchanged phone numbers and planned to get together the last night.  And the workshop was great, so inspiring, so full of great people at all stages of their lives.  One day at lunch, going out with some new friends, one of the guys looked back and me and another woman I was chatting with and smiled.  “What are you smiling about?” I teased.  He replied back in all seriousness, “It’s just wonderful to be out walking with two beautiful women,” still with a smile on his face.  I knew he was sincere.

Being open like that, to compliments, to connection, to understand that sure there may be a sexual undercurrent, but it doesn’t mean that we can’t be friends, took time for me to develop.  I no longer believe like Harry that “women and men can’t be friends because the sex always gets in the way.”  Sex only happens if there is consent on both sides, but personally I like the friendships that have that extra flirty layer.  Why deny it? People are attractive.  I’m never going to sleep with all the people I find attractive–that’s not the point.  The point is accepting what is–what is now.  Maybe it will be something else in the future, but it doesn’t mean that today can’t be enjoyed just as it is.

And as for that last Sunday night, I had a great time.  I had dinner with Steve and bunch of people, and then we went walking down to my hotel.  We would bump into other workshop attendees who would ask, “Oh hey, what are you guys doing?” and I would answer, “Oh, we’re just going back to my hotel room to cuddle.”  I had the most insane grin because it was truthful and just not what one would normally say.

So we headed back and spent a few hours cuddling and talking.  That’s it, no sex, no weirdness–though I felt a bit astonished that it was just that easy.  It was two people, enjoying a physical intimacy and an emotional one.  It was, to be true, a fantasy of mine, to have a little bit of Steve time all to myself.  And then he left and it hasn’t been anything more.  Doesn’t need to be anything more.  For me, it was all about being honest about what I wanted, and also being open to the idea that someone who could be my equal could feel an attraction on multiple levels to me.

Dating after being married for a long time feels a little like being in a time capsule.  Who I was then is not who I am now, but there are still some fears.  Am I still that awkward dorky person who says all the wrong things?  If I want someone, does that automatically mean they won’t want me?  And the people who want me, I won’t want back?  Am I still really dumb about men?   How come people think I’m attractive now?  I was never an attractive teenager.  Of course the great thing about men is that if they didn’t want to at least have sex with you, they wouldn’t even try to date you.  Horribly crass, but refreshing in that you always know where you stand.  I am at least attractive enough to screw.   Good, good, at least I have that going for me.

I am feeling better these days about the balance of how I spend my time.  I love my kids, and damn, they know they are loved.  I love my friends, and I hope they know they are loved.  I love my job, though some days, yes, I just throw my hands into the air.  But hey, I have been given the opportunity to work on something I truly care about, so I’ll take the frustrations with the satisfaction of doing my best.  I am working on accepting myself more and more–I have made a lot of progress, certainly.  Though certain people can still undo me sometimes.  Is it mature to admit that?

Being open to what you want, admitting what you want, can also bring more of what you ask for.  The night of my cuddle date, I had three other invitations for cuddling.  Alas, just not enough of me to go around. 😉

Three Tales of Social Connection

When I’ve taken the Myers-Brigg tests, I typically come up either as a ENTP or an ENFP.  The Thinking/Feeling part of me (T/P) is always on the cusp, whereas the other parts of me are far more weighted.  And when it comes to the ‘E’ part of me, the Extroverted part, no one now seems surprised.

I do get a kick of starting conversations with strangers that appear interesting. But in the past couple of months, I have felt the extroverted part of me worn thin.  Introvert or extrovert?  As a child, I was most definitely an introvert.  My parents have a picture of me in my 4-year-old preschool ‘graduation,’ crying my eyes out.  I still have the memory of it – my class, sitting in front, the parents exclaiming how cute we were, and I was terrified of walking in front of an audience to get my pseudo-diploma.  I wanted to be invisible.  I was afraid that attention to me would draw ridicule.  In fact, I felt like most people were laughing at me most of the time.  I hated people. When I was young, I could never control my crying.  I would cry if happy, if sad, if mad, if humiliated.  Really, any strong emotion would induce it.

As an adult, one of the things I am most proud is that I am far more capable of controlling my emotions.  Also, that my fear and hate of strangers has changed to curiosity.  In fact, the older I get, the more I realize and can empathize with the fact that we all have our own burdens to bear.  I wasn’t so unique in reality.  I was perhaps more honest, or less able to hide my true feelings – but I know now that we are all vulnerable.  And the greatest treasure I have ever possessed are my friends, my kindred spirits, sometimes of blood and sometimes not–but I love to find that connecting threads that binds our souls.

Because I am still yearn to make a positive difference and I’m not convinced that my mere existence is enough, sometimes I push myself to go out.  After all, I want connection above all else.  Not the false, shallow connections we call ‘networking,’ but the true nakedness and acceptance when people bare their souls.  I know my faults, my guilt pushes me to bare myself constantly.  Yet the funny thing is, the more I bare, the more I find people closer to me.  So it all works out.

Recently, I had the opportunity to go to a bellydance steampunk show.  Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?  I dithered about going because I would be going alone, but finally forced myself.  But it was not what I expected.  I expected seats, an actual show at the time they advertised – but it was a concert.  The ‘show’ was supposed to be at 8:00 pm, but there were opening acts and in fact, the headliner was not scheduled to go on until 11:30 pm. On a school night.

I hung around until 10:30 pm and then I decided that I had supported the show with my money and this sort of thing is not my thing.  I don’t like concerts or live music.  I’m lame and I accept that.  I like going to bed on time and I like having conversations without yelling.  But the highlight of the night was a local dancer who not only recognized me, but remembered I’ve been dancing for 10 years and exhorted me to perform at the local hafla.  It’s strange, I’m shy about my dance.  I love to dance for myself – but I am reluctant to perform.  I feel like I’m not quite good enough, but it’s really that I can choreograph in my head and I still struggle to perform in reality what I can imagine in my head.

A few days later I went to a wine-tasting soiree.  Unlike the bellydance-steampunk thing where I felt 20 years older than everyone else, here I felt a decade younger than everyone.  It was filled with professional women in their 30s to 50s.  Single professional men, if you want to meet women, go to a wine-tasting event.  That’s where all the single professional women are, looking for partners.  I felt a bit out of my element.  I love wine, especially red – but I felt a bit stifled, as that seemed the only connection between me and all these others.

I consider myself a single, professional woman – but I like to daydream and I love philosophy that breaks conventions.  I don’t want a conventional, ordinary life.  I want a life that defies expectations.  Luckily, I ended up meeting a couple further along than I (in their 50s, maybe?) who were very kind and struck up a conversation with me.  I also realized that I was one of the few that had the courage to attend alone.  Yes, I knew one of the hosts, but that was it.  I knew no one else and I went anyway.  It was a good night to practice asking questions of strangers and practice my listening skills, but sometimes that is all you can get.

Contrast those to a non-planned connection.  Rowan’s class had a field trip to a local German bakery.  I went only for her, she is so pleased when I chaperone one of these things.  I showed up to school to see about ten chaperones – say what you will, this school system had plenty of parental influence.  I felt like I needn’t have shown up, there are so many parents involved, and I could’ve gone to work and gotten stuff done.  But I especially liked one of the parents.  He had white hair and a British accent, with a tweed cap.  I couldn’t tell if it was my predisposition to love British accents, but I automatically liked the guy.  We ended up talking and he confessed that I reminded him of his step-daughter in my face and physique.

This happens a fair amount.  A stranger will tell me that I remind them of someone.  And separately, I end up liking someone, or feeling a kinship to someone without consciously knowing them beforehand (‘liking’ in this case does not necessarily mean a sexual thing).  I enjoy when accidental connections surprise me.  It was the highlight of my day, and one that is closer to my nature.  So I think the moral of the story is that you cannot force friendship, but you should always be open to new friendship from unexpected quarters.

This is my cat, telling you to vote.

kinoko

This is my cat, telling you to vote.

So these days, I only have the one cat.  When my co-parent and I divorced, we split the cats.  I wanted the whiny, middle one – Kinoko – and my ex was only too happy to part with her.  He’s a light sleeper, and she likes to caterwaul in the night.  For some reason, I never noticed, I slept through it all.  She is black, with these beautiful variegated chartreuse eyes.  (the green kind of Chartreuse, not the yellow kind).  I want to capture her eyes, and her ears.  Her ears have this weird squiggle at the base – the ear edge doesn’t just end at the base, at her skull.  It goes down, then goes up and follows a subtle flap, then up again, and then finally connects to the skull.

The thing about drawing is that when you start out, you realize how little you actually observe.  Humans are very, very good at filling in the blanks.  We see patterns – we see faces! – in random noise.  Some of the studies I’ve read suggest that this is because we take in so much information through all our senses that we have to throw away what we believe to be insignificant.  Otherwise, we would drown in information and it would all become meaningless.

Because we are cutting to the chase and looking for significance, we tend to zero out sameness, looking for change and anomalies.  Then we pay attention.  So cartoons, even ones like xkcd, can be minimalist and yet we still understand.

When I pick up a pencil and sketch something, I realize how little I actually see the world around me.  Want to know your lover?  Your child?  Draw them.  The difficulty and the frustration will lead to the realization that we fill in the patterns and story with only a few data points.  We don’t actually see.  When drawing and taking in the details, it looks wrong when in process.  You have to have faith that it will make sense in the end.  That the drawing will have a semblance of familiarity – but only at the end.  Likes threads in the back of a tapestry, it appears to be chaos at first.  Patience reveals the beauty and order that was always there.