May Every Day Be Filled with Joy

SNOW!!!!

SNOW!!!!

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I’ve Held On

I’ve loved and lost

I’ve failed and survived

I’ve looked death in the face

Many times

And walked away

I’ve got scars

And wrinkles

And a throaty laugh

I’ve shed tears

Heaved sobs

Passed eons where

It all felt worthless

I’ve held on

I’ve held on

Because

Something

Deep inside my being

Told me it was worth it

Told me about Beauty

Told me about Hope

I’ve held on

Long enough

To listen to Myself

Happy New Year!

It is officially the last day of 2012 and despite the fact that it’s 28 degrees outside, I’m in a great mood. There are many things I could choose to complain about in the past year, but there are far more things I can be thankful for. I spent my third holiday season with Mark and Tenaya and my first with Denali. This is the second New Year we’ve been in this house, and the longest we’ve stayed in one place. Although I still have hopes for moving to Dunsmuir in the spring, it’s been nice to not have to pack up all of our earthly belongings to move yet again. Besides, I like it here. Aside from the overpriced water and the lack of grocery store options, Montague has been pretty good to me on the whole. I enjoy having a large yard for the dogs and an office and a garage with a door-opener. It feels grown-up, even if it’s just a facade of that.

I haven’t given much thought to making any New Year’s resolutions, but I guess that’s because that’s because most of the time they seem trivial. I’m far too apathetic to care whether I lose weight or not. I’d say I’d resolve to take off my bathrobe every now and then, but I know I won’t. I’d like to spend more time outdoors, but that’s a given knowing Mark anyway. Mostly, I just resolve to spend more time in the present this year. I’ve been doing that – more or less – for the past 3 years and they have been the happiest of my life, so I don’t know if I can call it a “resolution.” – Perhaps a resolution to keep doing the same thing–only better. I certainly hope to work more in the coming year–especially after the hiatus from my “regular” freelance job. I also hope to keep expanding my horizons for other work so that I’m not solely reliant on that job and left in the lurch when it disappears sporadically. None of these things seems impossible to accomplish. I end 2012 feeling hopeful, grateful, and happy. I hope that 2013 brings happiness and peace to you as well. Until we meet again…

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

The Meaning of Christmas

I’ve spent a lot of Christmases alone and many of them too poor to buy gifts to send home to family. While living and going to school in Louisiana and New Jersey, and the years beyond of struggling in New York, I would venture to say that only 1/2 of the time was I able to go home for Christmas. Usually, that didn’t bother me much. I was studying theater and quite often I’d have rehearsals for some play that would impede holiday travel. In that sense, being “alone” was not alone at all. I enjoyed each and every “theater family” I became a part of. At Rutgers, we’d often have Christmas or Thanksgiving in a communal effort for whatever students were trapped in town without family. In Louisiana, I often went to a friend’s home and ate boudin stuffing and oyster gravy–things MY family had never heard of and would never ever attempt to make.

I’ll never forget one Christmas that I spent alone as one of the most meaningful times of my life. It was 1998 or 1999, and I was sad and lonely and had just been through a wreck of a breakup. I was living in Baton Rouge, Louisiana–so there was of course no snow. I was working at a hotel at the time and I felt even lonelier there–not many people stayed at a highway hotel that catered to businesses during the holidays. When I got off work at 11:00, I considered going to the local bar to pass my time, but I convinced myself otherwise. Something about dive bars on Christmas is… well. When you’re with friends, they are awesome; when you are alone, they are a little too much like living in a Tom Waits song–even for me. Instead, I went home and sat up all night reading Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I sat up all night, fascinated. My loneliness had worn off around 2 a.m., but I didn’t want to stop reading. The next morning, on Christmas day, I called my grandmother in Arkansas and told her, “I think I might have found God.”

I don’t think I meant that in a sense that most people do when they say it. To me, “finding God” meant finding an abstracted idea of a higher power that permeates the human existence. It didn’t mean getting baptised by “Brother Jerry” at the Second Baptist Church. It didn’t have anything to do with church, in fact. Or with the Christian depiction of God. It meant finding something inside myself that felt good–something that seemed buried under the ashes like a phoenix. It also meant hope.

Many years and many Christmases–and many mistakes, no less–have passed since that revelation, but I always think of it on Christmas. The one time I was completely alone and yet I was completely happy. I wish I’d been able to hold onto that feeling in the following days and years, when I’d fall into relationships that were unnecessary and unwanted–just to be close to someone else. I wish I could have kept that sense of being “good enough” instead of coursing my way across the country many times in attempts to be just that. But I guess what I learned the most that Christmas has stayed with me in many ways.

This year, Christmas is again a poor one. In fact, it’s the poorest Christmas I’ve had since moving to California 3 years ago. That’s largely in part to my freelance work drying up completely a month before Christmas and Mark’s usual work also disappearing. It’s been a rough month in general, financially, and we’ve barely made it through paying bills and rent without having to take out bank loans to do it. I’ve felt stressed out and saddened that I couldn’t buy Mark something for Christmas–or the dogs–or my family back in Arkansas. But I’ve accepted it. Instead of “flipping out” or going crazy about it all, I’ve kept calm this year. I’ve kept hold of my inner strength and of an inexplicable hope that things will turn out okay.

I’m thankful that I have, because things have turned out okay. We made our bills without any loans, and my work should start picking up after the new year. I’ve made it halfway through another cold and destitute winter.

I realized this morning, though, that I’m not so poor after all. That Christmas that meant so much to me with Joseph Campbell’s book was important because it made me realize that I had myself to rely on. I had myself as a friend. And moreover, I didn’t hate myself as much as I’d done in the past. This year, I’m far from alone, even if I live in a remote location. I don’t have Christmas gifts to give to Mark and Denali and Tenaya–but I have them by my side. Tenaya is losing the ability to walk these days from hip dysplasia, and  for a while there I worried that she might not make it ’til Christmas. I’m so glad she did. I’m glad that she’s happy with ground hamburger as her Christmas treat instead of the big bone I’d have gotten her.

I’m also glad that we got Denali last year–just a week after Christmas. His presence has made my world a completely different experience. Being a mom to a Persian cat for 15 years did not prepare me for being a mom to a wolfdog puppy–in the least. I remember last year on January 3rd, the day we got the little round yellow ball of fur, cursing my life as I scrubbed vomit from the carpet in every corner of my office at 4 a.m. I remember sitting in the garage at different times, bawling my eyes out, because I “just couldn’t take it anymore.” I couldn’t handle the yapping, the neediness, the biting, and the general terror that Denali spread about his reign as a wee puppy. Now I look at this 90-lb. dog, and I laugh thinking about it. He’s still a complete mess–but he’s my mess. And he’s also my baby.

This year, like those others when I was less-than-fortunate, Christmas means a lot to me. More than it has on Christmases where presents were passed and big feasts eaten. Because of the lack of those things, I appreciate the people–and the dear souls–that surround me. I’m glad that I’m not alone on Christmas, reading a Joseph Campbell book–but I also know now that if I were, it would still be meaningful. Spending Christmas with my little unconventional family means more to me than any gifts that money could ever buy. I know that’s cliché, but as one who stands here and has lived it–I can say that clichés are often true. True meaning is a lot easier to find when you don’t have to dig through wrapping paper to get to it.

Merry Christmas. May your inner darkness find hope in the corners where hope hides, and may you hold on long enough to that hope until you finally find the love that you seek.

No Answers

I’ve spent the past few days, as I’m sure many people have, in an introspective and desperately saddened mode. Just like them, I wonder what it is in our society that creates monsters who kill masses innocent of anything other than the breath they breathe. I’ve questioned the gun issue and the mental health issue and the everything issue. I’ve grown both weary and wary of looking at the internet and at facebook. All I see is Babylon. Crime and violence have won–they have made us all hate and blame one another in the justification of easing our own souls.

I can’t take a stand on the gun issue because I believe that people who are going to do massive damage to innocents are going to find a way. Sure, gun restrictions will help in many cases, but they aren’t a solution. Neither is blaming mental illness or autism or Asberger syndrome.

The answers aren’t that simple. Regulating guns will make some people feel safer, but I’m not so sure that it’s any real solution. Taking aim at mental illness is only sure to make that many more people feel isolated, afraid, and disconnected from the world. I say this because I know.

As someone who was diagnosed with the all-too-taboo “borderline personality disorder” by a psychologist who treated me for years, I feel personally affronted when people mention “personality disorder” in relation to any major tragedy. But, I won’t claim that behavioral disorders or mental disorders aren’t a catalyst in current tragedies and those of the past. Just like autistics and so-called “normal people,” there is a chance that one of those who exist within your “social category” are going to go nuts and do some awful thing.

I understand why people want to label and to place blame–they can’t handle it. Neither can I, really. It’s awful. It’s terrible. Why would someone kill children?

And I guess the only people I can think who would understand the most are those who lived through World War II. In the aftermath of that awful slaughter, I think most people in the world wondered how something so awful could have come to be. How they could have witnessed it. How they could have let it exist. How could anyone?

Today, I think that we suffer from the same guilt–the feeling of “Why? What did I do that facilitated this awful thing?” And that makes most people angry–because they didn’t do anything personally to facilitate to this disaster. And because they can’t do anything to “make it go away.”

I want there to be an answer out there, but I don’t think it exists. I want us to be a more loving, more accepting, more embracing culture than we are–or likely than we’ll become. Now I feel the saddest watching friends and friends alike burn torches and crumble bridges based on their own instinctive need to fix the problem. I’m not even sure there is a solution.

Part of it, though, if there is indeed an answer to the violence and the sadness of today’s world is to be present. To really be there for those people that you love. To listen to them and to really care about what they are saying.

I, like anyone, fashion myself as a “present” individual–but the truth is that 8 times out of 10 I’m lost in my own universe. Denali points it out the best when he insists that I go and watch him “rock surf” on the back patio. I try and I try to avoid going out–especially now in the cold–and yet, he will just stand at the back door sulking unless I go out there and actually watch him. If I’m in the audience, he’ll surf for hours. As soon as I leave, he has no one to impress.

And he’s right. Because the rest of the time, I’m writing on my computer and I’m not paying attention. I “feel” like I am, but I’m not. And half the time I listen to Mark go on about car parts or camping adventures, I tune out and play solitaire in my head. I mean, what kind of asshole plays solitaire in their head? I do…

And I’m sorry for it. Because the biggest thing that I’ve realized in the past few days is just how “vacant” I can be when it comes to others. Some of that–like living in the middle of nowhere–is my choice and my right. Other times, it’s being neglectful.

I’ve felt for a large portion of my life that life itself can be taken from you at any random moment. I learned that lesson from almost dying in a car accident long ago, and it has taught me to follow my heart, more than anything else. My heart has been chaotic and has taken me to many places–none of them do I regret, although many weren’t exactly for me.

My life now seems to be ideal, in a quiet place surrounded by mountains, and with a goofy wolfdog constantly at my side. My life today is a little more present than it was yesterday. My life today is blessed. Not because I’m safe and sound–but because I’ve lived a life filled with wonderful people. I’ve learned to balance mood swings and distrust of others. I’ve fallen in love in a chicken shed – and before, in other odd places. I’ve come to appreciate everything that exists in my life because I’ve had people help me along the way.

Listen to each other. Even your pets. Play with them. Enjoy your life with them. Love each and every moment you have. No matter what you do, you cannot predict tragedy. So instead, take all of those moments that you take for granted, and relish them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HR4PAhzMVls&list=UUvo00qAfkGRiCYEKBr1f_iw&index=8

The Hitchhiker

I’ve been more or less astounded at the number of hitchhikers that you see in California ever since I moved here 2 and 1/2 years ago. In Humboldt County, that more or less made sense; it was a hippie mecca and it wasn’t unusual to see 10 twenty-somethings with dreadlocks standing by the side of the road. It surprised ME, because I grew up in a southern environment, raised by a grandmother who instilled a deeply-rooted fear of serial killers. I just assumed people more or less stopped hitchhiking in the 1970s with the exception of axe-wielding transients that were prepared to slaughter you the moment you let them in the car. That given, I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker–not even the harmless looking ones–until today.

Where I live now is a far cry from Humboldt County, California. If I didn’t know I lived in California, I’d doubt that this were the same state that houses the cultural niche of San Francisco or the glitz of Hollywood. Or, even, the hippie-ness of Humboldt and its endless pot gardens. It’s more like Wyoming. Or even Arkansas, in some ways. Anyone who’s not “from here” is from “down south” (anywhere below Redding) or “up north” (meaning Oregon). I’ve seen a couple of hitchhikers here and plenty of people holding up “Out of Gas” signs, because we’re next to the freeway that goes from Mexico to Canada. But they’re few and in between. People would rather panhandle in Portland or Sacramento than in a ghost town sparsely populated by crusty miners and ranchers.

This morning, I was driving from my little town to the bigger town nearby to buy groceries. It’s a 6-mile drive on a country highway road in the valley and surrounded by mountains. I enjoy the drive to town here immensely. Something about it reminds me of the contemplation drives I’d take in southern Louisiana through the bayou or the ones I’ve venture on in southern New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania. As I made my turn from town to the highway, I was struck by the sight of an old man with his thumb out. He must’ve been 80-something. He was holding a small package and I didn’t think, but pulled over to pick him up. I had Mark’s fishing poles in the front passenger seat and Denali was in the back, so I was scrambling to move things as the old man walked up. I asked where he was going, and he was going into town as I was, and I gave him a lift. He was pretty quiet, mostly, and thankful. Denali was sniffing at him and unsure of what the hell was going on. I kept trying to bat back this goofy wolfdog as the old man told me that he’d had a cattle hound or something and had loved him. Denali seemed to settle for licking the old guy sneakily on the ears while I drove. He told me he was going to the Chase bank and said something about having not been this way in 3 years. I asked where he lived, and he said my same small town. I was thinking “3 years without going ‘into town???’ How the heck do you get groceries?” But I said nothing. He talked about going to see his grandsons in Denver for Christmas and that he was very excited about that. He said he also had a son in Argentina. I mostly said “That’s great” and smiled a lot. I liked this old man and his quietness and his simple little stories. I wished he were my grandpa.

When we got into town, I dropped him off at the bank and told him, knowing he probably had no way home, that if he needed a ride I would pick him up on my way back from the grocery store. He was grateful and I told him to be where I could see him. Then I drove on and went grocery shopping. I was rushing through the whole store, worried about my little old man. I worried he’d get a ride back with some nutcase. I finished my shopping in about 30 minutes and rushed back to the bank, but he was gone. I drove past an old man at a bus stop who looked at me and I wondered if I seemed like a crazy lady–prowling around town looking for old men to pick up in my truck. I was giving up and turned back onto Main Street to drive home, and there he was. He’d just crossed the street and was probably on his way to go hitchhike by the highway to get a ride home. I pulled over and said, “I found you!” He smiled and got in. We were driving back and he talked more about his grandsons–about how they both want to be scientists, and about how one of them is skipping two grades in school. I enjoyed his company and Denali, now somewhat adjusted to our new activity of porting this old man around, was sniffing him less and just more or less smiling at him from the back seat.

At one point, he’d quieted for a bit and was looking out at the landscape and he said, “It’s amazing when you think how much the earth must have shook.” I wasn’t sure I’d heard him–and it seemed completely out of nowhere. I said, “What’s that?” And he said, “You look at these mountains and the earth must’ve shook a lot.” I said, “Yeah. I guess so.” We rode back most of the rest of the way to town in silence. He was looking at the mountains and so was I. When we got to town, he told me he needed to stop at the post office and I told him that I’d wait for him. He insisted I didn’t. I knew he had only a few blocks to walk, so I let it go. We exchanged phone numbers and he told me if I ever needed anything to call him. I said the same.

When I drove away, I started crying. I didn’t know why. Something about that old man made me feel so happy to be alive. And somehow, I’m not sure I’ll ever look at the mountains around me and not think of him.

Inspiration and Irony

Lately I’ve been finding inspiration in one of the least likely places: myself. As someone who knows me better than anyone else, that turns out to be the ultimate irony.

That’s not to say that I haven’t appreciated myself in the past. As an only-child, I’ve lived most of my life as my best friend, my confidant, and my personal coach. I’ve needed to play all of those roles to balance out the more negative aspects of my personality–the self-depreciating, self-critical, self-sabotaging self that has often reveled in watching my own soul wither under its own weight. I’ve learned over time to enjoy my own failings and to exploit them with humor; I’ve learned how to pick myself back up after periods of wallowing in self-loathing. But I’ve never found inspiration within myself. I’ve found chuckles at best.

The inspiration I’ve found came from a personal challenge. It wasn’t to lose 20 pounds or even to quit smoking (I should, I know. I will someday…) In essence, I guess it is a similar process, though. Whenever you do something that you didn’t think you could do, something happens. I guess runners feel that in their “runner’s highs,” and I have certainly felt pride when I’ve accomplished things I felt incapable of doing before. I felt accomplished when I taught myself the skills needed to become a bartender–and then a mixologist. I feel accomplished when I cook gourmet meals. But with writing–the most important element of my life–I have never felt a sense of accomplishment. I’ve maintained an adequate, if barely sufficient, income for over 3 years as a freelance writer, and maybe I should feel accomplished about that. But I don’t really. Most of what I write are glorified book reports, and although I feel more meaningful in doing that than I have in many previous jobs, I don’t feel that it qualifies me as “a writer.” It’s not even to say that I don’t feel satisfied with that work. I do. In fact, of all of the jobs I’ve had in my life, writing, even if it’s writing study guides for literature, has been the most satisfying.

I look back at myself in New York at my first job out of graduate school, and I cannot help but laugh. I worked as an administrative assistant to the top three partners of a prestigious law firm specializing in IPOs. I studied Acting, mind you–but having a graduate degree in anything seems to be adequate enough to obtain gainful employment in even non-applicable fields. I’m not a “flighty actor,” and I’m smart enough to file and type, so basically I was hired. After working at the law firm for a few months, I came to realize the hierarchy there. As the secretary to the top three partners, I really had no duties at all. None of “the girls” at the office seemed to. There were 40 or more associate lawyers for the firm in addition to paralegals. These people did the “real work.” My job was principally to work as a personal assistant to billionaires. They had sub-servients to do the “real work,” so mostly my duties consisted of filing their tax payments, picking up jewelry at Cartier for their wives, scheduling their attendance at their sons’ softball games, and writing personal letters. I had a good income, benefits, and I was miserable. I felt completely useless. I know that “someone has to do that stuff” and my lawyer bosses, who were so wealthy as to have personal drivers take them to work and pick them up, didn’t want to do those menial tasks–but as a fresh from graduate school young woman, I felt that I needed to be doing something meaningful. After a year or so, I quit. Abruptly. I moved on to other jobs in other offices, and often I was met with the same disappointment. I felt useless. I wasn’t doing anything that I cared about. I was just surviving.

After a few years of this, I taught myself to bartend and swore I’d never set foot in another office again. It’s not something I regret, but bartending wasn’t really something that satisfied me much either. I had more interaction for sure, and mostly for that I enjoyed it–but I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world or doing anything I was really passionate about. When I left New York, I wondered if I would ever find anything that would satisfy me. The only jobs I’d had in the 5 years after graduation hadn’t with one exception: teaching acting to children. While that is a noble profession and one that I still believe I would enjoy passionately, it is not easy to find well-paying teaching jobs in the acting field. Frequently, slinging drinks will pay more.

I came upon freelance writing by chance through my aunt and began working for a company writing study guides. This job that I’ve maintained for over 3 years has fulfilled me more than any before it–save perhaps the teaching. There are obvious drawbacks, though, that balance out the positives of working all day in a bathrobe. Largely, my work as a freelancer provides no job security, no benefits, and it requires creative bargaining in developing ways to pay the bills and stay on schedule. Because of one of these lulls in projects, I started looking for other freelance work.

The freelance assignment I was granted involved ghost-writing on self-help subjects. Because of the confidentiality of the work, I can’t really go into detail beyond that. However, the process of working on it inspired me in many ways. First, unlike my study-guide creations, it involved more of my own personal input and writing style. Second, unlike my own personal writing, which is often bleak and depressing, this was a subject that not only was about motivation, it inspired motivation. Writing about a positive subject is kind of like hanging out with positive-minded people–it’s got that ability to rub off on you. And mostly, I was fascinated by the fact that a lot of this stuff was already in me. I may not be the most positive person on earth–I tend to liken myself somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and Mark Twain–but I can intellectualize positive thinking. In fact, I found that I could intellectualize it, write about it, and in the process–learn to live it.

In the past 3 years, my life has changed immensely from the perpetually overwhelmed, depressed, and self-loathing state it existed in before. That didn’t come from this project–it came from within and the desire to finally find my own happiness regardless of where I might have to go to find it. I lucked out. After 30-some-odd years of searching, my happiness found me. Probably because I was open to it, and largely because I learned from past mistakes. The difference that I feel now is that I feel capable–capable of doing something that I am passionate about. Capable of structuring my work. Capable of writing. And capable of happiness.

I wish I could go back to that frustrated me of New York office jobs and say, “Hey–it’s not that bad. Really. You can play Angry Birds all day and you get paid for it.” But I know that even now if I were to go back there, I’d likely not last any longer in that job than I did then. I’d rather do something I can be proud of, even if it means no dental insurance.

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