Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Hi! Nice to meet you.

One of the best things about getting older, for me, is that I get to know myself better every day.  Every time one of these realizations clicks into place, I feel a little bit relieved, similar to when you have been trying to remember a name from your past for weeks, and then suddenly, you're sitting at a stoplight and it pops into your head.  Phew!

For instance, I was sitting at a college football game this past Saturday.  It was supposed to be a fun outting, but I was really uncomfortable and not that happy to be there.  I couldn't figure out why I was not in a better mood; I was just watching the score clock, wishing it were 4th quarter already.  Suddenly, it hit me: I don't like to go to football games, or really most big sporting events.  There are too many people, and I start to freak out and wonder, what if I lost my balance and fell into this crowd?  I eavesdrop on all the conversations around me or get tranfixed by cheerleader stunts and hair bows, completely missing the most crucial play of the game.  I would so much rather watch football on TV.  I don't have to worry about the weather or the guy behind me who keeps kicking me accidentally, and when I have to go the bathroom, I don't have to say "excuse me, pardon me, sorry" one hundred times and wait in line for 25 minutes. 

This thought got me to thinking about the other times I find myself inexplicably in a bad mood when I am supposed to be doing something fun.  Here are some more thoughts I had:
  • I don't like cucumbers.  When I add them to my bowl at a salad bar, I find myself eating around them. 
  • I don't like to host parties; I stress too much about preparation, worry that everyone will be bored, and get too crabby about cleaning up afterward. 
  • I hate blow drying my hair; it's one of the reasons I have a hard time getting out of bed for work in the morning.
  • I am kind of a private person, and I don't like sharing details of my life in small talk when I am at the doctor's office or getting my hair done. 
  • I prefer to go to movies by myself.
  • I don't like to be in charge of outtings or events.  I feel so much responsiblity for everyone to have a good time that usually I can't have much fun myself.
Some of these are silly and certainly not life shattering.  I just find it funny how little I knew about my likes and dislikes, and that even after 30 years, there are things to learn.  And really, why be wasteful and put perfectly good cucumbers in your salad if you're not going to eat them? 

But some of these things bother me.  I see that I am often so anxious to be pleasing or fit in with a fun group outting that I do things and go places I don't like.  I take on social roles that people seem to expect out of me just to make them happy or (and how high school is this) to make them like me. 

It comes down to a lot of insecurities that I have clearly not outgrown.  I wonder if we ever outgrow the insecurity that we won't have friends if we don't do or say what people like or expect of us.  Maybe we just tuck those feelings away and try to ignore them or lie to ourselves about who we truly are because we are afraid of being alone. 

It's a little uncomfortable to peel away these layers.  But at the same time, I feel relief.  I am letting go of more and more things that are weighing me down and keeping me from being truly happy.  I also am finding that the better I get to know myself, my true self, the more I like that girl.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The David Factor

I have been thinking a lot lately of the things that inspire me.  Being inspired is about more than things or people that can cheer you up when you're having a bad day. An inspiration pushes you to be something better than you are; it forces you to see the magical things that we, as mere humans, are capable of.  It creates very strong emotions, but it also calls for action.  You can't just feel the bubble of euphoria or the glow of life that inspiration brings; you have to take it somewhere. It requires that you bravely take chances and explore ways that your talents can make your life or the world a better place.  Being inspired means stepping out of your everyday existence and seeking actualization, seeking a higher plane, and feeling connected to the energy that holds this planet together. 

My best touchstone for understanding true inspiration is what I experienced when I first saw Michaelangelo's David.  I was spending my last week of a semester abroad in Italy, and while I knew that Italy was a place that dream vacations were made of, I was just tired.  After four months of traveling and having surreal once-in-a-lifetime experiences, the tiresome feeling of homesickness had set in.  Rome was unbelievable, but I was reaching the end of my ability to absorb things, and I was really tired of sweaty, smelly European cities. Basically, I was being a grump.  Then we moved onto Florence, and one of the first places we went was the Gallery of the Accademia di Belle Arti, which houses the David.  I turned the corner, and entered the Tribuna, and there it was.  This statue, this creation, was in all honesty, the most beautiful piece of art I had ever seen.  (Keep in mind, that by this time I had toured the Louvre and Musee d'Orsay in Paris, so I had a good frame of reference.)  He stopped me dead in my tracks.  Every irritation and pang for home evaporated.  All that mattered in that moment was the magnificence of what genius can create.  I was absolutely transfixed, afraid to look away in case the feeling disappeared.  In fact, after a long time, one of my travelling companions had to come to my side and say, "Ok, I know you love him, but there are other things to see in Florence."  I couldn't imagine what else there was to see that could make me feel this way.  Nothing I had seen in every country I had traveled to had moved or inspired me the way that that sculpture did.  Even remembering it now, I feel a bit trembly and excited.

The problem is that Florence, Italy, is not accessible in my daily life.  And while photographs and art books are a wonderful thing, they just cannot do that precious work justice.  So I am learning that I need to find other things, things that are a part of my daily life and perhaps go unnoticed, because I shouldn't live my life totally devoid of that feeling, of the David Factor.  I accept, rationally, that I am no Michaelangelo, but I wonder what I could create if I could somehow maintain that feeling of wonder and amazement, the feeling that unfathomable things are possible if we can just fire up our talents and go.

So I thought I would make a list.  A list of the things in my life that inspire me.  The things listed here are moments or thoughts or anything that make my blood rush, my toes tingle, and my ears ring.  They make me fidgety and bubbly, and best of all, hopeful.  Most important for me, these things help me to write, because they help me to get in touch with who I really am.  So...
  1. Hearing new music.  Encountering a band or a singer that just clicks for me, whose talent completely takes me out of myself and my day.  It's like learning a really wonderul secret that you are dying to share, but you also want to keep to yourself.
  2. Crisp, sunny fall days.  Probably a product of 16 years of school, but when fall comes, and the breeze gets a bit chilly, I begin to feel excited, like a new year is starting and new things are possible. 
  3. The blessing of a really great book.  I can sometimes almost lose consiousness because I am so engrossed in an exceptional story or a character.  And when I finish a book like that?  I feel powerful and enlightened, charged up. 
  4. Hiking in the woods or walking on the back roads.  It's quiet, so quiet.  You never realize how noisy your life is until you walk into the woods for a distance and then just stop.  My brain almost sighs in relief, and then I will be flooded with ideas for stories or books.  It's like I can suddenly hear myself, because I turned down the volume on the things that don't really matter, but distract me just the same.
This is my list.  I have been working hard to keep these things as a regular part of my life, because they inspire what is the best in me: a desire to write and to create, and also a desire to connect with people and to know that life is about more than routine and completing tasks. 

Try making your own list.  What things make your heart pound or make you feel suddenly, and unreasonably, happy?  Imagine if you could incorporate those things into your everyday. Imagine how different your worldview would be if inspiration could find you a little more often. 

Monday, September 28, 2009

Click "Share"

It's a cloudy day today, and cloudy days always make thoughtful.  It's almost like the world put the sun away for awhile to give it some rest so we appreciate it more when it comes back.

Today, I am thinking about how lonely we all are. I wonder a lot how anyone can feel lonely in today's world, where the internet provides a constant feed of information to read about and a thousand ways to talk about it.  Your cell phone is never far away, and any time you feel a pang, you could just call up a good friend and share a laugh.  And we're busy.  We're so busy with so many different responsibilities and expectations, who has the time or the energy to worry about loneliness?  We have enough to do to fill our the hours, thanks very much.  I confess there are days when I feel so drained that I screen phone calls, ignore text messages, or put off answering emails because I just don't have enough energy to be perky or tell anecdotes.

For a very few people in my life, I can be real and talk about my thoughts and problems, but even then...I hesitate.  And why?  Why, when we are feeling so alienated and so tired of doing it all alone, do we keep our distance?  I look forward to plans made with old friends, but as the time draws nearer for a lunch or dinner date, I start to feel anxious, like I would rather do something alone, because I just can't endure the "catching up" part.  At this point in my life, I just don't have any jazzy and exciting answers to the question, "what's new?"  Right now, I am at a tricky and scary crossroads full of brooding thoughts and soul-searching.  But when someone asks me how things are, I never say, "Well, I have been really unhappy lately, and I am wondering if it's time to make some changes."  Even if that is the truth, I would never tell them that.  I might as well go around all day without my pants and try not to feel exposed.

I think about the advent of things like Facebook, Twitter, and even little blogs like this one.  What are they but an opportunity for really lonely people to shout out, to try to get someone to listen to them?  I mean, do we need to know when an old high school pal is making cookies or what a former co-worker had for lunch or who broke their iPhone?  No.  We broadcast these meaningless details because we are afraid to share anything real or substantial with each other, but we need to connect to somehow, some way.  The ironic part is that we end up creating more distance between ourselves.  We have so many new ways to communicate, but we never really say anything to each other.  We just make more noise and create diversions, upload smiley-faced pictures to our profiles and type "lol" or "omg" under funny comments.  (Side Note: I also appreciate the irony of writing about this in my little blog and then posting it on my Facebook wall.)  And I want everyone to be honest: haven't you all sent a Facebook Friend request to someone just so that you can snoop around and judge them?  Don't you want to see that a rival from high school or an old flame has gained weight or gotten divorced, just so that you can feel better about the direction of your own life?  No wonder we hesitate to share anything real with each other.

So I guess the point of this is to issue a challenge or a request or even just a nice suggestion.  Ask someone you love how they are, and then tell them that they can give you the real, truthful answer.  (And when they do, listen to them.  It's scary to be honest.)  Or when someone asks you how you are, don't give them a forced smile and say "fine."  Tell them something real that is going on in your life.  Give that person a chance to support and love you.  God sent us friends and neighbors for a reason.  We don't have to do this thing called life alone.

I know this blog doesn't have many followers yet, but for those who read it, you should know every word I type here is my own truth.  I am choosing to let people in so that I can start really living.  So, I will finish writing this post, and I will proofread it about 17 times.  Then I will read it twice more for good measure.  Then I will take a really deep breath, post it, and click "share."  You should know it scares me every time I do it.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It Could Be Worse

I went into the chiropractor's office yesterday.  My back had been hurting all day, my sinuses were draining like Niagra Falls, I had spent an entire day staring at spreadsheets, and I was stressing about my checking account balance (or lack thereof).  My doc said, "Happy Monday to you!", and I said, "Is there such a thing?"  As he proceeded with my adjustment, he told me how we all should appreciate every day because it could be so much worse.  "Think of how bad things are for other people?  You could be very ill or just have tragically lost someone you love."  I grumpily agreed with him, and begrudgingly acknowledged that no matter how heavy my life feels at times, there are ways it could be so much worse.  And it is so true.  I have family and friends who are struggling with things far more devastating than the financial woes or the personal existential crisis that plagues me every day.  It's also true that if you sat around a table with all your family and friends, and everyone put their problems in the middle like baseball cards, willing to trade, you would probably still pull back your own.

We are a nation of whiners.  It's true.  We all have something to gripe about, something that is not quite perfect or just short of how we dreamed our lives to be.  Many of us grumble when the alarm clock goes off, wishing we were lucky enough to not have to work, forgetting about so many of our neighbors who have lost their jobs in the last few years.  We complain about eating too much junk food, filling our gas tanks, depthless piles of laundry, and the ineptitudes of our political leaders.  We never imagine what we would complain about if we were hungry, homeless, and disenfranchised.  We all could use a healthy dose of perspective as we go about our daily chores.  And sometimes, it does make it easier to find the energy to put away all that folded laundry or scrub out that scummy pan from dinner.  But...

I am always kind of irked by people who tell me that, basically, I don't have the right to feel down, frustrated, angry, or tired, because my life could be "so much worse." Yes, things could always be worse. (Even as I type that, I am knocking on wood, because that phrase is far too tempting to fate.)  But just because I have not reached the absolute lowest possible depth of human despair, does that mean my struggles and strife are any less real or any less painful? No, I would not trade places with someone who had a seriously ill child or who had lost a parent early in life. That fact does not make the things I am going through less serious or difficult.  I think that my own personal level of stress gives me the right to say every once in awhile, "today is crappy," and not have to provide justification or supporting evidence for this statement. 

Sometimes, life is just heavy.  And other days, it's really a lot more heavy.  Are we inclined to wallow on the days when it gets too heavy to carry?  Sure.  If our friends and family find that we are taking advantage of the wallowing privelege, do they have the right to give us a figurative shake and say, "Hey!  Buck up!  It could be worse!"  Probably.  But whenever you find yourself saying that phrase, remember that you can't really know all the things that are weighing someone down.  And if you did, do you suppose that you would ever trade your problems for theirs?  Probably not.  So realize that sometimes we don't need a shake.  Knowing that things could be worse doesn't magically lift that weight off our shoulders.  You know what usually does?  Good friends who make you laugh even at your crabbiest.  A family who loves you no matter how much of mess you have made of things.  A little dose of hope that, while things could definitely be worse, they certainly can get better.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Text Twist, Spider Solitaire, and Numbing Out

So over the past 5 years, I have had three jobs where I just don't have enough to do.  (How does this keep happening?  That is a blog for another day.)  At the outset of each of these positions, I have great intentions.  I read intranet sites, ask lots of questions, walk around my department offering my services and talents to help out my far-busier co-workers.  But after about 3 months of this, I start to lose interest.  I get apathetic and kind of angry.  I feel like I am in some social experiment to test mental endurance for total boredom.  The more hours I sit in a cubicle with nothing to do, while watching and listening to my co-workers scurrying about and complaining of their work load, the lower, the more inadequate, the more useless I feel.  And as many people do when they are feeling down about their life and their general value to the world, I reach for a substance to drown out the pain and doubt.  My drug of choice?  Online games.

Now when I say online games, I am not talking World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons, not that those games aren't lovely and entertaining.  No, my particular brands are word challenges, puzzles, and solitaire.  My far too idle brain latches onto them like a lifeline because they provide stimulation and entertainment, two excellent ways to survive a day filled with boredom.  Each time I solve a difficult puzzle, figure out the seven letter word amidst the jumble of letters, or finally win a game of Spider Solitaire, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  After all, aren't puzzles and games used in nursing homes all the time to keep aging minds fresh and active?  It's the same concept.  I'll keep myself from totally fading away by pumping word jumbles and spatial reasoning puzzles into my system. 

And then the games start to become a problem.  I can't stop.  My eyes glaze over and my contacts crystalize and start prickling painfully, but I have to play until I win.  When I can't win a puzzle or find that darned seven-lettered word in Text Twist, I get frustrated and irritated.  By the end of a day nearly filled with this, I end up feeling worse about myself, because when someone asks "how was work today?" all I could really say is, "I played 25 games of Spider Solitaire and never won."  Just like any addiction, the initial rush and relief that my drug provided fades away to reveal my problems are still here.  All I am doing is numbing out.

Of course, there are other substances.  I choose to watch mindless TV far too often than reading a book or listening to music.  I regularly check celebrity gossip websites and read every US Weekly I can.  Sometimes, I will even choose to go to bed early just to escape the boredom.  Any distraction will do, as long as I don't have to really deal with my problems.

It's scary to look my problems in the face, because the only way any of them will be solved is by me, and ONLY me.  I panic and feel paralyzed, because despite my boredom, my day job pays the bills.  The status quo is getting me by.  If I try to make the big changes I know that I need, it might get worse.  I might make even more terrible mistakes or end up more alienated.  So instead of working through the pain to find the answer and the relief, I walk to the laptop that is always set up on my kitchen table, and start up another game of Spider Solitaire.

But lately, I have been starting to wake up from this sleepwalking.  I have felt stirrings of some of my old confidence, found a new interest in the things that have always inspired me, like great books, music, and political debate.  This blog, in fact, is one example of my soul fighting back against the numb.  The old me is still in here, I have just been smothering her out of fear of the unknown, fear of mistakes, fear of veering off the straight and narrow path and trying something new.  Even just writing that brought a little flutter of panic to my tummy.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Deep breath. 

I am not saying that we don't all need to escape sometimes.  We do.  Life can be heavy, and who doesn't need to sit down now and again and say, time to rest, time to check out?  It is healthy to do that once in awhile.  But we can't use those things as an alternative to living.  As someone who has checked out far too much in the last two years, let me tell you that waking up from that is rough.  It's like taking a 2 hour afternoon nap when you meant to sleep for 20 minutes.  But now, that the initial grogginess has passed, I feel kind of energized.  Even fear and panic are better than numbness, because I can feel them, and feeling them means I am alive and ready for what's to come.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A moment of Glee

OK, so now is the time when I raise my hand, stand up, and say, "My name is Jennifer, and I LOVE the TV show "Glee." It is this perfect mix of edgy wit, colorful characters, and inappropriate sarcasm. These qualities appeal to my grown-up self who feels like if I can catch all of the witticisms, get them, and laugh out loud, then my brain has not gone totally to mush from too many hours zoning out in a cubicle. But more than that, there is the singing.

So it's corny and cliche, but I was one of those misfit Glee club kids. Granted, choir wasn't quite so taboo at my high school. No one threw slushies in my face or deposited me in the dumpster every morning, but neither did singing write my ticket to popularity or acceptance. But I can relate to that moment, on stage, singing, when I knew I was doing something special that not very many of my classmates had the courage to do. I sang solos, I sang with the choir, I sang in a small quintet, and I had a lead in a musical. Every time I had the chance to do those things, I felt a surge of energy; I could almost feel my body and my face change. It was like a jolt of pure happiness, powerful enough erase teenage angst and low self-esteem. I felt so hopeful and alive; I had the power to do something great and to affect the people around me.

The problem is that there aren't any adult show choirs. We trudge through the day and get the job done, but there is nothing that ever compares to the elation of belting out music with all your heart. We give those moments to our kids and students as gifts, and we say we're too old or those times are over for us. But why? Why couldn't we gather together and sing a great Journey song and feel special and happy and energized? Just FEEL anything?

I think we give up too early on having a Gleeful life. We get caught up in routine and expectations and responsiblities, and we forget how great it feels to do something just for the sheer joy of it. Like singing a song. Will singing change the world? Nope. But it sure does feel great when the harmonies line up and the choreography clicks and you think, "man, I LOVE this song!" There is a quote from last week's episode from Glee about how one can really provide for your family. Is it about money or is it about teaching them that the most important thing is living your life doing something you're passionate about? I was passionate about choir and music when I was in high school, and that passion and feeling got me through the routine and the necessary responsibilities. Singing made me feel special, which helped me get through the times I felt invisible. I have to think that I should keep using what music inspires in me to get through the hard times now. Watching that silly TV show reminded me of the feeling of joy that it gives me. I want to get back there.

So I am going to start singing along with my favorite songs in my car, LOUDLY. I am going to blast the iPod while I'm cleaning the house and use my feather duster as a fake microphone and my vacuum cleaner as a dance partner. I am going to go to more concerts, and I will stand up and sing and dance and annoy everyone around me who doesn't have the courage or the spirit to do the same. I am going to give myself up to that feeling of being alive. It's time for some Glee for me. I can't believe I forgot about it.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Third Graders get Tutors; 30 Year Olds get Chiropractors

I turned 30 last month, and while I am trying very hard to think of this as a new decade to accomplish new goals and find new opportunities for happiness, I can't help feeling like I have fallen behind. And why is that? Why do I feel that my lack of a husband, children, a mortgage, and, to be honest, a career, has put me behind the rest of my class? If I were in third grade and had fallen this far behind, specialty teachers and tutors would be assigned to my day to help me through and to catch up. They would find my deficiencies and help change them so that I can reach 4th grade. By summertime, I would be walking alongside my classmates to the end-of-school field trip feeling pretty smug. Oh, if only they could somehow tell us that nothing in life will ever be as cut-and-dried, black-and-white as third grade. Can you tell a third grader, "Hey, I am helping you out now, but someday when you are 30 and confused and stuck on a really hard problem, you are SOL." Sounds cruel, but wouldn't it be kinder in the end?

But back to my original question, have I really fallen behind? The truth is that I have made so many missteps in the last 3 years that I am not even sure which path I am on, let alone how far along the path I am, so how would I even know if I was behind?

I keep thinking that this is not a setback, but maybe that things are just a bit out of chronological order for me. Instead of waking up at 45 with kids and a mortgage and a husband who makes me nuts and panicking at the state of my life, I am pre-panicking. While I have been waiting for these to come along, waiting for the timing to be right, I have just had too much time to think. That is never good for me.

Marriage, babies, and houses have been dangled before me as the carrot to reach for for so long that I have just had too much time to study them. Lately, the carrot does not look so delicious. What if I don't want to reach for it any more? Was I reaching for the husband and the kids, or was I reaching for what I thought must come along with them: peace. Peace. The opposite of the turmoil and confusion and fuzzy-head I feel now. Do you get peace when you finally reach that carrot? Do the wheels start moving down the path again? What if, when I start reaching for the peace carrot (or maybe peace is a cabbage? Not sure.) babies and mortgages and husbands aren't an integral part of it?

I had to go to the chiroprator this week for some serious back pain. We were reviewing my X-rays and discussing my treatment plan, and my doctor pointed to a picture on a progressive chart that was labeled "Phase II: Decay," and said, "You are here, Jennifer." I stared at the word. DECAY. Wait, what? How can I be decaying already? I have not done anything yet! I have just been trying to do something. (It was all that reaching out for the wrong carrot; reaching is bad for your back.) The stress of trying so hard but never quite getting there has caused my body to start to DECAY. Decay is for death; it's what happens to your body right before it disappears into the earth.

But there is hope. They're sending in some help. The chiropractor, so kind and empathetic, is a 30-year-old's version of the tutor, the speciality teacher, to help me catch up with the rest of the class. He says, "We can fix this. We caught this in time. We can reverse it and make things better for you." So as I sit here looking at my life from the 30 year mark on my timeline, maybe that's the way to say it. I am catching the decay before it takes over. I can fix this. I can make it better.