Alive

October 27th, 2020

I’d be satisfied if over the course of my life I have nudged even a few people one step forward on their own paths to transformation. Now, as I embrace a new chapter here in Canada, I owe a big nudge in my own thinking to Howard Thurman, one of the great Americans of the Civil Rights Movement, who served quietly as mentor to Dr. King and other movement leaders, and as an author and theologian over the course of a long, distinguished life. In reply to some earnest soul who had asked him how to become a change agent for a better world, he said, “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.”

No ink blot, no inventory, no personality typing can give more meaningful insight to who we really are than the answer to that question.  It’s easy to cheat a little and say another person does that for us, but I’m talking about something we have all by ourselves, that we make, or express, or do.  Having lived away from the people I am closest to for much of the last few years, I can say without a doubt that many things I have experienced would be great to have done with them. With many of my wonderful new experiences, I wish this or that person were there to share it with me.  The thing I’m talking about here, though,  is what we embrace and love with only ourselves for company.

The best answers to this point-blank question about our lives  go far deeper than lists of things that are fun to do.  The saddest answer is none at all.  To come up with nothing that makes you feel alive is, well, kind of close to being dead.  A deeply thoughtful answer to that question will serve as the pathway to the best possible life.  Maybe some people don’t really want their best life all that badly and would find such questions irrelevant to how they choose to spend their time, but I’m not one of them.\

I have learned, or relearned a few things recently.  The first is I love to write.  I lost track of that because I came to dislike the publishing and marketing process so much.  I wrote a play earlier this year, and I really loved doing it.  Maybe it will get a reading, a workshop, or even a production, and maybe not, but I felt alive doing it and I am deeply satisfied with what I produced.  I am circling around a second play, looking for the way in, and I recognize the signs I am almost there.  I feel the tingle of exhilaration when characters start to talk in my head, when they reveal who they are, and I know that something that exists only in my head now will come to exist on the page.

I have rediscovered how much the outdoors makes me feel present and alive.  I lost track of that living in San Diego full time after selling my mountain home in Lake Arrowhead. It’s not that there aren’t lots of places to go in Southern California, but I never felt much of an urge to make the drive out of town,  and the parks, crowded beaches, and harbor fronts don’t grab me like the forest or a rocky shore.

Overall, the thing that makes me feel most alive is change. I am happiest when I’m moving, whether it’s a life of cruising, or since then, a multi day car trip, a new neighborhood for a month or two, a sense that today is a great day to go do something I haven’t done before.  That’s how I picture this chapter, full of spontaneity, listening to the spirit in me that is so much wiser than many of my conscious thoughts.

I spent most of my life thinking  that to make the most of life I had to have a plan. I should set goals. When I look back on my life I see so many of the most pivotal decisions I made were not because I had a plan, but because I needed to stop feeling wasted where I was.  Changing jobs (even careers), homes, relationships, happened  because on some inchoate level I knew I was dying, shriveling to less than what my authentic self wanted me to be. Now I’m 70. I’m healthy of mind and body, so I probably still have ample time for a lot of things, but no more time to waste. Now my heart’s demands are loud and insistent, and with joy and gratitude for all that life offers someone as fortunate as I am, I rise up to meet them.

Crosswalks and Other Things Canadian

October 13th, 2020

A couple of stories about Canada popped up in my feed today, one from the Rough Guide, saying it was a close second behind Scotland ( where I have also been fortunate to  live), as the most beautiful country in the world.  It is also, according to US News and World Report, the best country in the world in which to live.

Contrary to the story of American Exceptionalism, and the loud, mind-numbing shows of “patriotism” that flag wavers never seem  quite able to put quiet, thoughtful words to, the US isn’t even in the top ten for either. It is a magnificently beautiful country, to be sure, and a great place to be part of the white, employed (with benefits) middle class,  especially if you can block out thoughts of how it isn’t so great for others. Maybe it is better as a nation than the last four years have suggested.  I hope so, but this era of the president I can’t bring myself to call by name, is like getting in a car accident.  Yes, perhaps one is lucky enough to survive relatively unscathed, but the dents are still there.

Yesterday was Canadian Thanksgiving, and it got me to thinking about this country and the ways it has seemed different to me. One thing I’ve noticed is crosswalks, how pedestrians wait for the walk signal even if no cars are coming. Another is how, if a car stops  inside the crosswalk for a red light, the driver will back up to make sure pedestrians aren’t inconvenienced by having any of the crosswalk blocked.  Another is how drivers stop for pedestrians even before it’s clear they want to cross the street. Checking your phone on a street corner? Expect to look up and see a car stopped, waiting for you. No honking. No frown, despite the little bit of bother you’ve caused.

The other day I had the thought that people here wear masks because there isn’t Covid and in the US people wear them  because there is.  I think in a way, this can serve as the exemplar of so much I have observed here. American unwillingness to come together in the fight against Covid has created a dynamic where people are on the defensive, and even on the attack, against each other.  The first week I was out of quarantine I overheard a Sidney shopkeeper chatting with a customer about the fact that there had been a  case or two of Covid in two separate restaurants in town.  Both venues had voluntarily closed for a few days for more staff training, disinfection, and just to wait out the life of any virus the cleaning might have missed.  “Well,” said one, “with  a couple of cases,  I guess they’ll soon be telling us to wear our masks wherever we go.” The other woman laughed cheerfully. “I suppose so!”  No eye rolling, no grumbling.  It’s just what you do. And it is why, according to the last news I heard, no one on Vancouver Island is hospitalized with Covid.  For more eye-opening statistics, see the table below.

Does this mean Canadians are sheep?  Automatons?  Not at all.  They just get it that they have a responsibility to others. That order breaks down when people make their own decisions about the rules. That certain behavior is required to make life work better for others.  That what goes around comes around, and rules create a better society for oneself too. As many of my new friends have put it, being “nice”—and following the rules— is a big part of what makes them Canadian. “How do you get a group of Canadians out of the pool?” a joke goes.   Simple.  You say, “would everyone please get out of the pool?”

I have been toying with the idea that one difference between the two countries is the national narrative about how the country came to be.  I can’t speak to what Canadians absorb as their national mythology, but surely it has to be very different from one in which love of “freedom” is sold as a birthright that must be continually fought for.  A War of Independence begins the tale.  As the country grew, when societal restraints stood in the way of individualism, a new set of heroes set out for the territories and beyond.  And of course, in a tragic irony, the Civil War was at its heart about the freedom to enslave others. The militias and gangs of thugs showing up on the streets and steps  of government buildings are the twisted inheritors of an ethos we were taught in school.  How else could refusal to wear a mask become elevated in their minds to something akin to heroism in the defense of liberty?

I have been learning how important it is for me to watch for signs—not just the intangible ones, but real ones, in unexpected places. Like the one on a loop trail in Ucluelet saying that because of Covid, everyone must do the trail in one direction to avoid running into people going the other way. I wasn’t tracking the possibility there would even be directions of that sort, and traipsed off the wrong way. Not until after about a mile, when I came to another trailhead and saw the signs there, did I realize my mistake, and that indeed everyone else had been going the other way  I felt like a real jerk, and stored away the information that I must be far more observant if I want to fit in here.  And yes, I turned around, because I do want that.

 

 

 

Cascades

October 6th, 2020

 

Cascade

noun

a waterfall descending over a steep, rocky surface.

anything that resembles a waterfall, especially in seeming to flow or fall in abundance.

 

Maybe it’s the sound of moving water, whether lapping over sand on a calm bay, or thundering over a cliff top, or moving slowly and languidly across a shallow bed of chattering pebbles. Maybe it’s the way it changes with circumstances, transparent and glassy one moment, and churning opaque white the next.  Whatever it is about water, its wisdom finally found me. The last three days, beginning with a beach in Victoria, then moving through a series of lakes, rivers, and waterfalls, brought me to a moment in my life I had assumed I would never reach.

Wherever I go, the memory of the two people who have most deeply betrayed me has come with me.  They have intruded on my happiness for years, and I haven’t been able to address it in a way that allows me to put it in the past and move on.  I am better than I used to be about actively banishing trains of thought that get clogged up with my resentment and rage, but never have moved to the point where these two people don’t matter anymore. The cascading thoughts of the last few days make think that moment has finally come

It all began with the High Holy Days ritual of Taschlich, the symbolic casting away of shortcomings and failures of the past year by throwing bread onto water, in this case at a beach in Victoria, delayed until now because of the smoke of last month. I came up with quite a list of ways I could do better in the future, but I balked at even the thought that this year could lead to relief from the burdens I place on myself by my inability to forgive.

I drove off from there for a three-day adventure on Vancouver Island, centered on the area around Strathcona Park and the Campbell River.  My plan was to choose short, easy hikes to waterfalls, and I picked out four. Over the next two days I saw them all, and the rivers that produced them and the lakes from which they came, or to which they flowed. One, Lupin Falls, is shown here

 

I went through old growth forests, through golden pathways of falling leaves, through phalanxes of towering cedars, hemlocks, and firs, across massive fans of roots and rocky rubble.  With each experience I felt a lifting of burdens of all sorts, to the point of true joy at being where I was—and only there, nowhere else in my head or otherwise.

I am not sure when it first hit me, or even if it hit me at all or just evolved, but my thoughts were eventually able, for the first time, to drift to these two people without judgment. They are who they are. They have terrible, deep psychic wounds that cannot be healed and these played out in hurtful behavior toward me. One of them, Michael Bart, my partner in Until Our Last Breath, has defamed and belittled me for years as having made inconsequential, secondary  contributions to a book I wrote in its entirety. Anyone who has poured his or her soul into a creative work will understand the pain of having such a huge accomplishment appropriated so callously, as if his ideas and editing  gave him greater standing than the person who actually crafted all the words.  

Perhaps there is some debt or shortcoming he feels as the son of Holocaust survivors ( the subject of our book), that made him need to create the lasting legacy of a book. I can step outside my anger now and say that I am glad he has that legacy. I am glad he has a book that gives him standing to go out to speak to audiences because it is important both to him and to me that his voice be heard, and that voices now long silenced be remembered. I wouldn’t have taken on the project if I didn’t think this.  As to his need to shove me aside? Apparently, authoring a book is what he needs be true, even if it isn’t.  Say whatever he will,  the truth is I wrote the book. Every word.  Period. I have finally put to rest the harm he did to me.  It is now entirely his burden and not mine to carry.

I still don’t know what psychic wounds sent my first husband into the tailspin that destroyed our marriage and his career, and I’ve already alluded to him enough in previous posts that there is no need to say anything more here. I am sorry for whatever it was—some lack in his experiences as a child or some awful tweak in brain chemistry, or something else entirely— that made him unable to hang on to the success he had made of his life in the early years of our relationship. I loved and admired him for so long. I don’t know why that was never enough to pierce the self loathing, and I understand now that nothing and no one ever could have.  I am sorry he flew too close to the sun with waxen wings. I am sorry that his fall made him unable for decades now to receive the admiration and accolades a successful career and a long and happy marriage might have brought him.  Still, it is clear to me there is nothing that could ever fill that sad and yawning hole at the center of him.

Today I sat at Nymph Falls, more rapids than falls,  at the edge of Strathcona Park, pictured here.

I watched  water slide effortlessly across smooth rocks and pool in shallows, only to be pulled out again and sent hurtling down to slam against boulders, and roil and bubble in an opaque battle against itself until it is released into the calm again. Life is kind of like that, I thought. And then, suddenly, a salmon leapt out of the water, making its way upstream.  Yeah, I thought, life is kind of like that too.

But maybe that’s what this turning point will mean for me. Maybe I can finally  stop swimming upstream about this part of my life, stop letting all this negativity pound down on me.  I don’t need to forgive or not forgive them. That’s what I didn’t understand until now. It’s more just an acknowledgment that they behaved consistently with who they are..   Let them be caught in whatever cascades their behavior unleashes.  It has nothing to do with me.  I have a beautiful life to nurture.  I think I can do a better job of that now.