In learning to narrow my focus this year, I am also learning how much power that distraction has.

Distraction is not a negative, inherently speaking. When you’re in pain or caught in a mental crazy spiral, it’s an absolute blessing. Distractions interrupt a current, and if a particular current isn’t doing you any good, then distractions let you halt the feedback and walk away for a while.

But then, some currents are just slow, or tedious, or frightening to us, and then we panic and hit the distraction button instead of working through them.  In learning to deal with some parts of life (money, child-raising, working a job I don’t love) I can easily get myself into trouble by keeping myself unfocused and distracted. I’m having a bit of that now, at my job, where I haven’t focused myself because I don’t want to be bothered. It’s not fun work, it’s tedious sometimes, and I have very little control over how much of it I get and what form it comes to me in. I can’t streamline or schedule my work into a form where I don’t have to give it too much attention. Every new project is starting from scratch, and I resent that, so I resist working as quickly or efficiently as I should. And end up nearly missing deadlines.

I did the same with money till recently, ignored it until I got pink-tinted notices, then paid it off in a panic before ignoring it again.

And this kind of thing is stupid, and wastes my time, and encourages bad habits, and costs me money.  Which is why I’m trying not to do it any more, but I’m still fighting myself.

It’s not that I want to give up the part of me that knows I could do more interesting work, and want to, when I have the chance. Or that someday I’d like to pay my bills quickly because I had plenty of money to do so, so it would be nothing I was scared of. It’s just that my resentment and avoidance doesn’t get me to those places any faster. Accepting that at the moment, this is where I’m at, hurts my pride. I want to be somewhere better, more interesting, more fun, more rewarding.

Some religious writers talk about living in the moment as though it were about peaceful acceptance, and I see that, but sometimes the moment is not a peaceful one. Sometimes it’s a battle. Sometimes to get to that peace, you’re going to have to grab yourself by the shoulders firmly and say yes, I know this isn’t what you want to do, but not doing it hurts more.

Tree or Fire?

As my husband and his friends cursed and shivered and tried to get our damn New Year’s bonfire to light (some of the firecrackers we were using to set it off were apparently duds) I talked to another friend about what we thought it meant. What does it mean when you tie firecrackers and newspaper to a supposedly dried-out old Christmas tree, set it on fire, then watch in disbelief while it mostly refuses to burn?
We decided there are two possible interpretations:
  1. Negative. Like our attempts to burn the tree, all our attempts at success this year will fizzle and disappoint. Comparisons to the Fed’s frantic approach to fixing the economy inevitably come to mind.
  2. Positive. Like the tree, we will resist firecrackers, burning newspaper, and even a splash of gasoline thrown at us in desperation. Battered and scorched, we’ll survive midnight to greet the dawn.
I guess we’ll have to wait 12 more months to find out which one applies.

Suspension of Disbelief

It is nearly impossible, when I’m challenged, to explain why I still believe in anything you could call spiritual or religious, especially when I’ve had to pare down that belief to almost nothing but a “still small voice.” This blog is part of my attempt to name whatever I can, however small, that is true.

And of course, lots of people that I love and admire would tell me that my persistent belief is not true, is not anything but a wishful thought, or twist in my mental state; a coping mechanism. That’s certainly possible. I’ve spent a lot of time with that thought, wondering if this connection, this unnameable thing that persists inside me, is in fact just some chemical misfire in the brain. One that a lot of humans share, apparently. Which still doesn’t mean it’s anything but a misfire, a delusion, an error.

Certainly the stories of actual religion are easy enough to scoff at; virgin births and reincarnation, gods setting the sun in the sky, giants and angels and all the rest. Or just the idea that any deity would create a world so filled with suffering, or let a good world become this world. That there would be any excuse for the unspeakable things that happen to innocent people every day.

I don’t have an answer. I see the desolation and I feel the strength of an argument that says, this is a world without a god, without anything but chaos, and whatever good we can make is all up to us. And we are only here for a short while, and then it’s done, and nothing will remain of what we are or were.

I can feel that, I can even accept that. I can’t rejoice in it, but the truth is what it is. And maybe that is the truth.

But the something else, the thing I can’t name, the thing that is so close to my heart that it resists definition, persists. I don’t understand it. It’s like a hunger. It’s like a secret. It’s like joy. It’s like a dance. It flares up in the presence of compassion, in the presence of hope.

It is a small thing, and a true thing, but that is all I know about it, other than this; it is very very strong, and it does not ever die completely. And when I read some few other people, people who believe or sort of believe, I recognize it in what they say.

I call myself agnostic because I can’t build a religion on that, though I recognize it in bits of other religions. I don’t know that it’s God, I don’t know anything, whatsoever.  I want to be honest, because there is far too much deception and lies built around belief or religion or Eternal Truth or what-the-heck-ever you call it, and if I’m honest I have to say: I don’t know anything, at all, with certainty.

There is a bit in one of Douglas Adams’ books about how to fly that seems to apply here:

There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.

Very often, life feels that way to me; I have to go forward, make my plans, do my job, etc. etc., but occasionally I get the feeling that if  I am distracted enough, that if things are just right, something might happen. I might fly, or a miracle might occur, or may be occuring without my noticing it. All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well. The mystery of hope in hopelessness, of faith itself even when you’ve had to reject religion altogether. Of life when you are surrounded by death. I don’t understand, but I’m drawn, I’m pulled in, I can’t stop trying to check if the feeling is still there, like a pilot light on the stove, I look, and it’s still burning.

But now I’m over explaining, and that’s not helpful, so I’ll leave it there.  I would recommend that everyone read Douglas Adams, though, starting with The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the first two sequels. He knew more about life, the universe, and everything than any preacher I ever listened to. I don’t think he had anything you can call belief, but he seemed to understand and feel compassion for humanity and its foibles and connect it to the absurdity of existence in a way that was wise even when it was sad and cynical. I recognize something in him too.

There’s a lot of fear around, these days.

The funny thing about fear is that you can almost always justify it. There is no reason to think you’re not doomed, that things aren‘t going to go to hell in a handbasket, that death or disaster is crouching just around the corner waiting for you or your loved ones. Whole genres of literature (dystopian sci-fi) and political philosophies (survivalism, Rapture-ism) are based on the obsession with What to Do When it All Goes Pear-Shaped.

And of course, in the end we all die anyway. So that fear, at least, makes some sense. But the rest of it is of limited value for me.

I think about fear a lot because it’s always had a crippling effect on my life, even when I knew it was irrational and that it was making me miss out. Fear of “doing it wrong” whatever “it” was; being a good person, good wife, good mom, good friend, competent employee. The times when I’ve let fear make my decisions have almost always been the times with bad outcomes–when I take the safe job, turn down the risky opportunity, stifle a deep need out of misplaced martyrism or just being timid. The safe job turned out horribly; the stifled need made me miserable; being a martyr just sucks, period.

When I feel most alive, most connected to living, is when I’m taking a risk–a thought-out risk, usually, but a risk–that is connected with something I need. Having a child, moving to New York without a job or a longterm place to stay, marrying a musician, going to a college that no one had heard of but that had an awesome English department.  Traveling to Germany on my own at 19 for a week with minimal language skills. Not all of these were easy or 100% awesome (I got homesick in Germany and came back early, I kind of regret not going to a cheaper school) but all produced rewards and made me intensely happy in one way and another. All of them gave me stories, and memories, and opportunities, that I would never have gotten otherwise. All of them required ignoring my fears.

So I’m resisting the fear all around me now, of bad news, of uncertain survival. It’s easier of course, because I haven’t lost my house or been laid off. Yet. But there’s still plenty of anxiety to go around. Logically, I should be worried, should rein in the hopes and plans I have for my future and Nathan’s and Matt’s. In chaos, though, there is opportunity. The world is being shaken, and it’s quite possible that this is the beginning of a long bad stretch. But it might also be the chance for new things to pop up, new ideas to get tried, a chance to change some things that weren’t working.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t take the suffering so many are going through lightly. I think it’s a damned shame that it takes an economic collapse to get our leadership to take seriously problems and ideas that have been around for a long time, that have been clamoring for our attention long since. I am angry that things have had to get to this point at all. That’s immoral, because it has caused needless suffering, and it should not have happened this way.

But it has, and if we can use this time to make life more worth living, let’s do that. Let’s not be afraid any more than absolutely necessary. Let’s leap into the unknown, instead of waiting for it to catch up to us. That way, we might generate some useful momentum to carry us to something better.

Spiritual Osmosis

This morning, I took my son to McDonald’s so he could play and I could read the paper; a setup I dearly wish more restaurants would copy, since it’d be great to have better food while my son enjoyed himself. We’ve been doing this for a while on weekends, to let him burn off steam while we ease into the mornings. If we had more cash right now, we could choose to just finish fixing up our backyard instead, so he could play while we watched from the kitchen table. That would be nice. The food would be better, we’d use less gas, I could stay in my pajamas.

But then we’d be missing something else; the chance for him to play with other kids, and the chance for us to, at least, smile and nod at our neighbors. The lady at the McDonald’s knows me well enough to comment when I changed my hair; I recognize a few of the kids from time to time that we run into.  Nathan watches the older kids and yearns to play their games, to imitate their coolness. He is more daring, climbs higher and jumps farther, when other kids are around then when we’re the only ones there. In fact, at home we have a playroom just for him; he hardly uses it, unless one of us plays in there with him. He’s not self-sufficient, at least, not yet.

But then, nobody is. “Self-sufficient” is almost a nonsense term when applied to human beings. As babies, we can hardly survive, and can’t thrive, without interaction with others, even if we are fed and clothed and otherwise cared for.  As a species we clump into groups and societies, and benefit immensely from it even when they feel constricting.

Which is why I found one of the articles I read in the paper today so interesting: happiness (or smoking or obesity) is contagious among a geographically close network.

The results were striking:

A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42% more likely to be happy yourself. If that same friend lives two miles away, his impact drops to 22%. Happy friends who are more distant have no discernible impact, according to the study.

Similarly, happy siblings make you 14% more likely to be happy yourself, but only if they live within one mile. Happy spouses provide an 8% boost — if they live under the same roof. Next-door neighbors who are happy make you 34% more likely to be happy too, but no other neighbors have an effect, even if they live on the same block.

Our history books overwhelmingly tell the tale of Great People (usually men) who, it’s implied, single-handedly Changed Everything.  But feminism has taught me that, while exceptional talent should be recognized, the situation in which it comes to exist determines whether it will flourish. Were he born an illiterate peasant, Isaac Newton would most likely have died a clever nobody. Without rich families or patrons, or occasional outstanding luck, or being born male, the history-changing people we worship would mostly never have had a chance to do the things they did. This doesn’t take away from their hard work, but it does recognize that achievement never takes place in a vacuum.

Not even our bodies are single entities; more and more, we learn they are run by colonies of bacteria and other organisms who find us a useful home and without whom we could not survive. We exist in our current form as the accidental byproduct of their activities. We are woven into the larger world, even at the level of our own cells. There is no escaping our connection to everyone and everything. Happiness is contagious, and racism; optimism, and despair. We are not separate.

That idea would have horrified me as a teenager, but it comforts me now, when I’m more at home in my own skin and less worried about purity of any kind. Lots of people still annoy me, but I don’t seem to care as much about separating myself from them.  I have had to rely too often on people who I have thought dumb, prejudiced, or uninformed to help me, and been helped by them, to feel good about looking down on them anymore.  It doesn’t help them, and it hurts me. Besides, we’re all gonna die someday, anyway. Why infect each other with hatred in the meantime? Almost all of us will be anonymous once we’re gone, one of billions who never made it into history books. But we find out, we can leave our mark in the oddest of ways, in the body of humanity, just by standing close to one another.

Starting small

I’ve been blogging since 1998, first at emjaybee.diaryland.com (which I let go defunct), then at grabapple.net (now moved to grabapple.wordpress.com).

A lot has happened; I’ve gone from newlywed to old married, non-mom to mom, unpublished nobody to published nobody. I’ve moved from Texas to New York back to Texas again. I’ve proclaimed my faith, lost it, and then moved hesitantly back into the Undecided column.

I’ve jettisoned my idea that you have to re-write your blog from scratch, as a fully-realized Web site with its own separate URL, and that you have to go back and update everything old to be contiguous with everything new. Life is too short, and so long as people can find me, who cares about being my own stand-alone site? As long as my archives exist, who cares if they include broken links or embarrassingly bad writing? Perfection is not important. Fear of imperfection inhibits growth. Screw that noise.

Grabapple was about seizing hold of life, all the life that I could find, and that’s still my motto. But many things that I thought I would have by now have slipped my grasp and proved elusive. Some I may never possess. Some losses I will always grieve, and some will turn out not to be so important.

At the end of the day, what I usually find is that I have only small things, some of them true, that stay with me.  That’s probably all any of us get. So I’ll do my best to tell you about my small and/or true things.  Maybe in return, you can tell me about yours.