Never a Good Time

The book club I’m part of has one very convenient feature: two of our members are Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library librarians. They label and check out our books for us, and when book club is over, they gather them up and return them. So last month, when it happened that neither librarian could attend, we all looked at each other blankly and asked ourselves, “How will the books get back?” Lisa volunteered to take them.

There was no particular reason that Lisa should have been the one to do it. Continue reading “Never a Good Time”

Death of a Lobster

I found a restaurant in Santa Monica that sells lobsters for $45 apiece. I’m no expert, but I get the impression the price can go a lot higher at an elegant establishment. Here, the dock price is $6.

It’s a temptation that can’t be resisted. Several times I’ve gone into the kitchen to find lobsters crawling around the counters as one or another of our housemates prepares for dinner. Continue reading “Death of a Lobster”

The Void In The Universe

I never understood grief at death.

Well, that’s not totally accurate.

When the spouse or the child or the best friend in regular contact dies, I understood the gaping hole it leaves in a life. I understood the sudden crashing down and the time it takes to rebuild that.

For the person who is atheist/agnostic/believes in “this life is all we have” I understood the pain of the thought that the dead are gone eternally, wiped from earth as if they had never existed.

When there has been a strain in the relationship, anger, neglect, whatever, I understood the self-recrimination, the agonized loop of “if only I could go back and set it right” that can never be.

I understood even the sort of irony that smashes into the solar plexus: the father who dies days before his child is born; the scientist who dies weeks before his research discovers the cure for cancer.

But, none of those things being true for me, I didn’t understand my own sadness. I won’t even dignify it by the name of grief; I am not sure that a tear or two at Mozart’s Requiem, or at remembering from time to time the natural grace that made him a natural at every sport, or a half a dozen other little things, is really of a scale to qualify.

We had not been in contact for years, so no hole was left. True, that would have been a source of serious regret had we not found each other again two or three weeks before his death, with a joy and a triumph of certainty that we always would. (This is, after all, someone who signed my senior yearbook with his full name, birthday, and social security number so that, as he said, “You will always be able to find me.” Ah, the epic romanticism of teenagers.) For that matter I still believe we will meet again.

So, then, why sadness? It was so puzzling. And I wondered, what does that say about me, that I cannot understand so simple a thing?

A friend of mine suggested that “grief, like happiness, is a function of intensity, not time.” This was comforting, in that it validated my right to my own feelings, but still felt too simple…

I think I understand it now.

When someone vanishes completely from the surface of the earth – pouf! – you are left loving a void in the universe. You might as well pick the blackest spot in space, a hole between stars, and love it. It is preposterous. The mind rebels.

I see him in his unknown grave, because my mind will not let him be nowhere. Or I see him still alive, because I wish to speak to him, but I know he exists only in my mind, in a vast orb of space and time where I can never reach him. Will never reach him so long as I live, and when I think of it, life seems long indeed.

I understand now the urge to believe in immediate ascension to heaven. Or reincarnation. Or anything that isn’t – pouf!

I love a void in the universe. Is that not cause for grief? I think it is.

Memory is All We Have (part 1)

Roughly a decade ago I stood in a shop in the little tourist village of Portmeirion, Wales, debating which book to take home as a souvenir. The choice was between two books by the same author I had never heard of, selected almost at random for their titles and covers, and took a surprising amount of time.

Considering that the one I chose, the one about the old diary rather than the one about the forest, has been one of my favorite books ever since, and is unequalled by anything I’ve ever read for its pacing and structure, I’ve often thought about that decision, and the chance that led me to this one that I love so much.

But it wasn’t until I was re-reading it yet again this week that I wondered why I’ve never hunted down the other one. I know the author is published in America; I looked into it when I realized I would eventually need to buy a replacement copy.

The answer is simple and a little strange. I’ve tended to assume, all these other years, that I could never love the other one as much as this one, and this book is so magical to me that I fear it would be spoiled by reading another in the same style.

At first I thought this was completely opposite my usual practice, considering that I have tracked down and read almost every available work by other authors I’ve particularly enjoyed – Jane Austen, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers, Alexander McCall Smith. But it’s not, really. I’ve never re-read Portrait of a Lady, my favorite of Henry James’ works, because I feared it wouldn’t speak to me the same way the second time around. The first time I saw Whale Rider it was spectacular, the second time it was special, and the third time it was merely a very good movie. After being equally blown away by Almost Famous I never took the chance of the same thing happening.

All we have is our memories. We don’t like to think that; we’re always being told to “live in the moment.” But if you don’t believe me, try having a conversation when you’re so tired, so distracted or simply so in-over-your-head that you can barely remember what was discussed five minutes before or how one subject segued into another. “The moment” becomes rather surreal when you can’t rely on memory and it is memory that gives importance to each moment.

Accomplishing Something by Doing Nothing

Last weekend I finally did what I had to do: I declared that I was officially becoming a hermit, and then cut out all thought of everything that didn’t absolutely have to get done to make as much time as possible for nothing. And Monday morning, I actually felt refreshed for the first time in memory. I learned a few things along the way.
Lesson 1: Know what works for you. Take the effort to really observe the effect, rather than assuming it.
A few months ago I ran across the first hint about what needed to be done in a Rands in Repose article titled Chill. Rands talks about trying biofeedback as a way of curing migraines: 

It gets interesting when you start ignoring the feedback. “Rands, we’re going to try different relaxation techniques and see what works. How do you relax?” 

TV? She turned the TV on for ten minutes. “Yeah, that doesn’t relax you. Your brain is working.”

Closing my eyes and breathing deeply? Five minutes later, “Again, it looks like you’re thinking too much about not thinking. You’re not relaxing.”

What about reading? She pulled a book off her shelf and I started reading. Within a few minutes, all of the feedback pointed out that my body was diving into a deep relaxation.

“Rands, reading chills you out.”

I realized, as perhaps I had suspected before, that watching TV is not particularly restful for me; watching at my desk, as I often do, is even less so. And yet it has been my “chill out” of choice. I reason, watching TV burns about the same amount of calories as sleeping, so it should be almost as restful, right?
Lesson 2: You have to prepare to relax just like you would any other activity. It’s like dieting, when you remove the junk from the house and stock up on fruits and veggies, knowing that you’ll eat what’s on hand rather than going to the store for what you really want. Make a path of least resistance to something that’s actually good for you.
The other reason I use TV to unwind is that it’s something that doesn’t have to be thought about at all. I have several favorite shows, and I simply click on the next episode of whichever one I’m most behind on and let it pour into my brain effortlessly for the next hour. 
To not do that, to do something else, becomes quite an ordeal by contrast. What should I do? If I read, what should I read? One of the “should reads” stacked around the house? But that requires so much mental energy. Something lighter? But which exact flavor of lightness would I like? And so on. But I know there are authors whose work is serious enough that I don’t feel guilty, and compelling enough that I can’t put the book down – just what you want in this situation. I happened to have one on hand for the past few weeks, and will definitely be going to the library regularly for more.
Lesson 3: Priorities change, and balance is needed.
For many years I embraced the school of thought that “People who need people are too needy for me.” Then I reached a place where I was lonely every Sunday, so I adopted an approach much like Jim Carrey’s in Yes Man: I said yes to everything I possibly could. Eventually I built up a social life to the point that, in recent weeks, I resented every social activity I “had to” go to, yet felt socializing was too important ever to refuse. 
A friend reminded me of the extrovert/introvert continuum: some people get their strength from being around people, and some people get it from being alone. Most fall somewhere in the middle and need both within reason. Sure enough, a few days of determined solitariness – I hardly spoke a word or heard a human voice that first day – were enough to make me cheerfully accept company again.
Lesson 4: Once you know a thing – don’t forget it.
I knew about the effect of reading vs. TV. I knew about my need to be alone sometimes. And I knew that 10 p.m. is my magic bedtime. For some reason there is a disproportionate difference for me between eight hours of sleep starting at 9:45 and eight hours starting at 10:15. And yet, night after night, I would go to bed well after that cutoff. Remembering that and shifting back to a schedule that works better for me has had a huge effect. 
Granted, many of the pressures of the past few months lifted at least somewhat in the past week, which helps. But I have no doubt that these “new” practices are largely responsible for the improvement in my sense of well-being.