Quote of the Day

Friday, December 25, 2009

tell me a story

This post has been a long time coming, but busyness, laziness and other, pushier thoughts have continued to crowd it out until now. But how seems like a good time, it being Christmastime and a mere few weeks after my beloved grandfather's passing.

I guess it really started with a thin purple book, handed to me last Christmas Eve with apologies that it was not the customary check my grandparents had given over the past several Holidays. What it was turned out to be far more precious: a locally-published collection of my grandmother's poetry; a time capsule, a little piece of her story, and with that of my own history. Of course I've always known my grandmother wrote poetry, and I've read some of it over the years, but somehow it was as if that little volume opened up a whole new window for me, from the bio in which I learned new things about her life and career before my grandpa and my dad, to the pages of her poetry, words straight from the soul. It almost felt like a sort of trespassing or voyeurism, the intimacy of reading the thoughts and emotions of years past.

I don't know if this is just me or if it's a universal thing, but I seem to carry specific snapshots of my grandparents around in my head, as if I have a defining image of them frozen in a certain period of time. For instance, although in the end my maternal grandmother was very weak and unable to walk by herself, and though I saw her daily in her last years as she had come to live with us then, still when I think of her I see her in her mid-seventies, so opinionated in all her feisty French stubbornness, still riding her bicycle daily between her house and ours, in a skirt and sans helmet, of course. For my recently passed paternal Grandpa, the image is circa five to ten years ago, discount hearing aid squealing as he recounted an amusing anecdote just a little too loudly, twinkle in his eye, or hummed some old melody. Or wielded his trusty old pocket knife at the dinner table to cut his meat. He was a character, indeed.

So I guess but it's just kind of strange for me to think of my grandparents when they were young, to think that they were ever my age and what they must have been like and how the world must have looked like through their eyes. It's crazy the first time it really hits you that your grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles had this whole life before you were born, before you knew them, filled with triumphs and heartaches and adventures you know very little of. I think often we forget that, but the thing is that even though they came before us, these events are in a way a part of us as well, an extension of our history. And someday the people you took for granted to be there will be gone, and along with them the chance to hear their history from their own mouths.

It makes me sad to realize that, whether due to selfishness or simply not thinking about it, I've never bothered to find out a good part of these stories, to really learn about the lives led before I was a presence on this earth. I am grateful that a few years back I got to hear my Grandpa talk about his musical adventures in the navy in WWII, something I'd never really known about until then. And there was more to learn from reading his obituary, things I love to know now but wish I'd had made efforts to learn while he was alive. I guess that's how it goes, that you never think of some things until it's too late. But I guess I should also make a point to make that effort to know my elders and learn their history, learn from the hard and interesting and amazing lives they've led. And maybe even in the process understand myself better.

So I will say Merry Christmas everybody, hold your loved ones close and don't be afraid to ask for their stories. And for those who can no longer be with us, let us remember them fondly and celebrate their stories as well.

Monday, December 7, 2009

gratitude, happiness and the dangers of being content

Dear Pat,
You came upon me carving some kind of little figure out of wood and you said,
“Why don’t you make something for me?”
I asked you what you wanted and you said, “A box.”
“What For?”
“To put things in.”
“What things?”
“Whatever you have.” You said.
Well here’s your box. Nearly everything I have is in it, and it is not full. Pain and excitement are in it, and feeling good or bad and evil thoughts and good thoughts—the pleasure of design and some despair and the indescribable joy of creation.
And on top of these are all the gratitude and love I have for you.
And still the box is not full.

--a dedication from John Steinbeck to his friend and editor, Pascal Convici, published in the preface to
East of Eden

I don't usually do the whole "what are you thankful for" thing on Thanksgiving. It's not that I'm ungrateful, it's just that I've always kind of felt like it was one of those traditions that has lost meaning over the years and become almost a mindless, perfunctory thing, much like New Years resolutions or Valentine's Day. I believe that being thankful, along with doing little things to be a better person and showing loved ones that we care about them, should be on the daily agenda, not something we need to set aside a holiday for. But let me cut that rant short. The point is that, in reflecting on the holiday of Thanksgiving the other week and looking back on my life in the last year, I realize there is a lot I have to express gratitude for. Yes, I know I'm a little late, but
(see above) fuck it, why not today?

So here goes...

I am grateful for the people in my life, for the family I often take for granted but who are always there for me, always thinking of me, and who I've often had to push away to realize that I do actually need them and want them there, even if some of them still drive me insane at times. And for the friends life has seen fit to put in my life and keep there, those people who accept me and don't judge, who at times seem to be able to read my mind and know exactly when I need to talk, or when I just need a drink, who keep me grounded and keep me young.

And the people who've come into my life in the past year, I'm grateful for the new life they breathe into my routine and for the promise the future holds for whatever journeys we may take together. Even the people I've only met for a little while, and who I may never cross paths with again, I'm thankful for the short time we've been able to spend together, for the wisdom and insight they may have graced me with, and for the laughter we may have shared.

I am also very grateful to have steady employment, especially in this less-than-ideal economy, and especially after the incredibly humbling experience of being unemployed for a long period of time. I'm thankful for the challenge and the purpose my job brings to my life at the moment, for the financial security which gives me peace of mind and allows me to continue living in this beautiful city, and for having the time to enjoy it for the next year or two while I figure out what the next step will be and attempt to plan my future.

I think that maybe most of all, I'm thankful for my current state of mind, the place I'm at now in my life. Looking back at a year ago this time, I'm just grateful to be free of the chains of guilt and doubt and internal chaos that had held me as prisoner for a while, and the unmotivated rut I was in for some time preceding. I'm grateful to have found myself again, and, I think (or hope at least!), to have become a better version of myself.

And still, in spite of all this, despite the fact that I feel confident and happy and maybe the most grounded and centered I've ever been, I still feel a bit of malcontent stirring up in me at times. It seems that there has always been that restlessness just at the back of my mind. In the past I haven't always known what to make of it, sometimes it would make me feel guilty, as if I wasn't thankful for everything I have. As if I were greedy. But recently I've been thinking, maybe it's not such a bad thing to be greedy in this sense. Because when it comes to life, who ever really gets enough? Who ever really gets to do all they want to and see and be all they want to?

And that little feeling; it's not really an ungratefulness, or even taking things for granted (although I am certainly guilty of that sometimes). It's more of a reminder, I think, that as good as life is right now, there's more out there; there's more to see and do, more to be. And that doesn't mean I need to rush headlong into change just for the sake of it, it simply means I need to be aware, and to not allow myself to become too stationary or too comfortable , or ignore that little restless voice for the sake of security or comfort.

And I can’t help but think that this is part of the human condition. That there is a restlessness inherent in our nature that makes us never quite content. Maybe we are destined, for better or worse, to be always searching, always looking for something right around the corner or over the next horizon. Maybe we're all born to be wandering souls, to a greater or lesser extent. And to a certain extent anyway, who's to say that's a bad thing? Because that sense of restlessness, maybe that's what keeps us moving forward, always wanting to know more, to be more. Maybe that's what keeps us striving to be stronger, to be smarter, more productive, more successful. Because if we're completely satisfied with every aspect of our lives, what motivation is there to keep growing and learning? If you're content sitting at the bottom of the mountain, why climb it?

So I have to think that contentedness is not a natural state for a person. Because contentedness breeds complacency, and complacency is for cows in the field, chewing their cud, satisfied to remain the same, day after day, because they have no dreams, no vision. And maybe that's what really separates human beings as a species (well ok, besides opposable thumbs): that ambition, that longing for adventure and drive for change. That the grass is always greener, not just on the other side of the fence, but on the other side of the mountain, the other end of the ocean. It's what keeps us moving and exploring, inventing and discovering and building.

Of course it can also go too far, that drive can prove detrimental to one's health and happiness. After all, if you're
constantly on the move and never standing still, it's hard to ever really enjoy anything, or to find any sort of peace. And when you're always looking for something bigger and better it is very easy not to see and appreciate what's right in front of you.

So how does one find that balance? At first glance it seems like such a blatent contradiction to say that discontentedness is congruent with well-being. In fact, I'm pretty sure that any English dictionary will tell you that
"happiness" and "contentedness" are synonyms, but personally I see a glaring difference. And I don't know if it's the definitions of these two words which have been twisted and misinterpreted over the years or if I just have a freakishly slanted way of seeing things, but I can't help thinking the real key to happiness has to be this: to be at peace with yourself; to love yourself, flaws and all, and be present in the here and now, to be grateful for all you have and enjoy the good and the beauty around you, but to still retain that little bit of restlessness and discontent that keeps us always searching, always questioning and always striving to find a better life and the very best version of ourselves.

Because maybe the box is never full, and maybe that's how it's supposed to be; that deep down in our very DNA we were blessed and cursed with an insatiable appetite for life, a limitless capacity for joy, sorrow, curiosity, and everything in between. But just because the box can never be filled doesn't mean we'll stop trying. And it doesn't mean there can't be a whole lot of amazing stuff inside.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

all things great and small (or, how a bug’s life was spared thanks to alcohol and an overly emotional day)

What is this, you ask? An ordinary Ikea jar? Au contraire, good sirs and madams, for this seemingly mundane bottle has found part-time employment as a bug-capturer and temporary housing for spiders. So while its previous contents of genuine Thai seashells lay scattered atop my bookcase, let me tell the story so you aren't quite so terribly confused.

You see, at approximately 11:58 last evening, my cat alerted me, with a sound somewhere between a meow and a growl and a bleat, that there was a foreign intruder in our room. Sure enough, it was a spider, who was subsequently captured, held hostage in the aforementioned jar and then set free near the wilderness of our garbage bins outside. I showed my prisoner to two of my roommates, and one examined it while expressing curiosity at my tolerance. It seems he holds a more violent reaction towards intruders of the eight-legged variety. The thing is, I used to be a stomper myself, or a tissue-suffocator, etc. Whatever the method of euthanasia, I certainly did not at one time find it appropriate to troop downstairs at midnight and venture out into the icy air to let an ordinary bug roam free.

But rewind about a year ago, and I can tell you the origins of this apparent madness. All I really remember is that I had just gotten home from a particularly drunk night of a particularly bad week and I was feeling particularly awful about myself, not to mention particularly overly-emotional, likely due to a combination of that fickle friend alcohol and the events I was dealing with at the time. I had just entered the bathroom and braced myself and my blurred vision against the sink when I noticed a spider in the bathtub. My accustomed initial reaction of stifling a scream and shuddering probably followed, and I proceeded to try drowning the thing. And then a funny thing happened.

You see, I'm not usually that emotional. In truth I've come to see that I tend to be very much a dude when it comes to feelings. I can reluctantly admit that they're there, but I have an inordinately difficult time expressing them, which is to say that I for the most part do not talk about them, and when I do am inevitably only able to awkwardly and probably at least semi-incoherently half-express them, though whether due to lack of practice or innate inability I don't know. So when they accost me like they did that day I tend to become a bit overwhelmed and act in ways others may view as strange.

Anyway, in my inebriated, overwrought state, I watched the spider as I tried to pour water on it and flush it down the drain. And something just came over me, call it an epiphany, or call it a ridiculous over-sensitive drunken fancy. Because as the water got closer and closer to its eight little legs, that little spider began to fight like you wouldn't believe. It started crawling faster than I would have thought possible, scrambling valiantly up the side of the tub to keep away from the deadly stream nipping at it's feet. And it suddenly dawned upon my booze-soaked mind that I've never had to fight that hard. I've never had to work that hard, to truly hustle, just to survive. And it seemed to me that one really has to respect that effort, even if is coming from a tiny little spider.

So yes, that little bug taught me a lesson, and in turn earned its life and freedom. And along with itself saved many others, because since then I've felt obligated to adopt a No-Kill, Catch-and-Release policy when it comes to spiders and other creepy-crawly things (unless they're overtly hostile and impossible to safely trap, like fleas and that Chicagoan wasp that was at least as long as my middle finger). It's kind of funny that I would be reminded of that incident this week, when I seem to have found myself in an especially uncharacteristically emo state. But then again, maybe those are the times I need it most; the little reminder that all this too shall pass, and that it's the true hustlers who always survive. Those who see the shoe sole bearing down upon them and don't give up and give in to a seemingly inevitable fate, but instead scramble like crazy to stay afloat, stay alive and take whatever life may throw at them with a smile and a wink.