A Thanksgiving-ish Story

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City Landscape in the Night Courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org

Three women, strangers, seats 23D (aisle), 23E (center), 23F (window).
One soybean farmer, one blogger, one psychotherapist.
Flight delayed by weather at destination.
10,000 feet above ground, swiftly nearing landing.

23D and E heading for home.
23F preparing for romantic rendezvous with second husband.
Twenty years married, only one previous holiday sans kids—hers/his.
He’d joined his kids for one lap of their year sailing ‘round the world.

I have to pass through Portugal on my way home, he’d said.
Why don’t you meet me there? She was thrilled.
Meet in Lisbon, tour the countryside.

But…

Time was 7:40 PM. Connecting flight gates to close at 8:15.
Why don’t we change seats now? suggested 23D.
The change was made. Traveler-in-motion now seated on the aisle. Precious minutes saved.
Maybe tell the flight staff to call ahead? offered 23E.
The call was made. Anxiety easing.

I can’t find my boarding pass, lamented the traveler-in-motion.
Here it is, her companion said, picking it up from the floor.
A spontaneous warm hug from the traveler-in-motion.

Shared moments, caring among strangers. Empathy in action.
A week before Thanksgiving, but appropriate for the season.
Any season…

Annie

 

Music to “Stretch Our Ears”: Beethoven, Beatles, Blues…

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I can’t carry a tune, and no one would ever accuse me of having perfect pitch. But I love music—so many different kinds of music, preferably live. At some point in my life, I’m determined to see Bruce Springsteen in concert—even though I hate crowds.

But one type of music really transports me: the fully realized magnificence of a fine symphony orchestra. Fortunately,  there is such an orchestra that performs fairly close to my home, and my husband and I have had a series subscription with friends for the past few years. 

Thursday night was the season finale—and it was a whopper, appropriately titled the “Blockbuster All-Orchestral Season Finale.” For those of you who don’t love classical music, imagine attending a concert given by your very favorite band, and I think you’ll get the mood.

First of all, the conductor is a wonder: a tiny slip of a woman who exudes energy, power,  and artistry with her every move and gesture—sort of a woods sprite with a baton.

This was the only time she’d appeared this season, as there were guest conductors, and when I told my husband I wished I could have seen her more often, he said, “Just put her in your pocket and take her home.” She’s really really tiny.

I’ve been told that the orchestra loves her, and it’s clear she returns the favor. So from the time she reaches center stage, everyone is happy and optimistic.

The program featured Mendelssohn, Selections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, which begins very softly and ends with The Wedding March, which you’d recognize immediately.

According to the program notes, the young Mendelssohn had been sitting with his family as they entertained an astronomer, their guest describing the contents of the sky far above.  When Felix went out for a walk, he headed for the garden 

“to gaze at the stars that had been the primary topic of conversation at the dinner table. His attention was diverted by the gossamer activity of the summer night.” 

Four evening breezes were purportedly the inspiration for the four woodwind chords that open and close the overture. The delicate violin string segments were his “musical impression of fireflies flickering about the nocturnal atmosphere.”

Years later, Mendelssohn said, “That night I encountered Shakespeare in the garden!”

That lovely piece was followed by a Rachmaninoff symphony: No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27. Absolutely breathtaking. Apparently, it took the composer years to complete, as he was filled with self-doubt. 

The program notes state: “The music is lush and relaxed. This is an expansive symphony in the late Romantic vein: heartfelt, emotional and long.” (Not long enough for me!)

As is often the case with classical music, one of this symphony’s themes has made its way into popular music: it appears in the song “Never Gonna Fall in Love Again,” which was a hit in 1976.

I find that one of the delights of listening to a beautiful symphony, in addition to the aural pleasure, is being in such a civilized environment. As those of you who are familiar with my blog know by now, I’m always seeking common ground. Sitting in a large group of people enjoying a common experience—away from all politics and divisiveness—is a joy in itself.

But here’s the rub. Entering and leaving the concert, I see a vast number of people with canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s inspiring to see folks who don’t let their infirmities stop them from participating in these events, but I wonder how viable this orchestra, and others, are when I’ve read that the average age of symphony orchestra attendees is 60. (I suspect in our locale, that average may well be considerably higher.)

I’m not the only one to express such concerns, of course, and it’s not a new one. I did find one optimistic note from a 2004 article titled: ”Probing Question: Is classical music still relevant in today’s world?” According to George Trudeau, Director of the Center for Performing Arts at Penn State, 

“Classical music is alive and well. What has changed is there are more avenues than ever before for classical performance and public education, including public radio, the internet, and other digital technologies.”

Penn State’s Center was actively seeking to stimulate appreciation of classical music in students, faculty, and community members through a diverse program involving artists in residence and such efforts as “experiencing the music in alternative venues and informal settings such as our Classical Coffeehouses.”

Trudeau said then that attendance at the various classical music performances by Penn State students had risen from 26% of total sales to 40% in three years, and that students told him “exposure to classical music was enriching their lives.”

So perhaps there’s hope that coming generations will still find their way to the symphony. I have noticed that when a very young guest performer appears at the programs we attend, many very young people show up in the audience. 

Similarly, several months ago, my husband and I attended a One Day University lecture on “How to Listen to (and Appreciate) Great Music,” given by Orin Grossman of Fairfield University and featuring several incredibly talented young musicians from a local arts public high school. 

There the emphasis was on chamber music, and Grossman discussed melody, recurring themes, the dominance of the piano, the way the composer would get himself far out on a limb and then musically work his way back, and other elements.

He demonstrated his points by asking these gifted musicians to pick up the relevant pieces of the classics and play them—and they did, flawlessly. It was a joyous occasion—and wonderful to see these young symphony performers in the making.

Yesterday, I found that One Day University had a revised version of Grossman’s lecture available online. The title was the same, and the purpose was once again to encourage active listening “in order to ‘stretch our ears’ and get more pleasure from the musical experience.”

While I’d been worrying about the diminishing presence of symphony orchestras, Grossman was underscoring how much luckier we are than people long ago, who had little or no access to great music.

“We have the opposite problem,” he said. “It’s so accessible we try to tune it out and become very passive.” It’s fine to use music as background and simply to relax, but he was stressing how much more gratification we get when we “stretch our ears.”

In contrast to the live lecture with Grossman that we’d attended, the selections of great music this time were more varied–and he was the sole performer. The focus was on melody and how the composer treats it. Yes, there was Bach, who’d either combine two melodies or, more commonly, create a “dialogue” of melodic fragments, as in the Concerto for Oboe and Violin.

Grossman easily segued from Bach to the Beatles, whom he considers the best musicians in decades and whose music he believes “holds up very well.”

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The Beatles, holding up very well!

Using John Lennon’s song “Girl,” he illustrated how Lennon pushed the boundaries by introducing second melodies, returning to the melody with a guitar backup.

Next, he spent time on Duke Ellington, saying he had been misunderstood as merely a bandleader when he was “one of our greatest composers. From the 20s to the 70s, he gave a name to the Swing Era: ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing.’” Grossman played and stopped a recording of the song several times so we could hear the call and response as the brass swings.

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Duke Ellington: Composer, musician, bandleader

“The harder you listen to where it’s going—you’ll be tricked,” he said impishly.

For no reason I could discern, he returned to the classics and Beethoven at this point, which was fine with me once I got accustomed to the temporal whiplash. He pointed out that in the movie “The King’s Speech,” Colin Firth as King George VI must address the nation despite his stuttering. As he gets to the microphone, in the background we hear the chords from the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in a repeating rhythm. 

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Ludwig van Beethoven

The intensity and power of Beethoven’s music are often built through fragmentation of the melodies, which finally explode into heroic sounds, as “metaphors of victory through struggle,” Grossman said. Perfect reinforcement for the King’s message to his people.

He ended with George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which combined elements of life in New York–and by extension, America–the Blues, Latin rhythms, ragtime, and Broadway band ballads, to illustrate the “clashing and blending” of the various cultures.

“The imagery interlocking the piece is trying to show one version of the United States,” he said. “At heart, it’s a good mystery: you wouldn’t want everything explainable.”

No, we wouldn’t. And if you have an extra 17 minutes and would like to test your active listening skills for discerning the various elements Gershwin intertwined, go to YouTube’s video of Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic playing “Rhapsody in Blue.” (You can skip the ads.)

I return to the sense of civilization and common ground that I feel when I listen to the soaring music of a symphony in concert with fellow music lovers (a little pun here). Regardless of your taste in music, at any live venue, there’s always a sense of community, of sharing your enjoyment with others. And music is so often tied to memories that such a sharing can be a part of your pleasure even when you’re listening alone. I felt that way watching the video of “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which Bernstein both conducted and played the piano.

Do you like to “stretch your ears” with active listening to music? If this is a new idea to you, is it appealing? What type of music do you prefer, and what role does music play in your life? Do you/did you play an instrument? How often do you hear live music? Would you go more often if it were more convenient? Less financially burdensome?

I look forward to your comments. In fact, I’m all ears.

Annie

How Do We Talk About Race in America? An Unfortunate Update…

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In these highly partisan and polarized times, there’s been a fair amount of talk denigrating what’s referred to as identity politics. Why should we be talking about the needs of individual groups when we really should be finding ways to unite us as a country?

Many well-meaning people stake out this position, and as my blog is devoted to finding common ground, I understand that sentiment—and feel we must pursue both goals simultaneously. I long for the time when we are all so comfortable with one another that we embrace our differences, while those differences recede in importance in the ways we respond to each other. But we sure aren’t there yet.

In Part 2 of my exploration, “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” I spoke with Doug Glanville, a friend of my daughter’s whom I’ve known since they were children. After graduating as an engineering student from the University of Pennsylvania, Glanville has gone on to do great things in his life: his rich and varied career, which included nine years of playing major league baseball (twice with the Chicago Cubs), now involves being a sports commentator, writer, podcast co-star, and lecturer at Yale University, teaching a course titled “Athletes, Activism, Public Policy, and the Media.” He is a uniter and optimist by nature—confronting racial injustice when needed but always trying to put it into perspective and not overreact.

In my previous post, we discussed his being profiled by a police officer from a neighboring town while shoveling the snow off the driveway of his Connecticut home. His response was to work toward what eventually led to a change in state law governing police jurisdictions. He received an apology from the governor, who appointed him to the Connecticut Police Officers Standards and Training Council.

Somehow, due to his largeness of spirit, he retained no animus toward the police officer who confronted him, viewing the episode instead as an opportunity to work with the police to improve their procedures. He told me when we spoke that he likes to “take lemons and make lemonade.”

Well, life just handed him another big lemon, which he described in The New York Times Sunday Review. (He’s also a contributing opinion writer for the Times.) I hope everyone will read his entire Op-Ed: it’s a powerful, nuanced, sophisticated view from a very thoughtful person about issues we should all be aware of and thinking about. Here’s the beginning:

“Ambiguity has always been a friend to racism.

On May 7, during a television broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, I was on camera doing in-game commentary for NBC Sports Chicago when, unbeknown to me, a fan behind me wearing a Cubs sweatshirt made an upside-down ‘O.K.’ sign with his hand.
The meaning of this hand gesture can be ambiguous. It has long been used to simply say, ‘O.K.’ Some people also use it to play the ‘circle game,’ where you hold your hand below your waist and try to get others to look at it. And most recently it has been co-opted to express support for white supremacy. The man accused of committing the New Zealand mosque massacres flashed this sign during his first court appearance.

Because I am a person of color, the fan’s gesture suggested its sinister meaning.”

He wasn’t aware of what had happened until after the game, when he noticed his Twitter feed “overrun by strange avatars, unrecognizable handles, aggressive trolls and a heated debate about racist imagery.” There was considerable discussion about whether the man’s actions were or were not sinister.

And that ambiguity is precisely the point, Glanville writes.

“According to the Anti-Defamation League, users of the online message board 4chan originally introduced the idea that the ‘O.K.’ sign was a white supremacist prank to get the media to overreact to innocuous gestures—but the sign soon morphed into a genuine expression of white supremacy as well.”

In other words, we are all being gaslighted by the most racially extreme elements among us. But for people of color, including those like Glanville who still manage to be optimistic about race in America, this gaslighting is particularly odious and exhausting—the degree of fatigue varying with the extent of racism they’ve experienced in their lives.

Glanville seeks to explain what it’s like by depicting a coordinate graph in which people of color might plot the various episodes that could be racist that have either happened to them or they’ve heard about.

“The x-axis represents the passage of time and the y-axis represents the degree of racism of an episode—from someone’s assumption that you’re a valet when you’re parking your own car to the burning of a cross on your lawn. For each experience, you mark a dot.”

The pattern that emerges when those dots are connected, Glanville says “allows you to notice correlations, to make predictions. You are learning from evidence, in part for your self-preservation.”

Then comes the tricky part, when someone who has learned from such evidence meets with an individual who hasn’t had similar exposure.

“He sees evidence of racism only from time to time, and when he does, it tends to be stark and unambiguous—the use of racial slurs, an explicit avowal of hate.”

To this person, “racism seems to be a rarity, maybe even invented.”

Glanville, who teaches courses focused on communication, wonders how he can convince such a person of the pattern he sees, when the listener is inclined, based on his own experiences, to depict subtle racism as an “isolated incident” and even accuse Glanville of “playing the race card.”

How often have we heard that phrase in our political rhetoric?

Equally troubling, the person may say all this talk about racism is just making things worse.

Glanville stresses that he, and most people of color, continually look for the innocuous explanation, trying not to think the worst of people. He recognizes that despite the overwhelming evidence from the data he’s experienced, he can be wrong in a particular instance.

“An ‘O.K.’ sign means nothing on its own. But racism thrives in ambiguity, in shadows. In this form, it is cowardly with double meanings.”

Despite his instincts, he didn’t immediately condemn the Cubs fan who made the gesture. He waited until the facts were in. Indeed, the Cubs quickly did an investigation, found that the fan’s intent was malicious, and banned him from Wrigley Field.

The Washington Post (May 8) quoted the Cubs’ president, Theo Epstein: “We’ve made clear how egregious and unacceptable that behavior is, and there’s no place for it in our society, in baseball, and certainly no place in Wrigley Field.”

Said Tim Elfrink, the Post writer:

“The case marks the latest high-profile emergence of the hand symbol and suggests yet again how thoroughly troubling language and memes pushed by the alt-right and adopted by hate groups have infiltrated American culture. But such gestures, which can run the gamut from ironic jokes to long-running games to outright symbols of intolerance, are also notoriously difficult to interpret.”

It bears repeating that ambiguity is precisely the point. The Post quotes Salon writer Amanda Marcotte, who observed that the O.K. sign was to serve as both white supremacist symbol “and also one that is just ordinary enough looking that when liberals expressed outrage, the white supremacist could play the victim of liberal hysteria.”

And as Glanville points out, the impact of ambiguity on people of color can be profound, making them feel…

“That their sanity hinges on a single verdict. If the Cubs fan was flashing a white nationalist sign, we are in danger; if he was not, we are ‘politicizing’ things or ‘race-baiting.’ This is an incapacitating position to find yourself in, especially when you are just an innocent bystander. You are thrust into the public eye and forced to relitigate the existence of racism. Before you know what has happened, you find yourself on the defensive.”

And Glanville draws the very straight line from such soul-bashing episodes of racism as symbol to racism as system:

“…institutional power that can crush neighborhoods, generations of children, stripping people of validation, self-worth and opportunity. Those who have been on the losing end of this power are never certain that they will be O.K.”

Still, he holds out hope that we as a society will “choose the path of empathy and hope.” pointing out that baseball “is played by teams of people from all walks of life, following universal rules, competing on a level playing field.” Acknowledging that this image may be part mythology, he still sees it as an “aspirational ideal, a goal for us as a society.”Doug Glanville 56ff1f7494371.image

But only if we are willing to acknowledge

“that racism operates not only with fire hoses and police dogs but also in whispers, in fine print, in invisible ink, in coded language. Until we are fully against it, we are letting it fester, and while we try to sort out the ambiguities, people are suffering.”

His closing sentence: “They will still suffer once we have our answers, no matter what we find out.”

Though that is more hard truth than optimistic conclusion, I know Doug Glanville will continue his work of building bridges, teaching and writing about social justice, guiding his own children to focus on the good around them and rise above the rest.

Of course we’ve made progress since the Jim Crow era, but with the current trends, including deliberate attempts to deny or make it nearly impossible for people of color to vote, and the far too numerous killings of unarmed black people by police officers—many of whom are not held accountable—how can we possibly expect people of color to ignore racial slights or “put them in perspective” when, regardless of their accomplishments, they know how close they are to the next indignity—or worse?

How does it feel to hear TV commentators focus on how important it is for Democratic candidates to appeal to the white voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, etc., when the water situation in Flint, Michigan, has still not been fully resolved five years later, and we don’t even know how many other predominantly black cities are similarly affected? What will it take for us to care—as if they are our own—about the children being poorly educated and poisoned by environmental pollutants that are getting worse as the EPA standards are lessened or removed?

And why does the shocking data that African-American women are three to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women—regardless of their income and education levels—not cry out for national attention?

With so many hate crimes and “anti-isms” against various groups on the rise in this country, some may be tempted to belittle the kind of assault Doug Glanville recently experienced. After all, he wasn’t physically injured.

I don’t use the word “assault” lightly: when someone so accomplished—a good-hearted, caring individual with a long history of trying to ease tensions among groups—lets us in on how devastating the accretion of these insults can become, we dare not ignore his words.

Yes, we must strive to overcome our differences and reduce the terrible polarization that threatens us now. We must always seek those things that unite us, rather than divide us.

But we’ll never do so until we realize that the original sin of slavery still hovers over us, and in 2019, we have much more work to do. I am grateful to Doug Glanville for so eloquently sharing his pain with us. He’s still ready to do the hard work to make our country better for us all. Are those of us whose lives aren’t disrupted by the types of incidents Glanville and so many others continually experience ready to do the same?

I welcome your thoughts, opinions, and stories.

Annie

NOTE: You can hear an audio interview in which Glanville describes the episode and its aftermath on WBUR’s Here and Now (May 29).  Notice that he ends with a positive observation, as he always tries to do.

 

Then, a 20% Chance; Now…

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

   ——–Eleanor Roosevelt

A mini-celebratory brunch is in order: the doctor reported both heart and aorta are sound.

“We’ll take you out,” we say.

“You’ll come here,” she insists. “The best bagels, fresh eggs, delicious fruit, plus quiet and lots of room.”

We relent.

Four years ago, the collapse—after a symphony hall concert.

She attended concerts often—multiple subscriptions, with friends and alone. And the art galleries, the library lectures, the thrice-weekly swims, the scheduled trip to Macchu Picchu…

That evening, she was alone. 

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Ambulance rides to three separate hospitals. Number one: ill-prepared for such an emergency. Number two: heart attack—quick; give her blood thinner. But then the correct diagnosis: a ruptured aorta, meaning the blood thinner was a clearly awful decision. “Won’t operate,” said the head doc. “Too old; too risky.”

But three’s the charm. “Bring her here,” said the vibrant young female surgeon, expert in repairing damaged hearts and valves, at a larger affiliated hospital.

Afternoon next day: We—in-laws and daughters—met with the surgeon, a tall, slender, soft-spoken woman whose brown eyes were at once warm and riveting. She minced no words.

“Without surgery, she will soon die.

“With it, a 50% chance she’ll die during surgery or within the next three days.

“A 30% chance she’ll survive the surgery but then suffer a stroke or other event that would seriously impair her functioning and quality of life.

“There’s a 20% chance she’ll walk out of the hospital and resume her life.”

What would you do?

“What do you think?” we asked the surgeon, who also happened to be kind and empathetic.

“She’s come through all this time, and two moves by ambulance, and her color’s still good,” the surgeon said. “She’s been leading an active life until now—I think it’s worth a try.”

When asked about the prior surgeon’s reluctance to operate, she said: “The patient is 81, with a ruptured aorta—clearly in extremis. It was not surprising he [the surgeon] wanted to head for the hills. But the family members come in and say she swims 3 times a week, is very independent, very functional. That sways away from ‘let the poor old lady go…’”

Shortly after 9 pm, nearly a full day after the collapse, the surgeon came to see us, her lovely face looking tired but illuminated. “It went very well,” she said. “We repaired the aorta, the aortic valve, and the mitral valve.”  The patient, she said, “is a picture: most people after surgery are pale and puffy. She looks like herself.”

Later, she acknowledged: “I had major doubts, but one of the great benefits of a large hospital system like this was that I spoke with my chairman and another specialist in aneurism repair. I said, ‘I know what you’re going to say, but…’ Both felt it was reasonable to operate.”

Three days after surgery, when the patient was speaking and demonstrating an understanding of commands, the surgeon pronounced her, in highly technical terms, “a miracle.”

When we first saw her, she greeted us with a big smile. But when the nurse told her she was about to swab her mouth and make her more comfortable, the former school principal uncharacteristically replied: “Bull s—t!” The surgeon expressed delight: “Profanity and criticizing breakfast are two excellent prognostications,” she said wryly.

“This was a Type A dissection,” she explained to me. “The pipe has burst. You sew in a piece of material, being careful not to leave gaps and not to miss a stitch. It’s like sewing a sleeve into a jacket. It’s not difficult, but you have to be meticulous. If you miss one stitch, you spend a lot of time regretting.”

As the patient prepared to leave for a rehab center at the end of her hospital stay, the surgeon said she expected her to resume her life and live for a number of years more. The surgeon has already been proven right. 

That brings us to today’s brunch, served on china—no paper plates. images-17A nicely arranged platter of cut-up fruit sprinkled with almonds forms an edible centerpiece. After brunch, I have to fight her to let me do the dishes.

She tells us about the concert she’d been to the night before, and the gallery visit the day before that. Her eyes are bright, her face unlined and attractive without a touch of makeup. Her mind totally sharp—despite a stroke some months after her surgery, which minimally damaged her vision in one eye.

She explains—without complaint—that she needs to rest a lot more than she once did. And she’s more concerned about walking about the city in the winter, fearing a fall that might hurt her fragile back (she’s had several fractured vertebrae). “I feel somewhat isolated,” she says.

She can’t keep up with the group of women nearby who meet daily to pursue one cultural event after another. One, in her 90s, lives on the 13th floor of her building, and walks up and down the stairs twice a day in addition to her other activities. I am exhausted just hearing about her.

She talks about my blog, describing the posts she most enjoys. She asks me how I feel about it. “I love it,” I tell her. “It’s so freeing to be able to write about anything I choose, and I enjoy the dialogue with my readers. It’s a source of great satisfaction for me.”

“That’s the way I feel about this,” she says. And she points out her new response to that sense of isolation. Once an art teacher, she has painted and sculpted—both before moving to special ed, then becoming the principal of two schools for autistic children—and since retiring. But those art forms require space and effort expended to clean up. Now, in her 86th year, she has found the ideal medium for her present circumstances: paper collages. 

She points to her “studio”: a corner of her dining area holding scissors, Elmer’s glue, pieces of cardboard and styrofoam for backing.

Suddenly, we see the works, positioned throughout her apartment. Each one is a visual delight—demonstrating a keen esthetic sense and a creative mind channeling itself in a wholly new direction. 

A large one features Eleanor Roosevelt, the Statue of Liberty—its torch the highest point on the collage—and other images and references to that era: Social Security, the UN, the WPA.

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Another—also large—is a replica of her favorite concert hall, pieced together from performance programs and advertisements. One depicting penguins and divers in the ocean is a work in progress. And on and on.

Her sources of inspiration? She combs through discarded magazines and the detritus of junk mail, finding things that strike her just the right way. That sea bird that hovers over one work? “He just caught my eye and spoke to me,” she says.

And so she meticulously pieces together from multiple sources all kinds of stuff, building new and larger stories than the ones she’s extracted—at the same time enlarging her world and, as we look at these works from all angles—ours as well.

I am in awe of this remarkable woman, who spends almost no time complaining and a great deal of time creating. How many of us will move beyond our limitations and find new ways to reach within ourselves for personal satisfaction and growth—regardless of our ages?

As I think about the doctor who refused to operate on her four years ago because she was “too old” and it was “too risky,” I find myself pondering those nearly impossible decisions about how much to do when an older person is “in extremis.” 

A 20% chance didn’t seem like much, but we in the family are forever grateful to the wise surgeon who felt it was worth the risk, guided us accordingly, and then used her brilliant skills to make that decision the best one.

 

As always, I welcome your thoughts, experiences, stories, and in this case, philosophy about how to confront these difficult decisions.

Annie

PS: Back, by request, is the 5-star like-ometer, below. Click on the star on the left if you find this post “awful,” the star on the right if you find it “excellent,” and so forth. WordPress people continue to have the “like” option below. (You may be able to click on the stars as well; I’m not sure.)

I greatly value your comments and feedback.

 

Practicing Optimism in a Crappy World

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After my last couple of posts, several people said they appreciate my optimism—a trait that is clearly in short supply these days. As I don’t think I’m either ostrich or Pollyanna, and I’ve done plenty of ranting and yelling at the images on the TV news and on my often too-smart-by-half phone, I’ve been exploring the source of the hopefulness that I’ve been conveying to you.

I think that the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practicing for more than a year now has finally reached fruition, and I’d like to share some of my discoveries and resources.

I’ve been meditating with help from various gurus offering guided imagery through CDs and phone downloads for quite some time, and last Fall I took an 8-week course on Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. I took the course near my home; it’s available in many areas and involves walking, sitting, and standing meditations, gentle yoga, body scans—with your mind, not technology—and the like.

Kabat-Zinn also coined the term “mindfulness,” which stems from early Buddhism, calling it “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” The emphasis is on concentrating on the rhythm of your breath to focus your mind.

Kabat-Zinn’s program has actually been associated with positive changes in the brain: an article in Psychiatric Res (2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43, which for some reason won’t hyperlink) noted “changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective-taking.”

Who wouldn’t want that?  But for the longest time, though I was a diligent student and meditated daily, I felt I wasn’t getting the full benefit. I was “stuck,” allowing the same dopey stories—sometimes annoying, sometimes worrisome—to race around in my brain. And my “inner critic” wouldn’t let me get away for a minute with that non-judgmental stuff Kabat-Zinn talks about. What’s so hard about this? I’d berate myself. I’ve been doing it forever. Why can’t I master it?

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Sharon Salzberg, a well-known and beloved teacher and a founder of the highly acclaimed Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. Salzberg suggests dealing with the inner critic by giving it a name or persona.

Hers is Lucy, the Peanuts character who told Charlie Brown: “The problem with you is that you’re you.” When she has negative feelings about herself, she acknowledges them by thinking, “Hi, Lucy,” or “Chill it, Lucy,” in a friendly manner.

I’ve adopted my own Lucy, and finally, finally, I realize I’m spending more time living in the moment. Granted, there are some pretty scary moments all around us these days, but once you don’t dwell on them and continue to replay them, they lose their heft.

The whole point, which I’ve known for some time but only just become able to internalize, is that if you accept these feelings, thoughts, and fears and don’t fight them, knowing they’re transitory, they pass fairly quickly. You simply move on.

I am bolstered by imagery like that of the man standing outside his house, burdened by two heavy suitcases. One contains “regrets”; the other holds “worries.” First he drops one; then the other. His step is considerably lighter as he walks away.

I am also bolstered by the oft-repeated quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “I’ve lived a long and difficult life filled with so many misfortunes—most of which never happened.”

Tara Brach, one of my favorite mindfulness gurus, encourages smiling. In one of her talks, she says, “Smiling affects areas of the brain associated with happiness; it can’t cause happiness, but it can tip you in that direction.” If you want to try it, begin by sensing a smile around your eyes, then your mouth, your heart, and then sense and feel that smile throughout your body.

I find Brach’s talks so helpful that I listen to them repeatedly. One of them, “Meditation: The Radical Acceptance of Pain,” has on occasion freed me from a migraine headache without medication. The talk is less than 12 minutes long, and I recommend that anyone suffering from pain locate it via Google and listen to it—maybe even twice. There’s nothing like relieving one’s pain to open a path to optimism.

Mindfulness recently got a nod from Bill Gates in The New York Times Book Review (September 9). Reviewing the new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Gates says the author insists “that life in the 21st century demands mindfulness—getting to know ourselves better and seeing how we contribute to the suffering in our own lives.”

Acknowledging that this idea is “easy to mock,” Gates writes: “As someone who’s taking a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.”

Though mindfulness is helpful to the individual, its proponents see its widespread practice as beneficial to the larger society. Emphasis is placed on the concept of lovingkindness. As Salzberg has said: “Lovingkindness and compassion are the opposites of fear.”

Another favorite guru, Jack Kornfield, speaks of the importance of equanimity, “the ability to meet all experience with a balanced mind.” Acknowledging that sometimes situations demand a strong response, he asserts that even such a response can be done with equanimity.

Equanimity arises from “living with a deep understanding of the passing of all things,” and leads to a peaceful heart. “With a peaceful heart, you can see clearly and respond wisely.”

The best leaders, he says, “combine strength and wisdom with a steady and peaceful heart.”  And so I say, optimistically: If enough of us follow this path–and if we elect leaders who meet that definition–perhaps we can make the world a little less crappy.

It’s been quite a journey for me to reach this point, and I’ll readily acknowledge there are times when reality’s bite makes me feel optimism is kind of nutty. But then I breathe, smile, and the shadow passes. We really don’t have to live in anger and fear.

Perhaps you’ll join me? Have you tried mindfulness? Are you tempted? As always, I’m eager for your thoughts. And even if you don’t care to comment, if you like this or any of my other posts, please feel free to share and/or click on “like.”

I’ll close by echoing Kornfield’s message: May you–may we all–live with a peaceful heart.

Annie