Making bad assumptions

 Sad Bird

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“Don’t make assumptions. Find the courage to ask questions…. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” (Don Miguel Ruiz)

Writing a dissertation is a long, difficult, demoralizing slog. You are basically writing a book no one cares about and no one will read. And when you hand a chapter in to your “editor” (advisor), he will forget you did so, need to be reminded, and send it back with soul-destroying criticism such as “it doesn’t fit into your larger project and it’s sloppy.”

This happened to me a couple weeks ago. And my brain broke. Writing that chapter took all that I had. I was proud of it and excited I’d finally produced something. I’d warned my advisor that it was a very rough draft.

I felt that he was telling me I was wasting his time and he no longer cared about the project. I wanted to quit right then and there. In fact, in that moment I thought I had no choice – I assumed that was the underlying message in his email. I have often felt like I should quit, but this was the first time I felt my advisor was not behind me anymore.

I tend to worry a lot about what other people think about me – even though I pretend I don’t. But knowing I had my advisor’s support was an important mental construct for me in this process of doing the diss. Even if no one else cared, at least he did.

As I said, my brain broke. I felt it break. There was a shudder, and then everything stopped moving and fell into a jumbled heap somewhere down past the cerebellum, where the brain stem attaches to the spinal cord. It got really quiet inside my head. There was simply nothing in there anymore, except the one thought that this was it, I couldn’t bear any more.

And for a few days, I couldn’t. But slowly the pieces of my mind reassembled, because the human body and spirit are resilient. I reread my advisor’s email. I wrote him an email apologizing for sending him a “sloppy” chapter and explained that for me it was an important step forward just to get something down on paper. I asked him to clarify what he meant by his other comments.

Over the course of the next week we sent a few emails back and forth while I tried to understand his criticisms. And today, finally, I got it. And I see that it was not my ideas he was criticizing, it was their presentation. I can fix the problem.

I see now that the assumptions I made – that he no longer cared and that my project was a failure – were completely false. He patiently answered all my questions until his thoughts were clarified for me. And the only way my diss will be a failure is if I quit.

The experience made me realize how many assumptions I make in my daily life based on incomplete evidence and my own mixed-up perspective of the world. It’s like that picture above. The bird isn’t sad, of course. In every other shot I took of him he has his head up, looking around, interested in the world. And I just as easily could have titled it “Bird Looking Down.” But I’m a writer, after all, and I deal in imagination. It’s just that sometimes it gets the better of me.

Are all emotions, even compassion, essentially selfish?

So an update on my quest to make Happy Photo the actual theme of my blog, since (almost) every post I’ve been doing lately is a Happy Photo post. Nope, can’t do it. Or not officially, as a title of my blog or anything. There is a photo studio with that name already. However, I still intend to begin most of my posts with a photo and quote, as I have been doing. The posts will no longer be labelled Happy Photo. But their purpose is to feature a single photo I have taken that makes me happy, and to use that photo and accompanying quote as a starting point for some thoughts on a particular topic. (And now that I’ve figured this out, there will be fewer annoying words before the photos : ).

Electric Water

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“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” (Dalai Lama)

Let me begin by saying I highly respect the Dalai Lama. I was once lucky enough to attend a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda in which he was presented with the Congressional Medal of Honor. He gave a speech, and had a giggle like a small child’s. It was impossible (at least for me) not to feel profoundly impacted by his presence and message.

But I call bullshit on the above quote.

The other day there was an upsetting incident involving my ex bf. I could have responded with anger or kindness. I chose kindness, because I recognized the emotions behind his actions. They are the same that I feel: loss, grief, regret, anger, etc. All the stuff you feel when you end a relationship. The incident was incredibly distressing and even somewhat frightening to me, but mostly I felt sadness for him and myself, and for the loss we have both suffered. I responded in a way that I hoped would alleviate some of the weight of what he was feeling.

I admit I have always felt an excess of compassion for him. Perhaps because he so seems to need it.

I’ll also admit that there have been many, many times in the past when I responded with the opposite of compassion to him, and I feel deep regret for those times. Enacting compassion in relationships is something I have had to work on and learn.

I also admit that in practicing compassion for him, I feel a need for something in return. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe recognition that even though I reacted in a kind way, I still had reason to feel upset myself. Maybe some compassion in return. Heck, maybe I expected the gates of heaven to open and angels to sing in praise of my generosity. Yeah, ugly, I know. But this is the point of this post. Was I really being compassionate, or was I acting kindly in hopes of gaining something for myself?

It should come as no surprise that the incident did not resolve in a way that alleviated my own distress. And I ended up feeling aggrieved.

I started wondering. Are all emotions and pursuant behaviors selfish? Is there such a thing as true compassion? I know I felt genuine compassion for him, but in acting upon that, it seems that I may have screwed it up.

Maybe only people like the Dalai Lama are capable of true compassion, in both thought and deed.

Or maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I did the best I could. I did act with good intentions, even if I was hoping some of that goodness would come back my way. And maybe that’s human. And at least I can see that and own it.

But I’m sorry, Dalai Lama. Practicing compassion did not make me happy. And it appears that my ex bf did not even recognize what I did as compassion, so I can’t say it really made him happy either.

Or maybe I misunderstand what compassion really is. Maybe it’s not about kindness or feeling sympathy for someone who has harmed you. But if it’s not that, what on earth is it?

Still so much to learn, still so far to go.

An adventure story

I’m not so great at this blogging thing (though I’ve heard blogging is dead, so maybe it doesn’t matter).

The thing is, I go through periods when I just want to be private. I have nothing to say, or nothing I feel a need to share. Or I don’t have the energy to write. I think that’s okay. Much is made in the blogosphere of consistency, finding a topic, finding an audience. But for what purpose? So people will think I’m consistent, have something to say, and am worthy of giving their time to? Eh. When is it ever good to do something so other people will think something specific about you?

I do long to be more consistent in my writing here. That’s a goal, though one I admittedly have not tried hard to attain. But I’ll never find a topic to write about constantly. My life is not a set topic – I mean, seriously, how do people continue to write about the same basic thing week after week for years? What about growth and change? What about changing your mind?

For example, when I started this blog about a year ago, I wrote a lot about being child free and happy with that. I thought that one of my blog topics could be about being an independent woman who lives alone (despite having a boyfriend of ten years) and doesn’t want children. That’s a cool topic, because that kind of woman isn’t too common.

But life has a way of laughing at decisions. I’ve been thinking about having a child. I wouldn’t say that this is a sudden change of mind, because it’s been percolating for a while now, but it’s a big change, and it’s exciting and scary. And I think it’s fine that I changed my mind. I might change it again.

Another big change in my life – and no doubt related to both my absence from this blog and my changing feelings on motherhood – is that I started a medication for depression in December. I was very anti-medication because the several I’d tried before had either numbed me or made me worse. But things were getting dire, and I decided to give meds another shot. I was prescribed one in a different class than those I’d taken before. And it worked. It was like a miracle. I not only was able to get out of bed, but I did so with enthusiasm for the coming day.

Unfortunately, the early high did not last. But I am still getting out of bed at a reasonable hour every day, doing my work, getting exercise, etc. – and this during what has admittedly been a rather shitty several months. I have to remind myself that my goal was to be functional. I don’t need to feel happy every day, all day. I am a writer, after all. I need my feelings, the good and the bad. So I’m sticking with the meds.

So here I am. Just me, with a mind that changes a lot. Just me, who doesn’t know what she wants from day to day. With not much consistency to offer, and no great wisdom to share, at least not today. Just another human living a human life.

I made a photo essay, though, that I shared on my Facebook and am sharing here, because I’m kind of proud of it. It’s silly and fun – which are not states of being that have been abundant in my life lately. But yesterday I arrived at a place in Arizona that my parents call “Little House,” and took my camera out on a walk, and something about the landscape inspired me. So here’s a little story about finding my way back home after a slight misadventure.

So I saw this ladder and I was like, I think I’ll climb it and see what’s on the other side of that wall.

DSC_0141This is what I saw. Kinda inhospitable looking, but I was like, why not take a walk?

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Then I saw this and I was like, whoa bugs, that place doesn’t look too comfortable. And I got pricked four times while taking the picture.

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Then I walked some more, and it was really dry and prickly, and I started feeling lightheaded.

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So I was like, I should eat something, and I had a quick bite.

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Then I was like, you know, this place is kinda pretty. All the pretty colors. So pretty, the pretty colors.

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And even though we have these aloe flowers in Florida, they are like so much more psychedelic cool here. So I wandered around some more and lost track of time…

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Then I looked up and I was like, am I in Italy?

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But guess what was behind the trees! Little House!

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Getting through the steps

I feel the end of the year rushing toward me. In a few weeks I will collide against the annual family trip, and the pieces will scatter where they will.

Yesterday I went to buy supplies to make these. I want to give them as presents to my mother and various other people I know on the island we all gather to in this season. Except when I stood in front of the shelves of clay at Joanne’s I couldn’t decide which colors to buy. Or whether I should buy a multipack or separate blocks. Then I couldn’t decide which kind of paint to buy. Metallic? Gold leaf? Or what size brush.

The choices stymied me. I picked some clay, walked over to the paint aisle, picked a paint, went back to the clay aisle and returned my choices in lieu of others, went back to the paint aisle and did the same, and repeated this exercise for another 45 minutes. It was exhausting. I no longer felt inspired by the project. I left the store without buying a thing.

This happens to me more and more often. The imagined future becomes so bloated with expectation that it bursts right into the present and bowls me over. I wasn’t seeing clay or paint on those shelves. I was watching myself hand out beautiful objects I had made to people I care about and they were so happy…. And suddenly, I could no longer envision how to actually get to that time and place. The steps required – buy the material, roll out the clay, mix, press, bake, paint, pack, find right moment to give – how on earth could I possibly manage all of those steps in the right order and right way so as to find my way to my imagined future?

Here’s the thing. When I was younger, I believed in the possibility of those imagined futures. That belief carried me through all the steps. And sometimes it would work out. But most of the time it turned out differently than I had hoped. And sometimes my efforts resulted in failures. Big ones.

This is life, right? Grownups know this. I know this. But for some reason, instead of learning to accept failure (or its possibility), I find it increasingly difficult to convince myself to make the effort required to move forward. Even though intellectually I know it’s still worth trying, regardless of outcome, I no longer possess enough faith to get me through the steps, let alone begin.

Even so, I endeavor, because otherwise I truly have failed. It’s not faith but fear of miring myself in that black hole of hopelessness I tumbled into among the aisles of Joanne’s that drives me now. I came home from the disastrous shopping trip and bought the materials online. Although I still spent an inordinate amount of time making choices, at least I could do it from a seated position. Step one accomplished.

It’s just one step. Like many activities in my life right now, this one is progressing incrementally, and I don’t know if I’ll get to the finish line. I take back what I said about not having faith, though. Maybe I’m growing a braver kind of faith – the kind you have when you can’t see where your foot might fall on the next step, but you take it anyway.

Sometimes we have to be the fool

CamelliaThis is a good time of year for chocolate, because the house is so warm it’s already soft before I put it into my mouth.

Kimchi ferments really fast at this time of year, too.

The jasmine at the mailbox is blooming and the kitchen garden is planted with okra and tomatoes, and I have a new red rose on my front porch.

It is the beginning of summer in these parts, and I should feel that sudden release of tension that accompanies the end of classes. On the last day I taught, I paused in the doorway and looked back at the empty room before I switched off the lights. And I thought, I will never teach again. I was happy with that thought, because it is true and because teaching is not good for me. It was a constant storm cloud on my horizon even on sunny days, no matter how I twisted and turned to escape the sight of it.

I taught for two years, as an assistant for the first and then my own class the second. I got good feedback from the kids. Several told me my class was their favorite, ever. But I’m glad it’s over.

So why don’t I feel free? Instead, an amorphous concern threads through every moment. I can’t concentrate on reading or TV. I’m tired by the middle of the day. My excitement for any given activity lasts only a moment before my brain switches to its “Eh, what’s the point?” mode.

I wonder if I’m still suffering the lingering effects of a moderate depressive episode that began last month. Or if this is a singular emotional event brought on by the fact that not teaching anymore, to me, indicates I am at the end of one era, and the beginning of a new one.

This last year I have worked hard for this moment, when I would essentially extricate myself from academia and begin supporting myself through freelance editing. For many years previous to this last, I was unhappy and fighting for some kind of understanding of myself and what would give me peace. All this required painful realizations about my limitations and the limitations of what the word could offer me.

I think I’m petrified. I am stepping off the ledge, eyes on the obscured horizon, flower in my hand.