In which I grudgingly admit that Good Things happened in April

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First off, where in the heck did April go? I can barely remember the month passing by, which is what I guess happens when you are merely surviving, rather than living. However, that’s not to say that good things didn’t happen, and this post is to remind myself that they did.

1. I’ve reclaimed some of my good habits, such as exercising and cleaning the house. The latter especially is good because the house really needed it.

2. The jasmine is blooming! April into May is when the Confederate jasmine planted everywhere in my yard blooms (named after the confederation of Malay states, as it originated in Asia). Some of the vines were planted by previous owners, and some by me. Most of the year this plant is one of the most annoying in the yard, because it grows like a weed and needs constant cutting back. But for one beautiful month a year, with the windows open, the entire house is perfumed. Indeed, when I go on walks this time of year, it seems the entire city is perfumed!

3. I had a Skype talk with my PhD advisor, and it totally laid to rest any lingering fears I had from his “negative” feedback on the chapter I handed in a couple months ago. I’m ready to start writing another!

4. I’m finally able to concentrate enough to read good books (current one, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson). For awhile there I was unable to read my usual fare, and this was particularly painful, because reading is my favorite activity. I couldn’t even read crap books.

5. I got out an old cross stitch project I started when I was sixteen, because I thought it might be something to do in the evenings when I feel most lonely and bored (I also have a quilt project I’m working on, but it has not been inspiring me lately). To my joy, the cross stitch fabric had not molded like basically everything stored in this climate eventually does. It’s a very complex project, and I spent some time familiarizing myself with the directions. I haven’t yet begun working on it, but it’s there in the same basket where I keep my quilt project, under the coffee table, and knowing it’s there makes me happy.

6. I discovered and watched 30 Rock. All seven seasons. How did I not know about this show? (Oh, right, I haven’t had cable TV in years). The show had just the right kind of tone for me. Some shows are too stressful for me to watch because I over-empathize with characters. For example, I tried Parks and Recreation, and that awkward/cringe-style humor is too much for me. I sat there with knots in my stomach and didn’t even make it through two episodes. So if anyone knows of another show in the 30 Rock style, let me know!

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Receiving love (Happy Photo)

I’m making a couple changes to my Happy Photo series. First, the photo and accompanying quote will be featured at the beginning of the post, because it seems many of my visitors are actually photographers. I am surprised and flattered by this, and have discovered some inspiring photo blogs through the “likes” I get on my photo posts. (Thank you for the likes!)

Another change may come soon – I like doing Happy Photo so much I’m considering making it the standard form of my blog posts. I haven’t quite figured out how I will do this, though. So stay tuned. Anyway, on to the photo!

Orchid Buds

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” (Fred Rogers)

I believe that true goodness exists in some people. All of us are capable of goodness, but once in awhile someone comes along who expresses it in a way that inspires others. They are the ones who are not afraid to show the world that they are kind and gentle. They really see people and really listen. And just through such seemingly simple actions, they bring grace into the world. But these people usually do not see it this way. Because they don’t think of themselves as great or special. While the world speaks of them in terms of the goodness they give to others, these people believe that they are the ones who are receiving goodness. They value the essential humanness in others so much, and love others so much, that being able to serve is their blessing.

Many people express this kind of goodness sometimes, or with certain people in their lives. But it’s rare for someone to actually embody such goodness. I think Fred Rogers comes as close as anyone I can think of. I mean Fred Rogers the man, of which Mister Rogers was only a part. There is a beautifully written profile of him, written in 1998 for Esquire magazine, that will give you an idea of why I think so highly of him.

Fred Rogers came to mind for my photo quote because yesterday morning I received an act of such kindness, a kindness I so needed that it felt like tenderness, it got me thinking about giving and receiving grace. And by grace I mean love.

It happened after a morning coffee with three friends from a writers’ group I used to attend. I stopped going to meetings some time ago, but recently reconnected with one of these friends and she suggested we all get together. The four of us, though we were not the only members of the writers’ group, had been a sort of core of it, and our rapport together is wonderful and has been since the day I first met them. It’s very rare for me to feel comfortable in groups – I’m a one-on-one type of person. So these people are pretty special to me.

We all got caught up, and I told them about the bad feedback I’d received on the dissertation chapter I handed in to my advisor last month. It was a devastating experience, because I’ve struggled for so long just to get anything down on paper, and I was proud of the work I’d done, and excited about it. My friends listened, sympathized, and offered suggestions. They took my feelings seriously. That felt good.

But one of the guys seemed to understand that this was more than just a difficult experience for me. I’m not sure if he knows I’m in a difficult period generally, which makes things that much harder to deal with, but he showed me such sympathy I wondered if he intuitively sensed just how crushed I was by the feedback. As we walked to our cars he said something that really surprised me. He said that he knows this feels not just painful, but embarrassing.

He’s right. I feel very embarrassed that my work was not seen as worthy or good. I feel ashamed. But I hadn’t said that to my friends. I was amazed by this guy’s sensitivity, and overwhelmed by his kindness in telling me he understood my feelings and felt badly for me. He offered to help me in any way he could, and gave me a hug.

This, people. This is what I needed. To be acknowledged. To be seen. To be shown some compassion and tenderness. To have another person name my feelings and feel them with me. As I drove away I realized that I had just received grace from this guy. Love. I was given an enormous blessing. It felt all the more significant because my life has seemed so lacking in blessings lately.

So thank you, world, for giving this one to me.

In which I grudgingly admit that Good Things happened in March

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There’s a poem by Wordsworth called “Surprised by Joy.” Contrary to its title, it is an incredibly sad poem about loss and the accompanying grief. It is about experiencing a sudden moment of happiness during a time of grief following the loss of someone beloved, and simultaneously feeling a resurgence of the grief because the happiness cannot be shared with the person who has been lost.

These days I feel like that poem. My loss is of course not comparable to Wordsworth’s, who wrote the poem after the death of a daughter. I am only mourning the ending of a relationship. But still, it is mourning. And when something good happens and I find myself feeling happy, I almost immediately think, “I can’t be happy. I don’t have my bf anymore.” It’s as if being happy would mean I lose him all over again. My grief is one way I am still holding on to him.

So having a moment of happiness, as in Wordsworth’s poem, actually causes my grief to resurface and feel as fresh as ever.

I think this is what grief must be. Not wanting to let go.

But that’s not the reason for this post. Many of my favorite bloggers do a weekly or monthly roundup of links and thoughts about things they like, found interesting, or learned. I thought I’d give it a try myself, as a personal way of remembering that even amidst struggles and trials, Good Things do happen, and practicing gratitude matters.

1.  I visited a real desert for the first time, and found the landscape so strangely inspiring in its prickly beauty. I now understand why so many writers live in deserts. Something about it opened and lightened my heart and mind.

2.  My best friend and his gf came down from Philly to visit me for a week, and helped distract me from my troubles with my bf. The first two photos in my series Happy Photo were taken in their company.

3.  I’m a professional editor in my spare time, and I got my first real freelance client – a European academic who needed help improving her written English. I was very nervous giving her back the edited article, but she emailed me the next day and said, and I quote, that I am “a genius of the English language.” Yeah, I’ll take that.

4.  My amaryllis bloomed (see photo above). I can hardly believe such a thing exists. The photo does not do the flower justice – they’re very difficult to photograph because they have four of those huge blooms coming off the tall central stalk. When I first bought my house it was summer and I had no idea what this plant was – it looks totally ordinary and even ugly most of the year. Imagine my surprise when it bloomed the following spring! I now look forward to it every year.

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(Scroll to end if you just want to see the photo! What follows is an intro to this series of photo features I am calling “Happy Photo.”)

All my posts lately (and by “all my posts” I mean the few I’ve managed over the last six months) have been pretty weighty, mainly because I’m struggling. It feels good to connect to other people who are experiencing similar struggles (i.e. depression and anxiety). And I hope there are some people out there reading my posts because they want to understand these kinds of struggles better. Because unless you experience such things personally, it can be really, really difficult to imagine what it is like.

I’m in a difficult period of life. I went through a similar phase of feeling stuck, angry, depressed, and hopeless ten years ago, when I was in my late twenties. Maybe it comes around every decade. But the truth is, there are many issues I had then that just never got dealt with. Which is fine. I wasn’t ready. Now I am. So that’s where I’m at. Wondering where my life is going, what I want, what I need, how I want to change. This includes reevaluating the 10+ years I’ve had with my bf and whether I want to continue that relationship (the answer is, sadly, looking like a no). This is extremely painful for me, as I’m sure it would be for anyone.

I’m dealing the best I can. And I have faith that this is a process of learning and growth. What I am experiencing is growing pains, and I will emerge in a happier place. (In my worst moments, though, I feel that everything is at an end and can’t bear the thought of more decades of life – don’t worry, though, I’m not gonna off myself!)

What I mean to say is that while I do have many, many hours that are absolute hell, and I don’t always cope in ways that make me feel good about myself, I also attempt to get what pleasure I can from my daily life. My creatures are a big part of this. I go outside to throw the ball and enjoy my gorgeous backyard. I snuggle them and get kisses. I have my few good friends, whom I am increasingly trusting with what’s going on in my head and heart. Ditto my family members. I have my writing.

And, in the last year or so, I have my photography. I bought a used DSLR and a couple lenses from a friend, and am slowly learning how to use it. I’m not great at the technical aspects, but I have a good eye for subject and composition. I love sharing my photos. I’ve been doing so on Facebook, which is not really an ideal venue, and am thinking of starting an Instagram stream (I also have a separate blog for them but don’t update regularly enough). But I also thought it might be nice to share some here. I do share many in my regular posts, but I want to feature single photos that I particularly like, accompanied by a few beautiful words – probably quotes, but perhaps sometimes my own. I want to call this series of posts “Happy Photo,” because photography is one of the few activities that has brought me genuine happiness recently.

So here’s my first photo in this series, one I took at the botanical gardens I visited last week with some good friends who came all the way down from Philly to visit me. I’ve always been fascinated by bright sunlight illuminating brief places among shadows, but only recently realized that the visual beauty of this, in the particular way that I see it, is something I can accurately capture on camera.

Light and Dark Waterfall

“From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.” (Emerson)

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When loneliness isn’t loneliness, or not exactly

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I’ve always been lonely. My first memories of feelings are of being lonely. And this loneliness has never left me. It is my everyday companion, closer to me than any person has ever been.

I remember crying, as a very young child, several weeks after my guinea pig died not because he had died, but because we all must die, and all must be alone in death, and I was unable to comfort my pet in his current loneliness as I had failed to comfort him in life. And no one could comfort me. I went and found my parents, and though they tried, I knew they could not fix what I understood as the essential condition of existence: time passes, winds blow, darkness comes and then light and darkness again, and perhaps nothing really matters.

Existential depression, I’ve heard it called. It’s common in highly sensitive, thoughtful, creative children.

As an adult I understand that meaning will be found where I seek it, that I create my own meaning and that this has to be enough for me, because I will never suddenly be enlightened as to the “real” meaning of things. I accept this condition of existence.

My loneliness is not the same as that felt by people who need the constant presence of others in their lives, and miss others when they are not around. I understand this loneliness, and sometimes feel it – even an introvert needs friends! But this kind of loneliness does not define my life.

My loneliness is also not the same thing as depression, although it is probably linked to it. But I had this loneliness long before I had depression (of a debilitating nature), and while I seek to manage my depression, I am friends with my loneliness.

Sometimes, in its less virulent form, it feels somewhat like melancholy of a bittersweet variety. It is tinged with nostalgia both for past times in my own life and for things I have never personally experienced. C. S. Lewis’s concept of sehnsucht defines it nicely: it’s a yearning for something that cannot be defined or attained. I believe it is the feeling that comes when one deeply grasps the impermanence of things, and yet at the same time does not want to still the fleeting nature of time. It is the feeling one has when it becomes clear that beauty and perfection are contained only in single, ephemeral moments, are only reflections in a drop of water before it falls away.

My loneliness, then, is the knowledge of the unattainability of sustained happiness, love, security, or any other state of goodness humankind desires. Such sustained goodness seems always to exist in another time and another place. In the past. In the future. In a different city or even on a different continent.

And I imagine it existing in other people. Because I know that not everyone lives with this kind of loneliness.

I’m grateful for it, though, because I believe it gives me the ability to experience and feel life deeply. Sure, that means I must deal with some very difficult emotions. But there are those moments, especially when I am out in nature, when I’ll see the way the pieces of sunlight lie across the ground or rocks, or the wind will make the trees speak, and I feel a painful joy that is bigger than those moments and just as wild. And I share something with the universe then that is ineffable but real, and I seem to exist beyond myself in a place that is boundless.

I am in Rumi’s field “beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,” where one lies in the grass and comprehends that “the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense.”

Photograph taken in Keystone, Colorado.

I’m a bad consumer

I’m the type of consumer businesses hate. I just don’t buy that much. The last time I bought a new item of clothing was probably at least a year ago. It’s not that I’m overly frugal, it’s just that I don’t like shopping. I don’t see the point. There’s so little I truly need.

I also don’t like being told what I should want. I don’t have a cable TV subscription in large part because I hate commercials. If I need something, I’ll find out about it myself, thank you very much. And if I buy it, it won’t be because your company told me I’ll be happier/prettier/etc. if I own it.

Nonetheless, I can’t escape being a part of consumer culture. None of us can, because consumption is the driving force of our economic system, and thereby our lives. If everyone was as bad a consumer as I am, our economy would grind to a halt. There would be no more growth. And growth is good, right? If our economy is not growing, we are in trouble.

The thing is, what are we growing for? Is it so we will become richer? Well, we’re not. The average American is getting poorer. Over the last forty years we have added hours to our work schedules and made increasingly less for our efforts.

Does the growth make us happier? Well, we’re not happier. As our GDP has grown, our lives have become increasingly dissatisfying (as measured by other tools, such as genuine progress indicators). Our modern consumer economy, which arose in the aftermath of WWII, really only benefited the average American for a couple decades. Since the 1970s, most of us have been falling behind.

People are beginning to notice. Occupy Wall Street was one example. While that movement may have attracted mostly those in the lower economic classes (at least in terms of who went out and demonstrated), make no mistake: the middle class is also losing out as income inequality rises.

A new book by economist Thomas Piketty seeks to explain our backsliding, which is a trend not limited to the United States. Piketty believes it is possible to reverse growing inequality. That is to say, he is not convinced it is an inevitable outcome of late-stage capitalism.

And he may be right that in an ideal world, political action could be taken to change the course we are on. Just like in an ideal world we would have already dealt with climate change.

But alas and alack, we live in no such world. So I ask the question again: what are we growing for? What is the point of all the production and consumption, if the only substantial benefit is simply more production and consumption?

So I’ll stick to being a bad consumer, because even though it is in my nature to not want to buy much stuff, in this troubled era it also feels like a political action.  #lifeofabundance