Do wasteful thoughts keep you suspended in mid-air?

I’ve started reading Sean Carroll‘s so-far-fantastic-book The Big Picture. It’s tagged as an exploration of origins of life, origins of meaning, and the origins of the universe. What could be more fun?? My Kindle lists it at 840 pages but so far each one is worth reading so I expect it will jog all kinds of thoughts and questions that I will translate into daily posts.

The book opens with Wile E. Coyote defying gravity after running headlong over a steep cliff. Thinking about this, I started to write one thing, and then, mid-paragraph, I thought that, no, this isn’t right, I always advise just the opposite. So I return to one of my favorite topics – things are often more complex than they seem – and offer up the following:

My first thought, with Wile E. floating above the hard sand below, was of my Mother. I’ve written much about my Father but my Mom is worthy of a few stories in her own right. What made me think of her here is how she stops in the middle of everything to assess the minutia of relationships. Everything is parsed and scrutinized. Motivations, real meanings of words, why someone used that particular word, is all sieved and funneled as she re-evaluates her entire history with that person. And that’s just before breakfast. Okay. I’m exaggerating a bit but it’s entirely exhausting to me. I am of that happy and dopey ilk who doesn’t notice these things. I know that when they are mad, people say things they don’t always think. I know that there are times when people play word-games and mind-games. In general, I’m just so interested in what I’m doing that I’m not that bothered by what you are doing. Some say it’s a flaw. I say it keeps me out of a lot of hot water. I finally did an end-around with my Mom during one of her “now, don’t tell your sister this…’ phone calls: I told her that I don’t want to know anything that I can’t tell someone to their face at the Christmas party. She said Okay and then didn’t talk to me for six months. We’ve got on fine ever since. I’m seriously out of the family gossip loop and I can’t say how many days or weeks of good living I’ve recovered.

How does this relate to the cartoon? My first thought when I read Carroll was how debilitating it can be to stop and assess every meaningless thing around you. But no more had I thought that than I tripped over the word ‘meaningless’. These things are obviously meaningful to my Mother. They are not to me. But I am a great fan of thoughtful living. Of moving through life intentionally. Of decoding your beliefs and culture and feelings.

So the takeaway is to choose what to think about. If it’s how your son-in-law wears his shirt around your house then that’s your decision. It’s okay. It’s not what I want to focus on. That’s okay, too. Just remember that when you are suspended in mid-air, you are going to fall and hit hard ground. Maybe what we think about can make the landing a little less bruising.

Have a little humility – life is mostly luck

The single most important thing you can do to ensure personal success is be born in a first world country. Almost everything else we do is just jockeying for position. Imagine being born in Albania or Madagascar in the 1950’s or ’60’s. Keeping your belly full without working yourself to death was a full-time job. In your spare time maybe you learned to read and maybe you didn’t.

I thought about this today while I read about a certain type of brain damage that exhibits in linguistic problems. Not in memory like with Alzheimer’s, but in word usage errors. In one form you lose an understanding of or an ability to use – no one knows for sure – connecting words. Your speech comes out like a telex: Food. Table. Sit. The person speaking doesn’t appear to know that he or she is speaking like this but they believe that they are chatting away like they always have. Do they wonder why people around them have scrunched faces and are not moving to the table for dinner? Apparently these folks can improve in speech over time. But for those who speak gibberish, it’s harder. These folks also think they are carrying on a conversation but their speech is a mixture of words both real and made up and in no order. It’s as if words are stored in file boxes and when we speak the brain selects words by box number. But someone has gone and mixed up the words and made new ones. When the speaker says , “Say, Jane, shall we chambre the wine? Jane hears “Bluster mid lamp lamp rain otit.” How to live with this I don’t know. From either side of the conversation.

I thought about how heart breaking it would be for my wife to have such an odd condition. Or my child. How hard it has to be to live with someone like this, with such confusion. How impossibly hard for the person with the condition to be trapped inside a world of people who seem to have lost understanding.

It makes be feel humble for what we have. We’ve worked for things, true, and we work hard on our family. But it can all fade. Today or maybe in the morning. When my Dad was dying he told me to do what ever I wanted to do today. Leave now! You might think you have tomorrow but it comes and goes almost too fast to see it.

Memorial Day remembrance with photo

A few years ago, I was at a dinner party. A kid was there  – a kid to me – who was getting ready to leave for his first military tour in Afghanistan. He was ecstatic. He was a Marine, I think, and his job was to hover in a helicopter above the fray and radio to the Marines below about where the bad guys are. I could have cried listening to him. Here he was sitting with me, excited, alive and eating hot dogs with the All-American Mariners on TV in the background and I’m thinking to myself that this is the first guy who goes down. Shoot him and his helicopter down and you remove any concerted effort against you. Then it’s just a shoot-em-up and whoever has more guns wins. Or whoever is more ready to die.

I don’t often think about it but will on this weekend. However much you hate war and violence and dying, remember that people have done just those things to afford us the liberty to rarely have to think about them.

Mem day

 

 

Do it before the bad guys break in

I think about a lot of things when I run. Today I thought about the ring and necklace found sealed in a mug in the Auschwitz Museum that I mentioned yesterday.

I’m a list junkie. I make lists just for the fun of crossing things off my lists. A few days ago, I was looking through some paper and found an old list of Things to Think About. Right in the middle, between ‘vitamin D metabolism’ and ‘who/whom?’ is ‘Think about dying’.

Hang on to that and move to television. I watch The Americans. It’s the best show on TV though I am a lousy judge – it’s the only show I watch. This week, after retiring and living a life that he felt was important, John Boy from The Waltons, here an FBI station chief, is approached by the bad guys. He attempts to flee through a closed glass door and a shard of glass pierces his stomach. He lays there and in a matter of mere minutes his life and hopes and dreams and loves leak out in a mess on the floor around him. I turn to my wife: this can happen to any of us at any time. One blink and it’s gone.

Then there was my Father, dying of cancer and well aware of the fact. “Denn? I don’t care what you want to do. Do it today. All my life I’ve kept a list in my head of things I would do if I knew I was dying. Now I’m dying. Not only have I lost the physical power to do anything but I’ve lost the emotional will, too. I’m just too tired to even think about it.”

So I went out and bought a Porsche. I sold it later but it was great. Good gawd, it was glorious. Now, when my kids need me for the fourteenth time, or when my wife wants to watch The Americans, or when the dog stares at me with such a pure love for the alpha male that it’s comical, I try to enjoy the momoent knowing that at any moment the bad guys can break in.

 

The Power of Story

It’s easy to think that the power of story is dead. We watch You Tube, read books on-line with hyperlinks to definitions and annotations, and don’t spend nearly as much time just reading. I pray to the The Librarian every day that our local Barnes and Noble stays viable so I can at least stop by to touch a book. I know my prayer will go unanswered and only hope that one of the new Amazon stores will pop up in its place when B&N succumbs to market pressures.

If you love story or if you want to remember what it’s like to hear something that moves you then tune into The Modern Love Podcast. It’s interesting: the host gives a brief introductory blurb about a letter or story and then introduces the reader, usually someone with some level of celebrity who has a connection to the theme. This week I listened to Connie Britton from the TV show Nashville read “My First Lesson As A Mother”.  Britton has adopted from afar, just like the writer of the story she reads and clearly identifies with the story. If you can get through this story without being touched then, brother or sister, you are made of different stuff than I.

The site and the stories cover the gamut of love and hurt in all relationships. There are stories about silly and goofy butterfly love. But there are stories, too, about the guilt of love. About love lost. Love of self. Love in all its shapes. And really – when our time comes, what have we left but love? Well worth the time to check it out.


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Good Gawd – read this book!

Book Review, The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey

Good gawd. What a glorious book.

The story begins bleak and droning with bright cold punctuated by the briefest of flashes of pure joy. Mabel and Jack live lives of dark loss after Mabel births a stillborn child. They move from home in Pennsylvania to a homestead in Alaska as far away from memories as possible. Jack is a farmer of sorts but older and nothing in Pennsylvania has prepared him for the hardship of wooing a living from the Alaskan wild. And Mabel? She’s the soft child of a university lit professor who is only sure that nothing can be more difficult than living in the place where her soul is buried under a tree in the orchard. Jack works hard on the land all day and at night wonders if Mabel’s spirit will ever awaken. Mabel spends the day cooking, sweeping, and wondering if the new ice on the Wolverine River will break under her weight and finally relieve her of an unbearable burden. But it’s the first snow of the season and in a rare giddy moment they both go outside and build a snow man. A short smooth snowman that Jack shapes into a snow girl. The next morning they wake with the world is still frozen but the snow girl is gone along with her hat and mittens.

Jack sees it first. A flash of red through the woods. A red fox on its heels. Then Mabel sees too. After a time and after days of hints both see the girl – a fairy wisp of a thing on which snowflakes land but never melt. From here the story brings the girl closer into the couple’s lives and then into the lives of friends. But questions are never resolved. Really never even asked. Might asking be too presumptuous? Is the child real? How does she survive? Where does she go each summer? Can she summon the weather? We never know. At the story’s end, all that is left are clothes in the snow, empty but still buttoned closed. Unlike Aesop, there is no moral to the story. There is no resolution, no crescendo.

It amazes me but the book doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some have said that it’s only a retelling of a favorite Russian fairy tale. I suppose it is. So is Stravinsky’s wonderful Rite of Spring but that doesn’t diminish the work. I’ve read that some find it boring and admit that there is a kind of droning and unrelenting undertone of barrenness that permeates the story but the magic of the child overwhelms the bleak landscape. Others forget that the story is a fairy tale where normal rules of physics don’t always apply. Yes, there are technical inconsistencies but I’ve never figured out how Aladdin flew his carpet either. This is no manual for homesteading the Alaskan wilderness.

Several themes run throughout the book. There are good questions about family and community. Ownership weaves a thread through the book. Who owns the land? Who owns the girl? Death looms large and is always present. It’s wild Alaska, after all, in the early part of the last century, where a living wasn’t so much made as extracted from the life around you. Ivey avoids blood simply for blood’s sake but doesn’t shy from it either. Animals are trapped, shot, and skinned. Even the Snow Child captures and dispatches her meals with nonchalant ease. And there is the death and birth of magic and wonder. Mabel, through the loss of a child, has lost even more deeply. She is presented as an old and sad woman without hope or glint in her eye. Everything is dark. Is her inner death worse than any that the thin river ice would offer? But whatever embers she harbors inside flame instantly to life with the Snow Child. And even if we can’t hold magic –isn’t an intangible hope exactly what magic is? –  just being able to imagine that it could be true can be uplifting.

Ivey has stacked her mantle with enough trophies and awards to overwhelm any writer and rightly so.  The writing is perfect. Words are perfectly chosen and sentences crafted just so to lead the reader to the next. Read it first for the story and then for the prose. And then read it again.

Five Stars

Eowyn Ivey’s blog Letter From Alaska here.

The Snow Child page here with reader questions.

LitLovers Community page for The Snow Child here.

The Snow Child on Amazon here.


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Live it up for the holidays – A little

I have a new favorite story. It comes from an interview of Tony Robbins (here).  Robbins talks about being on his honeymoon in Italy and about how his wife – just as health conscience as he is – spends her day downing pastries and tiramisu. He forgives her for a day or two and then asks her what in the world she’s doing. Her response – and I’m paraphrasing here – is priceless and a reminder for everyone. “What? Hey! Listen up.  I’m on my damned honeymoon and I’m in Italy and I’m surrounded by the greatest food that’s ever come this near to my body. Damn! I’m going to live it up and you should too.” Robbins laughs and agrees that his wife has reminded him of something important. We live long and healthy and stress-free to enjoy and long, healthy, and stress free life. There are times when the enjoy should be the focus.

Remember this for the holidays. Remember that diet and exercise are parts of an entire lifestyle that promotes the best you. As important as they are, fun and family have a place too. Eating together, laughing, and watching the game together are all activities that strengthen relationship and create great memories. Some healthy things are plain simple fun in and of themselves.

FF-Fam2Don’t be trapped into thinking that you body is so finely tuned that one taste of a sugar laced butter cookie will do you in. It’s only vitamin and diet salespeople who argue that one grain of wheat will ruin you and shave years off your life. The real fact is that your body is wonderfully flexible and able to adapt to almost any mix of carbs, protein, gingerbread, and fruitcake for a short time. Eat away. Have ice cream on it. Sip a nice vouvray. It won’t hurt you.

This isn’t carte blanche permission to pack on an extra ten over Christmas vacation. But it doesn’t have to be an either or proposition. Live a little. Then run tomorrow. But live it up for once. Enjoy what you have earned. Isn’t this what the good life it all about?