Resolute

Acknowledging the new year and the natural inclination to reassess and renew that the turning of a calendar page brings, the time has come for me to make some resolutions for 2017.

Here are a few:

Blog Harder. (‘Blog Harder’ really should be the name of a 'My Dinner with Andre' style movie) Too often I wait until ideas develop more fully before committing a blog to this website; I would like to remember that some of my favorite bloggers write short and succinct entries. And while ‘short’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t typically my thing, attempting to be so will—I hope—help my blogging output.

Be Mindful Better. ‘Mindfulness’ has become one of those buzzwords and social movements that has me naturally shying away from it, because I’m such a goddamned rebel. Still. Practicing meditation and mindfulness these past couple years has benefited me much. A re-dedication to the practice seems in order – more mindful mindfulness?.

Create More. I have been writing. Really. It’s been slow going. (Novel writing is naturally slow, or at least methinks that it should be, and when you couple a naturally glacial process with an impaired writing schedule well….) So yes, there is a novel in the works. Let’s just throw out that I’d like to have a completed draft by mid-2017. It’s always nice to have deadlines to miss.

Fight. I’m deeply dissatisfied with the politics of our nation. From the national level to my local Portland, Oregon. I don’t care who you voted for in 2016, the lingering result is that we have a broken system that is failing all of us, a system that is unfortunately susceptible to foreign influence and extremist factions. I can’t believe that we’re so far apart from one another. That said, some things—oh like Nazism, racism, sexism—are wrong, and we live in an age when they should not be tolerated. At all. So...we fight.

How about you? What resolutions are you considering?

Faithfulness

Maria Popva’s fantastic website Brain Pickings culls her myriad obsessions (literary, artistic, aural, spiritual, etc.) into a constant flow of enlightening posts.

Her piece on Parker Palmer’s recent Naropa University address showcases what makes Popova’s blog a must-read: she channels a nearly obscure current of would-be internet ephemera and siphons it in order to pique our own obsessiveness.

I had been ignorant of Palmer’s work, although I realize I heard him on an On Being podcast without having connected name to message. But given that the theme of this blog--Begin Again--is the overlap between the persistent and repetitive cycles of both artistic and spiritual work (the same but different and both as mundane as they are mysterious), the themes of his teachings are necessary to echo here.

Specifically, what struck a chord is Parker’s talking-point about parsing the difference between the ‘effectiveness’ of taking on the necessary and nagging tasks of our lives (those nefarious but essential to-do lists) and the overarching passion projects that inspire and drive what we often consider our ‘true’ work. While acknowledging that managing tasks effectively gets us short-term results, we also must return to and attend to those grander notions of what Parker refers to as faithfulness:

‘…(being) faithful to your calling, and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care.’

Surveying where I am right now, I have been emphasizing my day-job, which at present is a wild ride of travel-intensive IT project work and the constructing—along with my colleagues—of a business. It’s obvious why my focus is here now: the job pays, and it provides, and frankly, it’s fun, exciting, risky, scary. Creativity comes into play quite a lot in my day-to-day – much more than I would have guessed.

Still.

Lately I’ve been more effective than I have been faithful; or more accurately, I’m more aware of being effective and less aware of being faithful. And when I am aware of being faithful, I’m faithful in unexpected ways. Where I once relied on being myopically faithful to my artistic pursuits, I’m now spreading that faithfulness to my relationships, to my health, to my spiritual work, and, as noted above, even to my day job.

As Popova’s recap of Palmer’s address underscores, it’s heartening to know that I’m not alone in living a paradox: we know less and are less certain the longer we live. 

Change That Mind

People don’t change.

I’ve written that and said that and part of me believes that. Most days, I’m convinced that we all have pre-established modes of being and cemented behaviors that have gradations, perhaps, but states that are largely unalterable.

The term ‘fixed mindset,’ as identified by Psychology and motivation researcher Carol Dweck, betrays an effortless set-point of the kind I’m (mostly) convinced we’re all slaves to, a staid default where the mind’s ability to manage its approach to the world’s many challenges settles into an immoveable monolith reinforced by those cross-sections of ego-rebar.

By contrast possessing a ‘growth mindset’ where we instead maintain a flexible mental position, where we work toward our life goals, where we assess and address issues, problems, situations as they reveal themselves to us in the present, requires that we maintain and sustain a vulnerable, open, and flexible belief in ourselves. Just because we don’t innately exhibit certain skills, doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills through diligent practice.

According to Dweck’s website, maintaining a ‘growth mindset’ translates into focusing on the effort we put into an endeavor rather than the label we assign to ourselves.

Being vulnerable and open requires that we unmoor ourselves from the words and behaviors that typically defines us as the people we believe ourselves to be. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, sometimes despairingly so, where everything feels transient, slippery, illusory. The Buddhists would say that this is acknowledging Reality. The Reality that the supposed solidity of our existence is nothing but constant flux. But if we can’t rely on the labels and the beliefs we—as well as the people around us—have of us, how are we supposed to recognize ourselves?

About sixth months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a company for which I’d worked for twelve years. It wasn’t that I didn't want to leave; I ached for change. The respect and appreciation for how I fulfilled my role within the business had evaporated, the relationship with my managers had stagnated for reasons that still feel nebulous and haphazard, and in practical terms they weren’t taking care of me financially, which was having disastrous effects on my family’s finances. I had to act.

Even so, the decision to openly embrace uncertainty, to actively unattach myself from everything I knew or conceived of myself was difficult and frightening.

We often don’t appreciate how important our day-jobs are. These roles provide us with stability, a sense of purpose, maybe even meaning. They also often provide us with drama, interpersonal connection and the subsequent conflict. Our occupations are as integral to our comfort as they are to imprisoning us into believing that life is full of 8-5, Monday through Friday constancy.

We can so easily believe that we are our jobs.

In my former work situation, we were all as hemmed in by labels and expectations as by Reality. Although I put considerable effort into learning new skills, into taking on more than I’d ever done before, my managers were so used to seeing me a certain way, so used to me fitting into the confining role I’d had for years, they didn’t recognize or acknowledge what I’d done. They couldn’t. I, however, knew I was capable of more; I’d proven it to myself, and this gave me the confidence to look for work elsewhere. I had to quit in order to redefine myself, and I was and am fortunate that an opportunity presented itself when it did.

The most startling aspect of it all was how easy it was to let twelve years of ego-investment and self-definition fall away. Once I stopped putting my energy into the same old labels and roles and circular thinking that I was used to (and, let’s face it, addicted to) those labels and roles could no longer contain me.

I suppose, then, that my experience betrays what I actually believe about our potential to learn new skills or to behave differently.

 

Disturbed: A Click-Bait Journey

I made the mistake of following one of those click-bait links on Facebook that contained ‘photos with disturbing back-stories.’ The tag-line did not lie; the photos were disturbing as were the back-stories.

Most of the pics depicted individuals moments before something heinous was about to happen to them. I’d rather not include the links, because I’m sure you can find them on your own, but the stories that have stayed with me are Tara Calico’s and Regina Kay Walters’, not just because the stories are tragic, haunting, horrific, but also because the photos are visceral and are as difficult to process as they are to forget.

Neither Calico’s nor Walters’ stories are new; the photos have been around for twenty-five years, and I suspect floating around the internet for some time. I had missed them. These types of stories—sensationalistic as they may be—impact me differently now that I’m a parent. Whereas I would have once put myself in the place of the victim, I now can only think of my own children snared in these same situations, and my heart breaks not just for the victims but for the parents.

Not being able to protect your children from harm is the greatest fear a parent shoulders, and to live that reality, to have that fear manifest, would be excruciating.

This same week, Andreas Lubitz allegedly murdered one-hundred and forty-nine people, and killed himself, by piloting Germanwings Flight 9525 into the French Alps. We don’t yet know (and we may never know) why Lubitz allegedly did what he did, although the evidence is pointing to struggles with anxiety and depression and, what, narcissism? God complex? (There’s more than depression at work, that’s for sure.)

Anyway, I’ve been unable to find compassion for the perpetrators, for Lubitz and in the Walters’ case, Robert Ben Rhoades (we may never know who was behind Calico’s disappearance). Lubitz and Rhoades are, of course, someone’s children. They are us, though we don’t wish to acknowledge it. Was Lubitz unable to accept his mental issues? Was Rhoades unable to positively process his sexual drives? Had either man been able to acknowledge his vulnerabilities, his failings, his humanity, would the outcome have been different?

I admit I struggle to find in situations where the person—the human—commits acts of such blatant horror anything resembling redemption or forgiveness. And maybe that’s not the task here. Maybe the task is simply to acknowledge that we as individuals owe the world and those around us the attempt to accept ourselves so that we don’t negatively impact everyone else. It’s on us to look honestly and without fear at what we are capable of and to find ways to process what we find. We can’t expect others to do this for us. We can’t punish the world for what we lack.

By the by, in researching Rhoades, I found this excellent article.

Check Your Baggage

You can feel the anxiety, a palpable clench around your windpipe, actual pressure indenting the bones and cartilage of your chest.

Must. Get. In. Line.

As soon as anyone passably resembling an airline gate agent arrives at the gate’s desk, the eager elbow themselves into a semi-chaotic line. The First Class passengers, mind you. The ones who have the best seats and guaranteed overhead storage. They generate a fear tsunami—that palpable gush of anxiety that soaks everyone in the terminal—and soon the entire gate is swarmed by folks trying to angle a better position on the plane.

As a regular business traveler, I have worked hard to understand why on earth a person would want to spend more time on an airplane than necessary. We who are about to embark on a multi-hour flight already have our seats. What’s the rush to plant ourselves into those overpriced back-and-butt torture devices?

Over-head storage. And good ol’ American competition.

That’s it. The rabid anxiety, the 40-plus minutes to board and the 25-plus minutes to deplane, the obnoxious line-blocking behavior. All caused by your fellow traveler who wants to get there before you and who wants to steal your precious overhead storage space.

This annoys me. This annoys me a lot.

I hope that airlines have conducted a cost analysis of the inefficiencies caused by carry-on luggage (we know there’s no cure for the jackass competition). If airlines provided free checked luggage, couldn’t we board faster? Couldn’t we deplane so much more quickly? Couldn’t the airline then offer more flights in a given day and make even more money?

I’ve tried to apply my nascent mindfulness skills to this situation. I try to acknowledge how annoyed I am by this, sit with my annoyance, and wait for it to pass while my running mental commentary does not stop - the airlines are stupid for causing this; people are stupid for feeding this.

Everything and everyone is stupid, stupid, stupid.

Alas, there is no solution. This is the reality of air travel. This inefficient and degrading situation is what it is. I can choose to struggle against it, or I can choose to accept what ultimately isn’t going to change.

Or…I can take part in the competition and push to get to my seat before you do.