A Basketful of Moms

There are lots of moms out there. You might even have had one yourself. Or more than one.

Here are some to cheer or miss or wish they’d been better:

  • The One Everyone Wants. Loving, supportive, defending us when needed, encouraging and challenging us, too. Always there.
  • The Overburdened Mom. Too many kids, too many jobs, too many issues of her own.
  • The Stepmom. She can be either of the first two, just not the one who gave birth to you. This mother might favor her own kids or accept you as if you arose from her body.
  • The Big Sister Mom. Usually, the oldest sister, especially if you have an overburdened mom.
  • The Nextdoor Neighbor. She might have made you wish she were your own mother.
  • The Favorite Teacher Mom. If you had a winning teacher such as this, I don’t need to tell you how much she influenced and helped you.
  • The Dad Mom. The double-duty father has to take both roles when the mother is absent or ill. He might be a stay-at-home dad when the mother is the breadwinner, too.
  • The Mentor Mom. A supportive guide you find in the workplace.
  • The Role Reversal Mom. She expects you to listen to her and, to some degree, be her moral support and caretaker (long before she gets old). You hear stories from her you shouldn’t hear.
  • The “I Know Better” Mom/Grandma: She won’t accept the second banana, supportive job you’d like her to take with your kids.
  • The Good Mom/Grandma: This lady allows you to grow up whether you have kids of your own or not, and limits her unrequested advice. You are allowed to be an adult, your own person with your own ideas.
  • The Mother Who Played Favorites. Yikes is all I can say.

Well, I’ve probably missed a few, including some of the least admirable, but you get the point. I hope the stork deposited you in the lap of the kind of mother you needed. If not, that you found a substitute elsewhere. An impossible job, for sure, but the most essential one on the globe.

A round of applause to all the best of them and perhaps some kindness even for the rest of them.

And to all of you who are mothers, will be, or wish you could be.

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The drawing is called Mother and Baby. It comes from a 1923 advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Hear Ye! Hear Ye! Please, HEAR ME!

We want to be heard by those who matter to us: known, accepted, cared about. Many people are wanted for particular qualities, but not the whole of them. Often their entirety — their essence — is neither recognized nor understood.

The essence is more than a pretty face, a powerful embrace, a tender or firm hand, femininity or manliness, or a sense of humor. The extent of this elusive thing isn’t sexuality, intelligence, prominence, money-making, the ability to protect, or the capacity to be a capable parent or housekeeper. It is all of these and more.

That which is to be embraced is everything, despite everything. It is their core and voice. We wish to be seen for more than can be seen.

Each of us hopes what we say and feel makes a difference. Not with everyone but with someone. Not at every moment, but often.

No fellow man or woman can fully understand us. Nor can we fathom the extent of our changing selves. Moreover, there is always an element of “seeming” as we move through life and its transforming interaction between who we are in this moment and who we are becoming.

Vision tells us the people standing before us are static, solid, and fixed. In truth, they are blurred, not constant. Time-lapse photography provides evidence of never-ending changes on the physical surface and points to the same ongoing process within. The mirror plays the identical trick when facing it.

Each one of us has had the goal or fantasy of being relevant, not a matter of indifference — not a replaceable part.

An old New Yorker cartoon by Robert Mankoff offers a visual representation of what we don’t want. A woman seated near her husband interrupts him to say, “I’m sorry, dear. I wasn’t listening. Could you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

What explains this failure to communicate, to connect, to be known by someone? What might account for a shortfall in understanding by the person we desire, love, care for, want to be with, want to be close to?

I’m referring to only the ingrained version of this common happening. Everyone gets misunderstood some of the time or falls out of focus and presence.

Here are factors to consider in conversation:

  • The speaker has real limitations in word usage. He can’t explain what he wants us to know.
  • The talker takes too long, circling whatever his concern is, not quite getting to the central message.
  • The pair find it hard to be unguarded in what they say.
  • Body language and facial expression interfere with the intake of words and their meaning.
  • Genuine hearing problems affect the listener.
  • The hearer is a habitual multi-tasker and doesn’t give his complete attention.
  • The twosome infrequently sits face to face in a quiet room when speaking.
  • Differences in temperament, history, knowledge, and gender create a gap language fails to overcome.
  • The infrequency of tender or open conversations increases the danger of big emotions (held back) now overtaking the couple.
  • One or both participants cut each other off.
  • The auditor assumes he received the same memo before, perhaps many times. He takes in the first few words and tunes out, filling in the rest from his catalog of familiar beliefs about the other.
  • One or both are in “attack” mode. The two people engage in accusations, not reflection.
  • Transference from previous relationships interferes with the individuals’ abilities to differentiate this person from someone else.

A match between two people in friendship or love requires maintenance. However, unlike an auto whose oil must be changed and tires replaced, the reasons for the work are a bit elusive.

Let’s begin with the duo’s beginnings. The initial affection and mutual interest tend to be motivated by a few appealing qualities: sexual allure, shared enthusiasms, the feeling of being desired, newness, or a temporary fitness between roles. An example would be one party’s search for a protector and the other’s joy in being appreciated for providing this.

Such attributes outshine and obscure other features of significance about the pair’s interconnection.

One of the surprises and challenges of grasping the “being” of the mate is the continual unfolding we go through as we proceed through life. Only a stone statue untouched by wind, water, or pollution remains unchanging.

Existence means transformation. In the best circumstances, this enables the possibility of growth.

A step toward improving our relationships is understanding that none of us are the same as we were. The partner, therefore, must attempt to “know” you — a living, developing, wavering soul moving through unending alteration — while he engages in a motion of his own and tries to understand himself anew. If the pair of friends or lovers can discover their nonsynchronous “becoming,” the endeavor to retain, recover, and recognize the companion may lie ahead.

Each of us loses his way at times. Still, much is possible if we recognize one of the greatest opportunities to be found in the search for friendship and love: to discover another who takes on the lifelong task of fondness, forgetting, and generous acceptance of human frailty, the better to become aware of another being who intends and attempts the same.

No wonder our delight when we come close to this closeness.

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The first photo is called Couple Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões of Portugal. The second is a A Reading & Conversation with Scholastique Mukasonga. The Moderator was Odile Cazenave. The photo was taken at the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe. Both of the images were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How to Know When You are Wrong

Today’s loudspeakers offer strong opinions. Many leaders, commentators, and friends display no doubt in their beliefs. We often greet them with relief and cheers. Who among us doesn’t need a bit of security and a boost to the righteousness of our cause?

Unfortunately, too many unwavering voices are wrong. What emotional and mental approach might lead us to the truth without going back to school?

Julia Galef, a Fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, wants to help us become more open to the possibility we are in error. To do so, she says, we must look upon the world with curiosity — take delight in discovering new ways of understanding what we thought we knew.

Whatever a member of our tribe proclaims from a pedestal must always be subject to question.

Galef offers us handy metaphors to aid our self-understanding. She calls one viewpoint the “Soldier Mindset.” The soldier has a difficult task to perform, offering no room for possible skepticism about the mission. When approaching combat, adrenalin-fueled emotions capture his being.

Time and thoughtful deliberation don’t characterize the duty he undertakes. The combatant aims to protect his side and his comrades, defeating their shared enemy by attack and defense.

If, instead, we think of how best to acquire new ideas and revise our conclusions, a militarily defensive or aggressive stance won’t fit.

The Scout Mindset” is the alternative Galef suggests. The scout’s job in the army is also essential.

The assignment is not to fight but to observe conditions as they exist. This man performs the reconnaissance needed to choose the best strategy. His commanders want knowledge of the armed forces’ position and the strengths and weaknesses of both sides.

His objective is to understand the reality of the circumscribed world he surveys.

Here, penetrating, analytical, well-honed inquisitiveness is paramount. Closed-mindedness and overflowing emotional commitment to fixed beliefs mean failure. Grasping the accuracy and completeness of the surrounding circumstances is the goal. The actuality of his time and place, not others’ assertions, count for everything.

I hope it is clear which of these roles will uncover the world as it is, not support our predetermined beliefs or confirm what others tell us.

The scout prefers searching to certainty. He prides himself on a willingness to learn, recognizing no one has all the answers. Immovable preconceptions are seen as obstacles to discovery.

In the TED Talk above, Julia Galef describes how personal insecurity and a shaky self-image make it harder to take a new standpoint, uncover a fresh perspective. When some in positions of supposed authority refuse to admit mistakes for fear of displaying weakness, they present poor models for the rest of us.

We, our children, and our grandchildren do well to identify misconception as a door to enlightenment.

If good judgment is sought, the sacrifice of awareness in the name of solidarity with our side is costly.

The Temple of Apollo in Ancient Greece featured three Delphic maxims inscribed on a column in its forecourt. Their guidance remains worthy of consideration:

  • “Know thyself.”
  • “Nothing in excess.”
  • “Surety brings ruin.”

The first of these is the most famous, but if we are sure of the validity of incorrect beliefs, we will neither know ourselves nor uncover who we are and what is right.

Holding Hope Lightly

Things happen. The old joke tells us, “If you want to hear laughter, tell God your plans.” Whatever the cause of your disappointment, you will not get everything you want.

Your future depends on what you do then — what attitude you take to the downturns of life.

Buddhists say, “Live the life you have, not the one you want.If you aim for stardom in the National Basketball Association, but Mother Nature and your ancestors’ genes allow you 5’5″ (1.65 meters) of height, the life you want is above you, beyond your short reach.

A wonderful lifetime might still be yours, but it won’t be in the arms of your first love career.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger said beings are “thrown into life.Moreover, we emerge in circumstances we didn’t choose; lucky, unlucky, or a mixture. Skin color, nationality, the care we receive growing up, our inborn body and brain all greet us from the start.

Over time, no matter those who love us, oversee or mistreat us, we are left to give control of our lives to others or take responsibility for ourselves.

What choice do we have? What does responsibility even mean?

Every individual decides whether to take a direction set by someone else (an advisor, parent, protector, or Divinity). If he accepts the necessity of following that route, he will find limitations imposed on his choices and behavior.

For example:

  • Go to church on Sunday?Yes.
  • Take the name of the Lord in vain?No.

But, as many have noted, there is no certainty of the authority behind those answers. If we accept them, we trust both the guide and his or her guidance. We take them on faith. The world of worshipful belief offers over 200 varieties of Christianity in the USA alone and an estimated variety of more than 4000 religions worldwide.

Instead, Heidegger advises, we can give our actions importance and weight from within ourselves.

The job entails examining the world of things and people, including our history and that of the world. We must behold life’s wonders and risks to find our own human and moral internal grounding for the beliefs and behaviors we create.

We can provide reasons for shaping our own life without an answer to the question of what external to us might ground our being. No absolute knowledge is possible, the philosopher states, of how we came to be, why we came to be, or what necessitates the continuation of our being and planet and all its other current and future inhabitants.

The boundaries we impose will be of our own making, knowing when to stand firm and when to give in, when to go first and when to wait, when to say yes and when to say no.

Whatever we decide, we will obtain mixed results.

Unlike the practical, industrious piglet of the “Three Little Pigs” fable, we humans discover that the effort required to build our security is sometimes inadequate to unpredictable whirlwind events blowing our houses down.

Nonetheless, we can hope our mindset will allow joy in the precious moments without demanding life to behave itself and be what it cannot. Grief and the best of times stand beside each other in all but the luckiest and unluckiest lives.

Potential insecurity follows from the freedom and responsibility of grounding ourselves without a religious belief system. Choosing one’s own path omits the comfort attainable by people of abiding faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, loving Deity. Religion can also be a buffer against mortality and enable a sense of support in periods of misfortune.

Either way, we make our selection and, if we are sympathetic to the array of other life forms present and ahead, consider more than our own happiness. Responsibility doesn’t mean doing anything we want. We must adjust our stance as our living of life informs us of what we require, what we love, and our duties to others and the world.

The psychologist Robert Wright reported attending a meditation retreat for several days. Little opportunity for conversation occurred. Rather, undertaking individual meditation was the focus, with occasional consultations from an experienced guide.

Wright has written and spoken about struggling to achieve a satisfying practice of this art. However, to his delight, he achieved a transcendent experience in the midst of a long meditation session, a sense of benign well-being and relief from the burden of life, something beyond his imagination.


Soon after, he told his advisor what happened. Our professor of psychology received an answer both sobering and enlightening.That’s fine, but don’t get too attached to it.

In saying this, his mentor reminded him that too much desire, too much “wanting,” would contribute to suffering. Nothing lasts, and the transcendental moment might not return.

What then?

In an ever-changing world, in an ever-changing body and mind, we are in transit. More joy may be available if we hold our hopes lightly: keep the shortness of our days in the back of our minds and our eyes on the possibilities of the moment we are in.

Cheers to the happiest possible life, my friends.

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Letting Go is the name of the first image, the work of gnuckx. Next comes A Sunrise Over the Virgin River by Laura Hedien. A Semblance of Hope, a photo of Jojo Lacerona, follows. Laura Hedien’s March 2021 image of a Utah Sunrise completes the array after the Three Little Pigs video.

The first and third of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons. Laura Hedien’s work can be found at https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/ She has given me her kind permission to use the photographs displayed here.

Are There Basic Laws of Human Stupidity?

A fascinating new book took 43 years to receive its first widespread publication in its original language. Why should you care? Because the belated arrival confirms the machine of the world doesn’t operate well. A logical, predictable planet under wise management is the one we want.

Carlo Cipolla offers us a sort-of-comic essay called The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity.

Is it playful? Yes.

Is it serious? Yes.

Is it enlightening? Yes, again.

Moreover, at 74 pages, the slender volume is worth the slim slice of time and money to find out yourself. No extra calories, either, so discovering the five rules won’t blow your diet.

Here are the laws our friendly adviser asserts, with a few edits and comments to ease your understanding:

  1. Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person. The author Carlo Cipolla means you will find the same percentage of the stupid everywhere. They inhabit all jobs in all societies, all races and genders, and all education levels.
  3. The Golden Basic Law. A stupid person is (someone) who causes (harm) to another person or group while himself (gaining nothing) or even possibly (hurting himself).
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit.

Cipolla’s description of stupidity concerns the ill-timed actions of the souls he describes, a kind of bizarre giftedness for catastrophe creation. They lack self-awareness of their talent for messing things up for those who don’t recognize their toxicity and flee.

These creatures use their strange, malign, unintended capacity to cause misspent energy, squandered time, spoiled appetites, perplexity, unhappiness, physical distress, and lost wages and property. Misery floats in their wake. This unknowing band carries habits similar to people Joseph Epstein refers to as Chaos Merchants.

Here is a personal example. My wife was driving to an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia around 1974. We were attending a professional conference. Several bright attendees we just met were with us.

One bloke insisted he knew the way. He exuded absolute confidence. We were moving at speed when he insisted the time demanded we make a left turn. A moment later, we were facing four lanes of oncoming traffic.

This well-educated guy embodied stupidity.

Think about the people you’ve dated, married, befriended, and worked beside or for. I’m sure many were conventionally bright. I imagine you believed your continuing acquaintances harmless.

Cipolla would suggest some were stupid (by his definition), and the world is more dysfunctional for their being here. He might have entitled his volume The Inconvenient, Unpredictable Doings of Preposterous People.

The book attempts to differentiate its target from the helpless, the corrupt (bandits), and the intelligent. The author also tells us how some in this crowd arrived in positions of power.

Possible explanations include being born into a higher class or caste, entry to an advantaged and protected religious order where male authorities have lacked oversite, and elections. His opinion of the political misguidedness of his targets echoes the words of H.L Menken:

On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

What can you do about the danger? Since many of us defend against senselessness by reasoning with others or maneuvering around them, the author instead tries to persuade us that success and safety require us to keep a distance.

He quotes the German poet Friedrich Schiller, who wrote, “Against stupidity, even the gods fight in vain.”

I would add this. Most people of reasonable intelligence make mistakes in managing the totality of humanity. First, we think of ourselves as more rational than we are. Second, we judge others and predict their actions without adequate skill whenever we base our expectations on sober consistency and astute instincts they do not possess.

Our tendency to ignore so much of what we learn also comes into play. And they, the dangerous ones, often appear innocent and well-meaning. We want to give people second chances and desire the same from them.

Nor do we wish to live in fear of disasters brought by members of our species who, we believe, don’t roam the earth with distinctive hats announcing their presence. (Oops, we could be wrong).

As the 4th Basic Law reminds us:

Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.

There are reasons to doubt the author’s contentions. He was an economist, not a psychologist, and doesn’t present data to support his ideas. Yet, in my judgment, he is devilishly wise and has hit upon something of importance.

Here is my recommendation. You might get a laugh and a new perspective on the human condition if you take on his writing. At worst, you’ll be out a few dollars and a miniature amount of time you won’t get back.

Read the book. With luck, you’ll come away with a little wisdom and a smile.

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The second photo comes from a Tax March, San Francisco, CA, on April 15, 2017. The final image is called Naughty Carrot Wearing a Dunce Cap, November 13, 2019. In order, the creators of these two visuals are Punk Toad and Schmidti333. The source was Wikimedia.com/

Does Love Die of Boredom? Some Unexpected Advice

As the stream of time moves us on, most of us hope to find a comfortable way to manage. Few beg for more of the turbulence of early years, a period fraught with insecurity and internal confusion. “Who am I — who do I want to be?” — is a question we’d rather not ask. Psychological and physical ease is the goal.

Yet, do we risk a life of deadening routine? Do we hold too fast to one version of our identity past the point our partner finds us dull? Even the beautiful and smart can be unlucky in love.

Who might we consult to make ourselves forever interesting to the one we care for?

How about someone who ended one of his most famous works with the words, “You must change your life.”

Rainer Maria Rilke died at 51 in 1926. In his half-century, he gained an unconventional perspective on love and keeping it fresh. He thirsted for experiences, wishing to absorb the world with new eyes as if he were seeing his surroundings — human and natural — for the first time.

The poet often praises those who make perception into an activity, not the automatic, passive accumulation of sights, sounds, and smells entering our awareness without effort. He wants it to be alive, not rendered invisible by his failure to recognize more than customary appearances.

In The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, insightful observation requires intention: an attempt to make the familiar unfamiliar, nor turn from what troubles us when we look and listen closely.

Here is an example from the title character Brigge:

There are many people, but even more faces, since everyone has several. There are people who wear a face for years, and of course it wears away, gets dirty, cracks in the creases, stretches like gloves you’ve worn whilst traveling.

Rilke’s words push us to take a new look at the next face we behold. He implies more exists behind faces than we thought. The portrayal of Brigge discloses a young man attentive to subtlety and nuance, the qualities arrayed before him available to his sight: the sensory world we find unremarkable without the effort to inspect it.

Now imagine yourself attached to someone like Rilke, woman or man, who transforms part of the experiences you take for granted.

At age 27, Rilke received a letter from a 19-year-old, with whom he continued a prolonged but occasional correspondence. The younger man, a military student named Franz Kappus, sought advice on his own literary efforts.

The compilation of Rainer Maria’s side of the exchange appears in his Letters to a Young Poet.

In the eighth of his 10 communications, dated August 12, 1904, Rilke addresses the reasons he believed sweethearts became boring.

For it is not only indolence that causes human relationships to be repeated from case to case with such unspeakable monotony and boredom; it is timidity before any new, inconceivable experience, which we don’t think we can deal with.

Note, Rilke doesn’t say one of the lovers is boring. He says tedium grows out of hesitation to take on new inward and outward adventures. He continues:

But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being.

For if we imagine this being of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it is obvious that most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth. In this way they have a certain security.

The above passage suggests courage is the inoculation preventing the death of intimacy. Moreover, Rilke believes it will foster not only closeness but also Kappus’s self-discovery. In eaves-dropping on a century-old private exchange, we are allowed to ask if we too remain in “a corner of (our) room” out of a desire for security and safety.

The older man’s message continues to explore this idea:

And yet how much more human is the dangerous insecurity that drives those prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their cells.

We, however, are not prisoners.

Later, both Kappus and we are told why we ought to flee our self-imposed confinement and embrace the wider world.

If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, these abysses belong to us; if there are dangers, we must try to love them.

And if only we arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.

How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

The dragons might also be thought of as personal shortcomings hidden by the masks we wear — the truth we hide from others and ourselves. The writer suggests we take the role of a sculptor of our individual humanity, forever adapting, shaping, and experimenting with an identity which new circumstances, aging, and personal history demand we change.

Rilke asks us to begin self-examination, to stand erect and naked before the sunlit mirror, and declare, “This is who I am.” The static life, he might tell us, is a missed opportunity. He applauds those who wish to know more — endlessly.

The whole of humanity will never take Rilke’s advice. Not everyone accepts life’s unexpressed invitation to discover who they are and create who they strive to be. I suspect the man is speaking of rare creatures among us.

Perhaps they would be the metaphorical tightrope walkers and fire-eaters, and those to whom love or justice or freedom are worth everything they possess — everything they must endure for the chance to achieve them.

In our challenging mortal world, Rilke recommends we mull over unnecessary boundaries and barricades built for self-protection, some of which cost us the fulfillment we say we want.

Since the clock on our duration keeps its steady pace toward the ends of things, we do well to live with a tempered urgency to be more, notice more, and do more.

And if we are lucky and his suggestions are correct, win and maintain a lasting love.

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The quotations from Letters to a Young Poet are a part of one long paragraph. I’ve broken the sentences up to better clarify your understanding and my commentary.

The first painting is August Macke’s 1914 Tightrope Walker. The second is Tightrope Walkers,1944, by Remedios Varo. Finally comes Giorgio de Chirico’s 1926 The Two Masks. All of these come from Wikiart.org/

The Therapeutic Value of Remembering “Things”

 

I sometimes wonder what things — stored or discarded objects — might offer clues about who we are and how we got this way? Some carry secrets we’ve forgotten and epiphanies yet to be disclosed.

I was watching my oldest grandson color a month or so back. It’s been a long time since I colored with my kids themselves. The scent, and sight, and size of his Crayola box brought to mind an age six experience of my own.

The teacher must have asked my classmates and me to bring home a supply list on the new academic year’s first day, the Tuesday after Labor Day. I doubt the paper said more than the words “one box of Crayolas.”

My mom probably didn’t give it much thought, other than to fulfill the requirements and not pay more than necessary. The ghosts of her own haunted youth doubtless accompanied her to the store.

Each student took his bag of necessaries to our classroom at Jamieson School and unloaded them when told to. But this simple job was to be something beyond routine.

Once we lifted the tops, my eight-crayon cohort shrunk like small buildings encircled by the many multi-colored, peaked towers bursting upwards from the desks surrounding me. I sensed everyone else lugged the largest case to school — forty-eight crayons worth.

That was the first day I encountered a personal sense of “less than.” Not the box, but I felt “less than” the other kids.

Please understand, no comments or comparisons issued from the mouths of others, nor any judgmental glances. My brain interpreted the sign-language communicated by all the well-supplied boxes.

Such coloring tools carry a powerful aroma. You might ask yourself about scents that continue to remind you of childhood, as well. Alfalfa and cedar come to mind.

The cedar infusion of air came from a wooden toy chest. I can’t attach alfalfa to anything precise. Perhaps the plants grew in one of the many empty lots around our home, places long since filled in by brick and mortar construction. Both smells bring pleasure even now.

I played in those unbuilt spaces: baseball, softball, marbles, hiding, racing, and digging in the dirt for ancient coins or arrowheads. Layers of clay were common as one probed.

If you wish to know more about your roots, poke among the items yet surviving in family vaults and attics. Find old photos and inspect the background articles: the furniture, wall decorations, gadgets, and more. Perhaps their unending patience awaits your notice.

My grandmother also left me with a “thing” whenever she kissed me on the cheek. Each show of affection ended quickly, but her lips’ outsized wetness lingered until I located a towel. I liked her but didn’t enjoy being submerged in the middle of the living room.

What other recollections might return with these? Memories tend to bump into each other, a bit like a line of dominoes when the first is tipped over.

By the time I finished eighth grade in 1960, I observed something else. In my neighborhood, a number of the parents kept a complete, multi-volume encyclopedia at home. I saw those owned by friends, some new and expensive, others not quite so recent.

Ours came from the late 1930s and looked like it had been through an economic depression and conflict, though its arrival in the stores was a bit ahead of World War II. I suspect the set got purchased second-hand a while after my birth.

The volumes were well-worn. Their hard use conveyed the sense of hard times. I only realized this within the last month.

The yellowing pages carried the mindset of my home. From a psychological standpoint, my parents and, therefore, my brothers and I lived in the shadow of a vanished time.

For all the humor the family shared, we inhabited a psychology sprung from a period when bad things happened. My folks’ lived-history stoked fear of their recurrence.

Other objects in the home revealed the same mentality, as did my folks’ conversations. Indeed, if Fate deposited our shelves with a brand new, high-end collection of similar books, the volumes probably would have stuck around for no more than a few weeks. Then, realizing they didn’t fit, the entire 26, from A through Z, could only have grown legs and fled while we slept.

They didn’t belong.

I already knew the truth such things represented but never recognized these hardcovers contributed to the atmosphere.

Yet, we soon got a new set. Jewel, a nearby grocery, advertised a 99 cent special. The letter A began the weekly march through the alphabet and closer to a complete edition. I heard about the ad on TV, and my folks obliged my desire.

Thereby, perhaps, the family took a small step into to more benign present. To the good, the books never departed.

I’d not recommend looking back to everyone, but therapists would be remiss in doing otherwise. History and the processing of its legacy are a part of our work. Not to learn about the past’s impact on your own life, including new insights into the present, recommends finding a different career.

Distant recollections come to me on their own, though not with regularity or unwanted frequency. I’m comfortable with them, and, as the encyclopedia memory tells me, they occur at odd angles, provide new perspectives, and sometimes enlighten me. As time has passed, these recollections also carry more sweetness and humor than ever; enlarged gratitude, too.

As we move along in life, we occupy the successive ages our parents reached before us. Understanding anyone older only accomplishes partial knowledge, whether one is a counselor or not. As I gain more of the age my father and mother achieved, I sometimes learn more about them — and myself.

My parents, gone now for 20 years, still teach me.

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The first photo is of my parents before my dad was shipped overseas during WWII. The last image is of the young author.

Life Worn You Down? Simple Suggestions to Lift Yourself

A new press release from the American Psychological Association offers a boost: small-steps (see them below) to enhance your life now and as the world opens up again. It also describes our pandemically worn down, stressed, and challenged state, even as vaccines promise relief.

There is no shame in buckling. COVID-19 and the upside-down world of work and unemployment stagger many.

Yet, improving your well-being and health might not need a mountain climb remedy:

  1. Move. Dance, walk, jog, run a treadmill, ride a bike. Aerobic exercise is associated with mood enhancement, better sleep, and lower blood pressure.
  2. Do something nice for someone else. Call people by their names, including anyone with a name tag. Smile at them.
  3. Give a little money away. If you find even a tiny amount of disposable currency in your pocket, buy a stranger a cup of coffee or a donut. Don’t treat people like furniture. Your goodwill might make their day and tends to improve your mood, as well.
  4. Tell the people you love what they mean to you. Friends, family, and anyone who opens the door for you.

Sleep disturbance, emotionally-driven eating, and high stress require no apology. Here is the promised place to start getting control back from the APA:

How to identify unhealthy habits, change behavior and manage weight

Identify unhealthy habits 

  • Take note of when you are overeating, making poor food choices, or drinking alcohol: What time of the day is it? Did something stressful happen? Are you bored? Answering these kinds of questions can help you determine if your habits aren’t healthy. 
  • Pay attention to how you feel after a certain activity.
  • For instance, drinking might make you feel better in the moment but worse the day after. If you notice this is happening, try substituting this behavior with another activity that doesn’t make you feel worse later.

Change behavior

  • Make the goals you set for yourself specific and attainable. For instance, if you’re trying to drink less during the pandemic, determine a specific number of days and drinks by which you want to limit your alcohol consumption.
  • Find an accountability buddy. Telling a close friend or family member about your goals can help you stay on track, and they can check on your progress.

Manage weight

  • If you are feeling stressed and are gaining weight, instead of trying to lose weight, start by trying to maintain your weight by not overeating and staying active. This can help you develop healthy eating habits.
  • To maintain weight or stop yourself from losing weight, establish a routine for eating three meals a day — either by setting the alarm to signal mealtimes or blocking off time in your calendar. If trying to decide what to eat feels overwhelming, repeating the same breakfast and lunch every day can help build a routine.
  • If you can’t get outside, go for a walk inside. Plan a route through your home that lets you take about 25 steps and take this route while you’re in a meeting, catching up with a friend on the phone, or taking a 5-minute break during your workday.

As we emerge from our bunkers, don’t be surprised if some of the unmasked folks appear a little older at first. That awareness is a blessing. Perhaps our recognition of each life’s temporary condition will remind us to display more kindness and live with enhanced urgency.

When hugs and kisses become possible, the tears may surprise you. Smiles, holding hands, and long embraces. Over and over.

A cheek’s caress, a firm handshake — sex, too — ravenous, generous, and grateful.

Who knows what the future holds?

Make it yours with each new day.

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Here is a link to the APA update on stress in America: https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2021/one-year-pandemic-stress/

The first photograph displays the northern lights in Coldfoot, Alaska, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle. This is a recent example of the splendid artistry of Laura Hedien, with her permission: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/

The second image is Miró’s Characters on a Red Background, 1949. Finally, a picture of Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt and a reporter/companion celebrating V-J Day in New York City on August 14, 1945.

Bela Bartok’s Simple Philosophy of Life

pouring-light

The conventional question about optimism is whether you see your glass as half-empty or half-full. But let’s look at the same cup differently.

Let’s think of the object as the container of all your capabilities. All your physical skills. All your creative talents and human endowments.

Now turn to the goblet again. Ask not if the glass appears half-empty or half-full of those gifts, but perhaps a more important question:

What will you do with them? What will you do with whatever is inside?

Here is how one person approached the task: Bela Bartok, the 20th-century Hungarian classical composer. He was 64 when he died in 1945, still full of ideas to be put to music paper, not given the life to express them and further enrich us.

The genius regretted it, saying on his death-bed, he had hoped to exit the world with an “empty trunk.” The man might as easily have referred to an empty glass or locker.

His musical being, occupied by what he could yet compose had he “world enough and time,” was still overflowing. The European emigre sought to expend everything on the job of life. Spill the suitcase out. Unpack the riches within.

Since he was born with nothing, Bartok believed he should leave with nothing. He saw this as his obligation to himself and his fellow-man: to share whatever “good” or goods he possessed, to reveal the talents nature bestowed upon him and those he developed.

Bela Bartok, 1927

Bela Bartok, 1927

Creative people often feel chosen. Some consider their craft a “calling” impossible to ignore. They write or perform, not only as a livelihood. Indeed, more than a few sustain their artistic aspirations even though they can’t make a living doing it.

Bartok himself was about to be evicted from his New York City apartment at the time of his death. These people persist out of an “inner necessity.” They cannot do otherwise.

Bartok’s notion is no different than the sports heroes who try to “leave everything on the field,” giving their entire capability to the game. And, while most of us are not inspirational leaders, geniuses, or athletes, we can emulate the most admirable of them: to reach for all we are permitted, work hard, and face challenges instead of running away.

By this standard, a full life would include loving our friends and family passionately and well, seeking always to enrich our knowledge and understanding; and bestow the world with whatever we have to reform it, and us, into something better — to make all our possibilities real, as Bartok hoped.

To choose such a life rejects dutiful routine and “quiet desperation.” These seekers refuse self-protectiveness — the aching reproach of the road not taken, the fear not faced, the life of “might have been, if only…”

The master wrote one of his greatest works, the Concerto for Orchestra, while fighting the leukemia killing him.

The rest of us can’t claim the same excuse if we slip away with some part of the best of ourselves held back — at least not yet. Why? Because we enjoy the gift of time.

For some of us, the goal of life seems to be filling our luggage with as many things as possible. Things external. For Bartok, the mission was to empty it of the things internal. Many are torn between the two –- a life of consumption or a life of creation. There is a choice.

To Bartok, the playing field of life awaited his best efforts. His regrets reflected his desire to have done more, not consumed more.

Is there a better philosophy of living?

——-

This post is a reworking of one I published almost eight years ago. The subject of the top photo is a lamp designed by Yeongwoo Kim called Pouring Light.

“What Am I Without It?” When Opportunities Follow Loss

 

They say we don’t know the value of a thing until it’s gone. If so, everyone on the planet has learned something during the pandemic.

Do you remember your last kiss or hug or handshake? We aren’t often told, “Hey, I wanted to mention, this is the last time, at least for a while.” How rude of Mr. Covid not to announce us.

For a portion of our fellow men, having a job and a place to live is newly uncertain. The future of recess on the playground and the source of the next meal leave question marks.

We miss smiles not blurred behind an electronic scrim on Zoom, the twinkle of another eye, a hand on a friend’s shoulder, and a meeting with his eyes.

The bottom half of faces, too.

If the deprivation we suffer illuminates our values, perhaps we will live a rearranged, reimagined life just ahead. One hopes the knowledge of “what is important” sticks with us.

Ours is to search for the joy we so miss, the balance stolen by the virus, the buoyant activities and interactions that made previous hard times endurable; the reliance, worship, and community encounters broken up and swept away like browned leaves in the wind.

At other times some decided to volunteer for losses. Peter Serkin, the recently deceased pianist, set music aside in his early 20s to travel. He ceased both practicing and performing to “find out who I am without it.” The artist returned to concert life and an extraordinary career informed by what he discovered during his self-imposed separation from his instrument.

Religions ask us to give something up, a loss imposed if you are a doctrinaire believer. Certain foods become forbidden. Your self-denial tells you how much your faith means to you, or perhaps how much you fear divine judgment.

Your devotion and comfort in the Deity grow from saying “no.” Saying “yes” to a moral code outside of church gives its own meaning, as well.

Time is a commodity we all lose all the time. Some careers stand frozen in place. Athletes don’t get their physical prime back. Young people need formative social experiences and pleasures that cannot be retrieved with ease from behind.

The philosopher Heraclitus said, “No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.” The speeding passage of the seasons always requires our choice of one activity over another, one person over another. We might ask, how much time will I trade for how much money?

We are forever deciding where to focus attention, enduring stress to find the next job, risking a question in the hope of a particular answer, daily saying hello and goodbye. No wonder the Hebrew word “shalom” signifies both of those common words.

We are, if we are self-aware, frequently finding ourselves. A person who recognizes himself as changing and changeable knows he must remodel himself. Even without awareness of this necessity, he will be altered by time and events.

The first of the Ancient Greek Delphic maxims was “Know Thyself.” Most don’t, but even if they do, they ought to ask later, “Am I still the man I was? Who am I now? Do I want to be a different person living a different life differently?”

As the planet reopens, we will discover a new world, one with fresh dangers and novel opportunities. Indeed, our place in it, the place for us before COVID-19, may not be suitable after. To the good, we are still capable of becoming.

What you lose changes you. Though we come to expect it, the ache from the departure of a loved one remains tender for as long as it takes for the breeze to wear it away. Hearts are full of irreplaceable people, some alive in “a world elsewhere,” others muted shadows.*

Perchance a grand adventure awaits in the recovered and recovering times. Think of yourself as a sculptor or a portrait painter creating your own likeness.

Yours is the only hand that shapes and shades what is essential, knowing what you alone comprehend. Chance or fortune will fiddle with you, but you needn’t accept every bit of the fate they deliver.

You have a part to play if you can locate it. You haven’t, you say? Keep looking for the role to which you aspire. Life can break you, but it also carries surprise and wonder.

Late in his life, my dad often studied the cement a few steps beyond as he walked, perhaps reviving a habit begun in the Great Depression. He found pocket change, paper currency, and once a fancy watch. I’d not recommend the practice, but you won’t find anything unless you seek it.

First, tape over the hurt spots and find the hunter within.

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*The three quoted words come from Shakespeare’s play “Coriolanus,” Act III, Scene III.

The top painting is “With an Umbrella,” 1939, by Paul Klee. The final photograph is “Arizona Sunset,” late July, 2020, S. of Tucson by Laura Hedien, with the kind permission of Ms. Hedien: https://laura-hedien.pixels.com/