Saturday, November 27, 2010

Closer to Fine: Thanksgiving week

In 1988, the Indigo Girls sang,
I'm trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously;
It's only life after all.
I drove 9 hrs each way this week to spend time with my best friend and her family: her ten-year-old son was diagnosed about two weeks ago with an aggressive form of advanced brain cancer. 

When I arrived late at night, we sat and chatted for a bit.  I commented on how annoying it must be to keep getting the Thanksgiving cards the kids were making at school, with "Give Thanks" arched over a traced-hand turkey with colored finger-feathers. 

I suggested that maybe we should get a red crayon and scrawl "GO SCREW" on all of them and send them back.

She said, "Yup.  That's pretty much where I'm at right now."

But then, the next morning, things began to look up.  Her son was finally released from the hospital, so we all got to spend time together and with him for the first time in a long time.  No need to assign shifts to determine who would be watching the two younger kids and who would be driving to the hospital to sit with him.

What was most amazing, though, was the kindness of everyone around us.  When the daughter of a neighbor learned the news several weeks ago, she set up a rotating system of people to bring dinner to the house every other day--and they make really good food, too. 

When my friend called to tell her that her son was home now and that I was visiting, so we'd be fine, the neighbor said, "I don't care.  We're still bringing the food.  You should enjoy your time with your friend and relax.  We want to do this.  We want to help."

Two days later, her son's teacher showed up with two enormous gift baskets--one for her son, one for the entire family.  They were filled with food and games and books and cards.  People gave donations.  The entire fourth-grade class came together to contribute and send these baskets to us the day before Thanksgiving.

This is what I admire in other people, and what I consider humanitarianism, really.  Small-scale attention to details.  In a world full of people who offer nothing but more or less empty words and pat responses, there are so many people who just get up in the morning and hit the ground running. 

They don't ask, "What can I do?", they just show up and do it.  They say, "Here's what I'd like to do," or "Here's something that I did--I hope it helps."  And then they go on their way.

When you see that much compassion, you remember the root of the word itself: from the Latin, patior, pati, passus sum, compassion literally means "to suffer together" or "to endure together" ("com-" derives from the Latin prefix cum, meaning "together" or "with"). 

If we must suffer, we will endure it together.  In shared suffering, you don't turn away from the sadness of life, you acknowledge and face it in company with others.  You do what you can, instead of lamenting that there's nothing you can do. 

Really, there's always something you can do. 

Seeing this outpouring of support also made it much more difficult for me to tolerate the high-maintenance people out there.  Because of course, they're still out there, and they don't stop for nothin' or nobody.  The next verse of the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine," continues, "Well, darkness has a hunger that's insatiable/ And lightness has a call that's hard to hear." 

I've come to realize that it will always be particularly hard to hear for those who can't seem to just shut up for a minute and let some one else's feelings and needs take precedence over their own. 

I think they often end up suffering alone, though, and they never understand why.  That's punishment enough, in the end.

For my own part, I spent time posing as Darth Vader's sister (her story has yet to be told).  I channeled my inner White Witch in snow-covered Narnia, and I played the game of Life.  I somehow managed to only pull down a $20,000. a year salary, even though I was a doctor (maybe I was doing a lot of pro-bono work?). 

I also bought a boat, a house, a log cabin, went on a safari, and threw a party for this year's Grammy winners.   As I told my friend, it was clearly "The Game of the Life I Would Never Lead."  She said, "It does seem like you're making some bad financial decisions, but I blame that worthless blue peg of a husband of yours.  It all started when you got married."

I nearly had a coronary playing soccer, baseball-tag, and basketball.

The night before I left, my friend's eight-year old turned up the radio.  It was playing his favorite song: "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge.

Friday, November 12, 2010

You Say You Want A Revolution

In 1968, The Beatles insisted, "when you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out."  In his Nov. 10th Op-Ed. article, "Jefferson's Army of Nation Builders" in The New York Times, Dominic Tierney suggests that the Lads from Liverpool may have had something in common with the founders of the United States, namely, the realization that "we all want to change the world," but that ultimately, "you better free your mind instead."

Tierney notes that the traditionalist assumption that the "core mission" of the American military is to develop and wage ever-more-effective forms of conventional warfare in fact runs counter to the original purposes of the United States Army.

Envisioning a flexible corps of soldiers who could also serve as engineers, builders, topographers and scientists, early American leaders emphasized the role of the military in the maintenance of the emerging nation's own infrastructure, as well as its function as a first line of defense.

I think this is a really interesting point to consider, and not just because I'm a pacifist who thinks that no one should ever shoot or blow up something if somebody else cares about it.  The mindset of a reformer and a builder is fundamentally different from the attitude of a destroyer--although it's unfortunately true that the former can all-too-easily mask an agenda characteristic of the latter.

If we define military might solely as the ability to destroy and dominate as quickly and effectively as possible, we will quickly find ourselves at an effective impasse.  Once we've blasted the shit out of whoever or whatever we've defined as "the enemy," then what?  We send soldiers home to deal with the physical and emotional trauma they've endured, and troops eventually withdraw to watch the mess we said we were going to "fix" (i.e., attack) enter a new phase of collective chaos.

I wonder whether we've slowly come to limit our understanding of what it means to defend and protect the things that we value by overemphasizing technological flash over philosophical substance.  Action movies constantly reiterate the idea that, if someone loves you, they'll hunt down all real or perceived threats to your well-being and avenge your pain and anxiety in dramatic and explosive and sometimes terribly disgusting ways.

But to defend and protect can also mean to provide for and support the things we cherish over the long term--and that doesn't necessarily have to translate into billions of dollars spent on the latest high-tech missiles and jet fighters.   The fear of losing our technological edge is certainly worth addressing; an outdated or outsourced military is an obvious liability.

At the same time, however, the technological edge may not be the only advantage worth pursuing: instant destruction at the push of a button is ultimately a very short-term achievement.  A military tradition made up of thoughtful, informed and variously skilled soldiers is, on the other hand, a long-term benefit.

In the end, I'm with Lennon and McCartney: "when you want money/ for people with minds that hate/ All I can tell is brother you have to wait."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Happy Medium

A little over a century before the famous whisper of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999)-- "I see dead people"-- the American novelist Henry James writes a similarly eerie tale of ghosts and visions, "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). 

James' story is published a year after an even more famous novel that details the exploits of the Undead--Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).

As my previous post ("Hereafter") suggests, I'm really interested in representations of the figure of the medium.  I'm fascinated by people who see dead people, or who think that they see dead people, or who simply claim to see dead people so that they don't have to get a real job like the rest of us.

In Stoker's novel and James' story, respectively, the characters of Mina Harker and the Governess at Bly both try to transcribe and comprehend what they've seen, heard, read and written.

In James' novella, a young woman accepts a strange assignment: a handsome London bachelor hires her as a governess for his niece and nephew and sends her to live at his country estate at Bly.   

The only job requirement is that she never contact him, ever, about anything, no matter what.  She is given permission to make all decisions involving the children and the household. 

Oddly enough, she seems to think that this means that the children's uncle might have a little thing for her.  Apparently, that's what guys do when they really like you: they give you a job that takes you miles and miles away from them and then tell you never to contact them.  (I think someone may need to tell this woman, "He's just not that into you.")

Soon after her arrival, the governess receives a letter announcing that the nephew has been expelled from school--for what, exactly, no one will say, and as it turns out, no one wants to ask either.  This is Victorian England, and people don't talk about such things (which of course leads everyone to speculate wildly about what exactly "such things" are.)

In the meantime, the governess begins to notice something strange.  She keeps seeing an unknown man hanging around the premises--walking back and forth on the tower and peering in the window.  She describes him to the housekeeper, who comes to the conclusion that the strange man is the uncle's former valet.

Except he's dead.

So too, as it turns out, is the little girl's previous governess, who coincidentally had an affair with the valet.  It's not long before the new governess begins seeing her as well.

Or so she says.  Ultimately, James' tale revolves around this uncertainty: is the governess slowly going crazy, or does she really see dead people?  And if so, what do they want, exactly?  Unlike Shyamalan's slightly more benevolent take on ghosts and the afterlife, in James' story, the ghosts, if they are "really" there, are up to no good.  They've come for the children.

Similarly, in Stoker's Dracula, the Count is quite horrifying.  When he orders take-out for his beautiful vampire-girlfriends, he brings back a baby for them to feast on.  When the baby's mother comes beating on the door of his castle, screaming for him to give her back her child, he sics the neighborhood wolves on her and quietly watches what they do.

So the role that the female protagonists play in James' story and Stoker's novel is quite significant.  They are not simply mediating between two worlds or two realms of possibility.  Their words shape the reader's ability to comprehend and interpret what may or may not be happening in situations in which it is possible that their otherworldly visitors may not be forces for good.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Love in Action

In Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, the Russian priest, Father Zosima, counsels one of the women who comes to see him to "avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself. ... Watch over your own deceitfulness and look into it every hour, every minute."

Realizing that his advice is hardly uplifting, Father Zosima adds,
I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.  Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all.  Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage.  But active love is labor and fortitude...
The labor and fortitude of active love, Father Zosima realizes, are qualities that often go unrecognized, unattempted and unapplauded.  Dreamy love is full of PDA's, admired by all, showy and demonstrative. 

And, ultimately, quite brief.  It simply doesn't have the staying power because it is marked by none of the struggles that characterize active love. 

I once (quite naively, I admit) commented to a friend that I never understood why men send women flowers when they've done something "wrong."   Why not simply acknowledge a mistake and then make a conscious effort not to do it again?  Wouldn't that be a stronger testimony of love and respect, ultimately? 

His comment: "Okay, so you're saying that, instead of flowers, you want someone to actively and consciously try to be a better person on a daily basis?  Flowers are a helluva lot easier."

It's true, they are.  But they may also be vestiges of the kind of falsehood that Zosima describes.  I can convince myself that what I did wasn't really wrong if my conciliatory gift is accepted.  I'm lying to myself, of course, because what I did was actually wrong and I know it, but it's only a small lie.

But as Zosima suggests, the little lies build up.  Deceit is part of human nature--notice, he doesn't tell the woman not to lie.  He tells her to pay attention to her lies, to recognize them as lies, and then try to avoid them.

Just like his notion of active love, his conception of honesty is one of action, of constant watchfulness and effort that may or may not be successful at times.

But as Zosima tells the woman, "I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it--at that very moment I predict that you will reach it."

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Recently saw the movie, "Hereafter."  Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film delves into the territory of American Spiritualism--a movement that has a history spanning well over a hundred and fifty years. 

The film itself was only okay.  Some interesting ideas, obviously, but ultimately, it drew the same, old, familiar conclusions.  Yes, the dead are still with us, but no one knows why or for how long or where they are, exactly. 

And in the end, it doesn't really matter because eventually we'll all find true love or reunite with a happy family (once mom finally kicks heroin), and then we won't care so much anymore.

I actually went to see the film because I'm in the process of reading a book called Talking to the Dead, about Maggie and Kate Fox.  As teenagers, the Fox sisters claimed, in 1848, that they could communicate with spirits. 

Living in a series of rental homes in Western New York State with their parents and/or various friends and family members, including their older sister, Leah (who also developed "the gift"-- coincidentally right around the time it became clear that it might bring them all a lot of money and fame), the girls claimed that spirits were rapping (as in, knocking, not as in Snoop Dogg) answers to their various questions. 

Apparently, all kinds of people heard this rapping, unless of course, you asked questions that the spirits didn't feel like answering, at which point, they'd rap out the equivalent of "Leave me the hell alone, already." 

Furniture went flying, tables levitated, and there were all kinds of crazy antics, including slappings, quakings, and gyratings.  People almost had seizures.

Sounds like an episode of "Real Housewives."

In 1888, after years of fame and fortune and no telling how many seances, Maggie Fox stepped on stage and claimed that they had made it all up.  A few years later, she claimed that no, they hadn't made it up.  This time, she claimed that they had been pressured by forces within the spiritualist community (in the form of jealous, flesh-and-blood mortals) to admit publicly that it was all a hoax.

Clearly, the Fox sisters and all who have followed in their wake have struck a collective American chord.  We want to believe.

I'll share my own hereafter story.  Several months after my dad died, a friend was staying at my house.  She had been in a serious car accident and was confined to a wheelchair for several months.  My house had the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom all on the first floor, so she roomed with me for a while.

One morning, she told me that, the night before, she had wheeled herself out onto the porch and her father, who had died about six years previously, was sitting there waiting for her. 

He told her that he knew what had happened to her and that he had wanted to come by and see how she was doing.  She invited him in and told him, "I want you to meet my friend--you never had a chance to meet her," and apparently he said, "Oh, I know her.  I've heard a lot about her.  You'll both be just fine." 

And then she woke up.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Importance of Being Earnest

I haven't blogged in a while, but I like to think I have a very good, and possibly very original, excuse for it. 

My best friend's son is scheduled for brain surgery on Monday.  Over the past two weeks, I've been calling her constantly, and constantly feeling more or less helpless.  How do you support someone under such circumstances?  Can friendship ever be enough?  Can it even be adequate?

They say that, if you want a good friend, you have to be a good friend.  I think that, in my experience, the exchange and reciprocity of a good friendship is always ongoing, mutual and, at times, nearly instinctive.  I have never had to think so much about what being a good friend would involve or entail, until faced with my friend's circumstances.

How can I support her, and her son?  How can I offer her a counterweight to life's overwhelming heaviness right now?

I remember when I was suffering myself, what made the greatest impression on me was the fact that, when there were no words, my friends still struggled to find something to say.  In the end, the fact that they always continued to try outweighed the words themselves.  Their silence became a comfort because I knew what was behind it.

So often over the past few years, I have felt the meaninglessness of my parents' own suffering, but now, oddly enough, I often feel that what seemed meaningless to me then has had a kind of purpose for me now.  Having gone through what I went through, I've been able to talk to my friend differently than I would have done several years ago.  I can listen to her anger and frustration and suffering in a very different way.

When I hear echoes of my own sadness, magnified a thousandfold, I can wait in silence and let her feel what she feels, without feeling anxious or worried or trying to offer a (non-existent) solution.  I know something about where what she's feeling comes from.  I know that too often, people can't or won't listen to someone in so much pain--not because they don't care, but simply because it comes from a place that is too dark and frightening for them to endure. 

But if we don't endure it, how can they?

In the end, maybe all we have is the importance of being earnest (to borrow a phrase from Wilde and use it in a very different way than he ever intended).  We can only think, constantly, about what it means to be a friend and how best to make that known to the people we care about, and then act on those thoughts and hope, fiercely and determinedly hope, for them.

I found a quote from Winnie the Pooh this week that has helped me think through these ideas.  At one point, Christopher Robin tells Pooh Bear, "Promise me you'll always remember: You're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think." 

This is the essence and the earnestness of true friendship.