Saturday, August 25, 2012


"If you are falling... dive."
--Joseph Campbell

The unpredictable continues unabated.

But I'm starting to realize that it's only bad if you think things had to go a certain way in the first place.  If you scrutinize the unpredictable, you'll find that the unplanned often carries its own benefits, but we overlook them because we're busy being royally annoyed that things haven't gone our way.

But maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kinda girl.

For instance, yesterday, after I mowed half the yard, I decided I wanted to catch high tide and go for a swim in the Bay.  So I biked out to the beach, went for a lovely swim, and came back to find my bike had a flat.  This meant a 3 mile walk back home to get my car.

Which isn't all that much of a walk for me, actually, but I had been to boxing class the night before, and I fell in boxing class, actually, during one of our running and crouching drills.  Mostly I just hurt my pride, but I had a few aches and pains and a slightly bruised knee.

That knee ended up getting decidedly bruised when I had to hoist my bike into the car later on.  And the aches and pains also got a bit more pronounced along about mile number 2 of my impromptu walk.  By the time I made it home, my hamstrings were requesting some quiet time to themselves, preferably with a book and some tea.

But as I walked along, I thought, well, you know, this isn't the exercise I had planned, but it is a workout, and given that I had originally planned to bike from East Providence to Bristol on the Bike Path, when you think about it, this 3-mile walk is a blessing in disguise.  The Bike Path is 14 miles, and as it turns out, I had a slow leak in my front tire, so sooner or later, I was going to be hoofing it.

3 is definitely better than 4.  Or 7.  Or 14.

And if I hadn't had to take my bike into the shop, I wouldn't have found the cold-weather top and tights I'll need to keep riding when the weather gets cooler this fall on sale at half-price.

Then this morning, I discovered that my tomato plants have some kind of blight.  It's either Top Wilt or Curly Top or something else.  So, they're living on borrowed time.

But again, I realized this isn't so bad: I've harvested nearly 50 Roma tomatoes at this point, and by tomorrow, I think I'll have enough to make a few pints of sauce.  I've harvested about 4 pints of yellow pear tomatoes.

And once school starts, the amount of time I have to garden and harvest begins to become seriously limited.  So it's not the end of the world if tomato season ends around Labor Day for me this year.  And this will give me time to figure out whether it's a bacterial blight or what, and make sure the soil is okay for next year.

Meanwhile, people have asked how the no-shampoo thing is going, and it's going wonderfully.  I went 5 whole days without shampooing my hair at all (just used water), and then I used the baking soda rinse, and the vinegar rinse.

Again, I think it depends on the person, but I wouldn't go an entire week without at least rinsing my hair with water, and I think my preference is going to be to use the baking soda and vinegar rinses about 2-3 times per week.   And I repeat, I have short hair: I think it would be a bit harder for someone with long hair to adjust.

But it's totally worth doing: my hair looks great, feels soft and clean, and is more manageable than it was before.  Win-win.

That was unpredictable: giving up shampoo.  I would never have thought to do it, and I only decided to do it because I was busy researching something else and stumbled on it.

I'm reading Mary Karr's memoir, Lit.  I haven't read The Liars' Club or Cherry, the first two parts of her memoir, because I'm kind of ready for a break from the traumatic childhood/adolescence memoir. (I read Tobias Woolf's This Boy's Life last month and Jeanette Walls' The Glass Castle in 2010 and Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted earlier this summer, so I'm full up for now.)

Karr talks about getting sober and the power of prayer in that process.  Initially, she's quite skeptical about the existence of God (although she will eventually convert to Catholicism), and Lit documents that skepticism and her eventual conversion.

At one point, shortly after she begins her half-hearted attempts at prayer, Karr experiences a significant windfall: she gets a major grant she never even applied for (unbeknownst to her, someone submitted her name).

Her sponsor in AA wants her to acknowledge that this is the result of prayer.  Initially, Karr balks a bit, but then acknowledges that it's possible--she admits she can't know for certain that it isn't the result of prayer.

Color me majorly skeptical.  I think life brings us all kinds of little (or big) instances of luck, and some of them arrive when we least expect it.

I think life brings people who are working at Harvard (even if only part-time) who are married to someone who comes from money and who graduated from and also works at Harvard, "luck" of a kind that someone who has far less privileged connections is unlikely to experience.

I wish Karr acknowledged this a bit more.  To my mind, it doesn't mitigate her achievements, but it colors and tempers them.

As Karr admits, her life was a combination of hard work and luck, and it was the combination of the two that enabled her to escape her past and eventually find a sense of purpose.  Don't get me wrong: I think if she--or anyone--draws strength and comfort from prayer, then she should pray as often as she wants.

I get a bit edgy, though, when people tell me to pray or tell me they're going to say a prayer for me.  The latter attitude kind of pisses me off, actually, because I make it quite clear to everyone that I'm a big ole atheist.

In my experience, that announcement ("I'll say a prayer for you") is often a way of alerting me to the fact that I shouldn't be expecting any other kind of help or support from them, big or small, because they aren't paying the slightest bit of attention to what is actually going on in my life.  They're focused on implementing their own solution to life's problems-- prayer--and not particularly interested in the specifics of what's going on with me (the ostensible subject of the prayer).

In short, they're busy praying.  End of story.  Or, more exactly, they tell me they're busy praying, because whether they actually are or not is between them and God.

In these moments, I always feel that the person is letting me know that they're checking out, indefinitely, and that they'll be back when my problems are over and they can celebrate the success of their prayers with me.  Except that, when things don't work out in the rosy way they anticipated, they don't come back or, if they do, they don't want to hear me talk about what happened.  At that point, it's "in the past" and "we" need to "move forward."

I think that, in those moments, life reminds them that it isn't enough to just pray.  Again, color me cynical and skeptical, but that's been my experience.

I make a distinction, though, between people like that and people who just quietly pray without telling anyone--or maybe they tell me after the fact.  But in the meantime, they'll also stop by and offer to help out in the here and now.

As Karr admits in her memoir, this is what strikes her about the members of AA who are working on their sobriety.  On the one hand, they seek a "higher power" (variously defined) for help with their addiction, but on the other hand, they seek a means of active engagement in the world and with others as a way of drawing themselves out of their addiction-absorbed existence. 

Their recovery often starts when they begin to step outside of themselves and their own (usually numerous) problems in order to assist someone else.

Oddly enough, I have quite a few friends who have struggled with addiction.  Most of them have become my friends after they've sorted out their lives a bit (okay, a lot).  Occasionally, there have been relapses, but the more you learn about addiction, the more you begin to realize that this is often how it goes.  Movies and TV paint a very unrealistic picture of addiction, I think, in which one trip to rehab usually "fixes" a person for life.

My friendships have helped me learn about this facet of unpredictability.  It's a world I know nothing about, and my friends have taught me strategies that keep me (usually) empathetic and (usually) non-judgmental.  At the same time, they have helped me avoid getting drawn into the messy lives of those who are struggling with addiction.

They've taught me a lesson I'm still learning to implement on a daily basis: sympathy can be tempered by distance.  One of my friends once told me that it helped her, as a recovering addict, to hear me talk about how upset another friend had made me.  He was abusing prescription drugs and alcohol, so he was unreliable, unpredictable, volatile and, at times, downright friggin' mean.

And that was when he was making sense, which was not all that often.

She said she had thought she knew "what she had done" to people in her life when she was using, but it was very different to watch with sober eyes as someone did it to someone she cared about.  She said she hadn't really registered how manipulative and chaotic her behavior was at the time, or what effect that would have on the people around her--what it meant to try to live with that kind of constant (destructive and unnecessary) unpredictability on a daily basis.

She said, "I used to resent the fact that people 'abandoned' me.  But they didn't 'abandon' me.  They saved themselves, because they had to.  I didn't care about them, really, although at the time I thought I did and I insisted that I did.  But at that point, I couldn't really care about anything except myself, and at that point, words like 'me' and 'myself' boiled down to getting high."

I realize this blog post has meandered in an odd--and unpredictable--direction, but I think maybe that makes sense, given its subject.  I guess what I've been thinking about in terms of looking at my own life over the past few years and reading Karr's memoir is that life is--as I've said so many times now--a balancing act that we learn to navigate as we go.

As Joseph Campbell once wrote, "We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.”

When the life that waits for us seems to be filled with chaos and crisis or illness and addiction, obviously, that isn't good.  That's the kind of unpredictability that wears you down and makes you feel tired and sad and old.  That's when you really do have to find a way to save yourself.

If you seek a position of strength and stability in your life, I think you have to constantly take stock of the unexpected and figure out what it will mean to you.

For me, this is what Karr is testifying to when she acknowledges the power of prayer in her own life: the shift to a positive conception of life's luck and her own personal discovery of how to comprehend and accommodate the unpredictable.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."