Sunday, August 30, 2015

Remember, Remember, Remember

There are some mysteries in life that I will never understand. What is the purpose of mosquitoes? How did crazy King Ludwig really die? Why did clear Pepsi ever exist? Where exactly is Sesame Street and can someone please tell those perpetually curious children how to get there?

And probably one of the greatest mysteries of all is how in the world did the musical “Cats” become the third longest running show in Broadway history? (It will soon drop to 4th if the Lion King has anything to say about it.)

If you don’t know the musical Cats you aren’t missing much. Cats is to musicals as fruitcake is to Christmas. Wildly popular but I know of no one who actually likes it. I have no idea how it managed to remain open for the 7,493 shows that it ran.  But like every good mystery I have a theory. Two actually. They involve a whole lot of unsuspecting cat lovers and the phrase it’s so bad it’s good.

I suppose there is another theory.

“I remember a time I knew what happiness was, Let the memory live again.”

In the middle of this mediocre at best musical is one of the most loved and most well known songs in Broadway history. The song is called Memory. It is an incredibly beautiful song both melodically and lyrically.

Remembering Memory trigged my own when I used to play the song. Sitting at the piano while mom was cooking dinner, hoping this time I played I would be able to stretch my fingers long enough to nail the bridge. And when I did play it without mistakes my fingers seemed to fly and have a mind of their own as the smell of chicken filled the room.

Blissful.

Memories.

They light the corners of our minds according to another song.

And what we remember sets the stage for what we know. What we live out. Even who we become.

That is the premise of the latest Pixar movie Inside Out. The story reminded me how powerful our experiences are in shaping our lives.  (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. It marks the return of Pixar. Sorry Cars 2.) The story takes place in the mind of a pre-teen girl who is going through normal changes. The main characters are personified feelings who store memories for her. One type of memory is called a “core” memory. This kind isn’t just for storage, but to help the girl define who she is. And when life changes, her memories change, she changes.

We change.

Memories change us. They change what we know.

And I should pause her for a second because to know something means many different things in our limited language.

I can know that 2 plus 2 equals 4.

An exasperated teenager can say “I know” when his mom tells him that in order to do well on that test he needs to study.

We can know something deep down in our souls.

Or my favorite. Spoken by the soon-to-be-returning-to-the-screen Han Solo.

Princess Leia: I love you.

Han Solo: I know.

Classic.

But I am forgetting where I was.

Now I remember.

Memories.

I am not just talking about the standard “where did I park my car” memories.

How many of us have had a “and I was never the same” story? It may be cute, “I had moose tracks ice cream and I was never the same.” Or romantic. “He turned to me and flashed me a smile and I was never the same.” Or sad. “I have never really been the same since he left."

They mark transitions in our lives. Events happen to us and these events become memories. What we choose to do with our memories determines our course.

Memories become our north stars.

Except we are the constellation makers.

And that is extremely unnerving and liberating at the same time. We decide which memories stick. And therefore which beliefs stick. 

We decide which memories make the long mysterious journey from our heads to our hearts.

It is a choice.

Sometimes we choice the wrong memories. And even worse we let them fester. 

If you haven’t seen the movie “Meet the Robinsons” and generally enjoy weirdness I would recommend seeing that one too. There is a villain nicknamed Goob who reeks havoc on our future world, but, he wasn’t born a villain. We learn Goob had a very common traumatic childhood experience. He failed to catch a ball in a baseball game and his team lost. And Goob couldn’t let it go. It took root. He spent years fixating on this one event. It consumed him until he became what this one single memory told him he was. A loser. It did tremendous harm to him and to others.

It is a warning to us.

Memories. We choose.

Sometimes, we get it very wrong.

So think on what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent.

If we do, sometimes we get it gloriously right. We draw on positive memories and we have courage to move forward. Fall in love. Get a new job. Dance in the rain. Allow spring to come to again.

But there is something else that can happen too.

Sometimes, if we are not careful, what we know and believe that was once so sparkly clear loses its luster. We stop listening to our hearts. We bury what we know. Or it simply becomes dulled. Faded. Listless. Stationary. Stunted. Stuck.

We forget.

And so, we must remember.

It can sound simple but it is not.

Why?

Because our memories are not that simple. They full of emotions and energies. People and perspective. They are filtered at best. And horribly distorted at worst.

But they are so necessary and so important. 

And not just because they are made up of events, or even the people we hold dear. There is something beyond our experiences and our greatest loves.

As I said before and will say it again, memories shape what we believe. Who we really are. Maybe even why we are here.

Our callings. Dreams. Doubts. Fears. Prayers.

But, I think there is something even more to it than those things.

Something else. Something I have been wrestling with myself.

To let the song continue. Misty water-colored memories of the way we were.

There it is.

It is not just about remembering a song, or an event, or someone we love.

Or even a faded foolish dream.

We remember because a part of us wants to once again be the fool who made the dream.

And I have a hunch that is what people were trying to do when they packed the theater to see Cats. And the reason we keep photographs and keepsakes. Why some get tattoos. Or cry whenever a certain song comes on the radio. Or sigh when they look at their high school yearbook or wedding pictures. It is why we want to jump back in time and talk to our younger selves.

We want to be reminded of who we used to be.   

Before the “thing that happened” happened.

Some things have happened in my life in these last few months that will change me.
How they will is yet to be determined. For now I am in the in-between place until the new normal chooses to reveal itself. But one thing I do know is that I will not be the same.

What I decide I take with me, what I remember, is up to me.

And up to all of us.

And remember we must.

If we don’t, we are in danger of losing the way.

But how do we remember?

To remember: To recall. To bring back to awareness.

To bring back to life.

Do whatever it takes.

Books, music, a place, a scent.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy. Remember Remember the 5th of November. I believe in Yesterday. #neverforget Do this in Remembrance of me.

And if those don’t help find people.

People will help. Especially the right ones.

The right ones always help you remember. They point out the way in the dark.

And sometimes it is just doing the unsexy work of believing again. Which, once again, sounds simple, but is not.

It can be really hard and really painful.

Just as we are our own constellation makers we are also our own garbage collectors. To uncover and bring back to life we must first dig up all the crap that was buried on top of it.

But dig we must. Remember we must.

Do whatever it takes to keep the most important things the most important.

Remember. Remember. Remember.

As for me, I went searching for the Memories sheet music. I think it had a picture of a cat on it.

Couldn’t find it.

I will though.

And I will play. Just as I used to.

My fingers have grown since then.

I am going to nail the bridge.






Sunday, August 16, 2015

Seeds and Genies

 It is a classic getting to know you question usually reserved for rainy day distractions, sleepovers and awkward summer campfire time. And it goes something like this:

You are walking along on a beach and find a lamp. You rub it (because really that is the first thing I do when I find a random piece of home décor) and out pops a genie. The genie says he will grant you three wishes. Which leads to the classic question:

What do you wish you for?

And as I am writing this I immediately have to stop and ask myself that question.

What do I wish for? The list looks like this:

Poverty and war all over the world to cease

A pain free life

Sick free family and friends

And an unlimited vacation fund

(I know, that is more than three. I will make the cut later.)

I look at my list. Not too bad. I throw in a little altruism alongside the classics of good health and long life. Add a little fun.

But something sits uneasy in me as I write this.

Is that what I would really wish for?

When you set aside the genie, what the question is really asking is what matters to you? What is in your heart of hearts? It is a powerful thing to discover about someone.

Even yourself.

Taking a look at the list again, I am not sure that would be my final answer.

I am sure about other things though. One of them is how much I love trees. I really do. They are extraordinary. And beautiful. They stand the test of time. They withstand storms, provide shade and are an awesome addition to movie sets and paintings.

I have a special place in my heart for fruit trees, especially orange trees. Orange trees blow my mind. Think about it. One tiny seed burrowed itself in the ground, sprouted, grew, grew bigger and started making fruit. And not just any fruit, but fruit that comes in convenient made-for-us slices! I mean, come on. They are already SLICED for us. And that sliced fruit comes with more seeds! So one tree can produce many more trees if given the opportunity. Anyone else floored by that? Just me… okay, moving on.

How did the seed get there? How did it succeed when others failed? 

I find myself asking myself the same question.

There is a classic parable about this. Told on flannel graphs across America.

For those unfamiliar, the parable goes something like this. A farmer scatters seeds on different types of soil and of the four types only one type produces a tree that bears fruit.

(I need to pause here. Who is this farmer anyway? He is either a madman who doesn’t realize where he is throwing his seeds or a loving optimist who wants to give everyone a chance. Things to ponder another time.)

Now, in my tradition one definition of fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

So, how do I live a life full of that kind of fruit? What type of heart, or soil, do I need to have?

When reviewing this parable again it reminds me in an uncomfortable way of my wishes that I would have the genie grant me. Something is not adding up.

In the parable, the first type of soil the farmer scatters seed on is rocky soil. Birds circle around and swoop in before the seeds even have a chance. In the explanation given, the rocky soil represents a heart that hears something but doesn’t understand. 

What did I ask for with my first wish? I rattled off what any respectable beauty pageant contestant would.

World peace.

But then what? What happens when the wand is waived and world peace is suddenly achieved? Peacemaking is often times the result of awful horrible excruciating never-ending conflict. It is learned. Painfully so. I could ask the genie to end poverty and war but my guess is that without any understanding on how to sustain that peace in a New York minute everything would change back again. What good would my wish do? Peace without understanding would be fleeting, never given a chance, even if we did sincerely want to obey the lyrics of that 60s song sung by protesters everywhere. Peace, like the seed that fell on the hard ground, would never take root and be stolen by those that seek to destroy it. 

Strike one for my wish.

The second set of seeds fare better than the first. They fall on rocky soil. These seeds get to sprout. The only problem is, they don’t have any roots and at the first sign of a hot sun, they wither and die, having no reserve to draw from.

Roots are painful. They just are. When you think about it, these are the parts of the plants that are the least desirable. They go AWAY from the light and dig further into the dark earth to find water. And it is this journey into the darkness that makes it possible for survival. Without them, at the first sign of trouble, the plants are goners.

I would be a goner too if I was granted my second wish. I could wish for a pain free life filled with happiness. It is my right. It is even says so in our US constitution for goodness sake. (A wonderfully weird addition by the likes of Adams and Jefferson.) But again, then what?

Quick fixes are just that. Quick. How many of us have started on a quest of our own only to quit at the first sign of trouble?

When you are too tired for the gym.
When you get into your first fight.
When you made a spiritual conversion and then your life fell apart.

If we go into life thinking everything is going to be fine, if we go in blinded until we are REALLY blinded by the blazing sun, we won’t amount to much. The struggle, the roots, are painful yes, but necessary. You could even go as far as to say they are for our protection. 

Strike two.

At this point I am noticing a pattern. There is a progression here. The first set didn’t stand a chance. The second fared only slightly better. What about the third set?

The third set of seeds fall on the ground surrounded by thorns. They go into the ground, take root and grow and then tragically fall short of producing fruit.

How sad. The thorns represent the cares of this world and the lure of wealth. Or, to put it in layperson terms, worry and money.

This set is probably the most tragic of the three failures. The seeds have a good start. They have made it through trials and tribulations. Victory is near.

But it is not the lack of understanding or an instantaneous event that derails them.

It is hanging on too tightly to this side of heaven.

Over time.

For us our weeds come customized. The newest car. The latest cell phone. The double health insurance. The extra long hours at work. We want to keep up with the Jones and their neighbors. It’s botox and gated neighborhoods. It’s hate-filled radio. Or sermons.

It is the comfort of being able to buy everything we need so we don’t need to depend on ANYBODY for anything.

It is trying to control life and doing everything we can to protect ourselves.

It is the slow daily decisions we make to operate out of fear instead of love.

And it is so prevalent and subtle we don’t even know it is happening.

I think an affluent society is a weedy one.

And it is easier to blame society than to look in the mirror. 

Back to my wishes. I believe I had two more, what were they? Ah yes, an unlimited vacation fund and… sick free friends and family.

Selah.

The trouble with cares of this world is that they don’t care.

They show up anyway.

Strike three.

So I am batting zero. Which brings me back to the question. What kind of heart do I actually need to bear fruit? What is really important? Clearly I need help and don’t understand. 

Solomon understood. Solomon was the son of King David, the leader of ancient Israel. And when his father died Solomon had an encounter with God that is probably the closest anyone has ever been to actually having the hypothetical genie situation happen.

Basically God says ask whatever you wish and I will give it to you.

Can you imagine? God coming to you and saying I will give you WHATEVER YOU WISH? WHATEVER?!? The endless possibilities! That is offering the Holy Grail! Maybe literally. There at your fingertips is a worry-free peaceful life in a peaceful world full of everything that could make it enjoyable. God granted and guaranteed!

And what does Solomon ask for?

Wisdom.

Not wealth or absolute power or dominion over his enemies or even world peace. Nothing like that.

Wisdom.

And when I look back at the parable it makes sense. You need wisdom to receive understanding. You need wisdom to know this too shall pass, hard times come, don’t give up and keep going. You need wisdom to tap you on the shoulder when you are holding on to something too tightly or making little compromises that could end up having big consequences.

Without wisdom, fruit is impossible.

And what my friend Sol knew and I didn’t is that it takes humility to ask for it.

He was looking up from his knees. I was just looking around.

He asked God not to change his circumstances but to form his character.

He knew that in this life, this side of heaven, that is what we really need.

So I ask myself again, what kind of heart do I need to live a life full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

A wise one.

So where do we find wisdom? She is certainly plainer than her sexy twin folly.

She can be hard to spot because most of the time we aren’t looking.  We associate wisdom with age and reserve it for wise monks who live on mountaintops and wizards in far off lands.

But wisdom is for all of us and can be found everywhere.

In friends, lovers, strangers, sages, books, scriptures, music, poems, intuition, experience, prayer.

Or maybe we can take a page out of Solomon’s playbook and just ask.

Alright Mr. Genie, let me try again.

Grant me:

Eyes to see

Ears to hear

An understanding mind

And a changed heart 

And yes, I know, that was four. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Explosions and Aftershocks

The title of this post sounds like a Michael Bay movie. It’s not. But if you are so inclined, imagine cars blowing up as you read this post.

It happened in the middle of a drive thru at El Pollo Loco. One second I was pondering the chicken verses pollo bowl.

The next second I was a mess.

Right there in the drive thru. I had a pain in my chest, my eyes burned, I started to cry and I remembered why I wasn’t okay.

And that is how it happens sometimes.

One minute you are fine, the next you are not.

For me, it was remembering a mundane task I used to do with someone I really cared about. And I realized I would never be doing that with them again. Ever. 

The memory punched me in the gut and then left me alone in the drive thru.

And it wasn’t just the grief that hit me in that moment. It was the feeling that I was somehow not doing it properly. That I was failing at grief. 

Whether we want to admit it or not, we put limits on people’s timelines to grieve. And when they have passed that arbitrary limit, we subtly or not so subtly remind them that their allotted time expired.

Which must mean there are a lot of people out there crying in drive thrus.

I thought I had been doing well. I was not holding things back. I had processed a lot. Cried a lot. Mourned a lot. It felt like it was time to move on. I even started to joke and dance and laugh again. I was doing everything I was supposed to do to heal.

I thought I was doing okay. And of course, I was not.

And it happens just like that. You are fine and then you are not.

Grief hits you without warning, rhyme or reason.

And it finds you in places you don’t expect.

You may be going about your day. In the grocery line at the store. At work. At school. Brushing your teeth. Trying to do something ordinary. Trying to make it through a familiar task. Trying very hard to pretend everything is normal. 

Which it isn’t.

I live in California now and am terrified of earthquakes. (Please don’t get me started on the would I rather be in a tornado/earthquake than vice versa debate.)

And something that I learned about earthquakes is that they are deadly. Real deadly. They literally rip the world apart.

And it happens to people too. Our lives get ripped apart by events and change our worlds.  

And leave us in a crumpled mess.

But you know what is sometimes more deadly then the actually earthquakes?

Aftershocks.

And they happen anytime. Anywhere. 

Same is true for grief.

You remember a silly memory. You smell a familiar smell. A song comes on the radio. Someone who looks similar walks by. Whatever the trigger, it happens.

Aftershocks: moments that catch us off guard and stop us in our tracks. 

Moments that jolt us back to the time when we were going about our day and we blinked and then the life we knew was gone.

What are we supposed to do?

The earthquake manuals tell us to duck, cover and hold on for dear life. Ride the waves of emotion. Feel the feelings. And when the shaking stops, pick yourself off and keep going. 

But beware of moving too fast.

You know that scene in a movie where someone is obviously ill or wounded. They insist they are okay and they the stand up and immediately either fall over or faint?

It is comedic relief usually. We laugh at the person who insists they are fine when they are clearly not.  I wish it were funnier in real life.

It’s not.

As my dear friend says, “Grief is terribly inconvenient.” 

Moving on too fast from pain is like standing up to fast when you have just given a lot of blood.

You are going to fall back down.

You just are.

And you have to take a few steps back again before you can go forward.

Aftershocks. Our worlds keep getting ripped apart. 

But so do other things.

Something else happened to me a few days after my incident at the Loco.

I was sitting in my car again. Listening to music. (I won’t tell you the song because it was too embarrassing. Think 80s)

And I started to cry again. Not because I was sad, but because I was so overcome with the beauty of the song. I felt like I heard it for the first time. I tilted my head back and smiled and laughed and moved in ways that would definitely catch the eyes of passing drivers.

Something else happens when we wade through the mucky waters of grief. Not sit in the sulk swamp. Or go through it walking backwards. Or try to run through it and fall flat on our face. Or pretend it never happened. Or stand up too fast.

No, I mean when you slog it out. Taking the steps to walk through it.

Every once in awhile your heart will explode.

Sometime with grief, sometime with joy.

This surprised me. In the same way I wasn’t expecting chicken to make me cry, I also wasn’t expecting music to make me weep.

But that is exactly what happened.

Sitting in the car again. Listening to a song that I loved.

I was floored at how much I loved it. I mean. I really loved it.

The heart, when broken, expands, and with it the capacity to love and to feel things more deeply. 

It blows itself wide open if you let it.

It explodes.

You can cry and scream and ache and laugh and move and smile and smirk and dance and bleed and tilt your head back.

You can see how awesome the moon looks, or the waves feel or a symphony sounds.

You can find it in the silence.

And love gets better too.

Someone the other day was telling me about their own struggles. I listened better. I cared deeper. My heart was drawn in. I was with them.

I think our hearts break to make room for more love.

I know that is Hallmark cheesy. I know it.  But it is true.

To expand, some things need to break. And shake. And get ripped apart. And explode.

And Michael Bay has nothing on that.

And if I can take any comfort in these awful aftershocks it is this.

To quote Oscar Wilde: “ We are all lying in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

And they are beautiful. 
 


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Staring in the Rearview Mirror

 The silliest study I have ever heard about involved parking. After studying parking behavior “scientists” concluded what all of us already knew. Yes, it takes longer to back out of a parking space than pull in it. And yes, it takes even longer to pull out of a parking space when someone is waiting for your spot.

Can I get a “duh”?

The conclusion from the study was that people are territorial of their parking space and didn’t want to give it up.

My thought was, when you are backing up, don’t you take a little extra time in case you hit something? Especially when there is a car waiting to take your spot?

It’s not about territory, it’s about caution.

And isn’t that exactly what backing up and taking a look back is about?

Caution.

And what proceeded caution?

Usually a story involving a time when you didn’t use caution and you ended up getting hurt or worse, hurting someone else.

I think our past is supposed to be something we learn from. We try new things, we make mistakes, we grow, we change.

And some of us are good at doing just that. Some of us can look back at the past with fondness and optimism.

I don’t have any regrets, they say. If I had to do it over again I would have done it the same way because it led me to be this person at this moment. I wouldn’t change a thing.

Wow. What beautiful inspirational sayings.

Except I have a problem.

I don’t believe a word of it.

Well, that is a little harsh.

I don’t believe a word of it for me.

I live with regret. I am too much of a recovering perfectionist not to.

I still wince when I recall how I treated a friend less than they deserved, talked back to my parents, was embarrassed in public.

I don’t always look back with fondness at a bad relationship or a missed opportunity.

I still look at the past more as foe than friend.

And I don’t think I am the only one.

Case in point. A few weeks ago a man on a bicycle entered the office where I work. The place I work used to be a school. This man said he had checked out a book and never returned it. So, he found the book online and bought it to replace the one he lost.

He said that he checked out the book somewhere in the 1980s.

Can you imagine? Carrying the guilt of a lost library book for almost 30 years?

(The book was about Pascal and mathematics for those that are curious.)

Why? Why won’t our conscience or old memories let us go sometimes?

Now, I am not talking about tragedy. We all recognize tragedy changes us and the scars never fully go away. The pain is real.

No, I am talking about less than tragic things. But things we still carry with us and become a part of us.

For some it is a library book. For others the memory of a first love. Or that thing you wish you hadn’t said but you did anyway and even though that person forgave you, you have a suspicion that they haven’t forgotten.

What do we get stalked by the lion of bad decisions? Or live with shadows of regret?

And why are some people so okay with it and some people…not so much.

Part of it is more about resolution than anything else. The past is fully in the past when it has lost its power. When the thing that happened or what you said or did (or failed to do) doesn't haunt you anymore.

You are free.

The easiest way this happens is when the mistake is made good again. When the consequences have past and a better outcome is achieved. Or time has given you a better perspective.

We fought and now we are best friends. I was hurt but they apologized for what they did. I was embarrassed but now I can look back and laugh. I realized now that if I had gotten what I wanted then it would have been terrible. Looking back, I realize I was being protected.

The second best thing is when you don’t get an apology but you find out you don’t need one. You have genuinely moved on. The cat has been de-clawed.  You may see the wrong you did or someone else did but somehow it doesn’t matter anymore. You have forgotten more than forgiven. 

It is the moment when you realize you haven't thought about him/her in a long time. That you see a former foe and don't feel anger. You feel nothing actually. 

In this instance, it is not a burst of joy that fills your heart. But a simple, quiet internal high five you give yourself for surviving.

The third best option is the hardest one. And I think it is the reason we back up slowly and check the rearview mirror.

It is when we still wince. We still ask why. We still get sad. We still need to heal. And whenever we try to forgive or forget it is like trying to dry laundry on a clothes line in the middle of a midwest summer.

Somehow it always starts to rain again. 

This to me, is where some of us stay for awhile. It could be wanting to know details, or whys. It could be that we are slow to heal. It could be we have been hanging on. It could be that we try to move on but something new happens and the band aid is ripped off and we are bleeding again... and again.

It could just be not enough time has past.

 Whatever the reason, we are still wet. 

Well forget that, you know what, I made mistakes and I am imperfect and I have been hurt and I don't understand why and I have some things that are still unresolved but darn it, I am going to dance in this rainstorm because I can.

That is what I would like to say.

And I will get there. One awkward head bob and white girl sway at a time I suppose.

Until I start really cutting loose though, I am going to make you wait for your parking space. 


אב הרחמן, רחם נא