Sunday, March 27, 2005

Happy Easter!

I love Easter. What could be a stronger expression of the triumph of hope over despair, light over darkness, life over death? It is trust in this triumph that is the heart of my value system.

Rooted first in metaphor, my world view swerved over into outright belief in the tenets of Christianity some years back, not that you would know it from my recent church attendance record. That transition had some interesting steps, but it started by deep and thoughtful consideration of what I knew of my own experience to be true, then expanded to a few key concepts taught by others. Without any attempt to be definitive or complete on this beautiful Easter morning, I offer up a few of them.

Opposite things can be true—hold them in your mind without trying to resolve the contradiction. Dealing with the death of a loved one or the loss of a friendship calls us to grief and rage. At the same time, we know that death comes to each of us and that loss is our lot on earth—that truth requires acceptance. One loss after another, sometimes it seems that way, until that final loss of our own lives resolves into who knows what. Personally, I don’t need to know what comes next—I have quite enough to manage to process what is going on in this lifetime. Perhaps if the Buddhists are right and we have multiple approaches to truth, perhaps in my next lifetime I will get to chew on that issue.

Despair is a sin. As a person who has battled depression from time to time, this was a hard one for me. My nature is sunny and upbeat, but my biochemistry sometimes goes in the opposite direction. How can that be?

If you hang around churches very much, soon you will notice that people may stay away for years but come back for holidays like Christmas and Easter, but even more they come back for major life transitions—joyous ones like weddings and baptisms, sad ones like funerals—and for comfort in times of trouble. Churches persist because they bring comfort and because they deliver the message that we mere mortals must look beyond today’s sadness in our own lives to a bigger picture. If we insist on focusing only on our own pain, only today, admittedly real and deserving our care, but if that is all we see, we are guilty of despair. So I had to learn to see beyond my immediate moods and let my heart lift up my biochemically challenged brain. This ongoing practice takes a lot of private time, and my family and friends often don’t understand where my moods are at any given time, but life is better now.

Despair is an interesting word—it means literally the lack of hope. In French, “esperer” means “to hope.” Some years ago, working in Brazil, I was startled to see the copy machine display the following message: “Espere!” It turns out that in Portuguese, this simply means “Wait” but it gave me a giggle to get an inspirational poke from the copy machine.

Start from where you are. We all have our individual challenges and demons; likewise we all have unique gifts. What if we were to put aside the demons for a little while? Not pretend they don’t exist, just set them aside. What if we were to spend even one day celebrating the glory of our own lives and of those we love? What if we were to aggressively follow the advice of the copy machine as I first heard it: Hope! Take a day to celebrate hope. No, I didn’t say hop, but that might work, too. Have a happy, hopeful, hoppy Easter!

Thursday, March 24, 2005

On anger and letting go

One explanation of depression is having one’s limbic system flooded. Anger or other strong emotion can cause a backlash into dullness or absence of feeling, as happened to me after yet another Dell meltdown yesterday afternoon.

So I get a memory error when the system powers down—is that any reason to propose yanking out the hard drive? That would be putting in the fourth hard drive in the second system in eighteen months, all in the futile attempt to get one operational system. We will draw a curtain over the events of the past three months, during which I spent many, many hours to rebuild my system. I was not at all pleased with the idea that I was going to have to start over from the beginning, and got even more agitated when the technical support guy suggested that perhaps he would just send out a system swap. When he couldn’t come up with a better solution, this first tech support guy proposed transferring us to another area, then promptly hung up on us.

Over my tearful protests, the next phone support technician took the onsite technician through one component at a time and discovered that the underlying problem was a wireless card, not even a Dell-installed component, a very easy problem to solve, and one that—thank heaven!—need not require further Dell involvement. I’m sure that Dell is as happy not to deal with me as I am not to deal with them.

But today, I still have the anger hangover. I feel grim and heavy and gray and touchy. And despite taking the precaution of eating carbs for lunch, I took out a couple of bystanders in collateral damage. Everything looks more dire when depression rules, even when you try to compensate for your gray-tinted specs. In truth, I should have called in sick, but it’s hard to get sympathy for an overstimulated limbic system.

I’m thinking now that maybe it is time to say goodbye to Dell, even with two years left on the warranty. The sheer stupidity of proposing a system replacement to solve a problem with a wireless card amazes, shocks and offends. But in the overall scheme of life and death, love and humanity, I can’t afford to waste a particle of energy on Dell. When the next problem with this system occurs—and I feel certain that it is when and not if—I think I will call my local support guys. If there is something that needs to be dealt with under the warranty, then I will pay someone else to call Dell. Or not. Honestly, life is too short for this. There has to be a better way.

Meanwhile, I find myself craving the support of my friends who are put together the same way I am, friends who are known for being difficult, prickly, obnoxious and angry. Today I was all those and worse, and now I want to rest in the company of someone who will say, “There, there. It will be better tomorrow.” I want to hear from someone who says, “I don’t care what other people say about you, I know you’re doing your best.” I want to be with people who aren’t always nice, because they are always trying to push a good cause one more step ahead, even on days when they don’t get the strategy just right. I want someone to make me a cup of tea and ask if I’m okay, then when I say “Well, sort of,” tell me funny stories to make me laugh or read me to sleep. All so that we can all get up and do it again tomorrow without the anger hangover, without the same nonsense, with our reserves rebuilt by the loving care of those who know us best.


I wrote this one morning a few weeks ago:

There is a level at which I find the concept of entropy comforting. Daily life is full of small defeats: peeling paint, computers that need repair, wrinkles and graying hair. Outside of the tale of Dorian Gray, however, the direction of change flows predictably in one direction. We know that if the paint peeled last summer, more of it will peel next summer, and it is important to think about what to do next. Never once has it happened to me that peeling paint repaired itself.

As sometimes happens, I got to the end of the paragraph and the flow of words stopped, usually a sure sign that there is something wrong with what I have written. I couldn’t immediately see where it had gone wrong, so I filed away this apparently inoffensive fragment for later, and a few days ago, it came into focus.

Dead wrong. The observation is simply wrong. It is rooted in the elegant pronouncements of physics, or rather the more superficial and dreary aspects of the mechanical world. This world is predictable, with bodies in motion tending to remain in motion…and all that. But plain old physics does not account for spring.

It’s early yet, so the snow is just going, the mud is still passable, and we don’t yet see green bursting forth all around, but already something in the air has changed. There is new energy all around, and it is neither dreary nor predictable, even though it happened to us just a year ago. Spring! What theoretical construct can account for it?

I used to know physicists, and the ones I esteemed were focused on the sub-microscopic world of particles. It still tickles me to remember that in that world, a particle might be one place, then somewhere else altogether—the “quantum leap” that is not tiny as in common parlance, but very, very large. If the laws of mechanics are dreary (if comforting in their predictable nature), the world of quantum mechanics is sheer possibility. Maybe that’s a better theoretical model for life as we know it, but still, how to explain spring?

As is probably clear by now, my science education was sketchy, and I am not really looking to re-immerse myself in biological mysteries like the Krebs cycle, which always made my eyes glaze. Even if I understood the science behind the rush of new life about to happen all around us, I don’t think it could possibly expand my delight that after a long winter of breathing in, now it is time to breathe out, to sing, to dance, to run up and down the hill back of my house in sheer exuberance and exultation that it is spring!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005


My compost methods (see previous post) are not, I think, so very unusual, and I don’t really beat myself up over the waste, which is not waste at all other than the money spent to purchase vegetables I don’t actually get inside myself.

You may notice that I make a concerted effort not to beat myself up over anything; rather, if I see that I am doing something that seems inappropriate or wrong, I just stop that behavior and replace it with more positive actions. Negative reinforcement doesn’t work on my staff, my dogs, or anyone else I have ever met—why would I want to try it on myself? Apologies are sometimes in order, but the exercise of public self-flagellation does not accomplish much, in my opinion.

Rather, I work hard to treat myself well, including organizing my life so that I can be strong and healthy, and that means having the option of good food at home. My diet is working very well these days, rich in high quality protein, whole grains and vegetables. Organizing food is different in rural Vermont from New York City, where greengrocers were on every other corner and one could purchase beautiful produce on the way home, no matter the hour at which one came home. In Vermont, I am home early and once home, I don’t want to leave my cozy nest. That means if I have good food—including vegetables—at home, I will eat them. If not, well, …not.

So I buy four or five vegetables a week, in addition to the basic onions, celery, carrots, garlic, coriander, and ginger. I figure I spend maybe ten dollars a week on vegetables, many of which end up in the compost. But some of them end up in me, and that is the goal of the exercise. I am paying ten dollars a week not for compost, but rather for the option on vegetables, the capacity to do something for my health every day that I would not have if I didn’t buy vegetables. And no, frozen won’t work—the holistic experience of peeling, slicing and cooking is part of the health benefit I am seeking.

Option preservation. This is something I first learned at business school, the concept that when choosing among alternatives, there is value in the one that keeps your options open, particularly when you have the ultimate alternative of compost. It’s a powerful guiding principle, particularly when dealing with people. Far too quick to draw lines between good and bad, we humans cope better when we create strategies that keep our options open. Do I dump the boyfriend? Write off the sibling or the friend who has been uncommunicative? Refuse to deal with the person who makes life difficult? Why? Aren’t we usually better off if we create an environment in which the annoying person has room to do the right thing, the creative thing, the loving thing? The observable fact that they don't often take it should not influence our willingness to create the right environment.

There are, of course, occasions when it is right and proper and even loving to make a clean break, but they are few in number. We tend to know them when we see them. For me, I find that when I think maybe I ought to make a clean break, I really need to redouble my efforts at bridge-building, even if bridge-building involves redefining the relationship in some fundamental way. Seeing the other person whole, speaking to the other person as an independent entity capable of making his or her own decision, and avoiding the trap of manipulating that person into doing what I want—all that practice often does redefine the relationship and makes room for shifting into new roles without the mutual flagellation that so often characterizes the ways we humans treat each other. I may not be able to see what the new options look like, but that should not prevent my pursuing new options in all faith that a better way will open up before me.

When I know--not think, but know--that it is time to make a break, then it is kindest to go ahead and do it, without second-guessing myself or pulling punches. But that’s only when I know, and that has happened only half a dozen times in my life, as compared to hundreds and hundreds of occasions of renewed bridge-building. More specifically, making a sharp break has only been necessary when the other person in the relationship has been unwilling to consider more than one option for dealing with me. If the game is defined from the other side as do-what-I-want-or-else, I will choose—with regret—to go for “or else.” This was the case when I left my husband twenty years ago, and also on the few occasions when I have needed to fire someone, and maybe a handful of other occasions. It appears that I don't take this step easily, and it may in fact be the challenge of this lifetime that I learn when it is time to let go.

There is a truism in dog training that in a group of dogs, the dog who barks is not necessarily the problem. If you look closely, you will find that there is another dog engaging in psychological warfare, egging on the hapless barker. The challenge for the trainer is to train the barking dog that he has the option to bark or not to bark, to enable him to ignore manipulative machinations and become a happy dog. Likewise, the goading dog needs to learn new ways to entertain himself and suppport his own self-esteem. It’s all about creating and preserving options, so that we can choose the right ones: there is always another way!

Monday, March 21, 2005

I Think I’ll Call Him Harvey

Most people buy their compost at the garden store or by the pickup-truck-load. I buy mine at the grocery store. I buy cauliflower and eggplant, kale and cabbage, apples and oranges and lemons. Then I put them in the refrigerator and wait. Sometimes I cook them, put them back in the refrigerator and wait. After the appropriate time has passed, I pull them out of the refrigerator and add them to my compost bucket, which during these winter months sits right in the kitchen. A full bucket prompts a trip up to the compost pile the far side of the garden, and these days I make that trip on snowshoes.

The dogs and I headed up to the compost pile yesterday—it is one of their favorite outings, but then what isn’t? that’s why you gotta love dogs—and found a flurry of tiny tracks around the coffee grounds emerging from the snow. Aha!

In these days of early spring, we have had a visitor, an unusual white skunk, or so it appears to be. Some authoritative sources opine that it is a skunk with such wide white stripes that it only appears to be white. Sometimes he likes the garage, sometimes the barn across the road, but the dogs are mightily offended that he thinks he can hang around here, and they are intent on teaching that intruding critter a lesson, so I am keeping them a little closer to home.

Having done a little research into what one does about visiting skunks, I have chosen to take refuge in fiction and hope. I don’t actually know that this is a boy skunk, but I choose to believe so. I would prefer to believe that it is a boy skunk on his early spring trip through the neighborhood looking for girls rather than a girl skunk about to settle in to have babies in the garage. I have no basis for this belief, but cling to it nevertheless.

People have a lot of theories, ranging from shooting the skunk in the head to trapping it then putting a blanket over the cage, but all of the theories fall apart around the general topic of skunk spray. None of these approaches seems really practical, and I don’t really (yet) have anything against old Harvey, named for his appearance as a harbinger of spring.

Friday, March 18, 2005

More old friends

So, did you miss me? I missed blogging, but my laptop was in need of a little loving care. Sadly, I’m not sure it has recovered from its display (heh, heh..) of temperament, manifested by flickering screen and a weird bluish overlay of random pixels. But at least I know where to take it now, and I have discovered that I actually can survive a weekend offline.

In one way, my survival technique displayed just another maladjustment in my wiring—I went in to work last Saturday and again on Sunday, something I have not done for a few years. The lingering effect of my hard drive crash in December is just now subsiding, and I am beginning to dig out of the giant hole into which I fell. I am making progress.

It is also a sign of progress that I don’t like working on weekends. I view this realization as an indicator of health. There were years and years during which I simply did not allow myself to question whether I liked to work weekends—it was a given. Had to be done. And I paid a price in deteriorating health, which is now slowly being restored by exposure to the glorious Vermont countryside, attention to the rhythm of seasons, and the company of beloved old dogs. Even work—in an appropriate measure—is part of the cure.

Having worked so much on the weekend, and having spent far too much time with the legislature in recent weeks (not that they aren’t lovely people and committed and all), I felt justified in hunting down an old friend for lunch on Wednesday. Hooray! Not only could he make it, he introduced me to Royal Orchid in Montpelier, a blessedly warm, wonderful, little place with delicious and inexpensive Thai food. I can imagine working my way down the menu with repeat visits, and I am likely to do just that when they open up a new location half a block from my office. I am very, very happy with this news.

I am even happier to have rediscovered a friend from over twenty years ago. As a young bride of twenty-three, I had left Georgia (the state, not Georgia, Vermont…as I have learned to say) to follow my husband to Boston. Barely I can remember how intimidated I was by this cold and busy northeastern city. I made my husband go with me on the “T” the first time, and when the train came in, I was sure I would be sucked in front of the train, dying in a sad, unrecognized and unintended imitation of Anna Karenina. I still sometimes feel very Anna Karenina in subways, but I am no longer intimidated by the biggest cities, not after twenty years in New York.

In Boston, with the best part of a masters in comparative literature completed, I was almost unemployable, but found work as a archivist. It is an obscure profession, so I will explain that this work is something like being a librarian, but with lots and lots of loose paper, with most items being unique. My boss was the first full-time archivist hired by the illustrious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and her charge was to develop programs to document the development of contemporary science and technology, with particular attention to MIT’s role.

Oh, what a great time we had! There were only a few of us, and as the baby of the group, I spent most of my time in the basement unwrapping brown paper packages—the relicts of a previous part-time archivist who had collected rooms (rooms!) of material that was uncataloged and unidentified. It was like Christmas every day.

We had a tiny collection of letters from three generations of geologists, including one who wrote back from Sherman’s march through Georgia (the state) about interesting rock formations along the way. We had the obligatory papers of the founder, William Barton Rogers about whom I no longer remember anything other than bits of doggerel. One day I found an Isaac Newton holograph. We had papers of cancer researcher David Baltimore and physicist Victor Weiskopf and strobe photographer Harold Edgerton and of an all-women’s architecture firm from the turn of the last century. And to put it all in some kind of historical perspective, we had the imposing historian, Gregory Sanford.

Yes, that Gregory Sanford. The one who is now the Vermont State Archivist. He was already imposing, as anyone who has met Gregory can imagine. He is very tall, even when he tries to compensate with self-effacing demeanor. And when he braided his mustache into that enormous coal black beard, then to me as a young woman of twenty-three, fresh from Georgia…it was terrifying. Or would have been if Gregory had not been so obviously and completely a sweetheart.

Gregory was working on grant funding to do an oral history project with some of the outstanding scientists and thinkers at MIT. His own passion was for his work with George Aiken, and nobody was surprised when the grant ran out and he returned to Vermont. “Have to,” he said, never using too many words. “God’s country, doncha know.” Years later when I thought of moving to Vermont, Gregory’s comment—one of those gruff, off-hand comments that mask deep feeling—went into the mix.

We heard later that he had become State Archivist and everyone agreed what a wonderful thing, that Gregory who loves Vermont so dearly should be the person officially charged with preserving state activities and functions in paper and in bits and bytes. It’s the perfect job for Gregory, and he is the perfect man for the job. I’ll tell you that my stock went up mightily when I mentioned to friends that I was having lunch with the State Archivist (capital letters required). One friend’s eyes got big, as she gasped, “He’s wicked interesting!” and another requested a real Vermont story, just for her.

But for me, the joy of Wednesday’s lunch was neither Thai food nor consorting with a Vermont icon. It was the deep pleasure of seeing an old friend again, a friend who is very much the same as he was over twenty years ago. Gregory is still tall (6’6” although he always seems taller to a short person like me), but the beard is white now, and not quite so intimidating. The habit of running his hands through his beard while he talks is the same, and the eyes are the same. The energy of a man who loves his life and his work are exactly the same.

In many ways we don’t know each other at all. Gregory is now a family man, with long established relationship and teenage daughters, about whom he is clearly besotted. I no longer have the husband I had twenty years ago. Gregory has spent most of his years in Vermont and in love with Vermont. I have lived and worked a lot of places, and my twenty years in love with New York City are clearly a complete mystery to Gregory. But I still see the shy, oversize man who noticed when he intimidated the 23-year old me, and was kind. Maybe we each conquered our shyness—to the extent we have—in radically different ways, Gregory by embracing the home that he loved, and me by embracing change. Whatever the rational backdrop, I still see a friend. And what a gift that is!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Exuberants Anonymous

Ever since I finished Kay Redmond Jamison’s new book, Exuberance: The Passion for Life, I have been googling around in the expectation that at any minute affinity groups will spring up on the net. Can’t you just imagine the array?

XA: Exuberants Anonymous, in which participants learn to accept that we are exuberant personalities, that we aren’t always as organized as others might wish, and that we have a tendency to bounce in other people’s parts of the Forest. We might go through the exercise of visiting people on whom we have bounced and asking their forgiveness.

X-Anon, for people who love (most of the time) exuberants, but would like to teach them some basic manners without crushing their spirits or would like to figure out how to get a little help loading the dishwasher, preferably the same way every day.

X-a-Teen, for early-identified exuberants, to address the special needs of teenagers who are more teenager than most, perhaps preventing those early painful losses of friendship that can recur through life.

ACX: Adult Children of Exuberants, who can get together to vent about how distressing that Mom is still irrepressible, that Dad won’t stay home, and that when either of them comes to visit, locking the study door for a couple of hours a day is the only option that really works.

I don’t mean it to sound silly, least of all because I do greatly appreciate the work accomplished by various twelve-step groups. But it is kinda silly from a few points of view.

First, exuberance is a character trait as well as a set of behaviors. It is largely innate, although some thoughtful exuberants think there is an element of nurture as well. Although we may be clumsy and unwittingly intrude on others parts of the Forest, our character is not an illness like alcoholism or a pathological behavior. The negative effects of abuse of alcohol or many different drugs are well recognized and dwarf the impacts of the most outrageously bad over-exuberant behavior.

Second…anonymous? Yeah, right.

Third, there are many, many affinity groups on the net for us exuberants. We can read about gardening and about the slow food movement. We can get directions on how to reupholster a chair…then proceed to do it over the next fourteen hours. Those of us who are isolated geographically can find the most cosmopolitan and interesting friends, while luxuriating in the beauty of the Vermont countryside.

Finally, and most important, while we may need to learn to be more polite or more organized or even how to stand up for ourselves—we don’t need comfort for being made as we are. We are what we are…and it is glorious. I certainly don’t think I have been deprived of the melancholy end of the mood spectrum, leaving me with plenty of common experience with other humans. Occasionally, I have wished that life were more….even. Still, resilience of mood has carried me out of many a low period and eased many a touchy social situation. I, for one, would not want to be any different.

Sunday, March 06, 2005


On this beautiful Vermont Sunday morning, I am finishing up Kay Redmond Jamison’s Exuberance: The Passion for Life, a wonderful book chock-a-block with insight and love. Moody creature that I am, I have long held Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind as one of the very few books I must own. Ironically, I have given away many copies, but I don’t think I currently have one in the house.

Where that book was a declaration of the problem, sometimes raw confessional and sometimes hesitating hypothesis, this new Exuberance is the mature work of a gifted mind and a generous spirit. It makes me happy to count myself among the exuberant and it inspires me to apply that gift honorably and compassionately in the daily challenges of my own life.

I haven’t yet reached the end of Jamison’s book but already I have one big payoff. Those of us who are exuberant, who love life…we are different from others. The benefits of being made this way are many, and if we had a choice to make, we might choose to be exactly as we are. But there are undeniable shadows: the tendency to depression, the threat that we may merely skitter from one dilettantism to the next, and—perhaps most painful, the social judgments and penalties we suffer, even from those who claim to cherish us.

Early in the book, Jamison caught my attention by harking back to the efforts of Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit to take Tigger down a notch.

"[T]he other animals, who are more usually overshadowed by the ebullient Tigger…gather power from the need to reestablish order and to exert moral authority. The ballasting animals act out of concern, outrage and often a trace of envy as well. When necessary, they band together to take the erring animal in hand.”

“Rabbit, for one, in the wake of suspicions that Tigger has bounced Eeyore into the river, determines that Tigger is ‘too bouncy.’ He goes further: ‘It’s time we taught him a lesson.’ The problem with Tigger is that ‘there’s too much of him, that’s what it comes to.’ Eeyore, the aggrieved, is indeed offended: ‘Taking people by surprise. Very unpleasant habit. I don’t mind Tigger being in the Forest,’ he says, ‘because it’s a large Forest, and there’s plenty of room to bounce in it. But I don’t see why he should come into my little corner of it, and bounce there…”

“Rabbit concocts a plan for Piglet, Pooh, and Rabbit to take Tigger to a place he has never been before, to lose him, and then find him again the next morning. He will be, Rabbit assures Piglet and Pooh, ‘a different Tigger altogether…he’ll be a Humble Tigger…a Sad Tigger, a Melancholy Tigger, a Small and Sorry Tigger, an Oh-Rabbit-I-am-glad-to-see-you Tigger.’ Tigger will be deflated, unbounced, newly appreciative, and cut down to size: ‘If we can make Tigger feel Small and Sad for five minutes,’ explains Rabbit, ‘we shall have done a good deed.”

“Far from losing Tigger in the Forest, of course, Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit themselves become hopelessly lost in the mist. Tigger effortlessly finds his way out. Pooh and Piglet, after much aimless and anxious wandering about, eventually make their way to the clearing, but Rabbit remains stranded, unable to navigate back to safety. The maligned and still very much bounced Tigger bounces to Rabbit’s rescue, and into a different perspective: ‘Tigger was tearing around the Forest making loud yapping noises for Rabbit. And at last a very Small and Sorry Rabbit heard him. And the Small and Sorry Rabbit rushed through the mist at the noise, and it suddenly turned into Tigger; a friendly Tigger, a Grand Tigger, a Large and Helpful Tigger, a Tigger who bounced, if he bounced at all, in just the beautiful way a Tigger ought to bounce. “Oh, Tigger, I am glad to see you,” cried Rabbit.’” (Exuberance, pp. 74-75)

Known in the intimacy of my family circle by the nickname Pooh-bear, I was never properly recognized as more of a Tigger, but I have suffered Tigger’s fate repeatedly over the years until at last I learned the central lesson that all Tiggers must learn—to cherish my own bounce. Suppose the other animals had succeeded in de-bouncing Tigger. What is a Tigger without a bounce? Certainly no longer a Tigger. How unkind!

Now when someone tries to “take me down a notch,” I try to respond with patience and politeness. Where originates the impulse to rein in my behavior? Have I stepped on toes? Have I been insensitive? Is it time to take a breath and recognize that my own enthusiasms are not the only good ideas in the world? Compassion is a daily practice, not a character trait.

Accepting this shadow side of my character is productive, but allowing even the best-intentioned friends, lovers and colleagues to “take me down a notch” is not. In this central power struggle, I have racked up heavy losses, not willfully as so many perceive, but because I know one fundamental truth: that I cannot be different from how I was made.

Already crowding into my brain, I hear the attacks. Remember? I have heard them all my fifty years. “You can be different if you want to. If you loved me you would be different.”

Yes, I can try to be more organized, although given my phalanx of to-do lists and computer-aided productivity tools, I am already pushing the limits of carving time into tiny, purposeful bites. These tools serve one important purpose: to help me remember to do what I have said I would do.

Yes, I can devise tricks and schemes to keep my ebullience in check, to keep from bouncing all over other peoples’ parts of the Forest. This is the reason that I bring knitting to meetings—how it works, I cannot explain, but it does keep me quiet. Thank heaven for Vermont, where knitting in meetings is tolerated, if not exactly welcomed.

Yes, I can try to be sensitive to others’ needs. I can carve out time and intention to ask what others need or want. Still, I don’t think it is really fair to require that I read minds or take on managing the happiness of other people. My ex-husband used to play a particularly nasty game called Guess-what-will-make-me-happy-no-that’s-not-it. Attempts to elicit some inkling of what would make him happy were met by stony silence and another game called If-you-persist-in-being-yourself-I-will-declare-you-BAD. Maybe it’s true that he couldn’t do any better, but neither could I. In the end there was nothing I could do but leave, and it still breaks my heart.

The same story has played again and again with family, friends and lovers. I’m very bad at leaving, but the major lesson of my first fifty years of life has been learning to say goodbye, learning to say, “I do love you, but if you can’t accept me for who I am, then I will have to accept…finally…that I can’t be around you.” I can only hope and pray that I may get a different cosmic assignment sometime soon.

For all the changes I can make, all the changes I have made with respect to how I operate in the world, I cannot change my central character as a person of exuberance. The times I have allowed someone dear to me to convince me to try…have taken me down a road to disaster. Now I see any such attempt to change me as arrogant, flinging back into the face of God the gift of who I am. Now I see that I have limitations on what I can do with these very particular, very specific gifts. Bound by the laws of time and space, also by the looser bonds of probability and of human frailty, I need to choose carefully where I invest my talents. I pick my battles more consciously now, and I recognize that the decision rules have less to do with optimization and more to do with heuristics. Having moved past the stage of defining what my values ought to be, and even past the stage where I feel obliged to impose my value on others, I am now in a stage where what counts is the daily practice of applying my values to my own life.

So what’s today’s big challenge? On this Sunday morning, like most mornings, it is taking the time to center myself, to thank my Creator for making me just the way I am, and to think through what adjustments I may need to make in my own outlook and behavior in order to find the most loving solutions in the world. Let’s start with gratitude to Kay Redmond Jamison for sharing her life (how personal a gift!) and her work. She encourages me to treasure the gifts that I have and to invest some few precious hours in thinking, writing and play.

I have a friend who is fond of saying that there are two ways of dealing with people in the world—you can build them up or tear them down—and he chooses to build people up, speaking to their best selves and drawing out their highest impulses. I think he is absolutely right, but it is the way of the world to want to tamp down exuberance. We exuberant ones are the cheerleaders, but who will cheer us on? Bouncy creatures that we are, even Tiggers need to be built up from time to time.

Thank you, Dr. Jamison, for daring to publish a book as edgy and unfinished as An Unquiet Mind. Thank you for coming back to us with your later, mature thoughts on how to live with Exuberance. You cannot imagine how you have touched my life, how you have inspired me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Living large

Kay Redmond Jamison’s new book Exuberance has to strike a chord with anyone who…well almost anyone. The childlike love of the whole wide world blessedly comes to most of us, if not all, and for some of us, it persists throughout out life. I count my blessings every day that I am a person of enthusiasms. As much as my moods can irritate more even-tempered friends and colleagues from time to time, mostly they appreciate my up moods, particularly in contrast to the times my anxieties betray a need to crawl back into my introvert’s shell for renewal.

Some days it seems that being upbeat is a social burden. People like to be around me when I am bubbly and fun and outgoing and extroverted…and not really entirely myself. Or rather it is myself, but it is the version that I choose to show to the world. In astrological terms, it would be the ascendant (Sagittarius) or mask that I must learn to wear as an interface to the outside world. With a sun sign in confident Leo and three or four planets in soupy, sensitive Cancer, I desperately need some kind of mask to interpose between my stormy self and the outside world.

Astrology or psychology or myth, like most people I try on stories (adult child of an alcoholic? Sagittarius rising? smart aleck kid? just plain bad? child of God?) that explain who I am and what I am in the great big world out there. Kay Redmond Jamison’s book is a compelling version: I am a person of exuberance.

I recall the exact moment some twenty years ago or more when I became aware that I simply must leap from passion to passion. A brainy child, I was horrified by this insight into my character. It was as if I inhabited someone else’s life. But I remember the moment, complete with where I was standing in a hallway in my white-painted, parquet floored Brooklyn apartment, the very moment when I accepted that my intellect was not the driver of my life, even if I could count on it as a governor of my wildest urges. And I have been happier since I accepted this truth about myself.

It explains a lot. Like how a kid from a tiny town in North Georgia found herself working on Wall Street. Funny, when I graduated from college, my greatest aspiration was to be competent at something, anything. Now I don’t think it is immodest to claim that I am extremely competent on a number of fronts, not that I don’t fail from time to time, not that I am perfect. But the lessons I learned on Wall Street built on the insight of exuberance as driver: live large, think big, …because what you can imagine, you can build. You start with a plan, a strategy, a concept and you keep putting pieces in place until it is time to change the plan, the strategy, the concept.

An important piece of the puzzle is the b-school concept of option preservation. I have an idea of how things can be, and I know what some of the pieces are, so I work on those. Sometimes I don’t really completely understand how all the pieces fit together, but I recognize that certain pieces keep the dream alive, so I work on those. Thus does faith work in support of passion, even in the absence of intellect.

Another important piece is learning to scope a problem on a large enough scale. As an analyst, I followed basic industries including paper, steel, chemicals, commodities, and I learned how to approach high fixed costs. Old-fashioned industries require major leaps of faith just to make investments to stay even on the competitive front. Hundreds of millions of dollars, recouped pennies at a time. I think of the new air-laid non-woven paper machine that went into one client’s factory and of the product manager’s prediction that over the coming years we would see numerous new products using this technology. And so it has come to pass: Clorox wipes, furniture polish wipes, wipes for nail polish remover, wipes that carry shoe polish, LED screen cleaner wipes, antibiotic wipes…and now the newest Preparation H wipes.

It is truly a big, wide, wonderful world with millions of tiny steps to pay for multi-million dollar machines. It all starts with a concept, a strategy and with exuberant embracing of the dream. It continues with hard work to keep options open, fed every day by more exuberant enthusiasms and passions. This is the stuff that life is made of, at least my life. How about yours?

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Town Meeting Day

Yesterday was my second Town Meeting Day in Vermont, and it passed companionably and uneventfully. I attended two Town Meetings yesterday—the Town where I live and the largest Town in the county—and spent my time as others did, chatting, laughing, and comparing knitting. I am pleased that I learned just yesterday how to do double knitting and how to make mittens with thumbs.

The experience was different from last year’s introduction. Last year, I just soaked up the atmosphere of this amazing tradition, a pure democratic process in which everything that needs the stamp of voter approval is put forth, discussed, and voted by the people who attend. I was impressed by the skills of moderators, the broad acceptance and observation of Robert’s Rules of Order, and the overwhelming courtesy of all participants, even those who got excited about their particular concerns. This year, I was able to sit back and observe more clearly that in Town Meeting, like any other effectively managed meeting, most of the hard work and decisions have already been structured for the voters, making the meeting itself almost a formality. Almost.

Since the tiny non-profit I represent receives funding appropriations from nine area towns, I go to Town Meeting in the mostly unrealistic fear that my organization’s funding may be questioned, or worse, that my neighbors may start pelting me with rotten vegetables that they have been hoarding just for this occasion. Truly, Vermonters are more polite and reserved than that, but you never really know what public outburst of some private disappointment may surface unexpectedly. Over the coming weeks, I will hear if appropriations in the other seven towns survived, but for now, like my neighbors, I can turn my attention to starting seeds and looking to spring. Town Meeting Day is the traditional day to start seeds indoors.

I have also come to see Town Meeting Day as useful allegory for decision-making. In my ongoing struggle to establish boundaries for myself or for other people who seem heck-bent on intruding on mine, Town Meeting Day provides a happy model. To the person who has strong opinions about how I run my personal life, I say, “That’s very interesting. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but since you are not a resident of the Town of Karen, you do not have a vote.” The sputtered, “But-but-but…you can’t do that!” is countered with a calm, “Thank you for your input.”

It also works as I try to change how I make my own decisions. You see, lots of people have input into the decisions that are made at Town Meeting, but the final decisions are made only by the people who show up. There were many years in my life during which the Kid and the Grown-up struggled over decisions. The Kid would whine, “But I want to play more,” while the Grown-up overruled with, “First, we pay the bills.” The Kid would then compromise by getting the Grown-up to agree to have ice cream for dinner. It was the Kid who got the Grown-up to agree to have a house and a dog. It was the Grown-up who exulted in the delight of intellectual stimulation of work and tamped down looming health issues. The Body’s requirements, whether for rest or exercise or relief of stress, were simply ignored. Now that the Body shows up for Town Meeting, the overall decisions are better. Proposals to have ice cream for dinner are roundly voted down by both the Grown-up and the Body, but the Body and the Kid gang up on the Grown-up (who can be an old grouch) and get more physical activity into the mix. We are all happier in this new system. We are all happier in Vermont.