The Paradox of Being Present

Amnesia leads to despair in many ways. The status quo would like you to believe it is immutable, inevitable, and invulnerable, and lack of memory of a dynamically changing world reinforces this view. In other words, when you don’t know how much things have changed, you don’t see that they are changing or that they can change.

–Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

I’ve been feeling spiritually gutted. Cynical. Pessimistic. And gratitude journals aren’t hacking it.

Yes, I’m grateful for my cup of coffee, I’m grateful I don’t live in a warzone. I’m grateful my husband is a feminist. I’m grateful that my kids are healthy.

But I want more. I feel restless and unsatisfied. Bleak. I read my morning newsletters and think, “We are a civilization in decline.” 

Black Friday. Cyber Monday. Trump’s delusional and inane Twitter rants. Russian hackers influencing the election. The plight of millions of displaced people. Polar ice caps melting. North Korean missile tests. 

Summoning the energy and space to feel as though I can be part of something meaningful, take pride in my work, follow a creative idea to wherever it may take me feels impossible. I am crashing two rocks together hoping that something will happen. My flint will not spark.

Buddhists remind us to be remain in the present, but the present pains me.

The immediacy of the news keeps our minds chained to the present, so that we are constantly paying attention, constantly outraged, always reacting to the latest bit of bad news. We’re taught to be engaged and to pay attention, but if we’re in a perpetual state of apoplexy, how can we possibly believe or consider what change is possible?

Then I happened upon the blog post, 10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings, by the excellent Maria Popova. All 10 learnings are worthy of exploration, but the 10th one spoke to despair I felt.

She writes, “Don’t just resist cynicism — fight it actively…Like all forms of destruction, cynicism is infinitely easier and lazier than construction.”

Cynicism is corrosive. And I realized that the compulsion of now—the latest tweets, Facebook posts, and news headlines—keep me manacled to cynicism. I cannot catch my breath without another wave of bad news crashing on my head.

So, time to get out of the ocean. A related post connected me to Erich Fromm’s concept of rational optimism.

To have faith means to dare, to think the unthinkable, yet to act within the limits of the realistically possible; it is the paradoxical hope to expect the Messiah every day, yet not to lose heart when he has not come at the appointed hour. This hope is not passive and it is not patient; on the contrary, it is impatient and active, looking for every possibility of action within the realm of real possibilities.

Reading these interrelated pieces helped me move beyond my passivity and inertia. A reader, a dedicated seeker of meaning and value, Popova and her writing move me beyond my templated life and self wallowing, not with treacle and blessings, but with rational optimism. Her blog reminds me some of the greatest minds believe that we face that pervading darkness. That there is space for possibility in between what is and what may be.

Local 1330

Daily Prompt: Photographers, artists, poets: show us LOCAL.

Author’s note:  This is a scene just outside my office’s garage door. Hence “local.”

A folded cot, a neat stack of  blue black blankets
Arranged just so and tucked into a brick vestibule
Overlooking the alley. With Dumpster views and a
Patchwork asphalt carpet, this modest efficiency screams
"Bargain!" but not what the resident bargained for.
His roll-away stands at attention in this dim limbo,
I'm sure, he never imagined.

Reconsidering Meat

Eating Animals bookcoverI’m struggling. Last night I finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which isn’t so much a treatise against eating meat, as it is a thoughtful exploration of why we still tear into that bacon double cheeseburger despite knowing

  • There is now a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming—outstripping even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases;
  • Factory farming’s industrial slaughterhouses have created worker conditions that Human Rights Watch describes as “systematic human rights abuses“;
  • Farm animals are genetic mutants. Broiler chickens, for example, are so heavy that their bones cannot support their weight, making it difficult for them to stand. The birds reach their market weight of 3 1/2 pounds in seven weeks.
  • A typical hog factory farm produces 7.2 million tons of untreated manure annually;
  • Overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of
    drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various
    life-threatening diseases in humans. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, between 5 and 10 percent of all hospital patients develop an infection, leading to an increase of about $5 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs.

For some, those facts alone are compelling enough to make them put down that drumstick. But for many of us, myself included, giving up meat is hard because meat represents more than a craving or basic sustenance. As a Shelf Awareness review of Eating Animals noted, “giving up meat is difficult because of the stories we build around the food we eat and the culture and tradition built through these stories.”

I’m thinking of my Aunt Kathy’s meatballs. As a child, I was a picky eater and a majority of what my aunt served me at family get togethers would remain on the plate. Squid salad. Yuck. Dark turkey meat with gravy? No way. Spinach? Are you kidding?! But when she served spaghetti and meatballs, my stomach growled and I ate every bite.

“I dream about your meatballs, Aunt Kathy,” I told her.

“You hear that, Joe Pace?” my aunt turned her husband and squawked. “She dreams about my meatballs!”

What if I went to see my aunt in Arizona and she placed a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of me? Suddenly, I’m not just refusing meat: I’m refusing to be a part of an integral story from my childhood. I’m refusing the joy we shared over the one thing I would eat.

Perhaps that disappointment would be fleeting; however, I imagine that being a vegetarian forces you to confront the stories you tell about yourself. I consider myself a compassionate, thoughtful person, but can I still be that person and eat meat, knowing what I know?

For now, I’ve resolved to drastically cut back on my meat consumption and to eat more conscientiously. That means seeking out farmer’s markets and local producers. It’s a small step, but perhaps it will lead to another. And another.

What I Learned From My Father’s Death

The Kids Are All Right book coverI can still remember getting the call from the hospital about my father, who was being treated for terminal liver duct cancer. The voice on the other side said the words “ICU,” “unconscious,” and then asked the question, “Do you know what his wishes are?”

From the other room, I could hear my six-week old daughter cooing. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. How was I supposed to decide whether my father should live or die?

I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is wishing like hell that I wasn’t in this position. Because my mother is mentally ill and unable to competently make decisions, and because I have no brothers or sisters, the decision to continue life support or to opt for palliative care was mine alone. My father had left no living will or health care proxy explicitly outlining his wishes in the event he became incapacitated or who was authorized to make those decisions.

Even if he did regain consciousness, he wouldn’t have long to live. The cancer had spread to his surrounding organs and was inoperable. A pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, in his lung left him gasping for air. I decided to take him off the ventilator and withdraw his feeding tube. He was given a morphine drip to control whatever pain he might feel.

My father died a few days later, never having regained consciousness, and I was left to figure out what do next. We need a will, I thought. He had mentioned one a few weeks ago, so I drove to my childhood home and began digging through his file cabinet. After about 10 minutes, I discovered a legal-sized envelope from a law firm. This must be it. But when I opened the flap and pulled the papers out, my heart sank. It was a draft of a will. He had not signed it.

When someone dies without a will, it’s known as dying intestate. Basically, it is up to the state to decide how the property and assets will be distributed to the beneficiaries. This is known as the probate process. It takes a long time and the court costs are paid by the estate, which means less money for the beneficiaries. In this case, me and my mother.

These memories came flooding back to me while I was reading Diana and Liz Welch’s The Kids Are All Right. Told in alternating voices of the siblings, the memoir recounts the story of four kids who, within the course of a few years, lose their father in a car crash and their mother to cancer. After their father’s death, the family is hounded by bankruptcy lawyers intent on collecting on the hefty debt the father left behind. Later, after the mother succumbs to cancer, the kids learn that she never specified in her will who they would live with after her death. As a result, the kids are dispersed to different family friends, and their lives take heart-wrenching turns before they are able, in early adulthood, to come together again.

Why hadn’t Mom specified what would happen to us after she died? the Welch kids wondered. The answer: she believed to the end that she could beat this thing.

I can’t help asking a similar question of my father.  How could he leave me with such a mess? Without a will I had no access to any money. I borrowed money from my father-in-law to cover my Dad’s funeral expenses (the kids in the memoir had to rely on an uncle to pay for their mother’s burial costs at the cemetery), and I paid for my mother’s COBRA health insurance with my savings.

Eventually, I hired a lawyer, went to probate court, and got appointed as Administrator so that I could start paying the bills. But it didn’t have to be like this. The mother in “The Kids Are All Right” at least had the presence of mind to create a trust fund for her children, ensuring that their education was taken care of.

My husband and I decided never to let our daughter go through what the Welch siblings and I endured. Several months after my father’s death, we went to a lawyer and had health care proxies, living wills, and wills drawn up designating an Administrator for the estate and Guardian for our little girl.

My daughter is an only child, so she won’t have siblings to rely on, but at least if anything should happen to me and my husband, she’ll know that we cared enough to spare her the crushing paperwork and anguish that accompanies an unexpected and unplanned death.

This post is inspired by the book, “The Kids are All Right” by Diana and Liz Welch, with Amanda and Dan Welch. I received a complimentary copy of “The Kids Are All Right” as a member of the Left to Write Book Club. All comments and opinions of the book are my own, and I did not receive any compensation, monetary, or otherwise, for this post.*

Magical Thinking: It’s Not Just for Preschoolers

Let’s face it: there are a lot of expectations that you have of yourself, your partner, and your kids that are completely divorced from reality, and instead fall into the “wouldn’t it be nice category?” Reading Kristin van Ogtrop’s Just Let Me Lie Down, reminded me that we’re all vulnerable to magical thinking, and that we may as well have a good laugh at ourselves. After all, do you really think that…

  • If you set your alarm clock for 5:37 a.m., you will get up, exercise, and eventually lose those last 10 pounds.
  • If your husband wakes you up in the middle of the night or early in the morning wanting sex, you’ll definitely be in the mood.
  • If you take a day off, you will not run errands, do laundry, or check your work email.
  • If you bring your preschooler to a restaurant, she will let you chat with your husband or friends and amuse herself throughout the meal by coloring eating her $8 chicken tenders.
  • If you haven’t showered in over three days, people will think your hair looks glossy because of some expensive shine serum.
  • If you run low on vital supplies like toilet paper and toothpaste, your husband will notice and go to Target for more.
  • If you make macaroni and cheese from scratch, your kid will think it is so much better than Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
  • If you slap on enough concealer, no one will notice the luggage under your eyes.

Heh. Me neither.