Tuesday, December 31, 2013
Happy New Year!
When Ann and I visited Little Brother Matt (LBM) and his family after Christmas, my sister-in-law Kristin chose the film Happy for us to watch. The whole family watched with us: LBM and Kristin, Hayden, Lucie and Gretchen, the dogs Dixie and Maisie and the visiting Burmese Mountain Dog JoJo. She and LBM had seen it before, and she thought we would like it because she saw similarities between the film and the book of interviews that I’m writing. She was right. We loved Happy. I think we all did: especially the dogs. (It seems that they understand happy like humans cannot, though they don't need a film to explain it to them. What fools we mortals be!)
Two profiles in the film stand out to me: one is of a woman, maybe a little bit younger than I am, who had been a beauty queen before she fell and was run over by a truck. She survived the accident with scars and a crossed eye (much like mine, one eye looks towards her nose while the other looks forward.) She says that the irony of her situation is that she’s happier now than she has ever been. I often feel that way, too. My brain tumors were not tragic: from them I have learned to live my life more slowly and intentionally with a persistent gratitude. It's not such a giddy happiness for me. Perhaps it's a deeper happiness.
In the other profile, a man who lives in India’s slums talks about the joy in his life. His story introduces the film’s concept of flow, which seems to mean living in harmony with life. This story echoes the exploration of Lao Tzu that I am reading, in which Osho, who speaks as Lao Tzu, argues that happiness comes by living in balance: not too poor and not too rich. (As Osho/Lao Tzu says, “Remain balanced. Too much poverty is bad. Too much richness is bad—too much is bad. In fact, for Lao Tzu too much is the only sin. Don’t do too much. Don’t overdo. Then life is a flow. And life is moral.”)
Max Erhmann implies that being cheerful and being happy are different at the close of his poem "Desiderata" when he says, "Be cheerful. Strive to be happy." This line has caught my attention since I first read it in high school. I can be cheerful, mostly. I know cheerful. It is external: a smile and a laugh. Can I be happy, I wondered? And what is happiness anyway?
Sometimes the concept of happiness seems to me a bit fluffy: a smiley face with a heart as the dot over the "i". Jejune (a good word meaning naive and simplistic in case it's new to you or you haven't seen it in a while, as I hadn't when I ran across it in the book Little Brother Matt's minister wrote: Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul).
As a teenager, it seemed to me that happiness was part of "The American Dream" as defined in the excesses of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Even when I was a teenager, however, this dream was not my dream and perhaps this happiness was not for me. I'd go deeper for the melancholy of so many poets I loved.
Don't worry: I'm not going to spoil your happy new year and make it all melancholy. So stick with me.
I've been reading Losing Your Faith, Finding Your Soul by Little Brother Matt's minister David Anderson, and the book has me thinking about this New Year differently than I have thought of others. The book's central argument (so far--I'm about halfway through) is that for our adult faith to be born our childhood faith must first die. And in this death there is grief and loss.
Previously, New Year's has been for me primarily a time of looking forward: wash my hands of the old year and set my goals for the new one. No looking back. No loss. No grief. No death. After all, look at the pillar of salt that Lot's wife turned into when she looked back. And when Orpheus tried to retrieve Eurydice from Hades, he looked back against orders, and she faded back into her afterlife. The message is clear: Don't look back.
This year, however, I'm thinking that I need to look back, notice what I'm losing as I embrace a new time. As you may know, this has been a difficult fall for me, a fall of grief and loss that has sometimes overwhelmed me, so it may seem odd for me to choose to look back, but this pain has become a part of me, so I'll look back to its birth and I suspect that in time—maybe already—I’ll embrace it as I've embraced so many hard things in my life. (Not that I want to relive them. Those times? Most notably coming out and living through my brain tumors: painful times where I sensed that I was drowning, losing myself, times that I would not trade and hope not to do again.)
In this time of looking back AND looking forward, I think of the Roman god Janus, the god for whom January is named. He's the guy you see in statues with two faces, a beard on each face, looking in opposite directions: presumably with one face looking into the past and the other into the future. Earlier images of the god have one face bearded and the other face without a beard, which Micha F. Lindemans on Encyclopedia Mythica says were symbols of the sun and moon, but I think of them as a young face looking back at youth and an older face looking ahead to adulthood. To me the image symbolizes the moment in moving from childhood to adulthood. (A couple of centuries later, Janus had four faces, but that's too much for me to fathom right now.)
To me, the image is about the present, that unseen time between the past and future. (My History professor, Morna, closed our fall class saying, "The present is not real. It is too ephemeral. Only the past and the future are real." I thought I was speaking in my mind and then realized I had spoken aloud when I said, "Or the opposite." I still have to ask her about that. My Death and Dying professor, Bonnie, closed with, "The past and future are not real. Only the present is real." Yes. This is what I believe. But what does this contradiction call me to consider?…)
I first learned about the present, the concept of being fully in a moment, what Happy and Osho would call flow, from Annie Dillard in her chapter "The Present" in her memoir An American Childhood. In this chapter, she's sitting on a hillside looking out over the mountains, patting her puppy while the man at the service station checks her oil. She is completely in the moment until she recognizes that she is in the moment. Then consciousness returns, and its good friend analysis, and she's lost her moment. But she was there.
At times, I too have been lost in a moment. Or maybe the phrase should be "found" in a moment, as at those times I'm found by some great spirit that connects me with the universe…or maybe is the universe. Perhaps you've had those moments, too: moments of such joy that make me question why I'm so distraught by the idea of losing myself to death or illness.
Yoga has been my greatest teacher of living in the moment. I stretch and breathe deeply and just am. (I have begun meditation, but my mind is really all over the place right now, so I don't think I have it down.)
Poetry, too, teaches me to be in the moment. The lovely Mary Oliver carries me with her. Ann is reading one poem a night now from Oliver's Why I Wake Early (something Oliver and I don't have in common--I could write a book called, Why I Wake Late). Last night, we loved "This World," ("So fancy is the world, who knows, maybe the stars sing too…"). The night before Ann read "Look and See" which closed, "Oh Lord, how shining and festive is your gift to us, if we / only look and see."
The poem, of course, reminded me of Denise Levertov's poem "O Taste and See", which my student Shannon introduced me to 26 years ago (I still thank her for that.):
The world is not with us enough O taste and see
the subway Bible poster said,
meaning The Lord, meaning if anything all that lives to the imagination’s tongue,
grief, mercy, language, tangerine, weather, to breathe them, bite, savor, chew, swallow, transform
into our flesh our deaths, crossing the street, plum, quince, living in the orchard and being
hungry, and plucking the fruit
The poetry and the yoga stream go on of course, but they all mean--to borrow from another soulmate, Walt Whitman--
...there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
So how do I stay in the moment in this time of transition, this day that turns into a new year, this year that will mark me at half a century, the passing year that touched me with my own death? How do I stay?
I have been thinking that my writing helps me stay with this time of change and keeps me anchored in the moment, but Osho/Lao Tzu says no: "It is not by saying things you communicate--no. It is by saying things that you unburden yourself. In fact, through words communication is not possible; just the opposite is possible--you can avoid communication. You can talk and you can create a screen of words around you so that your real situation cannot be known by others. You clothe yourself with words." I suspect that Osho/Lao Tzu would say that just as through my words my real situation cannot be known by others, it cannot be known to myself. I suspect he would call me to silence.
That's a bummer. Here I am trying to figure myself out, trying to connect with you, and maybe I'm just cloaking myself in words, words, words (to quote Hamlet, another one of many words.) And words are the tools my mind uses to try to figure things out. But Osho/Lao Tzu tells me to stop trying to figure things out with my mind. I suppose he and the poets and the yoginis and the meditators would say to just be.
But how do I just be, especially in this day that symbolizes the passage of time, the change from the old to the new? If I keep talking about it on this page, will I figure it out? If I follow the poets and the yoginis, will I taste and see and forget all of this analysis, this pondering? Will I just be in the present, whether or not it exists?
Or should I just chill. Maybe that's what Osho/Lao Tzu would say: Just chill and then you'll have a happy new year. You don't have to think about it so much. Thinking is like a dam in the river of flow.
So to you: Chill. Flow. And Happy New Year.