It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

No Regrets

Earlier this week, I read The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, a book I’d heard about on a podcast and that fit perfectly into a course I often teach, Human Growth and Development. By an interesting and circuitous path, Bronnie Ware, the author, left her successful banking career and became a “carer” of the dying. A genuinely compassionate person, Ms. Ware grew to care for all of her patients, and as they felt her affection and concern, they opened up to her and shared their life stories, complete with regrets.

As she listened to her patients, the author began to perceive the repeated recurrence of the same five regrets. This realization affected Ms. Ware so much that she decided to write a book of her findings. Not only does she tell of the patients themselves, their personalities and former lives, but she also applies their teachings to her own life. Being with them gave her courage to be true to herself.

The dying helped her live more fully.

While the five regrets might sound like psychobabble to some people, there’s actually quite a bit of overlap between Ware’s findings and those of developmental psychologists. In the order they’re listed in the book, the regrets are:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish I had let myself be happier.

Interestingly, earlier this week when I mentioned the first regret on Facebook, a friend commented that he wished he hadn’t worked so hard and that he’d stayed in touch with his friends. Reading his comment prompted me to contact a dear friend, and she and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch and long overdue lunch. It was awesome. No regrets.

From teaching Human Growth and Development, I learned that the #1 regret of older people facing the end of life was not doing the things they really wanted to do. Even if they  failed in achieving the goal, they felt that was better than cowering on the sidelines waiting and watching for the right time or circumstance.

As it turned out, however, many did just that (cower on the sidelines, procrastinate, or make excuses) rather than face possible rejection, disappointment, loss, heartache, or humiliation. I’m not saying those who said YES and then lost money or suffered ridicule were happy about that. I am saying, however, that they died with no regrets. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—and all that.

Just about everyone I’ve talked with today has said 2015 was an okay year or that it was a terrible year or that they wanted to make some changes. Some people on Facebook said it was the best year ever. What about you? Are there things you want to change? Are there things you want to do that you’ve been procrastinating? If not now, then when?

What will you do during the next twelve months that will better assure that 2016 is a year of no regrets? As for yours truly, I’m working on a plan.

Good Enough or Perfect?

Aren’t words powerful? Come on, admit it. You know they are. Powerful enough to rouse the sleeping beast within, calm the troubled heart, or stimulate the deepest of thoughts, words are amazing creations.

Fortunately for me, I have friends who feel the same about the fun, power, derivation, and meaning of words. A few weeks ago, a group of logophiles met to share new words over lunch. That morning, I had listened to a podcast by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and was reminded of the difference between satisficers and maximizers.

After sharing our new words, I hesitated before adding these two words to the mix. Were they too frivolous? Was I partial to them only because of my interest in positive psychology and happiness? After about three seconds of hemming and hawing, I shared Rubin’s words, and we all decided we were (are?) satisficers in most areas. That word, by the way, is a combination of satisfy and suffice.

Since then, I’ve been pondering just how important one’s attitude towards “good enough” vs. perfection can affect happiness and overall well-being. I think Rubin is on to something. Further investigation by a lunch partner revealed that this idea was  espoused by Barry Swartz in The Paradox of Choice.

Here’s an edited version of what I posted on psychcentral.wordpress. com earlier this morning.

Writer Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, and creator of the book related blog and podcast, has tackled the concept of happiness with zeal. Although she isn’t a psychologist, Rubin incorporates the theories of philosophers and psychologists into her personal observations and experiences. A gifted writer, she makes learning about happiness interesting.

One of Rubin’s ideas is based on that of psychologist Barry Swartz, author of The Paradox of Choice. Swartz contends that choice overload can actually make us less happy as we set our expectations too high. Should I try the  vanilla latte or the sea salt caramel hot chocolate?? And what about paint color? Would Soothing Aloe look better on the dining room walls than Morning Zen? And then there are relationship issues. We’re told to “never settle,” and yet is there really a Mr. or Ms. Right waiting in the wings?

Instead of agonizing on and on about decisions, Swartz and Rubin advise readers to go with “good enough.” People who do so are called satisficers and are generally happier than the maximizers those who make perfection a quest.

Years ago, I was involved in a fender bender and had to go car shopping. Friends inundated me with information about price, makes, models, reviews, mileage estimates, and deals. I listened for a while but then began to get a little dizzy with so many facts and opinions.

After work one afternoon I drove the rental car into Sparks Toyota with some ideas about what I wanted. Small, good on gas, and affordable were the top criteria. I knew I couldn’t buy (wouldn’t buy) a new car, but I didn’t want to buy a clunker either. As soon as I walked on the lot, I saw it: a dark green Corolla that was two years old. The salesman was a little surprised at the quick decision, but he didn’t try to talk me out of it or sway me to a more expensive option.

A friend, incredulous that I had made such a snap decision, told me that most people didn’t buy cars that way. Instead, they did a little research first, even traveling across the state to see and test drive different models.  She admitted that it usually took several months for them to make a decision and that even then, she and her husband ended up second guessing themselves. They’re maximizers, and I’m a satisficer.

What about you? Do you have to have things “just right” to be happy, or is good enough okay? 

Change and Loss

One of my pieces in Serving Up Memory is entitled “Hats and Cornbread,” and it begins by telling of the Thanksgiving after my mother’s passing. My father had predeceased her by two years, and so we were, her children and grandchildren, trying our darnedest to make this holiday festive. By golly, we were not going to let the grim reaper steal our joy.

A number of us, including two of my siblings and I, gathered on Chesnut Street with a  “take-in” meal. I don’t recall the victuals, but I do remember that we ate in the kitchen and not the dining room and that we felt strange and happy at the same time—strange because our parents weren’t there in their own home and happy that we were together. At some point, we rummaged through our parents’ (and grandparents’) hats, and we each selected the one we wanted to wear. My nieces picked up pocketbooks of my mother’s, remembering that she always made sure her purse matched her shoes.

When I submitted that story to the group for critiquing, I wasn’t expecting the feedback that I received. I expected every person to make recommendations for improvement, and I even wondered if a couple of writers might think the story too sappy. Boy was I surprised!

Sure, there were some recommendations, but the consensus was that the events of that Thanksgiving afternoon had universal meaning. Although it was a personal story, “Hats and Cornbread” has implications for every family who has suffered loss or change, whether by death, divorce, remarriage, relocation, or any other reason. People leave us, and we are left to rebuild the structure of not just holidays, but of everyday life.

Back to that Thanksgiving afternoon, here’s the passage about it from Serving Up Memory:

We wore our hats hoping to keep that holiday spirit alive. Did it work? Not really. The picture snapped by my son-in-law late that afternoon looks like everyone is having a good old time, but looks can be deceiving. Despite our fake smiles, we were all still heartbroken, our psyches raw with fresh grief.

It probably hit me for the first time that evening: My family holidays with kith and kin in the manner I had known all of my life were over. Sure, I’d share turkey and dressing, red velvet cake, and other seasonal fare with various relatives each year, but my mother’s passing on October 20, 2000, marked the end of gatherings in the family home. Marjorie Ann was the heart of it all. It was never the same after her passing.

As the season creeps nearer each day, thoughts of earlier gatherings and traditions fill my mind. John and Margie’s children have all moved on, yet we hold those memories of love and good cheer in our hearts. I have other families on my mind today, and I hope that they’ll all find their way into and through the holidays without stumbling or experiencing crippling heartache.

The death of a loved one, regardless of age or status, changes everything. You can’t ignore the loss, the empty place at the dining room table. And yet you must not succumb to grief. As I write this, I’m thinking of dozens of people whose holiday season has been unalterably changed, some just within the last few days. I’m hoping they’ll all find a way to feel peace.

So Many Books, So Little Time

books

Before I moved back to Camden, I fretted about a number of things, the primary one being whether I’d adjust, whether there would be people I could relate to and become friends with. I need not have worried. Work, work, work, and more work kept me busy for the first ten years, and I was very fortunate to have worked with people who were (still are) smart, funny, and a pleasure to be around.

Believing that all work and no play would make Jayne a dull girl, I soon found additional endeavors and friends that have aided in my adjustment. Before I moved back to the midlands, I asked my husband if he thought there would be a book club I could join. “Sure,” he said, probably only half listening and hoping I’d stop talking so that he could get back to his ball game or tennis match.

The reading group/book club didn’t materialize right away, but one September evening several years ago a few of us started one at church. Although our initial “let’s do this” conversation took place at church, we agreed on two rules right away: no religious books and no nonfiction books. It’s not that we were opposed to reading books of those genres; it’s just that we read them already.

We wanted to read fiction, both old and classic and newly hot off the press. We wanted to feel, to be transported to other times and places, to get lost in story. For the most part, we’ve stuck to our rules, but last year we veered away a bit when we read Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave. We’ve read quite a bit of historical fiction, and one novel that touched all of us is Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill.

In one of our early months, we read The Loop by Nicholas Evans, and a couple of members stopped coming after that. They declared that they weren’t going to “read trash.” What could we say? Do? While I wouldn’t classify The Loop as trash, I will admit there was a couple who became intimately involved without exchanging wedding rings. However, the book itself was about wolves and rangers and naturalists, and most of us (as I recall) found it captivating.

Did the angry departure of two members mean that we needed to carefully screen all future books in case there were a hint of, well, you know? None of us are into pornographic, violent, or crude writing, and none of us would knowingly choose anything inappropriate. While we were unhappy and perplexed about the two members’ exit, we learned a lesson: it’s hard, perhaps impossible, that everyone in a group is going to like the same kinds of books.

We also learned that the mix of people has to be just right. Their personalities have to jibe with one another. Who wants to be in a reading group with a know-it-all or someone who’s belligerent, stuffy, or arrogant (about reading tastes and literature)? After a while, our group slowly shrank to a unit of flexible, agreeable, courteous women who respect and genuinely care for one another.

Here’s how we operate. Each person selects a book and a month. That month, she’s in charge of the setting, discussion, and refreshments. The latter, by the way, usually aligns with the book. A few years ago, one of my choices was Elie Wiesel’s Night, and we had bread and water. True, the bread was chewy and fresh, and the water was bottled, but the “treat” complemented the book .One month we read The Chronicles of Narnia, and Connie provided Turkish delights to sample during our discussion.

The group met last night and decided on a list of must-reads for the year. Carol is up first, and she selected The Rent Collector by Cameron Wright. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I’d never heard of this writer until last night, and when I logged on to Amazon to order the book for my Kindle, I was delighted to see so many wonderful reviews…hundreds of them. If not for my membership in the reading group, I might never have known of this book.

Admittedly, being a part of a book club is partly a social thing. But it’s also educational, mind expanding, and mentally stimulating. If you have a desire to be a part of such a group, you might consider joining ours… or maybe I can suggest one to you.

In the meantime, it’s time to begin reading The Rent Collector. What’s on your must-read list?

Our Net Is Tangled

It happened again this morning. I picked up my earbuds to go walking and saw that the spaghetti-like cords were tangled. How did that happen? When I disconnected them from my iPhone after walking yesterday, I very carefully arranged them on the counter top in a way that surely would prevent any raveling. But something happened overnight, and by some mysterious process, the strings became an entangled mess.

The snarled strings brought to mind sections of the book Seven Thousand Ways of Listening by Mark Nepo. When writing about conflict, Nepo tells about garden hoses that get seriously tangled while resting in the garage. He patiently tries to untangle the gnarled mess and gets so frustrated that he feels like banging it on the floor. I’ve been there, done that and have learned that giving way to anger and frustration only makes matters worse.

Isn’t that also true with our conflicts with other people? Sometimes they just happen, and we don’t always know why or how the problem started. Was it something you said? Or maybe it was something you shouldn’t have said. Let’s make this even more complicated. After all, human relationships can be that way. Maybe the snarled knot got worse because of something you or the other party SHOULD HAVE SAID but didn’t.

What I especially like about Nepo’s passage on conflict is a story about fishermen and their nets. Nets left in the sea long enough will tangle. It’s part of what nets do (earbud strings too!). At day’s end, the fishermen stretch out the net between them and examine it for knots. With the open net between them, the fishermen loosen all of the knots that they can and cut those that are impossibly snarled.

There are so many things to consider in this action. First, the fishermen put a little distance between them. Like people in conflict, the net of relationship and experience is between them, and yet sometimes people need to separate a little more in order to see things more clearly. Those in conflict often need the perspective that distance can provide before they can see all of the knots and tangles.

Sometimes people need to separate for longer periods. The strings in the net can then be cut and then retied in a different manner, one that works better for them. A child leaving home might be a good example. Cutting the apron strings is a way of looking at this. Though the connection is still there, the dependence on the parents is cut and retied, hopefully strengthening the connection.

 When looking at the outstretched net, the fishermen can see exactly where the problem area is. Sometimes we’re so emotionally tied to something that we can’t see things clearly. We can feel our pain, anger, or frustration, but we can’t necessarily see the cause of our angst. Distance can better help us answer the questions, “Can the tangle be unraveled? Can the web be made whole again?”

I’ll take up this theme at another time. For now, I need to ponder my net/web of relationships and check it for knots. What about you? Can the tangle be unraveled? Can the net be made whole again?

Less Debate, More Love

I met Ahmed about 20 years ago. I’d never seen or known anyone like him in my entire life. Quiet and attentive, he was a student in one of my classes. One day I distributed a handout of a dozen commonly used clichés as a way of introducing the topic of the day, communication, and I was a little surprised when Ahmed didn’t get a single one right. Didn’t people from Egypt know what “as the crow flies” meant?

After graduation, Ahmed was hired by the college to work in the IT department, and one of his primary duties was to help instructors who were teaching what we called teleclasses. Since we had three campuses, this teaching format allowed us to transmit our classes from one campus to the other two, thus cutting down on travel time and allowing more student needs to be met.

That’s when I really got to know this outstanding young man. His huge brown eyes and serene demeanor were arresting, and his calm competence impressed everyone. One day as he was working with me, he seemed a little weak, and I asked if Ahmed if he wanted to break for lunch. He said no and remarked that it was Ramadan and that he had not yet become accustomed to the day long fast.

Being nosey, I had to ask what that was. I learned that Ramadan is a sacred month of the year, a period in which Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. Fasting encourages spiritual reflection and takes the focus off of worldly activities. It also helps one develop more compassion and empathy for the less fortunate, thus increasing charity towards others.

Intrigued, I purchased The World’s Religions by Huston Smith and my awakening began.Some more serious scholars may scoff at Smith’s work, but if not for his easy-to-understand and comprehensive overview of the world’s major religions, I might still be a narrow-minded Southern gal who understood God only in the way I had been taught.

Recently I read Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being and fell in love with (talk about clichés!) her writing and perspective. Towards the end of the book, Dillard brings up an incident that involved the disappearance of a child on a school field trip. On May 4, 1995, Suri Feldman and her classmates were in a state park in CT. Suri wandered away from the group, and her absence was noticed when it was time to load the buses and leave.

Concern was especially high because of the murder of a young girl a few months prior. The missing child was Jewish, and here’s what happened. “Among the thousand volunteers searching for Suri Feldman were six hundred Hasidim, bearded men in black three-piece suits, who drove from New York, from Montreal, Boston, and Washington, D.C.” When Suri was found a few days later, thirsty but fine, “the Hasids in the woods danced.”

When the vehicle bearing her drove into the Brooklyn parking lot, it could scarcely move. Hasids filled the lot, Hasids in black coats from the eighteenth century and black beards and black hats. A local volunteer said, “I’ve never seen so many people dance in a circle.”

The LDS community is pretty tight, and yet I marvel at the concern and support for Suri and her family. Two of the tenets of our faith are family and service to others, and we earnestly strive to walk the talk. Still, what support there was for this family! To me, it’s “pure religion, undefiled.”

Hmmm. Where was I? What was the point of these stories? Truth is everywhere. Why do some people want to argue points of doctrine and berate others’ way of worshipping? It’s pointless and ineffective.

 Why can’t we just love one another?