Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Two Sides to the Same Train

When you start riding this train, you feel as though the window shades are drawn tightly shut on this side of the railway car, the side you’re sitting on. Your only view is through the windows across the aisle. There, the scenery you see out the window is horrifying and fascinating all at the same time. It’s complicated scenery out those windows, where you see the people outside engaged in all kinds of confused things. As the train passes by, the people you see by the wayside are busy planning and plotting and worrying, and things aren’t ever exactly as they seem. The people you see out that window always seem to be distracted by other things as they go about their business. It is a very interesting landscape, but also quite exhausting. It is a little like watching a neverending Bosch painting, with all manner of horrifying and terrifying and interesting things going on there. There’s a lot of addiction and compulsion and habit to that life, and not much freedom.

You started riding this train, frankly, because you were just exhausted with that scenery out there. It is the scenery of your everyday life, and you boarded the train hoping to escape it. Perhaps you imagined that after a long, long train ride, you’d find scenery that was more peaceful and joyful. And so you start to ride, turning your head away from the open windows in renunciation of what you see there, the way you've lived up to now.

Pretty soon, though, as you learn how to relax and let go, you begin to see some new, unexpected scenery through the cracks around the window shades on this side of the train, the windows right at your elbow, and maybe soon the shades start to come up a little bit. Or maybe one after the other, a shade or two goes up fully, exposing new windows and entirely different scenery.

And you see that the scenery on this side of the train is much, much different. Much simpler, much cleaner. It was there all along, it wasn’t something you needed to travel long distances for. Maybe you see something like the scenery in parts of Italy, with the blue sea below you, small white sailboats sailing around; and across a azure bay, towering snow-capped mountains in the distance, white billowy clouds filling the sky.

The scenery on this side is much simpler, and when you pass by people in the landscape outside, you see that they don’t seem to be planning or plotting at all, but they are simply doing things. Doing simple things, and doing them simply, elegantly. No addiction, no compulsion, no dreary habit. It is a free landscape.

It is a clean, straightforward landscape, with no subterfuge, no horror. Everything is workable here, everything is pretty much as it looks. No mystery; things are what they are. Things are exactly what they appear to be, no more.

When you become aware that both kinds of scenery exist on the same train ride, there may actually be a point where you’re really not sure that you want the new, cleaner, simpler landscape. You may feel some nostalgia for the horrific Bosch, garden-of-earthly-delights way of living. After all, it is in some ways more interesting than the simple beautiful way of living. It is also more familiar to you, more comfortable in a strange way, so you may actually find yourself preferring the sorrowful life. The clean way of living can seem a little boring, if you’ve been obsessed with confusion for most of your life.

Careful examination will probably tell you which scenery you truly want, but there are people who glimpse the clean way and then reject it. That is their choice, though they may not even realize that they are making that choice.

The important thing is that you recognize that where you turn your gaze is a decision that you make, and that both scenes are present at all times. It’s not that you must travel thousands of miles and many years to see the new landscape. It’s simply a matter of raising the blinds and turning the direction of your head.

You will even come to realize that the beautiful scenery is to be found immediately out the window closest to you, on your side of the train, not across the aisle, and that it’s actually easier to see this than to crane your neck and peer out the opposite side at the ghastly scenery. Following the horrific way of living actually takes the greater effort.

This is one way of looking at the path you've chosen to travel.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Genetics Isn't a Choice

My mother and I didn't have a great relationship, and I've worked relatively hard over the years to create space between her legacy and my own character. There was time that I bristled with resentment simply because somebody remarked that my wavy hair reminded them of my mother's. Emotionally volatile, occasionally abusive, and self-absorbed to the point of narcissism, my mother was a troubled personality any way you look at it. I've lived my life trying to be different from that example, though I was never so naive as to think I've escaped those genes entirely.

The ferocity of that insistence has lessened a bit as I grew older, but it's not gone away. I like to pretend that my own habits and personality are more like my father; to say I am like my mother always feels like something of an insult to me. Even now, 13 years after her death, this is true for me.

Yesterday, though, somebody I work with mentioned that one of the key to my modest success in this particular little corner of the business world is that I have a "big personality" that can hold its own amidst some very dominant personalities around me.

It startled me, at first, because I am first and foremost a shy fellow, and it surprises me when people see me as a forceful personality. But I was also startled because I recognized that there was some truth to this, and that this particular trait is one I owe to no one but my mother.

My father has always been, and always will be, a very unassuming and retiring personality. While he was quietly successful as a small town school teacher, it's not likely his character could have succeeded in the world of frequent business trips and meetings with corporate executives.

There are lots of ways I'm exactly like my father, and I'm thankful for them. But there are also lots of ways I'm like my mother, and after all this time, it's kind of silly to keep thinking this is a bad thing. What choice do I have, after all?

At 53 years of age, is this a sign that I'm growing up?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Big Brass Ones

Okay, so once in awhile I play hooky for a day, turn off my cell phone, don't answer E-mails, and go to the woods to hike without telling anybody.

Once, I tacked on a couple of extra days to a business trip in order to go hike up to the base of the Matterhorn in Switzerland.

A few moments of pure alone time, when nobody knows where you are, or what you're doing, is a perfectly understandable guilty pleasure.

But today we learned that the governor of South Carolina——the frickin' governor——disappeared for several days, over the Father's Day weekend, of all times. He told staff members that he was going to hike the Appalacian Trail, but couldn't be reached under any circumstances. It is, we're told, fairly typical behavior for this governor.

We now know that the governor instead was vacationing in Argentina with his girlfriend. He tearfully admits the extramarital affair, and regrets the hurt he has caused his family.

What the hell gives with politicians? Spending their whole lives courting public attention, they still somehow imagine that they can get away with anonymous affairs, laisons with high priced call girls, or gay sex trysts in airport bathrooms.

I don't know which is worse....arrogance or stupidity.

Coping, Today

I don't know if this says something about my own nature, or whether it's something more or less inherent in the modern western world we live in. But the truth is that I honestly cannot remember the last time I felt the contentment that goes with feeling that everything's done which needs to be done.

My work days end with dozens of in-progress tasks, all with very urgent deadlines, that aren't yet completed. On a given day, I've probably made progress toward completing some of them, but the moment one small duty is completed, two more have popped up to take its place. Contracts to negotiate, schedules to be approved, budgets to be created, initiatives to be launched.

At home, there are always garden beds to be weeded, siding to be patched, carpeting to be replaced, floors to be refinished, leaky faucets to be repaired, kids to be counseled, trip reservations to be made.

It can all be a little overwhelming and crazy-making, especially when I get seduced by the wish for an end to chaos.

So my method of coping is this: Rather than aiming for permanent Completion of Duties, I simply give myself a small moment of private recognition whenever I've done something that is helpful in any way. Days are generally full of these small opportunities, ranging from opening a locked door for an employee who needs access to a studio, to approving a check request, to making a decision for somebody who needs one, to answering a question from a consumer who calls with a problem. At home, pulling a single noxious weed is helpful, changing the bag on the vacuum cleaner is helpful, so I take note of that small act of helpfulness.

Generally, this means small celebrations of what I CAN do, and little time spent thinking about what I WISH I could do. Focusing on the process of life rather than a goal.

That's in my better moments. In more difficult ones, I still long for a perfection that is far beyond me.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Rueful Chuckle for Friday Afternoon

I ran across this little postcard message tacked to the wall outside a colleague's office.

The caption is illegible in this photo captured on my phone, but this is what it says:

"As much as I try to be a
spread your wings and fly type....

I just can't stop
trying to burst people
into flames with my mind."

I started to laugh, then realized I wasn't sure if I was on the giving or taking end of this mood.