Dreaming & scheming together

I was nearing my seventeenth birthday before I slept in a room without one of my sisters. I’ve always thought those years of close contact had something to do with my need for a lot of “alone” time now. As Joseph Campbell said, we all need “a sacred space,” even just a corner of a room, where “you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” And yet, my memories of the rooms I shared resonate so much more vividly than those I had to myself.

The Patient Voice Project at the University of Iowa (an expressive writing project for people who are ill) often assigns participants to write about their childhood bedrooms. After all, it’s a topic that virtually everyone can write about, and it offers a “way in” to the practice of expressive writing. Telling stories through expressive writing often changes the experience and shows us the way forward.

We lived first in a small duplex house built in 1924. The presence of my older sister, born only 16 months before, hovered over me. We napped together, played together, and shared everything. Shortly after our third sister was born (just  shy of two years after me) we moved to a “bigger” house, about 1000 square feet, but with three bedrooms. Most of my memories begin  there.

The musician Robert Smith says that he still goes back to his parents’ house so that he can just sit in his childhood bedroom and “feel small.” When I think about the shared rooms of my childhood, small is the operative word. We felt small and so we played small games and dreamed small dreams in those rooms.

Little golden bookMy older sister and I like to tell people how we constructed paths around our room with our collection of Little Golden Books. I have no idea how many books we actually had, but at the time, it seemed liked hundreds. Since they were all the same size, we could line them up and turn them into roads. While we were supposed to be napping, somehow we were developing a sense that we needed to have a path to somewhere else.

Role-playing the life of the adults we knew was another pastime in our room. Our mother went every week to have her hair done, so we decided to do it too. My sister (being the bossy one) decided to take the part of hairdresser, so it fell to me to have my hair “done.” She cut my hair with preschool scissors, we stuffed the shorn locks into a shoe box and thought no one would notice. I don’t recall feeling any remorse or regret, even after we were found out.

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After the haircut

For many years, the three of us shared a room with Sleeping Beauty cut-outs on the wall where we created our own fantasy lives. We had to go to bed when it was still light outside and other kids were playing in the streets, so we played “house” in our beds. By carefully turning down the covers (bedspread, blanket, sheet) to different intervals, we could delineate three different rooms atop the bed. There, we would each play-out grown-up life in our own “home.” Invariably, we ended up making too much noise and bringing down the wrath of our very real parents.

By high school, of course, our world had expanded, and the bedroom was no longer our playground. My older sister and I got a “new”, wood-paneled bedroom when my dad finished the basement of the house, but we fought like cats and dogs over the space. My sharpest memory of that time is when I divided our room by building a wall between our beds out of my shoe boxes. (Even then, I loved shoes!) We had gone from building roads to building walls, and I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college and leave me with a room of my own.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember much from the time when I had the room to myself. Sarah Susanka has written that, “We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space,” instead of thinking about the essence of what makes the spaces feel like home. Without someone to share it and fight over it, the room lost some its luster. There’s a line in the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” that goes, “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray…” I think I must have sensed that so much of the dreaming, scheming and praying had been a shared experience, that it was the people, not the place, that were important to me.

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“We write to taste life twice”

Mark Zuckerberg looks forward to the day when the camera, rather than the text box, will be the main way we share on social networks. What would that mean for the future of words and the experience of writing?

When I read Zuckerberg’s comment, I had already been thinking about how less rich our communication is now that we so rarely write letters to each other anymore. Handwritten letters were on a list of objects and ideas in American Magazine last November that are “teetering on the edge of extinction” (along with cursive handwriting and proper grammar!) I realize that communication consists of a myriad of nonverbal elements, and that a picture is often “worth a thousand words”, but do we value words, especially written words, enough anymore?printed words

In the American Magazine piece, Amy Burroughs writes that letters have been a rich historical source of “information about the way people lived, loved, learned, fought, created, and died…In their own words, in unguarded candor and confidence, letters reveal the day-to-day experience of real individuals.” I know from my own experience that I communicate differently in writing than I do when speaking. I am more likely to say what’s in my heart and to express my emotions, and less likely to worry about sounding “cool.”

When I was a young adult, I moved across the country a couple of times, leaving friends and family behind. In those days shortly before the internet exploded onto the scene, we wrote letters back and forth to stay in touch. Two years ago, when I was moving yet again, I spent some time going through a huge box of those letters that I had saved. The thing that struck me the most was how thoughtful all of my friends were. They spent a considerable amount of time, and care, writing their letters, and it shows. The letters are smart, funny and clever. Many of them are several pages long. Some of them are from younger people I worked with, which touches me now, realizing that I must have had some impact on their lives.

I also have the privilege of being in possession of much older letters, some written by distant family members back in the 1800s, others by parents, grandparents and cousins. The letter that my father-in-law wrote as he shipped out of New York harbor on his way to fight in Europe during World War II is especially poignant. He reflects on his entire life as he departs, not knowing when he will see his family again. More quotidian are the letters from my mother-in-law to her mother while she was living in Toronto and expecting her first child (my husband). They detail her struggles with making friends, her shopping and decorating of their apartment, and of course her pregnancy, including the choice of baby names.

jrcletterThe letters are a way for me to know people I never met, or to know the younger selves of people I only knew when they were older. The letters sometimes reflect an optimism that was missing later in their lives. Often the change from optimism to discouragement is recorded in the letters, as with the relative who between the 1830s and 1840s lost 11 of 12 children, divorced his wife, and thought his brother had forgotten him. I’m fascinated by these people, and I wonder if my children and grandchildren might feel the same if they ever come across my old letters and my younger self.

The thing is – I have a lot of old photos too – pictures that might be posted on Facebook if they were taken today. But they only tell me so much. Sometimes I don’t even know the names of the people in the photos, or when exactly they were taken. That wouldn’t be a problem with Facebook tags, but still…what was going on when the photos were taken? What was in their minds, their hearts? We just won’t know without the words to go with them.

People want very much to be heard, not just seen, by others. They want to tell their stories. When Burroughs speaks about the “unguarded candor and confidence” of letter writers, it’s the desire to be heard and known, a desire for intimate retelling, that inspires it. Or as Anais Nin said, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”

 

 

 

Now what?

What do you with what you know, what you’ve learned, the gifts you have? Is having it all enough for you, or does meaning only accrue when you act on what you have? In “The Illuminations” by Andrew O’Hagan, one character says to another, “People who read books aren’t reading them properly if they stop with the books. You’ve got to go out eventually and test it all against reality.”

Several days ago, I went to a yoga workshop billed as “Yoga: The Advanced Practices”. Now that title might make you think that I’m someone who can do a headstand with ease, or twist my leg around neck, or any number of other challenging yoga postures, but nothing could be farther from the truth. And, in fact, the workshop’s “advanced practices” weren’t about asana (physical postures) at all. They were about the real “meat” of yoga — pranayama (breathwork) and meditation. We spent only about 40 minutes of the three hours doing asana.

Why do the other practices matter so much more? As our teacher, Greg, said, they provide the answer to the question, “Now what?” As in, “I’ve mastered a handstand. Now what?” Or, “I’ll never master a handstand. Now what?” Breath and meditation give you the space, the way, to take the yoga off the mat and into the world. As you grow in emotional awareness and focus, they help you be the person who can give back to the community, who can be the better spouse, the better friend, the better parent.

The very next day after the yoga workshop happened to be the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. As I was reading through the prayerbook, I came across this meditation: “Why be concerned with meaning? Why not be content with satisfaction of desires and needs? The vital drives of food, sex and power…are as characteristic of animals as they are of us. Being human is a characteristic of a being who faces the question: After satisfaction, what?

Now what?

The world we see reflects who we are. Sometimes we need to correct our course or re-affirm our best qualities and intentions so that they are manifested in that reflection. Any kind of meditation helps us do that, as does the meditative practice of affirmative writing, part of the “Writing to Heal” program. Affirmative writing can crystallize values and create a vision for one’s life; it helps us identify our gifts and be grateful for them; and it can be a guide to living a life where you flourish and grow.

So take paper and pen, find somewhere to sit quietly, and answer these questions in writing (resist the urge to self-edit):

  1. What are your gifts? You best qualities, what you offer to others?
  2. What gift do you feel is ready to emerge, evolve or resurface?
  3. How have you denied or hidden any gift in the past?
  4. How is your life and others impacted when you withhold your gift?
  5. How might your life and others be impacted if you offered your gift?
  6. What might living with this gift look like and feel like?
  7. What support from others do you need to develop your gift?
  8. What does your gift need from you?

Naming your gifts, and thinking about how others are impacted when you offer them, is a powerful way to answer the question, “Now what?” When I did this exercise, and I responded to question 6, how would living this gift look and feel, the words I wrote were, “spacious, exciting, vibrant.”

An authentic life is an examined life. Living with questions like these can sometimes make us uncomfortable. But eventually, if we want the answer to “now what?” we’ve got to go out and test the answers against reality.

Can 25 words describe a friend?

My first best friend left my life so long ago that I can barely remember her face. Strawberry blond hair, some freckles, a vague recollection of her smile, and that’s it. But a writing prompt from my Wellness & Writing Connections group has had me trying to conjure memories of her all week.  “Write 25 words that describe a childhood friend.” Can I find 25 words that fully capture Susie and what she meant to me?

yin yangShe was the yang to my yin, bold where I was shy, fearless where I was cautious, loud where I was quiet. With Susie, I tasted independence for the first time, earned my first money, ran away from home, and learned about sex. From the age of 4 until 11, we were inseparable, the sidewalk that ran between our houses a well-worn path.

From Susie, I also learned about loss, not when she died, but when our friendship broke up. I spent a summer mourning her, just as surely as if she had died. I know now that I was just as responsible for the end of our friendship as she was, though I didn’t see it that way back then. It was devastating to me.

Having Susie for a friend taught me to leave my comfort zone in two ways. When we were together, she was often challenging me to do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do. And when we weren’t together anymore, I had to forge bonds with new people outside the comfort zone of her friendship.

Social scientists believe that we tend to seek out friendships with people of similar personalities (the “similarity effect”), but Susie taught me to appreciate a friend who is the opposite of me, one who stretches my view of the world and pushes me toward new possibilities. As Henry Ford once said, “My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.”

I see glimmers of my first best friend in several close friends who came along later: The ones who were from very different backgrounds; the ones who were bold and outspoken; the ones who were just a little bit wild. I’m grateful to all of them for where they’ve taken me and how they have enriched my life. But I will never be able to thank Susie in person for what she taught me; there will be no re-connection on Facebook, no school reunions, no chance meetings. She died young, and true to form, doing something a little bit dangerous.

So let these 400+ words that describe my childhood friend be my letter of gratitude, my valentine to her.Valentine2

Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”

Seeking a muse

Where does inspiration come from? A stray word overheard on the street, a beautiful view, an ironic piece of art, serendipity? Should we seek inspiration or let it come to us?Lake Como_373

All week, I’ve been suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. I don’t know if it is a result of boredom, going on vacation for a week,  or waiting for a spring that never seems to arrive. Sometimes I think it has something to do with the loss of my yoga teacher (no, he didn’t die, just stopped teaching for a while). He would often say something simple in class that would set me off on some whimsical train of thought. Whatever the cause of the barrier, I find that desire for relief makes it hard not to work at finding an idea; hard to relax and trust that something will come.

Thomas Edison famously said that “genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration,” but he didn’t actually say where he got that inspiration. There seem to be two schools of thought on this – the first is what I call the “Just do it” school, and the second is the “Wait for it” school. Jack London was in the first category, saying that “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” Pablo Picasso too, thought that “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Waiting for inspiration is a little like calling on the muses from Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that poets, artists, musicians and even scientists got their inspiration from one of the nine muses, goddesses that were the source of knowledge. Amy Tan has said, “Who knows where inspiration comes from. Perhaps it arises from desperation. Perhaps it comes from the flukes of the universe, the kindness of the muses.”

Consider another definition of inspiration – “the act or process of inhaling” – and compare creative inspiration to the act of breathing. We know that the breath doesn’t have to be forced. It will happen without us doing a thing. We are born without the need to control the breath, yet it’s incredibly difficult to give up control of other things we want. We don’t have the patience to just let them come.

If we have both open airways and clean air, we trust in our continued ability to breathe. If I keep my mind open and let the breezes of experience flow through, can I learn to trust that ideas will come? I am reminded of two of the qualities of mindfulness: non-striving, which is about being, rather doing; and non-attachment, which means letting go of the idea that things have to turn out a certain way.

Maybe I am my own muse. By being and trusting who I am, letting go of fixed ideas, and not being afraid to wait, inspiration will come – just like my next breath.

What do you have to say?

There are times when writing is a struggle as I search for ideas and the right words to convey them.  Other times, when I have a compelling story I want to tell, the words just flow and the entire process seems so easy. Having a chance to tell our stories can be incredibly cathartic, even if we don’t share them with anyone else.

I thought of this when I read a story by Chris Richards in the Washington Post this week about a program to help veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan write songs. The veterans work with professional songwriters in a workshop setting. They tell their stories, pulling together images and memories of their experiences, and the songwriters create a melody and work it into a song. The veterans find the experience to be very healing, giving them an outlet for expression that is hard to find anywhere else.

About 20 years ago, the writer Maxine Hong Kingston started a similar project in California for Vietnam War veterans (see her book, The Fifth Book of Peace). Theirs was strictly a writing workshop, not music, but the purpose was the same – giving the vets an opportunity to tell their stories, in a safe place, without judgment. Kingston began the process as a way of working out a loss of her own, and together with the veterans, found some peace along the way.

Some people keep diaries throughout their lives. Many of us had them as teenagers – an outlet for our angst, emotional ups and downs, and rants against our parents. But a journal devoted to a specific topic or purpose can be a helpful tool in dealing with stress, whether it’s everyday stress or the more intense stress caused by wartime experiences.

James Pennebaker, a professor at the University of Texas, is a leading researcher and proponent of the idea of “writing to heal”. He believes that expressing our emotions makes us healthier and helps prevent many of the chronic diseases that befall so many people in modern society. For a lot of people, writing is the best (maybe the only) way that they can do that. Dr. Pennebaker has written a book about this process (Writing to Heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval) and conducts workshops (one will be held at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center in March).

Gratitude journals are another, somewhat more indirect, way to help relieve stress. I’ve written before about the research showing that people who regularly remind themselves of what they are grateful for tend to be more satisfied with their lives and to experience less stress. Gratitude journals have also been used with veterans and others who experience Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, with promising results.

Whether or not you have had a traumatic experience, writing can still benefit you. In this age of truncated communications like email, Twitter and Facebook, it can be quite satisfying to sit down and express your thoughts and feelings without anyone cutting you off or limiting your characters. A journal can be a place to try out ideas, explore emotions and practice that difficult conversation you need to have with someone. Often, writing can be as mood-lightening as talking with a close friend. I suspect this is the reason why the memoir has become such a popular genre in recent years. Everyone has a story to tell, and wants to tell it if given an opportunity. But we are not very good at remembering emotions accurately after time has gone by, so it’s important to write down how you feel now. Start telling your story  – your audience can be as wide as the Internet or as small as a little notebook sitting by your bed.