Tuesday, December 04, 2007

i wish i had two more wishes

Last week Scientific American wrote this article about how to raise smart kids. The key, apparently, is not emphasizing intelligence and talent. It’s teaching them that being smart is about effort and the evolution of your mind over time.

The difference between kids who get the former vs. the latter message is stark:
Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

The result plays out in children like Jonathan, who coast through the early grades under the dangerous notion that no-effort academic achievement defines them as smart or gifted. Such children hold an implicit belief that intelligence is innate and fixed, making striving to learn seem far less important than being (or looking) smart. This belief also makes them see challenges, mistakes and even the need to exert effort as threats to their ego rather than as opportunities to improve. And it causes them to lose confidence and motivation when the work is no longer easy for them.

Praising children’s innate abilities, as Jonathan’s parents did, reinforces this mind-set, which can also prevent young athletes or people in the workforce and even marriages from living up to their potential. On the other hand, our studies show that teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, helps make them into high achievers in school and in life.
Their conclusions remind me of a book I read a bit back called The Drama of the Gifted Child. It is about how parents, mothers specifically, can cause their children to shy from real feelings because they expect their kids to be faultless due to their giftedness. A similar loss in potential results from this encouragement of the inauthentic and the impossible.

The evening after I read the article I saw the Broadway musical 'Avenue Q.' It’s spectacular. Imagine if 'Sesame Street' had a dirty sense of humor and were directed at recent college graduates just beginning to be uncertain of themselves. Imagine puppets singing about how it sucks to be you, we are all a little bit racist sometimes and the Internet was made for porn. (It totally was.)

The actors are so incredible and the story and songs are so honest it’s not necessary to be 23 (or overly fond of puppetry) to feel a resonance. In each song and scene there is something that echoes to what we are at one point and to whom we are now and still. This difficult honesty that we are not unique in what we experience more than we are connected to everyone else who has wondered about their life’s purpose or made mistakes or found and lost love. These requisites of being what we all are.

And the point of the play and of that article seem to me to be the same. The show's last song is essentially about how our lives and we are constantly changing. That the things that consume or engage or fascinate us – "everything in life is only for now." And if we live in a fashion that imagines anything in life is fixed we miss the beauty in the moment and in the possibility of what comes next. We misunderstand that our worth is not in outside marks but in the effort we put into who we are, whom we love and what we do and choose.

Bob Dylan once said it’s impossible to be in love and wise at the same time. Perhaps that is why parents raise children for how they hope they will be instead of the complicated mix they will become. Perhaps this is why love constantly changes. So we can fall in and out of it to gather wisdom from what is felt and what follows. Because life, 'Odyssey'-like, is designed to make us wander toward and away from what it is most essential for us to know.

When I was little, after my dad came home from work he’d tell me stories of 'The Odyssey.' Wrapped in my Holly Hobbie sheets, I would concentrate on the slats above me as he narrated next to me on my bottom bunk bed. The light from the hallway would spill in a slanted rectangle on the darkened carpet, making gold of what was dull in the daytime. He wove from memory stories of Calypso, Nausicaa, Telemachus and Penelope. He gave me the words to imagine in my mind how my future would be an adventure of circular paths, waves that would beat me back, and a goal to find whatever Ithaca would mean to me.

It could be home or wisdom or hope. It could be something in my imagination or beyond its gossamer borders. And before I knew what he was trying to say to me he was teaching me that what guides us no matter the moment or impediment is who we are in our complicated essence. And perhaps something more. This gift both my parents unfolded for me of the perseverance that is love.

This is my last blog post. Thank you so much to everyone who has read what I’ve written and left your mark on me by your comments. Especially but not limited to -- the feisty, the sweetness, the sensitive thug, yes sss ss s, todd, the fighter, the best hugger, the Yankee faithful, the un-average, the badass blonde, the tough girl, the brave girl, the synchronicity believer, nato, and the anonymous friend who sends encouraging emails. To me, you are all extraordinary.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

if you'll believe in me, i'll believe in you

In the modern vernacular, to say someone is “in denial” is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behavior, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it’s not a problem.

Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.
A few months ago, a friend and I had a long telephone conversation. In the midst of it, he told me he didn’t like that I brought out the boast in him. He went a step further and asked why I never boasted about much of anything. “You, who have all this shit to say something about, you just sit there quietly, not saying anything.” (To which I responded, maturely, "BAH ha ha ha.")

He said he meant to make a point about confidence – that when you know something about yourself and it's worth something, you don’t need to let anyone else know by talking about it. You just let it be. And I’m uncomfortable with compliments, but that one made grin and be grateful. I wondered if it’s because I’m the younger sidekick to a self-promotional older sister (who else sent revised Christmas lists to her parents at age 7?) so I never learned the trick of talking the talk. Or it may be because I’ve always felt guilty for getting too much attention when I was young by the unearned virtue of surviving a rough start.

It’s honestly easier for me to see things to boast about in other people. I think it’s a Yeatsian joke that the folks who see the least in themselves lack conviction while those who can perceive more than they deserve bear the passionate intensity. And it sometimes takes me a while to make the distinction between them. But if I give someone too much credit, I’ll eventually see their boast-unworthy side and be less Buddhist than I'd wish about them. I’ve hexed all sorts of unhealthy ends on people (and their sensitive body parts) who have wronged my friends. I’ve wished something would come around to those who go around hurting others without remorse.

And some of the too-much-credit I know I give is about the denial detailed in the quote above that I took from a NY Times article last week about the psychology of it. The piece goes on to argue that it’s essential for us to deny hurts and lies because they make relationships survive. Denial (not just a river!) is an evolutionary trick we conjure so we can forgive the inevitable slights that come and go with love. It’s as if our mind needs some magic to repair what would otherwise separate us one from one.

There is of course another way to come to forgiveness. It’s the imagination necessary to put yourself in someone else’s place and wonder what you would do under the same conditions. What courage or fear would guide you to something wise or something you'd wish to submit to revision. What love would make someone else more important to you than you. What worry or shame would keep you from slighting yourself before you would cut another.

The origins of my judgment are often better than their results. It sometimes takes an outside view to make me see in sharpness what I can blur with denials. I know I have rosily fallen for manipulation rather than truth and found myself to blame in what followed.

In the end, though, the only thing I’ve learned is more forgiveness. The only thing that remains, after earned time, is more hope. And I’m not sure I want to be cured of thinking most people are worth more than they think they are. The lessons I learn again and again in deciphering the difference are ones I haven’t mastered by any means. But -- and this is boastful -- I don’t know if I want to alter the part of me that invites the variety of experience that pairs with seeing beneath a surface and finding what I thought I saw, something I didn’t see and something to forgive in each of us as we emerged.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Last week I thought I saw him at the Bruce Springsteen concert. There's no reason to believe my eyes other than an association between him and his favorite musician and how he loved the opening line of Thunder Road.

And it brought back flashes I've detailed once before. How he pulled me with one arm into his skinny length, how he'd fix me in a smile with a grin with dimples, the marathon phone sessions from Brooklyn to Missouri as our voices skipped from sports to film to literature to rap to faded with sleep in the dawn. And then: how he cried in my arms one night about the pressures he felt to be perfect, how he wondered aloud if his parents loved him, how he hid the depression that finally outed, how he truly thought it was impossible for me not to miss him.

I thought then that I'd never recover from losing love that shook me. But he was my best lesson in how some people can unfold. We believe sometimes they are who they say they are, when it's their actions that show their true form. How those who can fear who they are underneath say the right things for affection until their praise proves a feint.

I thought my heart would skip or a feeling would echo but neither happened. My father, as usual, was right. He promised and predicted back then that I wouldn't regret taking a risk that failed because we only wish for revisions when we shy from the possibility of mistake.

And I remember his voice softened a bit for my younger self when he said that he hoped I'd learned from all of it to give my heart to those who deserved it better. How he hoped I'd learn to know it wasn't my fault for thinking M was who he seemed at first. How people can unfold from the hopes we have in them into the more fragile art they prove to be.

Monday, November 19, 2007


Apparently I had an internal alarm clock as a kid that only worked on Saturday mornings as an alert for punctual cartoon watching. My mother tells me it took a herculean effort to get me out of bed on school days, complete with bacon bribery, so it mystified her that I could wake up like a shot at 7 am on the only day she could sleep in to watch men in capes and tights run around saving people.

My favorite show (that I remember) was Spiderman and His Amazing Friends. I'll admit I hoped to grow up to be Firestar someday (what is it about curvy redheaded women who can generate fire?) and would close my eyes at bedtime in my pink footie pajamas to imagine how it would be to fly and set things aflame.

I've always had a thing for comic book heroes even though I haven't read nearly as much as I wish. Last week, a work friend lent me Daredevil: Visionaries (written by filmmaker Kevin Smith, with a pretty awesome intro by Ben Affleck -- and yes, I know I'm not supposed to like the movie, but I do and I watch it pretty much every time TNT shows it) in his kind quest to keep me up with comics. At the time, I was finishing up Fortress of Solitude, which features a storyline you have to believe in to believe the book, a metaphor that mixes comic book heroism with the way we hope in the form a ring that can make boys fly and men (who can imagine) be invisible.

Smith's Daredevil is about the cliches of storytelling and villains, how heroes must inevitably sacrifice the ones they love, how even those entrusted to save us need saving, and how acts of heroism are more about the courage of trying again and again -- and the heart that takes, more than any kind of gift of strength, smarts or hubris. As a heroine tells Daredevil after making a list of all the doomed women he's loved:
I tell you these things not to hurt you, but to help you. Because someone as good as you shouldn't be alone. You deserve to be loved and content and fulfilled in your personal life, because your life as Daredevil will never offer you purchase from the storm. You need a place to hang your heart at the end of the day. You need peace.... Look within yourself for that peace before you look for it in someone else. Because you'll only be setting that someone else up to disappoint you.
Who knew a superhero's woman troubles could echo the questions we all have about affection and the risks we take to share it?

And it's not long before comics take their turn from stuff we dream on to stuff we read to remember what it was to believe implicitly in the day saved. The Fortress book wonders what life would be like if we could spring our friends from the prisons they and the world makes of their lives. And it weaves how those friends spare us from pain in the way they take on the burdens we cannot conceive from our easier vantage.

I think we're all much more capable of saving than we sometimes imagine. There is so much courage in simply loving anyone. There is bravery in being happy. There is some kind of audacity in seeing what is good in someone instead of what is flawed. And there is un-ordinary strength in doing anything that makes us risk what we most fear. Courage being something we have not because we don't have fear but because we do and we know it and we do it anyway.

People and stories save me all the time. Seeing someone else struggle and emerge gives me a simile for how to confront my own made-up villains. Observing a personality unfold in its complexity is a lesson in the mirror that compassion can be. Reading a book with simple or beautiful lines that link to my life make me fold over page edges to mark the spot where the words inked are what I thought I knew before I knew it or what I need to know. The way that words can wrap around us to save us and lift us in something like imagined flight.

Monday, November 12, 2007

the fortress of solitude

In the film No Country for Old Men the villain/assassin gives two potential victims a choice of their fate. He holds a coin and flips it and slaps it down and insists that they call it. The choice is everything. In one case, the victim is unaware of the consequences of the decision. In the other, the victim knows and refuses to choose. Because, she says, the choice is solely his. So a simple coin becomes something more than just heads or tails. It is how we view the future and our power over its eventuality.

The movie is one of those ones that haunt you well after you see it. The cinematography is sometimes bleached yellow and brown and often bleak and broad. Each character could be a full film on his or her own. The story raises questions about how we deal with fate and death, how we weigh the worth of our lives, how the choices we make have consequences we can and cannot see, and how we repeat past lives with just a faded light to guide us because knowledge only comes to us by linear and not borrowed time.

As my friend and I walked out into the street from the theater and our eyes adjusted from the fluorescent lobby lights to the city's curving darkness we both said that we liked how the film raised more questions than it answered. That there were certain scenes and story lines that the viewer has to choose to settle and solve or leave to mystery. An artful mimic of the way life is often how we see it: clearer from the outside than from our inside.

This notion of how life shifts its mystery is something raised again and again in a book I'm reading called The Fortress of Solitude. The title is a reference to Superman's private headquarters -- rendered in icy blades in the 1970s movies, probably because it's supposed to be hidden in the Arctic somewhere. The book is about New York City in the 1970s and the friendship between white and Jewish Dylan Ebdus and black and older Mingus Rude. It's about the jagged trajectory that friendships take when they are complicated by race, age, decisions and time.

And the book has many lines and paragraphs that haunt me and make me swoon and this is just one of them:

Mingus Rude, Arthur Lomb, Gabriel Stern and Tim Vandertooth, even Aaron K. Doily: Dylan never met anyone who wasn't about to change immediately into someone else. His was a special talent for encountering persons about to shed one identity or disguise for another. He took it in stride by now.
It makes me think of Superman and Clark Kent, of the characters in 'No Country' who shift with their circumstances, of all the people I've known and will know who will turn like a prism into split light that spills in unpredictable color.

How do we know people? By what they say and then what they do. And then, slowly, by how they shed who they think they are supposed to be for us and finally, chrysalis-like, become the complication they are. And the coin flip of intimacy is our choosing: if we let someone see us not just as we wish to be seen but as we are beneath. An un-simple act of courage to hold our hands out and up for examination among the lines that tangle and diverge and cross there.

And this, I think, is when life is most interesting. This shedding of disguises that reveals the spaces between us aren't as wide as we perceive them to be. Those moments when someone ventures a thought that feels like a jump without looking only to uncover an unforeseen and shared history. Or when the leap taken is answered with less judgment and more compassion and perhaps love. How we make the anticipation of the needle worse than its dive into skin.

We are wise to guard ourselves from each other. It's impossible to know how someone will carry our heart until the disguises are lifted, until unknown hearts are known. But it's so rare that we can give when we know what will be given. And when we do offer up without knowing the consequences, when we make this choice to shed solitude for intimacy, the mystery that life is spills into the light a bit more. Because it is rare that you are what I want you to be or I am what you wish me to be but it doesn't matter because it is so much more beautiful to be the unpredictable pattern that you are and that I am and that we all are meant to be.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


Look closely enough and you can see the metaphor in anything. For me, cosmology conjures strings between what is out there and what is within us. These infinite and tiny facing mirrors that make me wonder if who we are is just an echo of what has always been.

And as I was watching 'The Universe' recently it linked in my mind to this book I read called
Open to Desire: The Truth about What Buddha Taught. The book is about the nature of desire and how we confuse it and make ourselves suffer because of it. Buddha taught that it's human nature to suffer. But to say it's because we are attached to things is a mistranslation. There is no way around being attached to things and people. But clinging to them -- that's where the suffering begins. It's the simple difference between holding a coin in your hand with a closed fist or an open palm. One method grips and worries; the other frees and offers.

I've done this. I've gripped onto relationships that were wrong for me because I feared being alone more than I worried about being with someone who didn't want or know my best and whom I couldn't help in happiness. But those relationships only made me suffer amidst questions and struggle and the discomfort of knowing someone isn't right for you despite what your heart may need.

The author describes how to avoid the clinging that can distort desire like this:

The problem is not desire: it is clinging to, or craving, a particular outcome, one in which there is no remainder, in which the object is completely under our power. … The trick, as far as Buddhism is concerned, is to accept the fact that no experience can ever be as complete as we would wish, that no object can ever satisfy completely….

Allowing ourselves into desire's abyss turns out to be the key to a more complete enjoyment of its fruits. By experiencing desire in its totality: gratifying and frustrating, sweet and bitter, pleasant and painful, successful and yet coming up short, we can use it to awaken our minds. The dualities that desire seems to take for granted can be resolved through a willingness to drop into the gap between them. Even living in the world of senses, we can be free.

So the gap becomes this place of true desire. This freedom to let go of fixed notions of how a person should act or be because the essence of connection is there even when it's clear you are separate and imperfect. Even when you feel disconnected and even when you are in synchronicity. The dualities fall away because they can never encompass the width of experiencing another person. So desire can become something that frees instead of something that holds.

I think desire is a force that moves us because we want to go back to our origin, that moment before dualities when all was one. Lovers are like gravity, pulling us into them like a planet weighing down the fabric of spacetime. Sex is this moment of movement and combination that, yes, can potentially lead to creation like that origin did – but more importantly can always lead to orgasm, this incredible release of energy and joy that lights us up like that first moment of the universe when there was no longer darkness but a point of light that burst forth like our moans and shouts and expanded like that moment expands us and makes us feel one and the same and connected to everything. Every time we lock and move ourselves into each other, every time we surrender and open and push into each other, we have that chance to feel that moment when everything – everything – was connected and one. To recreate that moment of origin when we forget what we are and only know the pure bliss of connection and heat and joy and passion and love and rush and awe.

We aren't meant to be still – to cling to each other in stillness. We hold on tight to still moments because of their joy or power, but the universe is meant to be in constant motion, has been in constant motion since that first moment of incomprehensible singularity. Inside us, DNA and cells spin like tiny clock parts. Blood flows, breath billows and contracts in an ocean rhythm, thoughts form and fall. Go larger: Earth spins, the moon orbits, the planets circle the sun in ellipse, the solar system twirls in the moving Milky Way, which moves out and out by the universe's expansion, this stretch and pull of spacetime fabric.

So when we cling we disobey the laws of the universe. We knock against an unnatural wall of being. Only when we give into flow and flaw, only when we accept that we and life can never be truly still, do we discern our connection to all. As we can in that moment of desire fulfilled that begins and ends in movement, that makes our bodies shiver and our hearts beat harder. And isn't that the point? Only connect. This metaphor of things in balance that repeats itself from the way our bodies fit to the way dark energy interacts with visible energy to the way all things come in combination.

In the episode, an astrophysicist says we're too stupid to know the nature of the universe on our own. We needed all the men of the past to wonder and wander in calculation and explanation so we could stand on their shoulders to see the universe in its still-incomplete picture. So the answer, the key, is to be connected to all of that. Knowing there are secrets to the universe we cannot know in our lifetime. Knowing there are depths to each of us that cannot be deciphered.

But we do have this chance to move into each other, to let each other be part of us and not part of us. To see that the point of all this combination and motion is to have moments when there is no need for definition, no need to place borders around what is me and what is you. To simultaneously connect and let go and open to the mysteries that are within and without and that can be known by these moments of perception that can only be felt in surrender, in release, in desire.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

the stars? they watch you when you sleep and they said that you are courageous. it's true.

This article is about memory. About an older woman (AJ) who remembers all the days of her life in cinematic detail and a man (EP) who can't recall the happenings of a just-elapsed moment. It's about how our brain stores the moments of what was so we can better deal with what is and what will be. It's also about how we revere memory for the mark it makes of our intelligence, for how it demonstrates our ability to hold on to that which has vanished in time.

EP has the advantage of being constantly happy: he has no reference to past disappointments to justify worry and bears no memory upon which to build future outcomes, hopes or fears. AJ has the grace of living a life in constant connection between what has been and what is. The extremes of their memories makes me think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. This choice we could have to erase from our minds the relationships that move us most, or to keep the pieces that have reshaped them in loss and love's wake.

I've been preoccupied lately with memory. With the edifice it sets upon life. With the way it can be distorted without our even discerning it. How it can be our guide to what can be, or make us miss possibilities with a different destiny than the cloistered past can foresee. How so much of life and the memories we make of it are set before we are conscious of the repercussions for our hopes and perspectives. How what has been can hide in our subconsciousness only to find contours when we are confronted with a mirrored experience.

It makes me think of my sister. She has a staggering memory for when we were young, down to outfit colors and styles, snippets of conversations and TV show plots that never made a mark on my mind. I envy her her ability to recall so much where I recall so little. And yet, her memories are darker than mine. She remembers fights, flaws and stings better than I do. She remembers our parents in tougher details. So I wonder if, like EP, my recollections are polished by the happiness that comes from more imperfect reminiscence, my ignorant recall's bliss.

I try to be more wary of my memory now. I know it can distort as much as illuminate the present and the possible. This uncanny ability we all seem to have to fix an outcome merely by affixing our fears and worries to it. Merely by our knowledge of what was instead of any gift we have for envisioning.

Memory should be protection, not something that precludes us from outcomes and options. And yet I know I use retrospection to draw corners around my life and how I love people. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to show faith in me or my future for the borders to break. And sometimes it takes a mirror of where I've been for me to perceive that life is less about edges and more about standing at the brink of the sea. Where the waves reach and crest and retreat in repetition like the future and the present and the past. Where the lift and fall of the blue is the way our hearts can open if we let memory be the horizon instead of the sand-filled shore.