Saturday, February 21, 2015

Little Feathers: The Science of Gratitude

Little Feathers: The Science of Gratitude: Okay, that is a dumb title. I know it. But I stole it from an article I read whose writer did not think it was dumb. And, since dumb can be ...

The Science of Gratitude

Okay, that is a dumb title. I know it. But I stole it from an article I read whose writer did not think it was dumb. And, since dumb can be subjective, I read the piece from start to finish. What I found was that the word "science" was used loosly. Kind of like other words we throw around when we really mean something a little different.

Like "addiction". We use "addiction" for simple habits or strong preferences. I'm addicted to checking facebook too often. I'm addicted to watching Justified, or Elementary, or Newsroom. I'm addicted to Jazzercise. Somehow, using the word relieves me of needing to do the work to change the habit if it needs changing for quality of life. If I can actually do the work to change the habit all by myself, chances are great that I am not addicted. I may have an attachment to the thing, and it may be truly hard work to change my behavior, but using "addicted" for behavior I am able to change whenever I want to waters down the true state of the mind when addiction is the reality.

Okay, back to the Science of Gratitude. I imagine that scientists cringe when some of us use the "S" word. I have a friend whom I admire greatly who pointed out that we can't proof for God. If we could, faith would be an obsolete endeavor. Even though many people can point to times in their lives when God revealed something to them in a way that left them no room for doubt about the existence of God, science didn't enter into it. We can't quantify feelings or beliefs. No matter how strongly we feel about them, they can't be proven in a scientific study. I have a sneaky feeling (not provable) that God prefers us to truly experience free will. An irrefutable scientific study proving the existence of God would take free will away entirely.

Gratitude does improve our lives. Gratitude lifts our spirits and makes us less selfish, less critical, and less apt to compare our lives to those of others and come up short. Gratitude is a habit of the mind. And, like other habits, it can be built by conscious repetition until it becomes our go-to response to life. If my brain were a bicep, curls and bent arm hangs would produce noticeable delineation. And maybe, just maybe, the work of grateful hearts/grateful minds does show on us physically. Maybe the sparkle in the eyes of someone you meet is an indication that they live joyfully.

Whether or not a grateful heart makes us live longer or overcome disease more surely isn't science. Not to me. There are too many unknowns, too many variables within the human mind. Some of the most positive, faithful, grateful people I have known have died early from disease. Or lingered long in a debilitated state. My Grandma Rozell was one of the most positive, faithful people ever. But she lost her mind, and her life, to Alzheimer. It was a slow process, and a heartbreaking one. Gratitude did not save her from that. But gratitude shaped her life before the disease took her personal will. Her grateful heart made people want to be with her, to enjoy her laugh and her light spirit. Her grateful spirit lives on in my mind, and the hearts of those who loved her.

The Art of Gratitude. That makes more sense, to me. Art is something we can produce ourselves, by sheer courage, letting others see what we see. The side of my brain that works the hardest is the side that sees in color, not black and white. I'm grateful for the colors, for the questions asked through the centuries, for the freedom that is art. I'm also grateful we have scientists who follow the rules of logic and post their findings for the rest of us to ponder. Both sides of the coin require Thinkers.

Some people say money makes the world go round. I would say gratitude makes the world go round. But I can't prove it.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Little Feathers: Human Being

Little Feathers: Human Being: There is a thin, narrow strip at the center of everything. It runs straight and true from beginning to end. From birth to death. Every now a...

Human Being

There is a thin, narrow strip at the center of everything. It runs straight and true from beginning to end. From birth to death. Every now and then, I stumble across it and am reminded. It is the simple part of being human. It is the being part.

Years ago, a popular phrase that focused in our desire to make our lives matter by being as busy as possible was written everywhere: I am a human being, not a human doing. Like every other catchphrase or slogan or mantra I've come across, it is reactionary and only tells part of the story.

We can't stop doing. Not if we want to tell a story or build a road or serve our fellow humans with our hands. Not if we want to actually love someone. That takes a lot of doing. Every workshop I've ever attended teaches this version of the truth: that successful people are willing to do the things that unsuccessful people are not. Lots of esoteric judgement in that notion. It assumes we all agree on what success actually is. Most of the time, in our society, it has to do with income and recognition. We are asked to suspend our disbelief and imagine that the definition of success is universal. Ah, fame and fortune. Worthy goals, right? We hear it sold to us everywhere: money may not make you happy but it buys the paving for the road to happiness. I won't pretend for one second that I don't like the comfort money can buy. But we can't stop there. We can't say comfort is success, because there are way too many comfortable people drinking themselves to death, or numbing out with other addictions that do not serve them well, in order to face life.

Working on our dreams as if our lives depended on it is a well respected way to live, at least in our society. Bigger, better, longer, faster...who doesn't admire the success stories of those who start with little and end up with a lot?

But is that why we are here? There is more to our existence than the pursuit of happiness as defined by success, as defined by winning. At least, for me.  What role our search for meaning will play in our own happiness can't be recommended to us by someone else. Not even by Viktor E Frankl. Not even Aristotle or Descartes or Charlie Brown. Snoopy comes close, but still...

My theory for today is that stopping to examine my path is a necessary part of my happiness. What is the good life, and how do you live it: a question Bob and I have been asking since our days at Holden Village as teenagers. The answer morphs and re-organizes itself as I grow and change. Being open to growth and change is another requirement for me. Another phrase from the 70s "If you don't know where you are going, you will likely end up somewhere else" is not quite right for me, either. It implies we are in control, and already know what is best for us. Having dreams and goals is good and helpful. But pretending that the best intentioned planner will not be broadsided by unforeseen circumstances is not quite honest.

Being grateful for lessons learned by my failures, being grateful for the comforts born of success, being grateful for time to reflect and ask and learn and fall and get back up again- maybe that is my personal definition of success. Time for being in the midst of all the doing. And grateful for being human. A human being. Who gets to do stuff. I have never put an emoticon in my blog, but I'm tempted to stick a happy face on the end. You'll just have to imagine it here:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Little Feathers: The Soundtrack

Little Feathers: The Soundtrack: I realize I am a little quirky, but many times there is a soundtrack for my life playing along in my head. I have certain favorites for cert...

The Soundtrack

I realize I am a little quirky, but many times there is a soundtrack for my life playing along in my head. I have certain favorites for certain things. I borrowed my downhill ski song from my friend Connie Grosskopf: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" by the Mamas and the Papas. The tempo is just right for my style of skiing, but even more than the tempo, the lightly lilting quality is perfect for staying in the right frame of mind to ski gently.
What is funny to me is the subconscious choice of music. I don't really plan to pick it, like I did the ski song. The first time I understood that was when I narrowly missed being in a car wreck. It was so close, and so traumatic, that I pulled over to let my heart settle down. When I reviewed the scene in my mind, the screeching sound of violins in a frenzy, from a horror movie, accompanied the memory. That sound plays again when a car gets too close or I have to pass an eighteen wheeler on a two lane highway. I am a passing wienie, but that is another story. At any rate, somehow my brain decided that scary sounds were helpful for driving. I tried to override that notion, but it will take some practice to replace that cacophony with something a little more zen.
John Denver stars in my soundtrack a lot. When I reach the top of Don Fernando, a mountain above our cabin in New Mexico, "The Eagle and the Hawk" starts up full volume. If I'm ever there alone, I'll let it rip and join John in a duet. When Bob and I hit the road for home, even though I love our life in Texas just as much because our family is there, John is singing "Goodbye Again" as our car makes its way back down the mountain.
For a reason I can't explain, since no love is lost between true Texans (I'm only a transplant) and those north of the border, when we cross the railroad tracks beyond Clovis and hit the Texas border, I hear Curly and the rest belting out "Oklahoma". Strange. I know. There are a lot of Texas songs. But somehow my mind has chosen that broadway tune to signal re-entry.
Children's songs play a role as well, and maybe that inclination is part of why I chose to write for children. Burl Ives is perfect for paddling a canoe. Most of the time, though, the songs change constantly and I never know what will pop into my head. The last time I cried, Finlandia's yearning strains kept time to the tears.
I guess it's a good thing that only white noise plays when I write. I guess that is so that I can hear my character's voices. At any rate, I sometimes wonder what soundtrack other people hear. Anybody?

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Little Feathers: All the Kings Horses

Little Feathers: All the Kings Horses: When Humpty Dumpty fell the first time, we found out that bad things happen to good people. That smart people do stupid things. Humpty Dumpt...

All the Kings Horses

When Humpty Dumpty fell the first time, we found out that bad things happen to good people. That smart people do stupid things. Humpty Dumpty falls again, day after day, for someone. And all the king's horses and all the kings men can't put Humpty Dumpty back together again. But that old egg can do it himself.  He'll be cracked and crooked, vulnerable and leery of another tumble. But he'll get back up there. It may take him a while, and he may look entirely different from here on out. Bearing his injuries, climbing with a limp.
Will we laugh at him, ridicule him because he got caught out and we didn't (this time)? Will we say he got what he deserved? What intelligent egg would sit on a wall, anyway? Will we call him names like Monica Lewinsky or Pete Rose or Jim Baker or (insert the name of a President you love to ridicule, depending on your political party) to make ourselves feel superior?
The king's horses and the kings men will stand around, pretending to help but too self centered to actually lend aid. They are, after all, royal servants and not egg repair workers.
Mother Teresa isn't in the story. Or maybe she is, just off the page a little, offering encouraging words. Maybe she knows the drill so well that she can be a helper even from that position. Maybe she's seen enough eggs fall to know it happens to every single one who takes a breath to stay alive.
Most likely we are the kings men or Mother Teresa at different times. Hopefully we get more like the latter the older we grow. And forgive ourselves for our horsy smell when we sit idly by.
Today's metaphor is brought to you by life's great struggle.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Little Feathers: Realer and Realer...That's a Word, Right?

Little Feathers: Realer and Realer...That's a Word, Right?: I just finished a book by an incredible writer. The Migration of Animals, by Mary Helen Spect, is just a little beyond me. It's as if I&...

Realer and Realer...That's a Word, Right?

I just finished a book by an incredible writer. Migratory Animals, by Mary Helen Spect, is just a little beyond me. It's as if I'm standing in a group of artists (I know they are artists because they are all very cool looking, dressed in black with slightly messy hair) who are speaking a language I can't quite piece together. I know the individual words. I just can't quite get the gist. I'm standing on the outside of a book, wishing I was smarter. If I was smarter, I could tell stories like this writer. Oh, wait.  I'm doing that deadly comparison thing again. The one that makes me hesitate to put my own writing out there. Is that why I'm blogging? To keep from writing the books?

On Friday night my husband, Bob, and I went to a fancy seafood restaurant. We spend a bundle and got some fabulous food. When we got home, I was thinking about how fortunate we are, how my grandparents would never have gotten to eat at place like that. That got me thinking about my grandmothers' cooking. Both of them were wonderful cooks. Simple food made perfectly. My farm grandma made the best fried chicken (a bird who has never been in the refrigerator before it is cooked is a different animal from the supermarket chicken) and the best, flakiest, biscuits you can possibly imagine. Her vegetables were fresh from the garden or from mason jars where they were "put up" with love and care. The butter she made by shaking a large jar until the creamy solids came together. She cooked from a wheelchair from the time I was a young teen, pulling herself around her messy kitchen with one foot, putting food on the table that lives on in my memory. And she laughed so much and so often, it is a sound that I long to hear again.

You know where I am going with this. I think I do, too. If I were to eat a meal prepared by a famous chef, spent time to recover from it, and then ate my grandma's chicken and biscuits, which would be better?

If writers are charged with telling the truth, who is out there who knows the universal truth for all time? Who knew more about life and loss and victory and surrender than Pooh and Piglet? How long does it take to become real? The velvet gets rubbed off regardless of whether it is loved off or scraped off by happenstance.

We know when we read the truth. We know when we stand in front of a painting if the artist has put their honesty into it.  The hard part may be telling the truth as it has been revealed to us, without mimicking the voice (or the recipes, or the brush strokes) of an admired one just a little (or a lot) more educated than we are.

I'm grateful for writers like Dostoyevsky and Rilke, Stringfellow and Kierkegaard. They challenge my mind and make my blood richer. But where would we be without Charles Schultz, Erma Bombeck and A.A. Milne?

We're all getting the velvet rubbed off, and the stuffing knocked out of us. Hopefully it's making us realer and realer all the time, and not just cranky, limp copycats.

My daughter, Sally Nava, helped me with the music for this poem years ago. It was part of youth play at church. I really like the flute part. Thanks, Sally.