Changing Possibilities

For our anniversary this weekend, my husband gave me perfume.
I asked for this kind of perfume, but I didn’t really expect him to get it.

So a fancy little box that was heavier than I expected was presented on the day of our anniversary. I could not guess what it was, until the box slid into my hand

Chanel No. 5

It smelled even better than I remembered. And so, for the rest of our meal, we did one of the things we do best.

With the help of our phone browsers we learned all about Coco Chanel and her perfume and fashion empire.

This perfume is from 1921, almost a hundred years ago.

I remember reading in old regency romance type novels, how women who were invited to balls were often told what perfume to wear. This was to keep the scents from becoming confused.

Eau de cologne was popular before. And scents were a message about what kind of woman you were.

Which is what Coco Chanel wanted to change. She chose a signature scent, which was different from all the others, and let a woman be what she chose to be.

And she didn’t stop there. She created a whole new kind of suit for women.

I had an idea in my mind of what a Chanel suit looked like, from photos of Jackie Kennedy in the 60s. Tailored, kind of tweedy, but very proper.

The first Chanel suit was very different. Taking a big step away from the corsets of the Victorian era, this suit was slouchy and made out of knit fabric. There was about as much shape as a bathroom.

I could never imagine Jackie Kennedy in an original Chanel suit.

But I could also imagine the women taking off their corsets to be more comfortable and active in these loose suits. What a big change! Just by creating a new option, women could renegotiate their place in the world.

Chanel lived through two world wars, and even famously collaborated with the Nazis when Paris was occupied. I do not admire that part of her story.

I do admire her ability to take her life out of the very humble beginnings and imagine new possibilities for everyone. That’s a nice thought on my 12th anniversary, as I smell this historic perfume on my wrist.

Long Way

It’s easy to see the problems. That is where my attention is focused on.

But I’m learning not to lead with the problems when I’m working with other people. It’s a rookie move.

When I am climbing a mountain and I am tired and giving up, nothing picks me up like turning around and seeing how far I’ve come. That backward glance puts the trail ahead in perspective.

So for the times when I have to gather up a group of people to talk about what’s going on–when the problem is as loud and glaring as a repeating emergency alert

UUHHHHNNN

UUHHHHNNN

UUHHHHNNN

I gather my thoughts and state out loud what’s been done.

What we’ve accomplished so far

The road we’ve travelled together successfully

 

Before addressing the current problem to be surmounted.

I start by reminding every one that once upon a time, not so very long ago we had other problems and that today those problems are conquered.

So let’s get together and overcome a few more problems.

We’ve done it before, and we’ll do it again.

This is what I know.

I’ve been reading feminist books lately. And some of the problems have been sounding the glaring emergency alert in my mind.

I did what I do. Read more; learn more, go back to read the older books.

Today I picked up a real oldie: Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women

She wrote this to the French during their famous revolution. Remember that one? Right after the American Revolution?

She was pushing them to give women the right to a better education and the right to vote.

She described how women were not considered human.

And that is a cold dark look up the long trail ahead. That lands in my gut like a punch. And I am only in chapter one.

Oh Mary. Mary. Mary.

Deep breath.

Look at what we’ve done together. Women are educated in record numbers in America. Women have been able to vote for 99 years in America. We can own property, have bank accounts and borrow money.

That’s a lot. That’s a lot of trail we’ve covered.

This is no time to lose heart. There is a still a long way to go. Like I said, it’s only chapter one.

Stores of Stories

He’d told me that I could ask to borrow the Walkman. She was our friend and friends lend you things, he said.

I had barely turned 20 and my same-age boyfriend and I hung out at this older married couple’s house all the time. Mostly because they would let us, and they would feed us.

Yes, they were friends but I was not used to borrowing things from friends.

Especially adults.

She was nice about it, when I asked her if I could borrow it. She told me that her boyfriend from years ago had bought it for her. She had memories and stories about this music player.

I was grateful that she lent it, but even more fascinated by the stories. This house that I spent my spare time in was full of things with stories.

I didn’t have that. I didn’t have things, for starters. But I also didn’t have stories.

I hadn’t lived enough to collect them. Either of them.

That has changed.

Now my home is full of things that have storied memories. I have so many things, with so many more stories that likely no one else is interested in.

A friend of mine is selling his home, where all his children grew up. His real estate agent blew through giving him advice on how to make the house appealing to strangers.

“Oh THAT picture has to go!”

Philistines. Can’t they appreciate the beauty of my precious thing?

My own things. My own stories. My beloved items with their memories and exquisite arrangements are gray fog to others.

Maybe they are the shibboleths that help me recognize other people who would understand my stories.

Or maybe things are just things. I broke my adult friend’s Walkman after all. I felt terrible but she was cool about it. She still had the story.

inconvenient

I knew a woman who had lived in one town for decades. Then she moved to a new address 10miles away. She drove past more than one grocery store to shop at the old store she was used to.

Familiar is so nice. How does it get better than that?

Wanting something better means I have to go outside what’s familiar and try something new.

Years ago me and a friend tried out the neighborhood tennis court. She said she’d played once, and I never had. We found some rackets at a thrift store and some tennis balls and set to it.

I knew what tennis was supposed to look like. Toss up a bouncy green ball in the air. Swat it with a round racket, and the ball sails over the net. The other person runs, swats it back over and a swanlike game ensues.

So I threw the ball up, swung my racket and watched the ball bounce at my feet.

Whoops.

This time throw the ball higher.

I was not good at this. We began to lower our sights from playing a game to just returning a serve.

It was Hard! And I was not good at it.

I never played tennis again.

But that is still one of my favorite memories.

I can try new things. And I can be not very good at it. But I can have a lot of fun and move on.

I might move on to something comfortable and familiar. But I’m willing to try something less convenient too.

Trust

“I have learned I can trust fairy tales.”

I’d found an old favorite book, and was reading it to Veronica. I was teasing her “What do you think will happen? What is going on?”

She can only tolerate a certain amount of tension. This was a lot of pressure!

So she deflected to a safe place:

“I have learned I can trust fairy tales. Think about it, Mommy. There will be terrible things happening, but it will all come out happily ever after.”

Fairy tales give us this promise:
if you are the good guy
if you are the hero
things will come out in your favor

This is the promise. And I love them for it.

A few years ago, a spiritual-but-not-religious person presented me with a similar idea:
We live in a friendly universe.

At the time, I was convinced that the world I lived in required constant vigilance. There were people out to get me, and I had to watch out. Not only that, but it took striving to get ahead. It was folly to think I could rely on a friendly hand up.

But I liked the idea.

I had heard it before from my childish seat in church “all things work together for good to those who love God”

It sounds nice, but when I am looking at a situation that seems anything but good it is accusation. What’s the problem? Don’t I love God enough for things to work out to the good?

It’s pretty easy to get pessimistic fast when things don’t seem to be working out. And I had gotten into the dark side, pretty sure that things just didn’t work out.

But the idea of a friendly universe carried less obligation. I didn’t believe it, but I liked the idea.

Whatever is going to happen will happen. So why not imagine it will turn out well?

It might. It might not. But if I could trust it, I’d have a lot better life.

My daughter has the right idea. We can learn to trust the fairy tales.

counterbalancing the evils

Me and the family just got back from a week in Hawaii. It’s the longest trip we’ve taken together, distance-wise. And it is nice to get away.

It’s also nice to come home. Settling in at home again, I picked up my (audio) book of Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, since I’ve been nibbling away at it all year. I discovered that Charles had come to end of his voyage, and he was ready to give his readers his opinion on traveling.

He is a great observer, after all. The whole book is filled with his close observations of what he sees. The meta-significance of his travelers would not escape his analysis. In Victorian style, he gives his advice on travel:

“No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils.”

It’s not for everyone. And he didn’t even have to deal with Jetlag! I’m not going to be myself for a while. Except I did really enjoy seeing new things, and stepping outside my usual life. I escaped to the Green World and came back transformed.

Lots of people talk about their summer vacations, and not many of them are able to adequately express their changed perspective. I am grateful to my serendipitous reading of Darwin to save me from trying. After all, I’m still worn out from all that relaxing and I’m trying to merge back into the high-speed freeway of my life

My essay this week will stand on the shoulders of another.

His final word about traveling, is that it “ought to teach him [the traveller] distrust, but at the same time he will discover how many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance.”

In addition to seeing new things and understanding this world we live in, we also get to learn that the world is full of really nice people. When we get vulnerable to others, it seems to allow others–from all over–to step up and be kind.

For a man who was about to change humanity’s perception of their place in the universe, he began with a great appreciation for people’s good nature.

Second Chance

In the middle of summer, my strawberry bed is producing well. It’s a fight between the birds and me to see who will get the ripe red berries first. I have tried to leave the berries on their mother plants, to let the green recede to full redness. The birds are not as patient as I, and will peck at the red bits if they see it.

Berries that are hidden under a leaf can stay intact, but the brighter they are the more likely they will be seen.

strawberry

I’ve learned to pick them faster, or I won’t have any. I’m not always prepared to eat them right away. I would leave a little pile of pink-red-greenish berries on table or the counter.

Simon cat found them, and would bat the round things off to the floor. Bad kitty!

New plan: put the delicious berries in a dish.

And there the berries are safe, waiting for me to wash and eat them.

I know strawberries are best when fresh, and I have a treasure from my garden.

I was getting ready to eat them, really, when I see the berries have dissolved into rottenness.

I have failed. I am too late and I have lost my chance.

My berries will not fulfill their strawberry destiny. All the work I put into building the strawberry bed, installing the watering system, and planting them –it has all come to nothing.

Why did I let this moment pass? Why did a squander all the work that made these berries?

I’d been looking forward to these berries for months! Why did I falter right at the moment they were at long last ready?

What’s wrong with me?

And then I remember.

I will get another chance. Very soon.

The new green berries will ripen. The whole system of the world is fashioned around second chances.

Each strawberry is a poem of abundance–how many seeds does one berry really need? There are more than enough.

True, strawberry season will end when the cold hits. But it will begin again.

I’ll do the work to keep my harvest, but I can be a little easier on myself. There is margin for error.

Thinking hard so I don’t have to

It’s halfway through summer. With all the long days, summer feels like it is lazy. I am not so good at lazy and I woke up this morning ready to start making plans.

Whenever I make a plan, the goal is to set up a system so that I don’t’ have to think about it. Thinking is strong medicine; it’s best to keep it in reserve.

I recently read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He names two systems for thinking, one fast and one slow. The slow one is the one I am talking about keeping in reserve.

The fast one is the one I want to use all the time. It’s a kind of thinking that’s barely thinking–practically a reflex. Some of the basics are things like “Am I thirsty?”

These are things that a baby knows.

For more complicated kind of thinking, I have to set up a structure to make it easy. And that takes work.

A good example is learning the multiplication tables. Seven times nine requires a lot of thought, until I make a point (as a school child) of memorizing the multiplication tables. Once I took the time and effort to put all that information in my easily retrievable memory, it was easy.

The memorization was hard, but after that it was easy.

I have found that many things work that way. If I put in the time and practice for stuff I do–or stuff I PLAN to do–repeatedly, it will save effort.

In the past few years, I have started several new jobs. Since these jobs rely on me to use my brain, for every single new job I have had to learn a set of documents, files processes and systems that are necessary to do the work.

And then there are the parts of the job for which there are no processes or systems. Those parts I have to make up as I go along. Those are the ones that require gathering the information, determining what’s relevant, making a decision and taking an action.

When I am new in a job, I have to think about every decision and action I take. There are a very few things I am sure of–username and password are often the first.

Then I have to go through and figure out the systems and processes for each thing. It takes several months before I’m sure of which ones have a system and which ones are in the make-it-up bucket.

Every workplace has gaps. If those gaps are actions that need to be repeated, then I make up my own system, my own folder and files. Once I have made that decision, then I don’t have to think about it anymore. I just process it and leave my mind free for the situations I don’t have an answer for.

My job is a game I play, a game in which someone else creates the rules. I have to play by the rules or I don’t play anymore. And the rules do change.

I am also allowed to make up my own game. And that is what I do when I come up with a personal project.

If I am serious about making my plans a reality, I have to create a system and a process–a schedule if possible–to let that plan be easy. If I have to think too hard, I will very likely never do it.

That kind of thinking takes effort. It’s hard, and ponderous, and it is way more accurate. That’s the slow thinking Kahneman talks about in the book.

That’s why I like to find a patch of free time, to think about what I want to do, figure out the outcome and the steps it will take to do it. Take it slow, think it through and set it up so that I don’t have to do it again. At least, not for a while.

Can the world be saved by Beauty?

The name of Dorothy Day has been popping up in my readings lately. She’s a religious role model for the Catholic Church, and a writer. I decided to look into this person

I just finished reading Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. It was written by her granddaughter, so there were a lot of personal stories. Dorothy started as a Bohemian and communist in the early part of the 20th century. She was politically active and involved with the union movement and then a communist.

But she surprised her friends when she took a turn in the middle of her activism and joined the Catholic Church. As a convert, she took her Catholicism very very very seriously.

For her, the religious devotion and the social activism formed an alchemy that led her to start hospitality houses–basically homeless shelters–for down and out people who needed a place to go.

She had a never-ending soup kitchen in her hospitality houses, and she fed and sheltered people. She had a newspaper called The Catholic Worker that put forth her religious and political philosophies. It’s still going.

She wrote essays and newspaper pieces. She published books. And she shared what she had with people who needed it.

A lot of people admire her, and right now she is on the shortlist for sainthood.

I tasted ash in my mouth after I finished the book. What about her daughter? Didn’t a mother have some responsibility to keep her child safe and give her a good chance in life?

I don’t romanticize communes. I spent time in and around them and it seems a very messy solution. The book underlines some of that mess.

I knew I didn’t have the picture of Dorothy Day that most people did. This book didn’t give me the reasons why so many admired her. I needed to read more. I picked out Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion.

That sounded like admiration. The author Robert Coles had known Dorothy, and he wrote the book with a lot of conversations that they had. So there were stories and her self-interpretation of her life. The picture emerged.

I did like her humility and her intensity. She believed intensely in what was right, but could back away from taking herself too seriously just in time. Holding a high standard in one hand and mercy in the other.

That could create a crowd of admirers. Faithful readers of a column, that might not ask too deeply about how her daughter had not been given enough options in her life to make good choices.

But life is messy. And Dorothy Day was trying hard. She was actively looking to help the needy.

The needy aren’t so easy to help. The needy will steal and drink all the alcohol. Sometimes.

I could see how she made some ultimate sacrifices. And also how in more than one sense, the sacrifices were pointless. The need was too great.

That’s they mystical part, how she believed in what she was doing despite all evidence to the contrary.

I’m not convinced that her methods work. But I am not convinced they are worthless either.

I’ve spent a little time looking at her life. She was very intense. I would not make the same choices that she did. And her choice had very broad effects. She lived a marvelous life.

Know what I mean

Re-visiting some classics, I read “A Modell of Christian Charity” which is a sermon by John Winthrop given to the Pilgrims of America on the Mayflower

This is the sermon where he talks about being “a city on a hill”, which I just this second discovered is a TV series on Showtime.

What? A Pilgrim preacher said something that is now a ShowTime series?

Before it was on TV, it was quoted by Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Reagan.

It’s a good quote.

I’m doing a new project exploring American literature, and this is one of the FIRST big deals for America. (You can check out the project here. Please subscribe)

I’m going back to the beginning and making a list of the significant writings in America.

Reading this sermon was part of the research. It’s not long–only 9 pages on the PDF I found.

But let me say that again. It’s 9 pages of a SERMON. These puritans had stamina for preaching. 9 very dry pages. I’ve heard a lot of sermons, and this one is not like any I’ve ever heard. If it were preached in America today, the whole church would be snoring.

And the good part is on the last page. He took a long way round to get to the part that no one can forget.

And I have to wonder, could he have done with a little editing? Could those first 8 pages be dropped?

Maybe his audience needed to hear that part first before the good part could sink in. I’m not a Puritan. Winthrop was. Maybe his crowd needed the jackhammer of scripture references, and question & answer exposition.

The Pilgrims were very serious. At least their sermons were. My crowd is not that serious. I am reminded of another author, Terry Pratchett, saying serious is not the opposite of funny…Funny can get through the keyhole while serious is still pounding on the door. I’d spice my speeches up with a little laughter.

But it can take some doing to get to the part where it gets through. With writing it take building the right foundation. For me, as a writer, I often have to sneak up on myself to even know what it was I was trying to say.

I don’t know what I mean until I have sad it.

And even then, I am pretty sure I left a lot of material unsaid.

Deceptively, once the bell is rung, it seems so clear and pure that the climb it took to ring it seems inconsequential and unnecessary.

I don’t know why, and I don’t know the exactly amount of extra it takes to ring the bell. But it takes it. The switchbacks enhance the view.