Everyday thoughts on
By a human aspiring to be a cat
Some years ago now, my dear friend and colleague and I used to frequent one particular pizza joint that was walking distance from our work. We'd order a couple slices, a couple beverages, and a basket of jalapeño poppers. And every time when the poppers arrived, after taking his first bite, my friend would say:
"The poppers are especially good today!"
It didn't matter if we were there for lunch or dinner, if it was sunny or rainy, if we had a productive or frustrating day. It didn't matter if it had been a month since our last visit or if we had already been there a couple times earlier that same week. It didn't matter how hungry we were, or who was on staff that day. Without fail, every time we were there he would say those same exact words: "The poppers are especially good today!"
There was no magic or amnesia or groundhog involved, and the recipe wasn't adjusted or refined from day to day. The poppers were exactly the same every time. One day we had a good laugh when he caught himself saying his usual line and then added: "Ha, I just said that yesterday, didn't I..." It became a sort of joke between us. But we kept ordering the especially-good-today poppers, and the tradition continued.
It didn't occur to me until years later, after my friend had moved away to a different state, that the especially-good-today poppers had nothing to do with the poppers themselves and everything to do with the company and the relationship we had built while we worked together. I've been to that pizza joint a few times since, and the poppers weren't all that special, no matter if it was sunny or rainy, if it had been a good day or not, or how hungry I was. Still the same poppers as before... but different now. There were no celebrations, no sorrows, no frustrations and no wisdoms shared over these new poppers. They were not infused with the most important ingredients: friendship, love, and trust. They were just plain poppers.
I've come to a realization that it doesn't matter nearly as much what it is that you do, as how you're doing it. And especially, with whom you're doing it, because that often affects the how part of things. One person might inspire you to explore a new hobby and stick with it. One person might teach you to untangle some bad habits you've picked up over the years. One person might make the mundane days at work exciting and full of unique moments and opportunities. There is an infinite wealth of knowledge we can exchange with each other that can trigger our imagination and unlock a new ambition, a new passion, or a new respect, whether it's for something we've never tried before or for the everyday things we take for granted. Take a minute to listen and to share, and you might find your life enriched with something that's especially-good-today every day. And maybe you'll find yourself with a new friend, too. :-)
We all have moments when we feel small, when we feel incompetent and powerless, disillusioned with ourselves and with the world. Whether they're triggered by an action or an observation, weather changes or shifting of planets, those moments of despondency can sometimes turn into hours. Hours can stretch into a full day, then two days, then a full week, and so on. Oftentimes, the longer a "moment" lasts, the harder it can be to escape from it. The darkness weighs heavily and stifles you until the heart becomes mute.
Ideally, we want to break out of the cycle before reaching complete apathy. It is good to ask for help, to seek out a friend, a loved one, a trained professional: someone we can trust and someone who can shake us back into our own selves. Someone who can lead us to find the confidence to rise and stand on our own again. Because ultimately, our health and well-being is our own responsibility. It's like jumpstarting a car: you get the initial kick, but once the engine is on, it's up to you to do the driving. And then it's up to you to do the necessary maintenance. You want to make sure you don't need to attach jumper cables to another car every single time you need to go somewhere.
I am no doctor and no expert on clinical depression, and I realize that in severe cases of trauma and chemical imbalance you may need to "regulate" yourself by relying on external sources (drugs, therapy, etc). But I believe that all creatures go through seasonal ups and downs, and I believe that much of it can be self-managed. I think in the end it comes down to knowing yourself and to being honest with yourself. Knowing what opens up your heart, and what shuts it close. Shifting your perception away from thinking what you should feel to being aware of what you do feel and acknowledging it for what it is.
What makes things especially difficult for me is that much of my rational thinking goes out the window whenever the darkness hits. So I put my energy into preventive measures, that is, focusing on what keeps me balanced. There is a saying in Poland that goes something like this:
Within a healthy body resides a healthy spirit.
I was talking with my dad recently about my ideas for writing this post, and he pointed out to me that the Polish saying that I remember from my childhood actually comes from Latin:
Mens sana in corpore sano.
Which translates into:
Healthy mind in a healthy body.
Though the two have slightly different connotations, I find both to be very, very true. If I'm hungry, sick, tired from overworking or from a sleepless night, it is much easier for me to lose my temper, start arguments, hold on to grudges, and decide that my life is altogether meaningless. Taking care of my physical body is one of the best things I can do to take care of my mental health.
At some point, I also decided to make a sort of "emergency" cheat-list of things that I know are good for me, but I don't necessarily think of or feel like doing when the world sucks. Not everything on the list works every time, but usually something does, and it gives me enough of a push to get out of the funk. Here are some things that help me:
I'll say again: the most important thing is to be honest with yourself. Your body will often try to tell you what you need. It is good to learn to listen to it.
I have one more thought to add:
Taking care of our mental health is obviously an important thing to do for our own well being, but I think there is another great importance that's easy to overlook. How we act and how we feel affects not just us, but also everybody within our environment. Doing your best to keep healthy is simply the responsible thing to do, for yourself and for your community. Healthy individuals make up a healthy world.
I hope you find this helpful!
I notice that a lot of people who want to be an artist, want to be recognized as an artist this very millisecond. They want to be appreciated for their accomplishments. They want to be praised for their skill. They want to feel distinguished and unique. What I don't sense, from many people, is a need or a desire to go on the journey to get there and then to keep going beyond it. I don't know if it's a generational thing (age of instant everything), or a regional thing (US), or a planetary thing (it's always been this way). But I have some gripes with this.
Art, to me, is something that moves your soul, that soothes or stimulates your heart, that makes you realize something new or makes you question something new. It is an expression of a thought, or a feeling, or an observation. It is human made, and it is consciously made. A sunset is not art. A painting, or a photograph, or a carving of the sunset, or a song, a dance, a poem about or representing the sunset, those would be art. I observed something that made me feel/think, and I had the desire/need to express it. So I expressed it, in whatever medium I chose to do so. Simple and easy. Anyone and everyone can make art (I am not sarcastic here; I mean what I say, and I believe it is a beautiful thing). However, there are two slight complications.
The first: are you satisfied with your expression? Does your creation match the observation, thought, or feeling that originally inspired you to create? Are you fulfilled?
The second: does your expression communicate the observation, thought, or feeling that you wanted to communicate? Are you affected by your own creation? And if you choose to share it, are other humans affected by your creation?
Here, I believe, is where we need craft.
Craft, to me, is the ability to do something consistently and consciously, paired with the understanding of the something you are doing. It is being proficient in the mechanics of your chosen medium, and the skill and vision to fit small building blocks into the big picture. If you are making art through poetry, then learning the alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, the history of poetry, and the different styles of poetry (perhaps even refining your handwriting) would be working on your craft. The stronger your handle on your craft, the more choices of intentional expression you have.
Let's go back to our sunset. It was red and it made me a little happy and a little sad. The basic observation, a good start. But is that all you wanted/needed to say? Are you satisfied with "red"? Are there other words you can use, like crimson, or fire, or blood? How did other poets describe the colors/shapes of the sunsets they witnessed? What about your emotions? Is it nostalgia, a reminder of a past that's no longer here? Is it wistfulness with a twinge of regret, that something beautiful is coming to an end? Or a slowly growing sense of healing and peace, a resolution to a recent hardship, a new beginning on the horizon? Are the words you're choosing to describe the outer event (the sunset) in synergy with the inner event (your emotions)? Will the image burn through the night, or is it a pallid, dying flame? Is it a comforting warmth, or an empty, lackluster light? Are you using a particular form or a rhyme? Are you changing traditional capitalization or punctuation, or giving a whole line to a single word to bring attention to it?
I think the same ideas can be applied to other forms of art. Can you play or sing with a clean tone, with accuracy, with sensitivity? Can you use your carving or painting tools with ease? Do you know your proportions, angles, shapes, light? Do you have control over your body, the size and speed of your steps, the coordination between your feet, your hands, your torso? Greater understanding and mechanical ability leads to a greater spectrum of expression. This means you can be more intentional. You can be more specific. You can communicate more closely what you want to communicate. Mastery over your craft gives you flexibility and freedom of choice.
I believe that good art comes from good craft. Or in other words, I believe that good craft often leads to good art. The two are intertwined. I believe that if you hunger for art, it is inevitable that you will turn towards craft, because at some point you will decide that you need more practice with your language before you can keep playing with your poetry. The deeper you go, the deeper you need to keep going. It is a natural progression.
So here is my gripe. The journey towards artistry is yours to take and yours to make. Your family, your friends, your audience may encourage you. But the task to get there (and to keep on going!), to seek, to observe, to express in a way that communicates something and that fulfills you, that is ultimately up to you. I do believe that everyone should have some kind of artistic pursuits and aspirations, at whatever level they may be. It is a healthy and beautiful thing, and we need more of it in the world. But the instant you demand attention or praise (or money), you have the responsibility to do your absolute best. I believe that if you choose to ignore that responsibility, then you are no artist; you are simply a person who is demanding praise and attention, not for the sake of art, but to fulfill your own ego, seeking external validation rather than internal satisfaction and growth. And if you choose to embrace that responsibility, I think that to do your absolute best, you have to take your time. Study, practice, refine. Before you become an "artist", you have to become a "craftist" first.
When my family first moved to the states, my two brothers and I fell into the same trap in our English classes. At different times in the year we all got a "pick a side and argue for it" type of assignment. Let me give a simplified example to illustrate what I mean:
The town council has been approached by a company that is proposing to build a shopping center to stimulate the town's economy. However, the construction plans involve tearing down the town's park to make room for a parking lot. Should the town accept the proposal or keep the park? Pick a side and write a three to four page essay making three arguments for either going through with the construction or for dismissing the project.
The unreasonable fools that we were, we would answer in this fashion:
The town council is facing a difficult decision. On the one hand, a shopping center might in fact stimulate the town's economy. It may create new jobs for its citizens. It could provide space for small businesses to open crafts and specialty shops, or start up dance or martial arts clubs. It would also allow people to do their basic grocery shopping near their homes instead of having to do a long drive. On the other hand, a park could be an important and unifying part of the town life. It provides space for families to get together and for community events to take place. It gives everyone an opportunity to spend some time in nature. It's a place where people can exercise in the open air. On a personal level, I think having a park is important. But these are the points for and against the plan that the council should consider before coming to any type of final decision.
We thought we were following the right structure. We introduced the problem, made three arguments for it, three arguments against it, stated our personal opinion, and added that making serious decisions that can affect large groups of people can be difficult and should require a lot of consideration. (besides, how else could you possibly fulfill the three to four page minimum without adding pointless blabber???)
We all got a big floppy F.
The student failed to follow directions given in the prompt, because he did not commit to one side at the beginning of the essay.
Luckily, we had a very reasonable ESL teacher (english as second language), who came to our defense and explained to our other teachers that we're not actually that stupid, but are just struggling with learning a new language and that she would work with us on explaining the prompt and editing our work and that we would resubmit within a few days. Then she assured us that our writing is good but that we need to follow the rules to get a good grade, and proceeded to help us dumbify our work, by taking out half of it, and stretching out the other half with blabber. We all got A's. Our parents were so bewildered by this that for years they thought we got into some other trouble with the teachers and made up a ridiculous story (and then copied each other's story) to try cover it up.
I bring up this ridiculous story because, at least in my experience, I find this mentality of absolute duality to be so pervasive in the US (no wonder, since it's hammered in from a young age). So often it's one or the other: democrat or republican; cat person or dog person; god fearing christian or sex obsessed hippie; jock or nerd; best friend or arch nemesis. Possibilities are endless. The one exception to this, I like to imagine, developed with the tri-flavored ice cream: are you a vanilla, a strawberry or a chocolate? And so, there was one "out" of these impossible scenarios: I'm not really into politics; animals are ok, I don't really care; I don't have any opinions on religion... or any other topic in the world.
Now, not everyone is quite this extreme. But, on a subconscious level, this slithers into our existence. Have you ever chosen not to experience something new and different because you're just not that type of person? Have you ever held back your opinion or belief because it didn't line up with the beliefs of your community (family/job/church/school)? Have you ever felt like you needed to take sides in a break up or in a conflict between two friends? Have you ever felt that you could not explore or express ambivalence and ambiguity? I believe many of our inhibitions, fears, frustrations, and quick and easy judgments are rooted in "this vs. that", and "us vs. them" mentality, whether it's in the forefront or buried deep. "Me as I am vs. me as I am perceived by others".
I've seen posts on social media recently fighting this, in the nature of "just because we have different opinions doesn't mean we have to hate each other". That is a good start. But I would challenge everyone to go further. Express what you feel, especially if it's multifaceted. If you're not sure yet what you feel or how to express it, express that. "I'm not sure", or "I don't know how I feel yet", or "I have a lot of different feelings and I need to sort them out on my own", or "can you listen and help me sort them out". Don't fall back into the comfort of opinionless, faceless, soulless vanilla. Dig deeper. Find your spice. Do the research within yourself. Do the research about things happening in the world. Don't just repeat what's been hammered into your head. Check yourself. Ask if what you're saying is really what you believe. Ask why you believe it. Ask why you have not considered believing in something different. Ask if you're using your words responsibly and saying things that are factually true.
Sometimes, it's important to be part of the team. But a team is made up of multiple individuals, not a mindless mass of bodies. Be conscious. Know why you are where you are. And if you're not sure, or if the first thing that comes to mind is "just because", maybe take some time to figure it out.
Welcome to my blog! :-D I had intended to start it up on the 1st of September, but I was still figuring out the technical stuff, and I wasn't sure what to write about in my very first post. Then the universe helped me out...
On September 1st I fell off a bicycle and hurt my wrist! Thankfully nothing was broken, but my right arm was essentially useless for a few days. Now, nearly a week later, I operate at one and a quarter arm. I still perform the majority of mundane tasks with my left hand (honestly, I don't know how the lefties do it all their lives! XD), but in a funny way I've began to enjoy it. The fad nowadays is to makes lists of the most/best/popularest/etc.-est things, so to fit in with what's "hip", here is my list of what this incident stirred up in my head:
Because I am incredibly clumsy, in general, but especially with my left hand, I have to really think about what I'm doing when I'm doing it. For example, if I want to pour myself a glass of water, normally I'd grab the glass in my left hand and the pitcher in my right hand, and just do it. Now, one by one, all with my left hand, I need to grab a glass and set it down, then grab the pitcher, then pour the water from the pitcher into the glass in a way that doesn't knock the glass over, then set the pitcher down, then grab the glass and bring it up to my lips in a way that doesn't spill anything. All of a sudden, instead of a simple, mindless thing, it turns into a lot of actions! I have to pay attention to what I'm doing, and I have to decide what I'm doing, before I do it. This may sound silly, but let me explain it with...
2) Intention, mindfulness, and time
I think in the instant era of smart phones, i-this and i-that's, we've become, on some level, unreasonably impatient (I remind you: this comes from a self-proclaimed young dinosaur). Every action, every moment, every thought, has a potential for beauty. And I think that beauty comes from intention, mindfulness, and time. Think of it in terms of a relationship.
Intention: I choose you and only you at this moment. You are the only one right now.
Mindfulness: I am aware of you at this moment. Your presence is not an accident. I see you.
Time: I experience this moment as it is. I don't rush it. I don't hold back. I am present in it.
Sounds like the dream romance to me ;-) Now, what if you had that romance while you're pouring yourself a cup of water, or brushing your teeth, or taking out the trash. Silly, maybe, but at the same time, wouldn't that be good practice for the moments that really do matter?
3) Life's Gifts
Everyone has their life struggles. But everyone has their gifts too. I am privileged to have two functioning arms (most of the time), and two functioning legs, and a functioning brain. It is amazing. I can hold, and lift, and carry things, I can climb things, I can run and jump, and I can notice, and ponder, and laugh at things in my head while I'm doing it all. Having even just a tiny portion of my body partially unavailable makes me very acutely aware of everything that is working, that is present, that is functional. I know I am flaunting my bodily privilege. But I think that's part of life. Life is not sameness. Life is not equal. Life gives in different ways to different people. What causes damage, I think, is when the gifts are not seen or acknowledged. I can have countless reasons to dwell in unhappiness: I lost a good friend, I lost an amazing girlfriend, my job doesn't pay enough, my right wrist hurts and I can't use my right arm for a couple of weeks. Life sucks. But at the same time, I have amazing legs. My legs take me everywhere I need to go. My legs are my friends :-)
(Leg day should be a holiday, not a dreaded chore! XD)
So, dear reader, these are my thoughts of the day :-) I hope I inspired you to think of something new. Whether you disagree or agree with anything I write, I welcome it. As long as, in some way, it inspired your imagination and your creativity. :)
Wishing you all the very best,