Bland Like Me

photo montageThe marvelous Diana of A Holistic Journey has been writing posts asking about the influences of race, culture, national origin, education, and so forth and the ways that they shape who we are and how we perceive ourselves. This series of hers is proving an outstanding eye-opening and thought-provoking exercise for me, too. I have spent most of my life living amid and being part of The Majority—middle-class, white, English speaking, native-born, educated, boringly predictable, etc, etc. There were a few touches of diversity around me here and there, of course, this country of the so-called United States being what it is, but those were relatively small and isolated, so mostly I grew up sheltered and unchallenged in nearly all ways.

Yet as an individual I came to know myself as being different in one way or another from most of what I thought of as the ‘norms’ of my own environs, and even learned over time that what I thought was my Majority milieu was mostly just my very narrow path through it in life. While a lot of my classmates, immediate neighbors and friends when I was a kid, for example, were also little pasty white critters like me, the friends I remember best as seeming most interesting to me were ones like Eha, the Estonian girl, or Karen, one of my few black classmates, or the Japanese friends who shared exotic treats from their lunches and who performed classical Japanese dance in a miniature celebration of the Cherry Blossom Festival at school. I have hardly any memories so suffused with longing as that of watching the girls flutter their fans, while dressed in exquisite kimonos and dancing their stately, courtly dance to the strains of the tune ‘Sakura’, which melody in turn still fills me with delicately melancholy love.

My ideals of human physical beauty, as my husband and I have often noted musingly, are nearly all attached to non-whites or mixed-race people, not something I think of as a conscious or intentional choice but a persistent reality for me ever since I can remember. My superficial list of Most Beautiful People would probably have a paucity of caucasian members among its top fifty. While I have never been either very adventurous or flexible in my choices and tastes and experiences, I suppose I have always been fascinated by what seemed different or even exotic to me. I am a fantasist and a romantic in the cheap, popular versions of those ideas, I guess.

I have even wondered, in a broader sense, if part of my very nature is simply to feel like an outsider for no very specific reason. I was always shy, and learned as an adult that this expressed not only a naturally introverted character on my part but also demonstrated lifelong social anxiety and probably the incipient state of my developing depression that didn’t come to full fruition until later. Those, along with undiagnosed dyslexia, tremors, the dysphonia that came into play in my forties, and who knows what other quirks of my unique persona and biological makeup, could perhaps explain why I never felt I fit in with any particular group or was especially central to its character. But I still can’t say I felt consciously sad or was overtly unhappy or removed or, certainly, ostracized for any of this.

What was odder was that as I reached adulthood and gradually began to find a more comfortable sense of self and direction, I have a feeling I may have chosen to put myself into groups where it was plain that I didn’t quite match the norm, specifically because, if I knew there was no possibility of my being an exemplar in its midst of the highest standard, I might unconsciously feel safe from being expected to be so by anyone else. This might be complete nonsense, but it gives me pause. In any event, I spend a great deal of my ‘quality time’ nowadays in the company of people who are immersed in and even expert at music, pedagogy, administration, and a number of other topics in which I have no training whatsoever and only a very little observational knowledge, and I am very happy in this environment.

Conversely, I tend to keep my company of good visual artists and writers and others with training or knowledge more likely to be similar to mine at the seemingly safer arm’s-length of cyberspace, and that probably doesn’t reflect well on my personal fortitude. I never did, at least, make any claims of being any better than a big ol’ chicken. Being a scaredy-pants is probably not race-specific. Or attached with any particularity to culture, social stratum, nationality, educational accomplishment, religion, language, income level, or anything else in question. Being a scaredy-pants is just part of being myself, and the unique combination of qualities and characteristics that make up the wonderfulness of Me.

On the other hand, being attracted to, frightened by or otherwise connected to or dissociated from people who are Not Like Me is a central consideration of understanding how the human species works. Or doesn’t. And there’s no doubt that all of those things influenced by proximity (physical or metaphorical), the aforementioned race, culture, social strata, and so forth, are very potent indicators and influencers of how we will experience the concept of Self and Other at any level.

So what does that ‘solve’ about me, about how I feel about those who are or seem in any way different from me? I’m still not at all sure. Perhaps the best I can say is that my feeling of being, in a value-neutral way, unlike those around me makes me unwilling to assume much about them, in turn. I would generally rather let personalities and individuality be revealed to me and my understanding of my surroundings at the moment unfold in their own sweet time than that I jump in and make any precipitous assumptions. I’m perfectly capable of finding lots of other ways of being wrong and making a fool of myself without constantly worrying over whether I’m being judged, rightly or wrongly, as a stereotype of either the majority or the minority on hand.

Most of my blogging friends and acquaintances are significantly different from me in nearly all of the aforementioned identifying categories, and yet I feel remarkably at home among you. So I’ll let you decide if sameness or difference affects how you see me. I feel at home, and that’s good enough for my part of the bargain.photo montage

Meditation Medication

digital illustrationHealth is a wildly, weirdly, wonderfully complicated state. Both physical and mental health are astoundingly omnidirectional networks of intersecting matrices and random points; genetics, environmental influences, accidents, allergies and so much more come together and continue to change over the life of any one person. Furthermore, these meet in an intersection of the two networks (mental and physical) in every single person, that it’s nothing short of miraculous that any of us human conglomerations actually survive and have relatively good health.

It’s completely unsurprising, then, when something or other does break down or fail to be really perfect when it comes to health matters. Thank goodness there are more and more answers and helps for us when it comes to such moments of concern. But for every solution, there are shortcomings and side effects, and we still have to make choices and experiment, test and try and hope.

I’m one of those relatively rare creatures blessed with generally outstanding and reliable good health. I’ve never had a broken bone; I’ve had all of three stitches in my whole life, and I’ve never worn a cast or a brace unless you count the kinds I could buy in a neighborhood pharmacy for an achy hyper-extended knee or a fiddly fingertip whose little cut made a mockery of my hale-and-heartiness when I was whimpering over the pain every time I’d bump it. My various moles, cysts, and bumps have all thus far been benign and manageable. Even those more significant elements that might affect my function and longevity are so far pretty reasonable to deal with and don’t require enormous amounts of care just yet.

The essential tremor, noticeable since I was about ten or twelve, has never gotten so obtrusive that I have had to do anything for or about it. The mitral valve prolapse (heart murmur) is so mild that it went unnoticed until I had a regular physical exam from a person who, as pure chance had it, was conducting a study of that specific condition and so was attuned to its unlikely presence. Very minor hypothyroidism like mine is easily kept at bay with very little medicine (mostly pretty common ones at that) or monitoring. I am especially grateful that thus far there is no indication that the Parkinson’s Disease that poses as the only true black sheep of my family has not to date taken up residence in my body.

This is not to say that I have no inkling of any of the irksome and unpleasant effects of imperfect health. I’ve come to recognize the recurrent, and in some cases, chronic, annoyances and inconveniences that come with allergies. While mine have remained moderate and turn out to be treatable if not controllable, I figured out after getting some help that they had had a far greater control over my daily life and well-being before that time than I had realized. And as I’ve said here before, I have had my adventures with Spasmodic Dysphonia, clinical depression, and anxiety; these had larger influences on me and, therefore, those around me, by a magnitude of difference.

What arises every time I contemplate these things, all of which are in my own life more survivable and treatable than I know that they can be for others, is the notion that as a typically complicated human health exemplar, I still have to work continuously to discern what combination of the tangible and medical kinds of interventions and treatments with those more intangible approaches of meditation, activity, and trust—call it faith, hope, prayer, optimism, or attitude adjustment, it’s all fodder for feeling, and possibly, getting, better—will suffice to keep any of my anomalous conditions in check.

Thus far, the answer for me has been a shifting combination of the tangible and the intangible; I think that’s how it works for most people. My personal recipe for success is neither absolute nor permanent, any more than my personal state of being is fixed or unchangeable. Health, both physical and mental, changes rather constantly over a life span, and the longer one lives the more cycles and spikes of change are likely to occur during the stretch. What, then, can I do?

Keep trying. What combination of body-chemistry-altering substances serves my needs at the moment? They might well be outright commercially made and sold and officially, doctor- or nurse-administered drugs, but they can also easily be homeopathic or folk cures, foods or herbs or numerous other things that I’ve discovered through trial and error suit my physical and mental well-being. The same can be true of physical therapy: it might be specific exercises recommended to me by my doctor or other trusted medical and health experts, or as is often the case, it can be a set, series or group of activities that simply make me feel closer to my optimal conditioning. Nowadays, as always, I find myself using quite the mixture of these helpers to suit my specific needs and wishes for better health and happiness. For me, that means a full combination of what could be loosely classified as medication and meditation.

I can’t begin to tell you how that works or is explained scientifically. Some of it I’d bet good money can’t be clarified in scientific terms. But experientially, that I can tell you: I feel pretty good. I get the occasional sneezes or headaches, and there are times when it irritates me, yes, that my vocal cords are recalcitrant and unreliable. I’d definitely prefer if the shadow of Parkinson’s hied itself off my family’s shoulders, most especially Mom’s, and would never try to sneak up on me later despite any efforts on my part to ward it off if possible. But let’s be honest. Right now I feel pretty good, and that makes me happy. Whatever I’m doing or not doing, taking or not taking, it seems to be working.digital illustration

Drawing on Your Beginner’s Luck

The nice blogger from Zara–A Writing Story stopped by recently and her post said she is working at starting to draw. I’m delighted to have another person join the ranks of happy visual artists via drawing–a collection of skills that come in quite handy (no pun intended, especially since there are artists who use their mouths or their feet to make artworks) for far more than strictly a pleasurable activity or visual entertainment. Drawing, a foundational skill in all sorts of visual art, is also a means of communication that differs from and can work in wonderful tandem with writing, singing, signing, and any number of other ways of personal interaction and transmission of information. In addition to the practical application of the end product of the process, the practice of drawing itself has great power as a mnemonic device, a tool for problem-solving, and the training of the brain in such useful skills as eye-hand coordination and (as I know from experience) the correlated motor control of working through tremors to achieve refined movements.

But beyond that, as I said to my blogger colleague, the act of drawing has elements of physical pleasure in the mere action of arm and hand and body that can be worth the pursuit, not to mention the mental and/or emotional pleasures possible. The act of drawing as a form of meditation, even without regard to any possible ‘product’, is quite desirable on its own.

As I said to my correspondent, she needn’t be intimidated in the least even if she’s a rank beginner: By even making the effort to learn, you’re worlds ahead of lots of others! A book I often referenced when teaching my beginner students in college was Betty Edwards’ classic Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain–it has exercises that aren’t too hard even for someone who’s never attempted to draw before, and because her focus is on how the brain works in visual activity, she offers insights into the process and possibilities that few others do. There are, of course, innumerable excellent how-to books for those who want to draw, many of them favorites of mine as well, but because of Dr. Edwards’ [then] ground-breaking work in recognizing the character of right-vs-left brain function and how it played out in drawing, I always found her work particularly helpful.

Because drawing can engage so many diverse cognitive processes like this, it can be complicated and overwhelming to know just where to start learning how to draw. As I remarked in my note to my fellow blogger, All of that aside, simply making marks on a surface is the beginning of drawing. Sometimes the least intimidating way to begin is to take a piece of paper, make some totally random marks on it, and then see where that takes you. Even if all it does is make you comfortable making the arm movements for a start, that’s helpful. If, as with most people, you look at it and think ‘that looks like . . . ‘ or ‘that doesn’t look quite right . . . ‘–well, then, you’re already making editorial decisions that can help you move toward drawing the way you want to draw.

The bottom line, if you will, for me is that I feel more alert, more attuned to potential solutions when everyday problems arise, and generally just plain happier when I draw. It’s not because every drawing turns into something fabulous–far from it–but because the process of drawing opens up my brain and spirits in useful and unexpected ways. Many times, my drawing produces nothing more than scratches that are shorthand for bigger and more complex and, I hope, better things to come. But the exercise itself is valuable to me, and a glance back through my sketches can often kick-start me into drawing a work that is more successful than the twenty previous ones.

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Exploring pattern in a sketch.

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Playing around with volume.

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Faces and flowers show up often in my sketchbooks.

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Hands can be pesky subjects, so I play with sketches of them frequently too.

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Any little vignette that pops into my mind is worth scribbling at least a few times.

Ultimately, whether I’m in gear for serious drawing or just fiddling with a pen or pencil to pass the time, it’s good practice and feels worthwhile. If nothing else happens, at least I have given my brain some thinking-room between the lines and I might figure out what to make for supper, how to cut through the piece of metal that is in the way of my completing a repair in the garage, or who knows–I might even remember where I set down that book I was reading days ago before it ‘disappeared’. It’s doubtful I’ll come up with any Nobel Prize-worthy inspirations while drawing, but then again, if I don’t draw, I’ll never find out!