Everything is Rehearsal

photoIf we are willing to listen, learn, and practice, everything that happens can be rehearsal for a better performance the next time. Musicians know this. We should all recognize it.

Being perfect isn’t the goal. Even being exactly the same each time isn’t it. Mechanically identical reproduction of an event or a feeling or an occasion is for machines; life is messier and more complicated and more artful than that and means we have to be ready to use all that we’ve learned in all of our rehearsals, combined in whatever way gets us the best result in the present moment. It means, too, that what is the best solution for that moment may not be reproducible or even desirable next time. A CD is a lovely evocation of memory but the live performance takes hold of us down to the soul in a very different way.

I want to become better at whatever I am. Some of the betterment may come fairly easily as I recognize more clearly what I am, as I grow older and have more experiences and find my way through more of my life’s journey, picking up clews as I go. More of it will happen, if at all, because I work hard to improve myself in one way and another.

There’s no guarantee that any given moment or event will find me at my best, or even that I will become the best version of myself that I am capable of being no matter how long I live. But I’ll certainly have a better shot at any of that if I commit to practicing.photo

In a Very Hot Place

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Not to shed crocodile tears, but don’t you feel sorry for my pain?

In the humid human jungle, there is a rapacious beast that cheerily attacks and devours the happiness of many a poor body.

Menopause. Yessiree, I’m sufficiently past the mid-century mark to be personally acquainted with the joys of middle- and slightly past middle-age. I managed, thanks to magical genes or good luck or some jolly combination of the two, to enter into the mysterious temple of Menopause well ahead of the dull-normal average age of 51. I guess my body just couldn’t wait for the fun. Forty years old? Yay! Sure, I can go right ahead and get on that crazy train.

My doctor thought I might just be a fanciful young’un, imagining I was wandering into menopausal territory at the tender age of forty. Until I described my hot flashes. She already knew about my newly accomplished slide to the bottom of a depressive slope, a thing that (while it is seldom developed in complete isolation from other qualities or characteristics of health issues) can sometimes also be a symptom of menopause. She was not one of those dismissive, demeaning doctors who would’ve opted to imply that I was some kind of hysteric or stupid person. So she did a little checking into my state of being in other ways and lo, what I was experiencing was indeed early onset menopause. Or perimenopause, to be more medically precise.

Anyway, I’m now well past a dozen years of this fun and am still here to tell the tale. What’s particularly interesting to me is that it’s not wildly improbable that I’m, well, okay. I think I might’ve bought, at least a little, into the popular mythology that makes menopause universally into a horror of monstrous proportions. I will never minimize the true suffering that some women experience during menopause, a very real horror. But me, I’ve spent over a decade in the strange land of menopause, and I’m still ticking along.

One thing that I have working in my favor, besides that I have relatively few symptoms and lots of blessed good luck, is that I have great support. I have always existed in the midst of a family, friends and acquaintances where topics of real and everyday importance are generally discussed in real and everyday ways. No big deal. Imperfections, illness, death, human failings, and yeah, menopause. These are all realities and unavoidable. Sometimes painful, sometimes inexpressibly difficult, ugly, terrifying, awful. But in all of that, normal. So why would we be so foolish as to pretend otherwise, to let them loom, magnified, as the sort of thing we can never name, let alone discuss, with others who are statistically likely to have shared the experience and might even have wisdom to share in how to survive?

I’m trying to be smart about protecting myself from the bone density loss that is typical of many women in menopause, taking supplements and keeping active as my doctors have recommended. As an exercise hater, this one isn’t easy for me. I do keep current with monitoring and treating my depression so that I am sad only what seems to me a pretty normal amount and about pretty average things, not depressed in extreme and unhealthy and perniciously persistent ways as I was before I began finding the right health regimen of counseling and medication to keep me on a better path. I use extra skin moisturizer and the occasional application of hair creme rinse because despite having been an almost magically oily youth (and having had to battle high-grade acne as a result) I do find that in my advancing years I now have fairly dry skin and hair.

The big annoyance that remains for me is that my internal thermostat broke when I turned 40. My body forgot how to regulate its own temperature, so now I can go in a matter of seconds from the freezing Undead-body temp I was so long accustomed to experiencing in pre-menopausal years to the miracle of my torso becoming a microwave oven and right back again in a few minutes. Sometimes many times a day. This fun, for thirteen years and counting. And yet I am not a wreck.

The best defense I’ve found thus far is a simple little device that is a hybrid of that grand old invention, the hot water bottle, and the slightly newer iteration of the athlete’s curative bag of ice, a flat water-filled-sponge-containing rectangular envelope thingy that goes by the euphonious rapper-appropriate name of Chillow (trademark registered) and can be laid across my overheated midriff when I can’t seem to get my inner temperature moderated. It’s no cure, but it helps, and help is far better than misery. Even a good old fashioned accordion-folded fan fluttered southern belle-style beats undue discomfort.

I would never be so self-indulgent or ridiculous to call my sufferings massive or anything nearly as important as those of women who endure the real pain possible with menopause and its related conditions. That would be both silly and hypocritical. I’m average, plain and simple and normal, in this experience, even when I’m not exactly on the middle line of the statistical charts. But I can assure you that if you are heading into menopausal territory or someone you know is on her way, there is a path through this particular jungle and you need not be devoured by the beasts met along the way.

See you on the other side of the [very sweaty] swamp.

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If the jungle is ruled by a hippo, is it a hippocracy?

Lesser Lights

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The major stars are always more visible than those around them. It’s demonstrably true not only in the galaxies but in the more modest constellations of humanity. Our attentions are naturally drawn toward those who shine most impressively and dramatically—for good or ill; those more modestly gifted or less showy mostly find their own lights muddled or even eclipsed by the intensity nearby, and as a result we seldom spot and take note of them.

Even those of us who are not only accustomed to, but also aware of, being humbled and diminished by comparison to others’ flashier character can easily forget how this applies to others. Just because I might feel neglected doesn’t necessarily mean I notice others being equally shortchanged; indeed, it’s more likely that if I’m feeling under-appreciated I get too preoccupied with my longing to be Special and resentful navel-gazing to think that I’m probably in the majority rather than otherwise.

Still, there’s hope. Just as a supernova will someday burn to nothingness, human stars tend mostly to flash into the general notice, burn however brightly for however long, and be dimmed by eventual inattention or death. They, too, will eventually be outshone and/or replaced by other stars whose time has come.

And if I, or any other, should in the meantime feel unreasonably hidden from sight, we are still free to seek our own bit of gleam. For some folk, that seeking comes in ambitions for accomplishment and fame. For the rest of us, the surest way to kindle the blazing fire that gives off sufficient heat and light to be noted by anyone else is to turn our focus outward. Devoting energy, attention and love to causes and works outside of our petty selves, and especially to other persons, is the spark that, when kindled in their spirits, creates the steadiest, most lasting kind of light. Even the smallest and weakest among us shines brightly in this tiny act of selfless will.digital illustration

Foodie Tuesday: Drink & Shrink

photoWould that I could tell you that today’s post title implies I’ve discovered a miracle diet that allows me to become slinky and svelte by doing nothing but sipping cocktails, yet alas, this most sadly is not so. In fact, it’s a very safe bet that numerous cocktails are, like certain bras, nothing more than alluring cups full of doom, being bad for both health and sanity if sampled in inappropriate quantities and circumstances. But to steer closer to my actual point, I must confess that despite my many food-and-drink-related loves and obsessions, I do get quite hungry and thirsty for a healthier change on occasion.

Like now. I seem to have been on a bender lately, eating too often, too much, and too badly in general, and my body is complaining. It’s not that I have grown morbidly obese, thanks more to good genes and good luck than good behavior, but I have grown a whole lot closer to outgrowing my attire and decidedly closer, as well, to just not feeling so great. It makes me squirm when I think of how unfit I will be in short shrift if I don’t just stop being such a spoiled child around food. And I have it on good authority that being horribly unfit is not the way to insure a longer, healthier life.

Drat.

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At least I know that I can still have delicious food, but even if it’s better for me, eating too many helpings of ‘Waldorf’ slaw (sweet cabbage-yogurt salad with chopped apples) is just as dangerous to my eating habits as too many helpings of pretty much anything.

I must throw a bracing dash of cold water on my enthusiasm for overindulgence and get myself closer to optimal comfort. I don’t care if that makes me model-thin or gives me fab abs or any of that superficially pleasing stuff or not; what I want is to feel my best and have a good shot at the whole ‘live long and prosper’ proposition. I know from experience that among other benefits of returning to a more thoughtful eating agenda, my appreciation of all that I do eat and drink increases greatly, to the point where a simple slice of citrus and a glass of pure, clean water is a pleasing sensory experience as well as thirst-quenching, and a complete meal becomes a feast. So much more satisfying in the long run.

And I do want a good long run of it, after all.photo

The Character in the Sharkskin Suit

Intriguing, isn’t it, how what we admire in one we might fear in another; how sometimes a single characteristic becomes so entwined with our perception of the whole being that we are unable (or at least unwilling) to see the subject except through that distinctive filter.digital illustration from a photo

Take the shark, for example. We anthropomorphize its curved, elegant mouth and its very pointy dental array as a wicked grin because they form so ironically (we think) bloodless a ‘smile’ for an ideally designed killing machine, and subsequently we are content to identify those people whom we find wicked, bloodless, or murderous as Sharks. Never mind that the shark itself is simply being what it is naturally meant to be and doing what it is created to do. Never mind that, often enough, the person we are happy to affiliate with that same stereotyped vision may also be doing what s/he is naturally inclined, expected, and/or paid to do. If the person in question is good at carrying out dispassionate or relentless action, we’re likely to find a convenient metaphor in the shark.digital illustration

I have long thought, myself, that the mere mention of a character as being dressed in a sharkskin ensemble gave him an air of sangfroid that I suppose must have been similarly associated with the archetype of the coolly relentless shark. I, too, am apparently guilty of stereotyping the creature, and very likely in turn, the person. So it is: we are always looking for shorthand ways to describe and understand those around us.digital painting from a photo

But I would hope that I can also remain cognizant of those positive and laudable qualities that might also be anthropomorphically applied to a shark, and credit similar ones to my fellow bipedal creatures as well: swiftness, strength, tenacity, fearlessness, and a driving desire to move forward at all times. These are characteristics to which I can only aspire for the most part, never mind being as handsome and sleek as a shark can be in appearance. While I doubt anyone will tend to equate me with the supposedly shark-like attributes of cruel indifference or cold-bloodedness, perhaps I would do well to pursue association with those better ones and see if I can’t be identified with such admirable aspirations after all.

A Faraway Look

Looking inward requires the most thoughtful, clear, exacting kind of sight. It requires both the power to see great distances through any number of intervening obstacles or distractions and the will to pay attention to and accept what’s seen. These interior distances can present the greatest challenges in our lives. And when they’re conquered, having presented the greatest risk, they can at last offer the greatest rewards. Braving this adventure into self is often frightening and intimidating far beyond the terrors offered by ordinary, real life adventures ‘on the outside’. May I always be willing to take the leap.digital illustrationI wrote that thought down some time ago, and while it’s often played out in my life in a vast number of ways and to differing degrees, it seems to have come to the fore once again in a particularly pointed way. Every time I reach the crossroads I have to decide: do I dare to do what I really think I need to do? Do I want to do what I need to do? I know that other people are always undergoing these same challenges, most of them deeper and more perilous than my own, but I also know that every one of us worries and struggles and imagines and aspires uniquely, and that no one person’s journey is truly untouched by any other’s. And the more other people that I know are affected–directly or indirectly–by my decisions, the more I will wrestle with the inner process.

All of the standard stresses of existence that plague those of us fortunate enough to be beyond the most basic survival questions of food and shelter will continue to try us as long as we do exist. Health, work, age, finances, relationships, memory, strength, purpose: how we do fret and fear and puzzle our way through them is the ongoing test of our self-worth and contentment, and in turn, of our ability to give to others. Will I come out of the day on the plus side of any or all of these valuables? What decides it? The only certainty, for me, is that the need to address such questions never ceases.

Now let me close my eyes and go to work.

Hijacking Happiness

digital artwork from a drawingTrouble, as we all know, is highly contagious. I was reminded of this recently both by a television character and by a couple of real-life incidents involving real live people (who shall here remain nameless), and all of them, real and fictional, have a number of similarities, the chief one being their apparent unshakable belief that their suffering is greater than anyone else’s, is incurable, and is probably the fault of everyone else too.

My life is pretty fantastically good, when you get right down to it, so to people who don’t know me very well it might appear that I have no business criticizing anyone else’s way of handling sorrow and pain. But that’s just it: even the most wonderful of lives is touched by trials now and then, and struggle or strife isn’t fairly measurable in the moment. My paper cut seems as dire as your childbirth pangs when I’ve just gotten paint thinner on my hand. I know this to be logically ridiculous in the extreme, but don’t tell me the paper cut doesn’t hurt like boy-howdy at that moment. That would be tantamount to me telling you that since your labor pains will probably be over in short shrift, they don’t compare in any way to another’s battle-for-life with esophageal cancer, so you should just get over yourself. Whatever agony each of us is undergoing is more than enough and not to be belittled. And frankly, since each of us has a history that is tinged here and there with darkness, we do all have a sense, however small, of what it means to accept our griefs and cope with, live with, and go forward with them still present. Real sorrows never truly go away.

And for all of us who can feel empathy, or even more than that, can feel sympathy without having experienced the fulness of another’s troubles, life after infancy (when memory, like the lifespan thus far, is short) can be a perpetual bombardment of such troubles even when they’re not entirely our own.

I, of all people, will readily grant you that some people are far better equipped than others to find ways to survive pain and suffering and to continue living a full life without resorting to out-and-out acting. But that’s just it, isn’t it: barring full mental incapacity, don’t we owe it to ourselves, anyway, to try every possible avenue of becoming whole and happy (and of course I don’t mean that superficial kind of happiness that is either fully false or simply stupid); don’t we? When my personal apocalyptic horsemen appeared at the intersection of a group of the classic stressors (job-related problems, health challenges and the sudden death of a close friend converging on me at the same time) and plunged me into clinical depression, I was fortunate to not only have some of the significant tools (support from family and friends, a great doctor and a good therapist, and ultimately, medication that worked for me) for doing battle with those monsters but also the sense that there was no other acceptable option but to try to do that battle.

I won’t lie; there were times–and will probably be more of them over the years–when I did have to take the tack of that ‘fake it till you make it’ mode, when I simply wanted to quit and lie down and just hope it would all miraculously fix itself, or when I was as sulky and whiny and crotchety and pessimistic and tedious as unhappy people can be. We humans are good at all of that stuff, better than at being sunny and charming. But finally, even in my worst state I knew that was no way to live, and that the important people around me would suffer at least as much as I did, if not more. Thanks to the aforementioned helpers, I am here to tell the tale. More importantly, I don’t dwell in that darkness, even though there’s not much I could prevent or even fix about the troubles that led to such a state of existence. Things just happen. It’s how I deal with them that’ll likely make or break me.

That television character–and the many real-life imitators I referenced–stays so focused on how traumatized and maltreated she feels (albeit by genuinely distressing events and problems) that they become her one-note existence. She has a hard heart because it seems less trouble to close it to others than to be vulnerable to further hurt, but of course the actual effect is that she treats everyone around her like dirt, riding roughshod over their feelings and regarding any trauma or maltreatment they may suffer, often at her hands, as inferior or nonexistent. In turn, after being stomped on repeatedly by her seeming egotism, narrow-mindedness and refusal to set her hurt aside, the people around her disperse as speedily as that unlucky drop of water hitting a sizzling skillet explodes into mist. Those who tolerate her constant vituperation, impatience with their perceived stupidity or lack of sympathy, and her seeming wish to continue forever wallowing in her fury and self-pity, those characters ultimately become uninteresting or even unsympathetic themselves to me; after the ninety-ninth offense anyone sits back and takes without a fight, they tend to my eye to look like either enablers or equally fixed in victim mode.

I think we all have the power to steal others’ health and happiness, at least as much as the reasonably healthy among us should make every effort to take charge of our own. Doesn’t mean perfection is expected, but c’mon, people, if there’s really no going forward with life, perhaps a retreat to a very quiet hermitage would be more apropos than imposing our worst on the rest of the world. Yeah, I said it: get over yourself, Kathryn. Even if it might occasionally require brief periods of kindly deceit, times of returning to fighting off the dark singlehandedly, and the ordinary moments of being a jerk. It’ll mean equal demand on me for repentance, amends-making, and getting back on the wagon. There’s too much life left ahead, I hope, to spend it mired in a grim and terrible past, let alone impose it on others.

The upside of all this is that there is a possibility of turning this kind of thievery to good. Very simply, if I have to I can borrow my equilibrium and contentment from others. Put myself in proximity to saner, happier people than me until I can manufacture my own, and quietly absorb what I can of their good graces. I, at least, don’t want to be the one who steals the joy of anyone else; that only becomes the reason for new sorrows all ’round. Happiness and health can be contagious, too, if we let them. And so we all should, my friends. So we should.