Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Stories We Tell - Part 1: The character we play...

"I'm not playing a role. I'm being myself, whatever the hell that is." - Bea Arthur

During my senior year in high school if you inquired about my ambitions I'd likely have said that I was going to be an artist.  If you asked for specifics I'd have probably said I wanted to write and illustrate children's books.  I might have said I wanted to be a poet.  I may even have offered up the idea of being a travel writer since I liked the idea of adventure.  Most people seemed to agree that all of these were things I was capable of doing.  In fact it even seemed expected and I did nothing to make people think that I might want to do or be something else.  I may even have encouraged the idea, since being a non-conformist, independent and adventurous artist was something I'd like to be seen as, and it certainly seemed better than being the timid, self-conscious and awkward person I felt myself to be inside.

Not that this image didn't have some basis in fact.  I mean, was I creative?  Yes.  I'd been writing, doodling, crafting, composing and dancing as far back as I remembered.  Was I independent?  Sort of.  I was always willing to take a stand for things I deeply believed in, but I also had a deep desire to be liked which meant that sometimes I went with the flow just as much as anyone.  Adventurous? Perhaps.  I was not afraid to sneak out of my bedroom window and spend a night wandering the woods near my house, and I never really had too much of an issue with making  public spectacle of myself, but the idea of talking to a stranger, one on one, in broad daylight terrified me.  So, yes the image mostly fit and so for most of my life, the independent, non-conformist, adventurous, creative type has been the character I have played.

I think this is something we all do.  Whether created by our own minds or by the perceptions of others, or more likely both, we have a character  that we present to the world.  We hope that the character is also true to our deepest self but I think for many of us it is a somewhat uncomfortable mix between what we feel we should be and what we truly are.  This character is influenced by all sort of things, who we are interacting with, the place we find ourselves, the way we view ourselves, our experiences.  At any time we can add or take a way a layer - who we are at work or who we are at school or who we are when we date.  We are daughter, mother, lover, teacher, supervisor, assistant, artist, dancer, goth, hippie, bookworm, activist, spinster...and we often act in a way that we think these characters should act under particular circumstances.

I don't believe that at it's core that this is a bad thing.  It is human nature to name things, to define them and to give them shape. And in general these are not false characters, for many of us they are rooted in a part of ourselves that we are or  we were or in some way desired to be. The danger of course comes when the character is no longer connected to ourselves in that way, yet we find ourselves clinging to it, keeping up the act because we don't know what else to do or be, or perhaps are afraid of disappointing others by not living up to that perception, or we don't believe we can be something else.   This is perhaps the source of many a mid-life crisis.

Those of us who have "independent spirit" or "the one who has it all together" as part of that character may often find it difficult to ask for help when we need it most, after all we are supposed to have our shit together and be able to handle life on our own.  The ones who "get things done" may find they can't say no to yet another project.  Others who have the title of "expert" or "smart" may not be able to admit when they are in error.  Those who see themselves as "not pretty" or "unloveable" may not ever take the risk of finding joyful human contact believing they are not worthy of it.  And those who took on a role because it was what the world told them they were supposed to do...get married, have children, become a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, make something of your life...may find that what they thought they should be and who they actually are become very different things.

And so I look at myself.  Yes, I am an  independent, non-conformist, adventurous, creative person but I am also a woman who struggles at times with loneliness, who doesn't always have it as much together as the rest of the world thinks she does (or maybe as much as she thinks she does...what?), who goes on Magnum PI Netflix binges, who finds farts to be a source of hilarity, who often looks in the mirror and sees less-than-pretty but sometimes sees gorgeous, and who tries her best to appear confident even when afraid.  I see someone who, in the past twenty plus years of adulthood has changed her views on many things, who through experience has learned hard lessons and yet has made many of the same mistakes over and over and over again...we are not static beings.

Perhaps the key is to take that look on a regular basis.  To ask yourself, is what I am projecting out into the world something that is really me? The life I am living, is it mine or that of the character I want the world to see?  Eventually, if we keep checking in, the character and our self will become one and the same or at least as closely aligned as we can hope them to be in a world where who we are and who we are expected to be are fluid concepts and often at odds.

(This post is the first of a series of posts that came out of a fireside chat during a festival weekend not so long ago.  I am no expert in human psychology, these posts are my own musings and thoughts as inspired by that conversation.  Up next:  The characters we expect others to play.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

The stories we tell...

I spent the weekend at a festival about two hours north of my beloved city.  It wasn't just for fun, it was gig, and though I am today still feeling the tired from it I did manage to have a mostly good time.  I do find these sorts of event exhausting.  Though I tend towards being more extrovert than introvert I do require a lot of down time to recharge my batteries; this is something not always easy to find when one is sharing space with 600 or more other people.

The down time I managed to find came in the form of sitting by the fire at our campsite on the hillside while the festival continued on below.  I was able to enjoy the silence and comfortably carry on a one on one conversation.  It was during one such conversation that the subject of my next few blog posts.

About six months ago I read a book titled Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire and The Forging of History by Kenneth Lapatin about the murky origins of one the Boston Museum of Fine Arts most well known items, the statue of a Minoan snake goddess.   The book is not only about the origins of the statue but also how when someone wants a certain idea to be real they can often make the evidence fit the story we want to tell, even if that story may not be true.  A fellow performer and friend who had also read the book a few months after I did was also in attendance and one evening we found ourselves having a fireside chat about the book.

It was he who brought up the idea that is isn't just early 20th century archaeologists who are quite willing accept less than verifiable evidence to support a theory or story, but how this is something that human beings do on a personal level all the time with the stories we tell to ourselves and to the world about ourselves.  We can buy into the story so much that even when there is ample evidence to the contrary we insist on continuing to tell it even when we know it is not longer true.  Sometimes it is because we think it is the story we should be telling, or maybe it's because we are too afraid to let the story shift and change, or perhaps it isn't even the story itself, but the character we play in it that we don't know how to let go of.

In any case the discussion left me writing copious notes in my pocket journal the next morning so that I'd not forget the many points raised that night and the questions I found myself asking about my own story. As often happens when I find my brain lighting up over a new idea I have decided to blog about it.

So expect some soul searching posts over the coming days...hopefully without too much self indulgent navel gazing.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

So Long My Sweet Boy...

It was eighteen years ago that I found myself on my bed holding a small saucer of milk into which I had dipped my index finger, which I then held out near the edge of the blanket in the hopes of coaxing the tiny black and white ball of fluff that was hiding beneath the covers to come out.  A few moments later a tiny pink tongue flicked the end of my finger and said ball of fluff finally emerged.  Though on our first meeting he was timid and afraid, over the eighteen years that followed this little ball of fluff would win not only my heart but also the heart of everyone he met...even those who swore up and down that they were decidedly NOT cat people.

I have always waited for my kitties to name themselves and Pandora christened himself only few weeks after we adopted him as he quickly showed a talent for getting into nearly any container presented to him.  Box, bag, dresser drawer and even a harp case, there was not a button, snap or zipper that could stop him and though we later discovered that his fluffy fur had concealed his decidedly male genitalia the name stuck.

He was one of the most clever cats I've ever known.  One of his favorite games was fora toy to be hidden inside of a box which he would then find a way to open.  The other was fetch, which I think he actually taught to me, not the other way around.  He could play the game for hours, not stopping until he was short of breath.

He once saved our apartment from burning down when a jar that held a burning candle broke and fell into an open drawer of clothing.  It was summer and we had a fan in the window blowing out to help draw the heat from the apartment.  It also pulled all of the smoke from the room where flames were now crawling up the front of the dresser.  He stood at the end of the hall growling and meowing, then he'd run to the couch to get our attention and run back down the hall crying loudly (he was never, ever a quiet cat).  Finally we stood up and followed him down the hall were the flames were discovered and quickly extinguished.

Pandora's real trick though was to work his way into your heart.  He loved people and always assumed that anyone he met wanted to share love.  Always the best dressed in the room with his black and white tuxedo, he greeted all visitors at the door and would reach up to their legs with his front paws, a gesture that meant he desired to be picked up.  I don't remember a time when any one refused and once he was their arms he would plant a kiss on the tip of their nose with his velvety tongue.  He had a habit of looking whomever was petting him straight in the face and giving long, slow blinks that we called his "love eyes."  It felt as though he was adoring you as much as you adored him.   If you stopped petting him he would place his paw gently on your thigh or lightly paw your hand until you started again.  He never used his claws. Eventually the paw somehow evolved into a high five which most folks never believed he did until they witnessed it. It then became yet one more game he was quite willing to play since the reward for each high five was of course, more love.

Every night he curled up at my feet and when his sister passed two years ago he took her place beside my pillow, curling up into a small ball just as she did.  He woke me with kisses on the nose every morning to let me know it was time for breakfast.

His favorite food was chicken which he could smell from any room he was in.  He was a rather polite beggar sitting tall and waiting until you were done knowing that of course you were going to set your empty plate down for him to lick clean.  In the last few years of his life he would wait while I made and ate breakfast knowing that he would either get to lick the cereal bowl or receive a spoonful of the yolk of my poached egg.

He was always a chatty cat, chirping, meowing and yipping as he made his way through life.  Towards the end as his hearing began to go he became much louder and more demanding, particularly when it came to closed doors or dinner time.  As he aged arthritis in his hips slowed him down and thyroid problems caused him to lose weight as did the cancer that, though he managed to miraculously fight off tumors several times, would eventually end his life.  But he never lost his love of people.   Even with painful hips he rose to his feet whenever someone new entered the room and though he was slow to get there, every visitor was still greeted at the door.  He still pawed to be picked up and he gave his soft and sweet high fives till the end.

These past few weeks his health had been growing worse.  He slept far more and ate less.  His weight dropped dangerously low.  It was yesterday morning that he began to wheeze and when I took him to see his doctor an x-ray showed what I feared most.  A tumor had grown in his upper chest and it was cutting off his airflow.  Later that day he collapsed as he tried to stand.  He tried to meow and barely squeaked.  The ride back to the doctor was one of the saddest times of my life.  My sweet boy was silent as we made our way and was barely conscious by the time we arrived.  He died curled in my lap only a short time after that, his passing eased by gentle hands.

Pandora, Panda-bear, Pandy, Pan-Pan, Panda-boy, My Sweet Boy, My Little Boog, our little butler.  You were in my life longer than most people I know today.  I was 24 when we first met.  So many things changed during those years but there was always you, with your sweet and gentle kisses, your bright eyes and tender paws.  I see you everywhere I look today and I will miss you so very, very much.

I do hope that there is a place where your spirit lives.  That perhaps you are reunited with your sister, Orange, that you are chasing butterflies and finding sunny spots to snooze in.  I hope that there are many hands to pet you and noses for you to kiss.  But even if there is not such a place, I do know that you will live on my memories and in my heart and in the hearts of the many more who came to love you.

Rest in peace my sweet boy.  I love you always.