I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately, not for a noble reason such as the New Year and trying to better myself, but because, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, I’m stuck in this compulsive habit of keeping a little psychic notebook of “offenses against Leslie Srajek,” and it gets longer and longer each day. And I’m not talking about the girl at Panda Express who charges you for “free refills,” or even the bank clerk who–oops!–deposits your paycheck into the wrong account. Also, this is not to say that I have not made my share of mistakes, because I SO have.
But some people have treated me not so well lately. If we were in daycare together, they would need to be in time out for the whole day. Maybe the whole week, with no chocolate Cherrios for snack. However, like the old blues song says (and what the laws of discretion and good taste dictate), the details of all that “‘t’aint nobody’s business but my own.” What does matter to all of us, however, is forgiveness.
Forgiveness mostly sucks, because being angry is SO much easier and less vulnerable. And if you are a drama queen like me, you enjoy clinging on to your own morsel of pain until the whole world sees how wounded and derserving of love and sympathy and healing and worship you are and …Okay, stop that. In the end, it’s like Anne Lamott says: not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. Also, Annie Lamott has a chapter in Traveling Mercies about forgiveness in which she quotes C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity as saying, “If we really want to learn to how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Repulsive, right? You don't want this to be you.
Here is a picture of a print that I have in my office:
You may know it–it became very popular this year, and is supposedly a reproduction of the original “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster produced by the British Ministry of Information in 1939. There’s even a Keep Calm and Carry On website where you can order lots of cool stuff.
As one might have predicted, however, the popularity of this poster spawned a multitude of spoofs. Which is why I also have this postcard in my office as well…
Happy Monday, everyone! Today I have sort of a Monday-type question for you (in other words, one that you probably won’t really feel like answering because you suspect you will have to admit something unpalatable about yourself if you did). But don’t worry, we’re all here together, and I promise not to leave you on an uninspired note. Anyway, here’s the question: do you have something, or a variety of somethings in your life, something about yourself, something you want to stop doing, or need to start doing, but you don’t, and what’s more, the way you are going along is simply making you more and more miserable (or you have the suspicion that it is, when you spend a moment to look at whatever the situation is out of the corner of your eye), and yet you keep doing it anyway? Well, I do. I have one big something and a variety of small somethings, and I can’t seem to get any real traction on dealing with them. Most of the time I feel like I really don’t have what it takes to do what it takes. But then yesterday afternoon I fell asleep and had this dream…
One of the chapters of Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies is an account of a health scare she had with her son Sam. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, depending on your perspective (and mental health), we had a similar experience this week with Gabe. But before I tell you about that, I want to show you this picture by Toni Frissell, a female photographer in the 1940’s and 50’s.
It’s from an underwater shoot of models all wearing white, fluidy gowns. To me, it evokes many things: surrender, descent, freedom, and something of the seductive power of depression. It also reminds me of the scene in “The Piano” where Holly Hunter almost drowns because she lets her leg get tangled up with her piano when it falls overboard. (Hunter plays a mute woman in the 1850’s who is sent to New Zealand for an arranged marriage. Her piano is, quite literally, her voice). She is very calm at first, quietly observing the water around her, gracefully allowing herself to be pulled down, down, down. Then suddenly it’s like she wakes up and realizes what is happening, and she struggles to free herself and swim to the surface. The camera shows her discarded boot sinking slowly deeper, while she swims up, towards a life that she is not sure she wants, certainly one she knows nothing about, but one she is not ready to give up.
In 2002, Maya Angelou was the speaker at the University of Illinois’ commencement. It was a cloudy day, and all the dusty old Important University Administrators droned on and on with their dusty old words. And then Maya Angelou was introduced. She stepped to the podium, opened her mouth, and her honey-rich voice rolled out singing, “When it looked like the sun wasn’t gonna shine anymore, God put a rainbow in the clouds!” Then she called out into the mass of people, “Good afternoon, rainbows!” It was 8 years ago, but it could have been 5 minutes for how full and powerful her voice still is in my head.
Whenever I see a flyer for a workshop or talk on “Work/Life Balance,” I get a very bad feeling in my chest and my head starts to hurt. Unless there will be someone at the workshop with a clipboard and a sign-up sheet for volunteers to come over and dust my floorboards, cook dinner for my family, buy the batteries at Walgreens that I keep forgetting, or clean out the box of stuff from when I moved my office last December, I can’t think of a single good reason to attend.
My bottom line belief on work/life balance is this–it’s a hoax, and a dangerous one at that. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s David Whyte in his most recent book, The Three Marriages: Reexamining Work, Self and Relationship: “People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.”
There was a lady in our old neighborhood who used to walk up and down the sidewalks backwards. Sometimes she carried what appeared to be two gallon jugs of drinking water, one in each hand. She was very thin, made all her own clothes, and had a very complex relationship with her health. She was extremely concerned about air quality, for example, and yet was married to a man who smoked so much that not only his teeth but both of his hands were yellow from nicotine. I hated seeing her, not because she was so odd, but because I recognized her as a fellow neurotic. Even on days when I was feeling completely normal, catching a glimpse of her lurching down the sidewalk was like a magnet for all of my wacko health fears. They would just come shrieking to the surface like little monstery kids who jump up and down and yell “BLAAHHH!” right in your face.
Good writers seem to know a lot about neuroses. Anne Lamott, for example, is so exactly right when she describes her students’ fears about being writers because she is smart, observant, and has experienced them all herself: “[They] want to know why they feel so crazy when they sit down to work, why they have these wonderful ideas and then they sit down and write one sentence and see with horror that it is a bad one, and then every major form of mental illness from which they suffer surfaces, leaping out of the water like trout—the delusions, hypochondria, the grandiosity, the self-loathing, the inability to track one thought to completion, even the hand-washing fixation, the Howard Hughes germ phobias. And especially, the paranoia” (Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life).
Last night on the phone my dad reminded me of a priest who used to serve at the church I grew up in. His name was Fr. Reginald. He often gave these short, succinct homilies, with one main point that stayed with you because it wasn’t weighed down with a lot of extraneous rhetoric.
Today’s poem is like that. Today is the start of a new week and a new month (and only three more months of winter here in the midwest!). Yet this poem reminds us that in every moment, we have the same two choices–love or fear. Despite the poem’s repetition of the words “there are” in each line, despite the insistence that love and fear are the only two states of being, you always have a choice about which to claim, to see, to believe. This is not to imply that’s it’s an easy choice, because God knows, it isn’t. Nor is fear a “bad” thing. Without fear, there is no need for courage. And luckily for us, no matter what, it’s a choice we get the chance to make, over and over again.
Love and Fear
There are only two feelings, Love and fear:
There are only two languages, Love and fear:
There are only two activities, Love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results, Love and fear,
Love and fear.
Michael Leunig (contemporary Australian cartoonist, philosopher, poet and artist)