As passionate as I can be about things, I’ve only just begun to connect with the spectrum of emotions I had buried all my life under the stoicism.
When you reflect on your day as you turn out the lights, you are in fact revisiting how you felt about it, not what you thought about it. I’m seeing that feelings can be so prevailing they can redefine reality. You got word of a promotion – objectively, great news. But if it fills you with anxiety, that will translate a different news like maybe you’re really not competent enough. What if your spouse has little regard for you? His contempt will redefine what is true within the world you share. The final arbiter of our perception is emotion, not cognition.
Chief Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her early days as District Attorney couldn’t figure out where she’d gone wrong in one case. She replayed her presentation for a mentor who “identified the problem instantly: I was appealing to logic, not morality…since it is painful to most jurors to vote ‘guilty’ and send a human being to jail, you couldn’t simply reason with them to do it; you had to make them feel the necessity…put them in the shoes of the accused or the victim: make them feel the cold blade held against their necks, or the pang of unappreciated devotion that might drive someone to steal from a former employer…It was in effect to see that mastery of the law’s cold abstractions was actually incomplete without an understanding of how they affected individual lives.” My Beloved World
In the case of jurors, it is emotion that forges belief which determines conviction and behavior. Because when Sotomayor was arguing her case, she wasn’t feeding algorithms of reason into a machine for a logical verdict. She was appealing to people, people who were filtering the story through their own past, hopes, and fears as surely as they were supposed to aim for impartiality.
Yeonmi Park, who managed a harrowing escape out of North Korea, knows all about the power of feelings:
“In school, we sang a song about Kim Jong Il and how he worked so hard to give our laborers on-the-spot instruction as he traveled around the country, sleeping in his car and eating only small meals of rice balls [a lie]. “Please, please, Dear Leader, take good rest for us!” we sang through our tears. “We are all crying for you.” This worship of the Kims was reinforced in documentaries, movies, and shows broadcast by the single, state-run television station. Whenever the Leaders’ smiling pictures appeared on the screen, stirring sentimental music would build in the background. It made me so emotional every time.
Jang Jin Sung, a famous North Korea defector and former poet laureate who worked in North Korea’s propaganda bureau, calls this phenomenon ’emotional dictatorship’. In North Korea, it’s not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality, and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.” In Order to Live
The government wasn’t satisfied with subjugation of the mind. It wanted the heart because then the leaders had the whole person. And notice that you can create emotion – for someone you haven’t even met and for what is not real. This gives me hope that we can also deconstruct it, not remain enslaved to it.
I’ve always held to an Absolute Truth, ground harder than the sand mound of feelings, that can save us from ourselves. But I am seeing that where I’ve lived is really in the place of emotion, not of beliefs or facts. I have found anger much easier to access than sorrow. Anger allows me to borrow strength from the sheer force of it, as delusional as the sense of power may be, but what do you do with the sadness of inflicted pain except suffer its vulnerability and helplessness? It just hurts too much. Fear is another big one, and has accounted for a lot of my actions over the years. (I’m such a mess. Why in the world are you following?? Stay with me at your own peril.) Now naming is one thing, freeing oneself of it another. And so to face these darker sides of my psyche, I’ve had to enter their deeper waters. Following memory as far back as it would take me, I’ve relived the traumas of childhood that gave way to resentment and fear. But for the first time, I was led to think about my mother, how indignant, fearful, and powerless she must have felt in the face of her husband’s offenses while she was pregnant with me – all that despair I felt in the womb, the energy that pieced me together. I don’t like victim talk, but making sense of my context and beginnings has given me greater compassion for myself. I’ve also known that we hold grief and anxiety in our lungs and while I’ve made the connection easily in others, did not see until recently the chronic bronchitis I had as a child in this startling light.
When I was a kid, I didn’t salt my food. I felt guilty for the flavor, and so denied myself the pleasure. That went for the lettuce as well. No dressing. I took the asceticism to a whole other level in my adult years and only the other day recognized that I had actually invited much of the insane suffering in my life. I had to keep suffering because that is what Korean women do. It is how we show love, it is our lot. And our lot is where we are safe. It is all I saw of my mother, that for me to do and be otherwise would be not only criminal (how dare I enjoy my life?), but something alien and therefore…scary. Oh, how I LOVED my Bible passages on perseverance in affliction, on the cross I was to carry! Some years ago, I took a few lessons in the Alexander Technique, a mindful movement therapy. The instructor taught me how to lie down, really lie down. At one point I couldn’t help laughing out loud on the table. The deep, simple rest felt so good. At 30, I didn’t know I could rest like that, had been holding myself up in bed all those years. I now stand on unchartered terrain, a long but sure road where I am giving myself permission to stop hurting and to take my power back. I have died a hundred deaths. Surely that means a resurrection. Pleasure, comfort, (gasp) joy are within sight. At least I enjoy them every time here with you.
I had learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts. And I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality. I think that while I hated being depressed and would hate to be depressed again, I found a way to love my depression. I love it because it has forced me to find and cling to joy. I love it because each day I decide, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to cleave to the reasons for living. And that, I think, is a highly privileged rapture. Psychologist Andrew Solomon, PhD.
“He told of how the trees had grown in all sorts of conditions, endured lightning strikes and windstorms and infestations. [The boat builder] said the wood taught us about survival, about overcoming difficulty, but it also taught us about the reason for surviving in the first place. Something about infinite beauty, about things larger and greater than ourselves.” Daniel J. Brown, The Boys in the Boat
Anticipation trails the greeting: “Happy new year!” The newness in the turn of the calendar somehow holds out hope of a fresh happiness, a better year. But I remain grateful to be able to maintain the status quo of a mom on duty, keeping up with the home lessons and activities, turning out the chow, running the house. Put my face on this year? Maybe! The lipstick box awaits, now organized. Host company?? I pulled off Christmas. WRITE? Perhaps I ask too much. Because I have learned to be satisfied with little, even through the homesickness for my blog. I’ve shown up here drenched, not in the exhilarated sweat of the marathon victor, but in the swells of a twelve-month winter that have finally cast me out on shore. On the heels of a year I would not repeat for any amount of money, with eagerness do I accept the well-wishings of a happy 2017. Except that though we don’t like to think about unexpected hardships, they come. In fact, they don’t take holidays, and have left me with friends and family whose Christmas season remains an anniversary of dear losses. So maybe the relief of a tabula rasa is a luxury not within our rights. Maybe we can at best just hope to survive.
That is what I got out of the book The Martian, Watney’s desperate fight to stay alive an amplified contemplation of the symphonic battle between the harbingers of death and impulse of life we call the human condition. The farmer’s labor is a prayer, dependent on forces he attempts to harness but cannot control. And there is the financier, the urban version of this struggle, in his relationship with market conditions. Life is conflict – in the community, family, ourselves.
“A protagonist is pretty much defined by the strength of the opposition he or she faces,” as journalist Jack Hart quotes a writer in Storycraft. Isn’t that life? Even trees testify to the seasons they have weathered, confess their ordeal and age in their rings and core. “He talked about the underlying strength of the individual fibers in the wood. He said those separate fibers, knitted together in the wood, gave cedar its ability to bounce back and resume its shape or take on a new one. The ability to yield, to bend, to give way, Pocock said, was sometimes a source of strength in men as well as in wood.” DJB, The Boys in the Boat. There is a strength adversity builds that is of a different order than the brawn of success. It comes from just holding on and being able to look another day of it in the face. You are not capable, pretty, or smart. You just try to keep standing. Day after day.
“I continued to go [to the nursing home], and I struggled to find meaning in their bleak existence. What finally helped was an image from a medieval monk, Brother Lawrence, who saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
Part of my problem with suffering is that I’m surprised by it. Why can’t it all go my way?? Well, if it won’t always be California sunshine, can I at least have my greenhouse? You have been reminded. Expect a hard year, and happiness will follow somewhere in that.
“Amazingly, some of the bacteria survived. The population is strong and growing. That’s pretty impressive, when you consider it was exposed to near-vacuum and subarctic temperatures for over twenty-four hours. With hundreds of millions of bacteria, it only takes one survivor to stave off extinction. Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do.” The Martian
As the last iPhone holdout on the planet and blind without virtual powers, I could only guess that the 91 straight ahead was going to stop up in five miles as usual. Do I move left and hit Fastrak or make my way over to the right for Toll? Which will get me to Orange County faster? At 60 miles an hour, there came a point where I was committed. And to stay in the lane was to decide.
We play out this moment more dramatically many times in our lives, often at the crossroads to wildly differing futures. While we can inhabit only one place at one time, language enables us to travel many roads at once in our wondering over what might’ve been. On the TED stage, Classicist Phuc Tran takes a look at this versatility afforded by the subjunctive mood. Remember that the indicative expresses factual action (I am blogging) and the subjunctive, nonfactual with its nuances of possibility and potentiality. (I wish I could blog more. If only I could blog more! I might’ve blogged today if only…)
A brush with tragedy often sends us on the subjunctive ride. Some have marveled that they were sent to a different office the day the Twin Towers fell, others that they had missed their plane. Under the rubble of mishap or suffering, we also often retrace that path. What if I hadn’t taken that dive? What if I hadn’t bumped into her? What if I’d married him? Tran shares, “The night that my family was fleeing Saigon, my entire family, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, were all scheduled to board a bus. And as that bus was loading passengers, I began crying, shrieking uncontrollably, so much so that my entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away from us, it was struck by artillery fire. It exploded and everyone on board was killed. As a kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune in escaping and about what would have happened if we hadn’t.”
He goes on to muse that his native Vietnamese tongue uses no subjunctive. His father never dwelt on what could’ve been, for better or worse. He never pined that he should have held security and status as a lawyer and aspiring politician back in Saigon. He did what he had to do in the indicative strength of his mother language, driving a cement mixer to support his family in America. But borrowing from the resources of the English language, his son grew up to explore the possibilities for his own future, crafting joyful work as a Classics instructor as well as a tattoo artist. While saving simplicity can protect us from the bitterness of regret, it can also keep us from life-giving promise. After all, the question of what could have been springs from the same emotional impetus that asks what could be. Isn’t what if the stuff of dreamers and visionaries? It’s what gets people out of North Korea, impels us to look for a better job, start a blog. We don’t just declare our present reality and sit back with a bag over our head. This is my life. This is my body. We devise a better way and move toward it.
Tran cites the 2011 Gallup International that surveyed feelings of optimism among various nations. Which country do you think came out on top? The one “whose language doesn’t allow its speakers to obsess over the idea of what could have been“. The most pessimistic? France – whose language has “two subjunctives and existentialism.” (The audience laughed.) Let me throw in that South Korea reigns as Drama Queen in Asia with her notorious tear-jerker melodrama series that remains in demand across the seas. Korean happens to weigh in as a language fraught with the subjunctive, its history full of pathos and saturated in longing. Just fascinating, how language forges the paths we might take in the mind and heart. And then look what we do with that language.
Something in us not only calls up the prospects we missed but finds so intriguing the ones ahead, that we have come to devote a whole genre called fiction to exploring the unreal – what might have been – and make it real in the indicative. The most powerful novels that stay with me long after I close them sound the echo of steps not taken by characters who had a choice. Because that is life. Able to choose only one moment in time, we forgo competing realities, sometimes let go the dreams that chased us. “The subjunctive is the most powerful mood, it’s like a time-space dream machine that can conjure alternate realities with just the idea of could have or should have. But within this idea of should have is a Pandora’s box of hope and regret,” says Tran.
As for me this year, I am to take neither Fastrak nor Toll in the homeschooling and all the TO DOs but to stay the course, on foot. Grounded. I am working on keeping more grounded, attuned to my needs. All 90 pounds of me have felt as though I could blow away with the wind. I was surprised to find the other day that the inviting rebounder didn’t feel as good as the treadmill I am usually not dying to hop on. My feet sought firmness. It feels good to be cooking again, chopping my beets, the juice of the earth on my hands. I am seeing that it’s not either-or, where I thought life had me in the teeth between the dictates of my indicative circumstances and muzzled hopes. This path of nurture will slowly give way to possibilities.
It was a summer sun and autumn wind. He felt both uncomfortable and snug in the sweater as the heat bore through and the air blew in tidal breaths about him. He couldn’t help look up as he made his way down the gully using his spade for a walking stick. The sky, a wash of azure, held out a gorgeous cleanness – a tableau vivant of redemption after the fierce rain.
Reminding himself to breathe with the wind softening above, he followed the redolent trail of conifer to a line of trees tall against the strike of sun. Right there, by the rock. That’s where he’d dig. The clods eventually gave way because they had to. All those years: longing and defeat marked a hundred thousand steps that made a life, and he hadn’t lived. The dirt crumbled under the work of sure hands. When he made his way back out to the deepening sunlight and noise, will people know that his heart had stopped, that in death he had prevailed over beguiling hope? No. They will just believe his depthless smile. The hollow was now big enough. Calloused palms smoothed the bottom and bending, like a father over the cradle, he buried his dreams.
I had my feet up on the couch, willing the bleeding to stop. I couldn’t find any pads last night but remembered the spare diapers I kept for my nephew’s sleepovers. They were perfect. What a word. Perfect. I suppose I should have this down by now. I changed out the diapers every hour, at times faster. The empty trash bin had filled, blood-sodden, overnight. Today my back yearned for something soft underneath as the pelvic ache grew louder.
The doorbell rang.
My body refused to move but I was waiting for a package to sign for, a gift for Dad. I tried not to think about the rush in my pants when I got up and shuffled, exhausted, to the door. Outside the window stood a man with a pen behind an ear, clipboard in hand. Damn solicitors. He waved hopefully when he caught sight of me. I waved back an angry dismissal and slapped the blinds back against the pane. I was losing my baby, my life a promise of barren existence, and he just wanted my money.
I can do this. It’s a numbers game. Hit 20 homes – that’s at least three sales. 30% commission. Everyday and I’ll get us a two-bedroom and move Janie to a better school. When Laura gets her raise I can go back to one job.
This one looks good. The biggest house on the block. Car in the driveway but no answer. Man, I wanna get home for dinner. Try it again. There you go, I knew you were home. Oh, come on. At least give me a minute. Some people are so rude.
I recently heard a playwright on NPR who, in reference to racial conflict, said we walk into one another’s story everyday. Black people often find themselves trapped in the white imagination when they stumble into fear and ignorance. But it isn’t only across race and color lines that we do this. Every house, every apartment is a story box. We don’t know what just happened behind those closed doors, don’t know who is dying behind that smile. As you read this, a couple is exchanging wedding vows. Some bloggers are cracking jokes. A child’s stomach knots in hunger. A man tosses dirt over his wife’s casket. A girl just landed her dream job. A father of four lost his. Not only was the salesman clueless about the woman’s situation, she was in no position to come out. She didn’t have the wherewithal to step out into his story. We ask and sometimes the answer is no. And it has nothing to do with us.
It took me over a quarter of a century to realize beauty is not something frivolous. We need beauty in our life. The truth still takes my breath away. With no particular aesthetic gift or impulse, I was for much of my life satisfied if my purchases were functional. They didn’t have to be pretty. And so neither did I, because my brain got me around. It was my mind, not my appearance, that helped me achieve in school and life and build relationships. I now look with patience upon the black-and-white assertions we draw in youth.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert borrows from The Italians by Luigi Barzini to tease out “why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political and scientific minds of the ages, but have still never become a major world power. [His answers] have to do with a sad Italian history of corruption…and dominators…which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted…one should trust only what one can experience with one’s own senses. This is why Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, ballerinas…actors, cooks, tailors…In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real. To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business – not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into rhetoric and plot.”
Gilbert goes on to describe how deep in the ruins of her marriage, she began to mend her soul by reading aloud Italian words out of a dictionary. I can relate. After my body broke down from stress and overwork in my 20s, I noticed the flowers for the first time. I had never seen them grace the cities I lived in. Too busy with things that mattered like studies and work, I had never looked. But in my frailty, I was ravished by their beauty, the force of their color. My spirit had fractured open, worn and thirsty for something beyond the dictates of duty. Eager for a song, not just the beat of the clock I raced. I didn’t understand why I took so hungrily to the flowers I had by practice dismissed. It took me years to realize that beauty is healing. And so the lyrical, sexy Italian sounds out of her mouth brought Gilbert healing joy. She says “the appreciation of pleasure can be an anchor of one’s humanity…You were given life; it is your duty…to find something beautiful within life, no matter how slight.”
I would take it a step further. Beauty is the very fabric of our world. Yes, we’ve screwed things up with crime, war, destruction, and the abuse of our natural resources. But beauty dances in the pageantry of the sunset and of the cosmos (who said Jupiter had to be so beautiful??), in the languages of men. Some days the California sky is so magnificent, the clouds coiffed with a panache which in a painting would look overdone, too perfect. Beauty wasn’t an artful afterthought to this world. It obligated itself upon us. Beauty isn’t something to find. It is the substance of this earth.
How does this belated dawning translate in my life? While I remain impressed with women who match head to toe, my regard for them is largely what I hold for curious lab specimens. I was taken by my mother-in-law’s response when I thanked her for a recent gift card saying I’ll get something to look pretty in for her son. “Get something nice to be pretty for yourself. Life is short. Someday, you will realize that you don’t have much time left over to enjoy what you have now.” I was reminded that while vanity is one thing, self-respect is another and taking care with my appearance is good for the soul. The series on beauty that’s around the corner will take us through the body, spirit, femininity, relationships, love, memory, pain, suffering, art. Please welcome the guests who have worked hard over their stories and are still bleeding from the edits – because beauty is worth it.