Poetry in Motion

When I lived in NYC, they had a program where they’d put poetry in the subway cars. Here is my favorite one:

Lullaby For a Daughter ~ Mary Jo Salter

Someday, when the sands of time
invert, may you find perfect rest
as a newborn nurses from
the hourglass of your breast.

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The Weight of Things.

The Scarf of a Beating!

During the holidays, a lot of my female friends are writing about body image, weight gain, etc. While it’s not exactly the same thing, it reminds me of Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis 2, writing about the experience of taking on the veil in Iran:

“The regime had understood that one person leaving her house while asking herself: ‘Are my trousers long enough?’ ‘Is my veil in place?’ ‘Can my makeup be seen?’ ‘Are they going to whip me?”

No longer asks herself: ‘Where is my freedom of thought?’ ‘ Where is my freedom of speech?’ ‘My life, is it livable?’ ‘What’s going on in the political prisons?”
—-
What if we women took all the energy we spend thinking about how much we suck, and put it into getting fair wages? Reducing discrimination? Acquiring affordable daycare? Reducing poverty?

You only have so much time. How do you want to spend it?

‘The Least of These’ Are Our True Teachers

The first step to healing our broken world is to find the teachers who will lead us. For too long, we have looked to the blessed to teach the unfortunate. It is the other way around.  The holders of privilege may be partners in this struggle if they choose. But they are not our teachers.

If we want to learn, we must turn to those who have something to say.

We must turn to the landless, the dispossessed. Those who have learned, over the course of generations, to weave the ties of their culture through song and story, rather than through land…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the sick, the powerless, and the weak — those who have always had to find their own success and happiness through means other than brute force…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the insane and the mentally ill — all those those who cherish as a gift any day in one’s right mind. All those who know first hand the truth; that there is no Heaven or Hell, but what the mind makes of it…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the women of the world, downtrodden for countless generations, yet still the first to give love, kindness, and compassion.

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the children of the world, who see with clear eyes what is right, before the world teaches them to doubt…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the elders of the world, who can help us embrace the best of the new, while holding tight to the best of tradition…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the sensitive, those who have a damaged response to a damaged world. Like the canaries in the coal mine, they offer a warning that is important for us all, if we wish to survive…

They are our teachers now.

We must turn to the castoffs of the world – the throwaways – all who have been made to feel it would have been better if they had never been born. They know better than anyone the value of kindness and inclusion…

They are our teachers now.

For years, those with money and privilege have turned to the poor and said, Learn from us. But I say to the wealthy, humble yourselves before the poor, and learn from those whom you would cast aside. Let those who have gone before you in suffering help lead the way to the end of suffering. Let us all learn from those who, in the face of hardship, have somehow managed to keep their own small flames alive.

You Can Only Keep What You Throw Away

A few years ago, I entered into a very difficult period of my life, where everything that could go wrong, did.

I got sick, I got broke, two cars died in rapid succession, I lost friends, everything. I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life, but it felt like I was only treading water; nothing I did seemed to move me forward, and it was only with tremendous effort that I kept from falling further behind.

One strange thing I noticed during this period was that almost everything I tried to accomplish in the world of stuff just…didn’t work. In addition to the aforementioned car fiascos, my small, modest attempts at making acquisitions backfired a lot. I would unpack a new item from its box, only to see that it was broken and needed to be returned. New clothes often needed to be returned as well. Once, I decided that if I wasn’t going to be able to drive a car, the least I could do was repair my boots. I took two long bus rides to get them repaired — and then the repair ended up being botched.

“I can’t seem to keep anything,” I thought. “All my efforts get undone.”

And that’s when it hit me. What if I throw stuff away? If all of my efforts to acquire stuff got undone, maybe I could finally see some results — and get to “keep” my effort — if I put it towards getting rid of stuff. (Especially paper. Oh Paper, My Crinkly Nemesis.)

So, I tried this new approach, although I admit I was nervous at first. I was so used to having my efforts thwarted that I half-expected whatever I put in the recycle bin to show up on my doorstep the next morning.

But the gone stayed gone. Everything I let go of, stayed let go of. I finally got to keep it.

You can only keep what you throw away.

After a while, I started thinking that this maxim must be true for life, as well.

Every good moment in my life has been good, largely because of what I had cleared away.

Every bad moment in my life has been bad, largely because of what I was still holding onto.

The “clearer” I am, the more happiness and joy I get to keep.

You can only keep what you throw away.

Advice

I used to see a physical therapist twice a week in midtown Manhattan. This was years ago, when I was living in Brooklyn, and way before Brooklyn was cool.

Anyways, right next door to my physical therapist’s office was a fancy salon, named after the founder, a woman d’un certain age. The salon sold high-dollar youth creams and beauty potions.

One day, I shared the elevator with the founder of this beauty line. She must have been at least 50, but still had incredibly smooth, flawless skin. “You know, you really do have amazing skin,” I said. “What’s your secret?”

She smiled. “Genetics.”

And so she’d made a fortune selling creams and lotions, because her skin was her calling card — even though those products had nothing to do with her beauty.

This brings me back to something I’ve noticed many times: We always take advice from the wrong people.

If we want to lose weight, we’ll ask our skinny friend with the fast metabolism rather than our normal-size friend who actually lost weight.

We also prefer bad advice from charming people over good advice from boring people. We prefer to believe the  beautiful person holding court in the center of the room, and ignore the nerd in the back, who’s adding up the sums accurately and ruffling feathers when he says they’re wrong. This is because we trust advice based on who we want to be, rather than what we want to do.

This leads to all sorts of misperceptions in the world about how people actually got to where they are in life:

Tell me Ms. Jones, how did you become such a successful saleswoman and get those cold call sales?

Answer: “Self-confidence and a great work ethic”

Real Answer: “Model-perfect good looks”

Mr. Smith, you’ve become so very successful at business. To what do you attribute your success?

Answer: “Creativity and thinking outside the box”

Real Answer: “Family money”

People watching these interviews say to themselves, “That’s right! If I want to be a success like her, I just need to be more self-confident!”  Whereas they might get farther with major plastic surgery.**

So basically, as I said, most people have a natural instinct to trust advice based on who we want to be, rather than what we want to do. But, once we know that might be a pitfall, we can be aware of it, and try to compensate for it.

Also, this tendency to follow “winners” — even if they win for the wrong reasons — robs us of great wisdom, because failures often have excellent advice. People who fail multiple times in an undertaking know what doesn’t work – so you don’t have to try it yourself. And, when they do eventually make it past their roadblocks, they can actually tell you what they did, rather than bragging about what they thought they were doing while the universe took care of the rest. Failures often understand the process to success better than someone who’s naturally gifted. But still, we gravitate to the prodigy as the master, and ignore the person in the back, who struggled to learn everything they mastered…and so knows how to teach.

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** And no, I am not advising you to get plastic surgery. You have a great nose, don’t ever let anyone else tell you differently.

Smart People and Bad Thoughts

As some of you know, I am a devotee of a spiritual teacher named Mata Amritanandamayi, or “Amma,” sometimes known as “The Hugging Saint” in the West.

One of the reasons I love her is that I am, quite simply, crazy. I have a whole lot of thoughts and ideas about myself and the world that are completely ill-founded. What’s worse – I’m smart. And smart people’s Achilles’ heel – or more accurately, Achilles’ Hell – is that we have a tendency to fall in love with convincing arguments, and cling to them like dogs gnawing on used-up bones. Once a ‘smart’ person gets a logical, well-constructed argument in their head, they’ll often follow it slavishly, long past the point of accuracy, common sense, or even personal happiness.

Imagine that your mind is like a party. When you’re smart in a certain kind of way, all those seemingly-rational (but deeply flawed) arguments sparkle like those mean-girl hotties. They outshine good ol’ Common Sense, who would totally love to talk to you, if you would only give her a minute of your time. But she’s over there, by the back, almost crowded out, poor thing, and you only learn what a good conversationalist she is once all the shiny girls have already left.

We “smart people” love the comforts of our if-then statements. We feel they provide stability, and even structure. But often, they are so rigid and so paralyzing that, instead of providing the positive structure of a scaffolding — that is to say, a foundation for improvisation and growth — they provide the negative structure of…a prison. So-called logical thinking often becomes so draconian and rigid that it only provides limitation, stagnation, and fear.

For example, when I was a teenager at boarding school, my mother — a very smart person — decided to take a one-year teaching appointment in a far-away state. At the beginning of the school year, she found an unfurnished apartment, and said, “You know, moving my furniture down will cost a lot of money. I’ll move it down later. And you know what? I slept on the carpet last night, and it really wasn’t that uncomfortable! I don’t mind it for a week or two, especially with some blankets underneath me for cushioning. I’ll deal with the furniture soon, once I get settled in my new department.”

A week or two became three months, and when my Christmas vacation came, I had to ask my mother to buy me a mattress. Spending Christmas in an empty apartment, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, I begged my mother to move the furniture down at last.

She said, “My one-year appointment might not be renewed, and moving is so very expensive. The year’s half-way over. I’ll wait until spring, and then if my contract is renewed, I’ll move it down.”

Summer came, and her contract was renewed, but again she rationalized, and I spent a summer sleeping on the floor in an empty apartment. All told, she would spend three years in that state of suspended animation, all the while promising to move the furniture down “soon.”

My mother was the most intellectual of all my friends’ parents. While her peers had more ordinary pursuits, my mother read voraciously, and talked at length about art, literature, and culture. But the thing is, if you had asked any of my friends’ ordinary parents, “Do you think it is a good idea for you and your daughter to sleep on mattresses on the floor in an empty apartment for the next three years?” they would have said something like: “Don’t be ridiculous. As long as I am not completely destitute, I will make sure that my child and I have a decent home.”

By the end of my mother’s strange time in limbo, her refusal to provide me with that decent home had pushed me far away. She had also, by the by, ended up spending at least as much on storage fees as she would have on moving expenses. But her fear had latched onto a convoluted “logic,” and trapped her in a bad decision. The kind of bad decision that wouldn’t even have occurred to someone who wasn’t, you know. Smart.

In this way, smart people become prisoners of their own minds, and their strengths become their weaknesses.