Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who We Already Are

    Yesterday, my 19 year old nephew, Evan, came down from Ohio for a short summer visit. I haven't seen him in a couple of years, and aside from the fact that I think he's grown several inches taller, what struck me most was his subtle transformation from a boy into a man. Like his cousins (my twins, Nick and Rory), Evan is a musician. He's played bass for his pop-rock band, The Fair Weathered, for several years now, and he absolutely lights up whenever the conversation shifts to music. I think it's probably genetic...coursing through our family's veins is the lifeblood of creativity. For some of us, it's an essential nutrient. My father ("Grandpa" to Nick, Rory, and Evan) was a gifted artist and brilliant pianist whose "day job" was being a physician. He exuded a love for life, a special reverence for nature and its mysteries, especially the human form, which was impossible to ignore. Everyone who knew my father thought of him first as an artist. I now know that my mother, who has never considered herself to be a creative person (a self-appraisal with which I happen to disagree), admits she often felt as if she were standing in Dad's shadow, but she assures me she was fine with that. She loved my father because of his uniqueness, not in spite of it. As siblings, the six of us have been blessed with Dad's ingenuity and joie de vivre in varying degrees of expression, tempered by a healthy dose of Mom's practicality and common sense. Although this seems like a "win-win" combination, balancing these opposing traits presents somewhat of a challenge. As an artist-physician myself, I've experienced this conundrum first hand.
     Evan just finished his first year of college at the University of Ohio. He's interested in audio production, a curriculum which is offered there, but because he didn't like Athens' restrictive college-town atmosphere, he is transferring to Ohio State in his hometown of Columbus. Unfortunately, OSU doesn't offer any coursework in sound engineering. Evan is deeply troubled by this dilemma; at the tender age of 19, he feels he is expected to know what he wants to do with the rest of his life. Like many people his age, he's unknowingly stepped into society's pressure-cooker of achievement and success. "Society measures success in money, which I don't agree with", he complains. "If I'm constantly hounded to be doing something productive for the next chapter of my life, I'm never 'in the moment', living this chapter of life." As someone who, at the age of 49, still doesn't know what I want to be when I grow up, I can definitely relate. Reconciling doing what we enjoy with that which produces financial independence seems like a futile exercise in mutual exclusion when we're as young as Evan is. It's as if we're invited to become anything in life, except who we already are.
     Aside from being preposterous, the idea that a person should have his or her existence mapped out by the age of 21 can actually do more harm than good. I can't think of a worse situation than being stuck working in a job I don't really care for, just because it came with a guarantee of financial success, the promise of prestige, or because it filled someone else's desires or expectations. I can't imagine a life based on denying myself happiness. As a teenager growing up in the late '70s, this quote from Hermann Hesse made a lasting impact on me: "I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?" My own career path has changed quite a few times over the last 30 years. I've worked as a mental health technician, a registered nurse, and now, as a practicing physician, but I've done these things because I wanted to, because they felt right, not out of a sense of obligation. Because my aspirations have been guided solely by inspiration, there's never been a trade-off between doing what I love and doing what I want. For me, prosperity is a direct reflection of my own happiness in life. I measure success in terms of personal fulfillment, not social status or how much money I have in the bank. The most miserable time in my life coincided with earning a huge salary. Although the mind-blowing paychecks were nice, I was "owned" by the hospital; most of my "free" time was spent catching up on sleep because I took so much overnight call. I was irritable all the time. I hated "existing", and began to feel as if I might be going crazy. I gave serious consideration to getting out of medicine altogether until it dawned on me that I could try working part-time without taking call, even if it meant quartering my income. I'm very happy in my new job and can attest to the fact that sometimes, less really is more.
     Evan, Nick, and Rory have all recently commented how they wish Grandpa was still alive so they could converse with him about being young men with unconventional dreams and interests in this oh-so-conventional world of ours. I'll bet he would have given them the same advice he gave me when I was sixteen: "You are who you choose to be." He never forgot that he was an artist at heart, a physician by trade, and neither have I. My hope is that these talented grandchildren of his also will never forget that they, too, are artists, musicians, and lovers of life, that who they already are is who they can choose to be.
Evan, in his element.
The Fair Weathered (Evan's band)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

This Pregnant Peaceful Calm

     I'm finishing up a week of stay-cation, a luxurious seven days of hanging out in our newly purchased loft with absolutely no agenda. Although I've seen my sons' band, BearKnuckle, perform twice this week, necessitating an overnight trip to Athens, GA (with accommodations graciously provided by Aim-Why, my friend of almost 30 years), I've mostly just been relishing the process of doing nothing at all. It's true, there are many things that I could have been doing, things that might be perceived by those more industrious than me as "productive." I could have focused all of my energy on researching options for replacing our kitchen cabinets and countertops, all of which are poorly constructed and in varying states of disrepair, or on estimates for custom-made blinds which would actually fit our windows, instead of hanging lopsided outside the sill. I could also have organized this burgeoning stack of papers on my desk, cleaned out our refrigerator, and shopped for new overhead light fixtures.
     Believe me, I thought about accomplishing all of these tasks. I even went as far as purchasing two types of hard-wall hangers for the multitude of paintings and photographs that still need to be hung. It's not that I'm lazy or unmotivated; at some point, all this stuff will be dealt with. I've think I've simply divorced myself from the nagging sense of urgency which comes from worry and regret, from ruminating about what it is I could have done or should be doing.
     The truth is, I don't want to miss out on a moment of now. As I write this, I am sitting across from my husband at the desk we share, as fully aware of his sighs and subtle movements as I am of the dehumidifier's psychedelic-sounding vibrations, Simon and Lilly's snortling and the intermittent tinkling of the tags on their dog collars, the welcome coolness of the concrete floor beneath my feet, and the sun's ascent as its sultry rays issue through both of our skylights. This pregnant peaceful calm is soothing, sensual, almost addictive. I can't seem to get enough of it. Although I'm focusing on writing, my thoughts are free to come and go, as if I'm meditating. Immersed in the pleasures of the immediate present, I feel relaxed and carefree. By doing nothing, nothing is left undone.* My body rights itself without any conscious intervention, naturally and effortlessly. It does what it needs to do. If I think about the fact that I'm falling, and actively interfere with my "muscle memory", I tend to become injured. It's really not ironic, then, that my greatest disappointments seem to occur when I think too much or am overly attached to my expectations, while the best things in life happen serendipitously.

*A paradoxical quote by Lao-Tzu, who posited that non-action is the purest form of action, a concept entirely different from passivity because of its emphasis on trusting nature's intelligence where events occur naturally, instead of being forced.
Me and Aim-Why, Athens, GA

BearKnuckle & friends in Athens, GA (my twins, Nick & Rory, who play guitar and bass, respectively, are pictured in the center)

BearKnuckle, Norcross, GA

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Measure of Comfort

     Today is Father's Day, and I miss my dad. He died almost ten years ago, rather suddenly, from an aortic dissection. Shortly after Christmas in 2002, he developed atrial fibrillation, and was admitted to the hospital for a cardiac work up. An echocardiogram of his heart revealed a huge aortic root aneurysm with a severe, concomitant decrease in heart function; he was in congestive heart failure. Electrical cardioversion failed to restore his heart to sinus rhythm. He was stabilized on medication with only marginal improvement in his heart function, and was discharged home not long after New Year's in 2003. Although open heart surgery to repair the aneurysm was presented as a possibility, Dad, who was 81 at the time, immediately refused this option; in fact, he was quite adamantly opposed to it. I can still hear him saying, "I don't want to become a VE-ge-ta-ble" in his Polish accent. "What will be, will be." His cardiologist informed us that my father might survive a few more weeks or even a couple of years, but Dad and I both understood he wasn't long for this world.
     At the time, I was in my first year of anesthesia residency. My gestalt about the situation, which later proved correct, was that my family needed to start the process of saying good-bye to him. I telephoned my five siblings to convey the gravity of Dad's condition. Those of us who lived here in town spent as much time as we could with my parents, just hanging out and enjoying each other's company. Despite our terrible collective knowledge that Dad was dying, the atmosphere surrounding him was appropriately light-hearted, very much in keeping with his infectious joie de vivre for which he was so adored. He died on February 2, 2003. He and Mom were in bed that night, and he'd gotten up to go to the bathroom. He returned to bed after what Mom described as a forceful cough or sneeze, and after lying back down, he was cold, clammy, and unresponsive. Although he was briefly revived by paramedics, his aneurysm had ruptured, and he was essentially dead upon arrival to the hospital. The last time I heard his voice was during Mom's frantic 2 a.m. phone call to me. Dad was being whisked away naked, save for a thin sheet, on a stretcher into an ambulance, and he was asking, "Where are you taking me?" At that moment, I knew I'd never hear his voice again. I drove alone to the emergency room, dreading the thought of seeing of my father's newly lifeless body. None of us will ever know what went through his mind during those last few minutes of life...was he in pain? Was he frightened at all? Did he understand what was happening to him?
     I returned home a few hours later, but couldn't sleep. Pierced with grief, I wandered aimlessly from room to room in a melancholy funk. It was Sunday. My husband, who was a realtor, had gone to show one of his clients a house, and I was alone with my 12 year old twin sons, Nick and Rory. I think they were both a little freaked out by my despondence. At some point, Nick came upstairs and offered to make me a sandwich. He had gotten quite good at making grilled ham and cheese, and I must say, that sandwich was the BEST sandwich I'd ever had in my life. This was a pivotal moment for me. At a time when I couldn't even remember the steps involved in brushing my teeth, let alone taking care of my family, my baby was able to anticipate my needs, providing me with a measure of comfort. I'll never forget his thoughtfulness that day.
     For several months after Dad's death, I was nearly incapacitated by the sense of loss I felt. I'd lost not only my father, I'd lost my kindred spirit, my mentor. I went back to work a week after he died, overwhelmed by despair, barely able to function. Everything felt so mechanical. I was no longer certain that life was worth living. Todd, my friend from anesthesia residency, came over to my house on quite a few occasions, literally dragging me out of bed to go with him for coffee or lunch. His support single-handedly prevented me from quitting residency. Like Nick, he understood the value of going through the motions, of how seemingly ordinary things, like a hot sandwich or a friendly conversation, are capable of affording extraordinary sustenance during times of crisis.
     According to my father's wishes, we took his ashes to Poland the next year, where they were scattered at the confluence of the Dunajec and Poprad Rivers, near his hometown of Stary Sącz. During the ceremony, Mom pulled each of my siblings and me aside individually to tell us what we meant to Dad. When it was my turn, she tearfully hugged me, and said, "He saw himself in you." Words cannot sufficiently describe the impact of her statement...it was as if everything I'd always known about the indescribable bond I shared with my father was confirmed: I was, and still am, my father's daughter. Like him, I am a person of the world, a parent, an artist, a physician, a free spirit, an unboxed thinker, a lover of life. Not a day goes by without some earthly reminder of him; I am fortunate to be surrounded by his paintings, sculptures, photographs, letters, even the cooking supplies he bought for me when I was in high school. Although I miss Dad's physical presence, his spirit is very much alive within me. The grief I once felt over losing him has gradually been replaced not only with fond memories, but through my daily channeling of his creativity and his remarkable enthusiasm for the ordinary. I'm tapped into him, wherever he is, and happily, so are my sons. We are living reflections of his unconditional love and generosity, his wild artistic genius, and his lust for life. We defiantly savor each moment as it arrives. We embrace his stillness, his quiet comfort in recognizing the exceptional in what appears commonplace, where everyday experience is transcendent, not mundane, where art is life, not an imitation of it.
The Perfect Exit (a related story about my father)
The Apple Doesn't Fall Far From The Tree (a related post)
Writing By Osmosis (Dad's posthumous guest blogger appearance)
Mom, me, & Dad, 1964ish

Rory, me, & Nick at my anesthesia residency graduation, 2005

Todd and me, at our residency graduation, 2005

Friday, June 8, 2012

We Were Born Happy

     I've spent much of this past week, immersed in the frustratingly nit-picky business of closing on our loft. What a roller coaster ride it's been! Neither Brad nor I have purchased a home since the housing bubble burst, a catastrophe which unfortunately has made it nearly impossible for people like us, with jobs and good credit, to receive approval for a loan. As if that wasn't enough of a pain in the ass, we've also had to put up with the vitriolic, mentally imbalanced listing agent, who also happens to be our landlord. Because he is angry that we exercised our right of first refusal on this property, negating an initial offer made by another couple which would have given him both sides of the commission, he has been less than cooperative in this already grossly inefficient process.
     Despite the escalating hassles and time-crunched constraints of the last couple of days, I've managed to find time to contemplate a rather obtuse question. Marty, a friend of mine who writes seemingly simple, yet deceptively complex aphorisms, distilled a familiar passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes into this quote: "A time and season for everything, but happiness first." In a public discussion on our blogger forum, he asked, "Is there anything greater than happiness? Is there any cause or goal or achievement worth sacrificing one's happiness to?" Less than a year ago, my answer would probably have been affirmative. Somewhere amidst my job change, which later proved fateful in the best kind of way, our move from Atlanta to Rome, GA which separated me from my sons, and the agonizing ethical issues surrounding the death of my mother-in-law, I temporarily forgot about the importance, as well as the origin, of my own happiness.
     Today, my answer is a resounding, "No!" I don't view happiness as a trivial, fleeting feeling, nor do I believe it can be achieved by external means. We were born happy, central to our experiences, selfish. Somewhere along the line, we are taught that being selfish is an evil thing, that a power outside ourselves is responsible for our existence, reinforcing the insidiously damaging and counter-intuitive notion that we are peripheral to our experiences, that happiness comes from a life of working hard, making lots of sacrifices, and denying oneself pleasure. In other words, one has to prove that one is deserving of happiness to be happy. What a crock! If you are shaking your head in disagreement here, consider for a moment how this concept of authoritarianism pervades our everyday speech. As Alan Watts once pointed out, we routinely refer to ourselves in a passive sense, e.g. we say things like "I grow" or "I walk", instead of "I shape my own bones" or "I propel myself forward on my own legs." We are acculturated to give credit where it isn't due, to someone or something other than ourselves. This "selflessness" is little more than false humility which evolved as a mechanism for concealing our own egotism; it's what makes us feel worthy of approval and delivers us from criticism and judgment, giving an outward appearance of compassion or altruism. It's also the genesis of resentment and prejudice. I realize this viewpoint is considered blasphemous by the vast majority, but I don't buy into the "judge and jury" thing. I don't require prior authorization from an outside party. I do what I do for myself and others because I want to, not out of a desire for recognition, a sense of guilt, or a fear of rejection. My perspective on all this is relatively simple: selfishness and selflessness, broadly defined, aren't mutually exclusive, and happiness is a bit of both.
     I think for myself. I shape my own bones, beat my own heart, and transmit my own nerves. Likewise, I am responsible for my own happiness. It's accessible, here within me, and I pretty much remain tapped into it. My motivation for the things I do in life doesn't come from a yearning for approbation or a need to win the approval of others; it's a symptom of being true to my Self, the source of my happiness, instead of being driven by my ego. It is happiness that sustains me and allows me to be selfless. True selflessness doesn't come attached with a price tag of expectations or reciprocity; it is a sublime manifestation of one's own happiness. Because I am happy in everything I do, nothing seems like a sacrifice.

Marty's (aka NothingProfound) Aphorism of the Day
Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Imagination, Reality, and the Wolf Living Under My Bed

      Yesterday evening, my husband and I decided to go and see a movie. There is a very nice cinema close to our house, a theater where independent films are often screened and in which you can also enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, so I went online to see what was playing there. The selections were kind of "eh"...nothing really jumped out at me. Aside from one subtitled foreign film, which I was sure Brad wouldn't be interested in, most of the offerings were mainstream fare. It was already 6:30 p.m., with most of the shows starting between 7:00 and 7:30. Both of us needed to shower, and since "Snow White and the Huntsmen" was starting in thirty minutes, while "Dark Shadows" wouldn't show for another hour, we decided to go with the latter choice, a decision which briefly struck terror into my heart. You see, Barnabas Collins is precisely why I've always been afraid of the dark.
     As a very small child in the mid '60s, I remember seeing snippets of the original "Dark Shadows" on TV. I don't think I was supposed to have seen it at all, but it was one of our housekeeper's daytime soap operas, and she liked to watch her "stories" as she was ironing or folding laundry. I suppose she wasn't aware that I already had a wolf living under my bed, or that because of this, it was necessary for me to sleep with a light on in the room I shared with my younger sister, who was somewhat intolerant of me and my irrational fears. What can I say? I had an extremely active imagination, and after hearing a musical story called "Peter and the Wolf", a grey wolf with yellow eyes began sharing real estate with the toys that were stuffed beneath my little cot. Every night, I would check to see if the wolf was still there, reassuring myself that he wouldn't come out if I kept a light on. I'm really not sure if my parents were even aware of this wolf's existence. Had they known, I'm certain they would have addressed the issue swiftly and decisively, given the fact that my sister was so annoyed by my ritualistic night-time illumination requirements.
     As if harboring a wolf under my bed wasn't bad enough, the glimpse I caught of Barnabas Collins' vampire teeth was enough to incapacitate me for the next two decades. The "Dark Shadows" theme song was sufficiently creepy to steer me in the opposite direction, but one unfortunate afternoon, I wasn't able to immediately exit the room upon hearing that music, and that's when I accidentally saw Barnabas with his fangs, going for blood. After that, I could no longer bear to go down to the basement, which was where my beloved older brother slept. Even with the lights on, the overall ambience was just too scary, and the risk of encountering yet another monster was too great. For many years after that, I hated being asked to go down to the basement to retrieve the laundry or a jar of canned goods. If I absolutely had to go down there, I'd often enlist one of my younger siblings to accompany me. A few years after the "Dark Shadows" incident, I saw an episode of "Johnny Sokko and His Giant Robot" in which an evil doctor poisoned Tokyo's water system, turning anyone who drank the water into a blood-sucking vampire. This necessitated the development of a new ritual. Aside from sleeping with a light on, I now needed to hold my neck in a certain position to avoid being bitten, and I was also compelled to say a thirty minute-long prayer to protect me and all my loved ones from a vampire attack. If I left anyone out of the prayer, I had to start all over again.
     By the time I was in high school, I'd abandoned the night light and the prayers, but I still couldn't watch horror movies of any kind. I was perceptive enough to know that doing so would only stir up old angst. While all my friends were going to see "Halloween" and "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre", I was content to stay at home, watching "The Love Boat." In college, I made the mistake of attending a campus screening of "Night of the Living Dead", and I cannot begin to describe what a setback that was. I begged my boyfriend to come in and check under the beds and inside the closets of the apartment I shared with three other girls, and from then on, he and his buddies took great delight in doing whatever they could to frighten me when we were out roaming the streets at night.
     Fast forward 40+ years, and I'm still avoiding horror flicks. A few months ago, my husband and sons watched the ever-so-dreadful "Human Caterpillar", and pretty much laughed through the whole thing, while I hid beneath the covers in our bedroom, using earplugs to drown out the soundtrack's disturbingly incessant screams and moans. It made me sick to think about the premise of that movie, and to know that there really are people crazy enough to attempt such an experiment. I guess I've always had problems separating reality from my imagination, but that's an entirely different philosophical discussion, isn't it?
     Suffice it to say, I successfully confronted Barnabas Collins last night, fangs and all, and I must admit, I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of that movie. I can't say with certainty whether this experience has emboldened me enough to sit through something like "Saw" or "Hotel Hell", but at least it's a start. Despite the fact that the wolf underneath my bed has long since vanished into harmless dust bunnies, my imagination is still just as active, maybe even more so. Even though it's sometimes been a disability, I wouldn't change a thing about it: my imagination keeps life interesting. Perhaps Albert Einstein was correct in his assertion that "the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination." After all, it takes imagination to comprehend that there is no bigger illusion than reality.