Smoke and Mirrors

Susann Hayden discusses an ongoing quest to quit smoking cigarettes and traces the clues that may lead to kicking the habit.

Lucky for me that heroin is illegal. Otherwise, I probably would have smoked it at some point to quit smoking cigarettes. Buddha knows, I have tried everything else: gum, patches, pot, Xanax, raw cookie dough, exercise, meditation, tearful promises, urgent prayers, psychotherapy, hypnosis, tough love, goal setting, reward, punishment, abrupt withdrawal, tapering off, locked rooms, 3 day fasts, 3 day tranquilizers, relaxation tapes, 50x magnification spa mirrors, lollipops, inhalers, screaming, sobbing, self-loathing, begging for help, books – just to name a few. When the facts and inspiration from reading doesn’t help me, I suspect there may be a deep-rooted psychological block to overcome.

For the life of me – the literal Life. Of. Me. – I have not been able to conquer this hideous habit over the years that I have been actively trying. Until maybe last week. A randomly chosen movie – Dead Again – featuring Robin Williams as a former therapist, had one line that clicked into my subconscious and made me think about the subject differently. Early in the film Williams’ character coolly observes a private investigator – played by Kenneth Branagh – and says to him, “Do you want a cigarette?” Branagh replies, “No. I don’t smoke.” A few lines later, Williams says again, “Here – take a cigarette.” Branagh retorts, “Why do you think I want a cigarette? I am trying not to smoke.” Williams explains, “Look. There is no trying to quit. You are either a smoker or you’re not. Think about it. And when you decide, you’ll know what to do.” I could easily answer that question: I am not a smoker. Why on earth have I spent so much time and effort to sustain a habit I don’t even like? Psychological issues usually trace to the beginning of a behavior– some tangible episode/event that sparks a behavior change. This weekend, I strolled down bad habit memory lane once more to prove my suspicion that I am not a smoker.

Parental Influence? My dad never smoked; my mom was a social smoker. Both of their fathers had smoked and dad’s had died in his fifties of emphysema. My mom’s dad – a small town sheriff during the depression – was shot to death by the town drunk in a little town in Georgia when mother was five years old. Mom remembered him as a tragic romantic figure, with a head full of black hair and a cigarette dangling from a full bottom lip; over time he came to be personified by Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind – mother’s favorite book. My mom smoked during weekly bridge games and Friday night dances at the country club. She also smoked a couple of cigarettes every New Year’s Eve. The woman could literally take a year smoking one pack of cigarettes. Each time, my father would have a conniption fit and lecture all of us on the evils of smoking.

This was in the seventies, before the real evil of mass produced cigarettes was even known…to the public. But, my father remembered the devastation caused to his depression era family when the patriarchal bread winner had to take to his bed permanently with a terminal case of lung disease leaving six children to fend for themselves. My mom had more of a denial mechanism: her father was cut down by the malevolence of alcohol and ignorance. She never saw her dad wrinkle and wheeze from a long life of cigarettes. My siblings never really took to cigarettes; it was just me who faced that demon. Maybe we are predisposed to an addiction gene, but clearly I cannot look to my family for the cause of this plague.

Youthful Indiscretion? My first cigarette was five cigarettes. They accompanied my first drink: Jack and Coke in a railcar suite at the Chattanooga Choo-Choo when I was barely thirteen years old. At this age, I was a freshman in high school. Everyone else seemed so much older. When the girlfriend of a senior at my high school asked me to keep her company in Tennessee for an overnight away soccer game, I jumped at the chance. She was great to me that weekend; she introduced me to alcohol and cigarettes, talked me through the pitfalls of being a female in high school, held my hair when I got dizzy and sick that night, and never said a word about it to anyone. She set the bar really high for my feelings that what I chose to do was mine to do and deal with accordingly. I didn’t smoke or drink again for a year. When I did, it was in defiance of my boyfriend who thought smoking “wasn’t ladylike”. I smoked my way right to a break-up, then quit again for the rest of the school year.

I would have let the smoking chapter end, but my dad heard about my smoking a couple of months after I stopped. He prepared a long chat with me – drove out to my boarding school on a weekday – egads! – and told me that if I didn’t quit he would remove me from school. I was outraged at the heavy handed tactics, bummed a cigarette from a classmate walking by the window of the family sedan dad and I were conversing in, and lit up on the spot. I smoked off my nose to spite my face. Then, I smoked for a few more months to show my dad who was the boss of me. But, I really couldn’t stand it, so I quit again for several years. What could have ended right there as a youthful indiscretion/rebellion crept back a few years later.

Social Pressures? I am an introvert. I hide it really well, like my corporate training taught me. But, I unwaveringly enter any social gathering looking for the chance to skip outside to smoke a cigarette – alone. Outside, there is usually some other soul like myself who I will talk to over my American Spirit; as an introvert, this one-on-one conversation is infinitely preferable to me. The only times in life I have ever had more than two cocktails was when I could not escape, like a cocktail party or a presentation day for work. People will press drink after drink on you while telling you all about the wickedness of something else. Socializing within these confines is a soul sucking situation for me.

I became a professed teetotaler by my junior year of college; nobody forces non-drinkers into bawdy conversations. But, I was singing in a bar to pay for school, so I took up smoking again to find a way out of talking to the customers in the clubs where our band played. Ironically, no one ever pressured me to smoke to be cool. Smokers are generous with cigarettes; they will always give you the last one out of their pack. But, no one ever pressed a cigarette on me. So, while there are social pressures for me associated with smoking, they spring from inside myself. I have adapted aberrantly with cigarettes, so I can’t blame social pressures for my smoking any more than I can blame society for people’s fascination/obsession with loudmouths, drunks, and self promoters.

Oral Fixation? Definitely. Thank Allah I never had much of a taste for alcohol, because I have rarely spent a moment of my adult life without a coffee, diet soda, juice tonic, or glass of ice water in my hand. My mom did breast feed me and I loved her very much. So, yes, I don’t at all discount Freud here when I think of my need for oral reinforcement when feeling upset or anxious. Since having gained and lost the same 15 pounds throughout my entire life, I believe my family when they say that they can always tell when I am happy because I’m healthy and fit. When I am not happy, the pounds go on and no unclaimed cigarette lying around is safe from my clutches. This epiphany from the movie happening at this point in my life seems to point to a successful oral substitution change to something healthier for a while, like carrot sticks or Nicorette gum. There’s some hilarious patter in the Gwyneth Paltrow/Ben Affleck movie Bounce, where Gwyneth Paltrow takes up smoking again to wean her off nicotine gum. Sadly, my oral fixation may be that pronounced. But, as I am aware of it all of the time now, it seems to be lessening dramatically on its own. Time to move on to the next excuse/reason…

Emotion Mitigation? When I quit smoking, I alternately cry easily or fly off the handle about almost everything remotely inconvenient or imperfect. I know smoking helps me hold back a lot of my feelings. I am honestly afraid of the physical and mental energy I have when I am not smoking. I quit for ten years starting in graduate school. During that time, I ran five miles a day, played racquetball incessantly, started a new career, and moved to the big city of Atlanta. There was no time or reason to think deeply or smoke cigarettes. Then, I switched to a job that would lead me to living and working in Europe. During that time, I also married and became pregnant. And, waiting for that baby to arrive was when the smoking bug hit me again. I made it through the end of that pregnancy without smoking, but it was touch and go. Once my son was born and would only drink from a bottle, that’s all I needed to light up for another ten years. My time raising my son was golden. Work and marriage were horrendously stressful, though.

Smoking was also much easier. Europeans don’t think about cigarettes the way Americans do at all. And, their cigarettes are not as full of drain cleaner, et.al., and extra addictive poison sludge like those in the U.S. So, I started again. When I moved back to the US, I stopped once more later for several years when I was happily ensconced in a completely different job. But, then, after a lifetime of friends who didn’t smoke, I met my future husband and he smoked like a chimney. We talked and smoked and smoked and talked. It was heavenly. I fell off the wagon again.

See how I wrote two paragraphs without acknowledging the important discovery I made in the first sentence of this section? Cry easily, inconvenient, imperfect. Those issues all come from early childhood: scary big sister, Type A personality from birth, shameful Bryan’s Song crying jag at six years old, having to hold my bladder too long at elementary school because of an overwhelmed second grade teacher, pathological need to score 100 on tests, training for track every day in all weather, dancing en pointe, tendency to have head in the clouds reading books and singing along with record player until sibling revolts snapped me back. Okay… So what if I spend four weeks crying while I am not smoking? Who cares? My husband won’t harass me about it, nor will the computer. I live in the city now in a tenth of the space I am used to inhabiting: everything is inconvenient. If I focus on improving/embracing this period of change, then I won’t need the smokes as a crutch to prop up my denial of my discomfort right now. Imperfect? Um, yes I am. I do tend to hide that from even my closest intimates: I am supposed to be the person who always has the answers. If I stop doing/being that, I bet I will stop being stressed out over things I don’t care about and stop smoking. I am writing full time now; the only answer I know and want is to keep doing that.

Behavioral Habit? At this point in life, I absolutely have to quit and have needed to for a while, now. If you smoke, you know what I mean. I have the lung capacity of a hummingbird. My face shows the signs of a day of heavy smoking; it also rosies right up when I forego the habit. I smoke so as not to eat when I am nervous. I smoke to punctuate something good happening or something bad. I wash my hands and brush my teeth all the time. Smoking is robbing me of time – a moment here, there, and everywhere – that is not going to come endlessly anymore. I must stop and identify the feelings propelling me to light up every time I change gears. When the urge is purely physical, as it will be for the first couple of weeks, then I can use my inhaler. When I want to use the behavior to celebrate writing a chapter or working out (I know, it’s pathetic), I could find another way to behave right there in the moment that suits the non-smoker that stands tall at my core.

Conclusion? I am not a smoker. I am a generally happy person in the middle of a lot of change and transformation. I do want to live for a good, long while. I am not a self-saboteur. I will use these mirrors from my past to cut through the haze of smoking. My sister lives 4000 miles away! I can do this. It has been 36 hours since I started writing this and since I have had a cigarette.  Please leave any comments, tips, cartoons, advice, etc. in the comments below. Thanks for listening and cross your fingers for me.

 

Ides of March

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,
But here I am to speak what I do know.
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.

(from William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, spoken by Marc Antony)

 

On this day, March 15th, in 44 BC, Emperor for Life Julius Caesar was assassinated on the senate floor of Rome as he prepared to speak to the political body collected before him. He endured 23 stab wounds by as many members of the senate, many of whom he considered friends and allies. Historically this date, commemorated first by the Romans, is considered the defining marker between Rome as a republic and Rome as the world empire the following generations would witness. Above is the imagined eulogy his true compatriot, general Marc Antony, would have delivered at Caesar’s funeral a few days hence. It is this stirring speech, delivered in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar as commentary on events that had occurred over 16 centuries earlier, that forever solidified the Ides of March as a date to ponder man’s inhumanity to man, as well as to reflect on pride, ambition, loyalty, and betrayal – among individuals and in government.

It is fitting that the March Ides occurs in the middle of the Lent season and in anticipation of the renewal of spring. It was Caesar who commissioned most of the changes that are part of our modern calendar. In his day, March was considered the new year; Caesar had already decreed that 46 BC would see March as the third month of the year on the Julian calendar, which is virtually the same calendar we still use today. Thus, the current year cycle is now a few months underway by the time march winds blow and final snows fall. The ides simply denoted the middle of the month; it is the fact of Caesar’s murder and the historical consequence that have lent the word ‘ides’ the ominous tone it still carries today.

At the time of Caesar’s assassination, spirituality consisted of keen observance and homage paid to the mythological gods like Jupiter and Mars, who were thought to rule mortals and influence fate through judgment, benevolence, or displeasure with human conduct both individual and societal. Oracles, omens, and assorted prognosticators were employed and influential in personal and government affairs. In fact, it was a seer in ancient Rome who warned Caesar to beware the ides of March of 44 BC.

Christianity and Catholicism would appear within a century after Caesar’s death. The Lent season, recognized by both religions, marks the six weeks before Easter – when Christ rises from the dead. Lent is a time for prayer and penance; it is a time for shedding bad habits and coming closer to the best within ourselves in preparation for a brand new season of piety and devotion to higher purposes. During Lent, most practicing Catholics give up something that is causing harm to themselves or others; many Christian denominations encourage followers to fast, cease smoking, and engage in prayer and various soul cleansing rituals, as well. For Caesar’s contemporaries, the new year – and the ides of any month – commenced with a sacrifice to Jupiter, the Roman’s supreme deity. Following the ritual, a time of celebration and feasting was observed, much like the modern feasts of Easter Sunday and the lighthearted rituals of egg hunting and spring baskets of candy for children. The Ides of March is not so different in modern society than it was in Caesar’s day. The Roman pagans, upon the death of Caesar, then also had a real life martyr to remember and study as they prepared for a season of renewal.

For a time before Caesar’s death, there had been a civil war between Caesar and Pompey, the prevailing leader of Rome. Caesar had routed Pompey in this war, both militarily and popularly. Caesar’s army had continued to march victoriously through the Gallic Wars, conquering more and more territory for Rome, even bridging the English Channel to invade Britain. Caesar simultaneously conducted a war with Pompey for the love of the people; he passed many laws that slowly diluted the power of the establishment – the rich and titled – and inflated the seats in the senate to further leech power from Pompey’s old guard. Most importantly to the populace, he allowed everyone to obtain Roman citizenship and share in the fruits of the rich, expansive empire and kept his people fed through alliances with or defeat of territories with rich food supplies like Egypt and Spain. He also sought to centralize the Roman government with less oversight on municipal concerns like methods of taxation. The calendar was also a very important populist strategy as it coincided with the seasons, which gave more order to a constant food supply.

Marc Antony’s eulogy in Julius Caesar was delivered to a large gathering of constituents and citizens of Rome. These countrymen, previously big supporters of Caesar, had been manipulated by the old guard of the Senate – through ‘media’ channels like graffiti, town criers called ‘praecos’ who broadcast news in the forum, and posted proclamations – to believe that Caesar no longer had their best interests at heart. Romans were told that Caesar had become arrogant and power hungry and had sacrificed their interests to his own. The audacious act of honorable senate members actually murdering Caesar themselves in the senate house further punctuated the need for swift and violent action the Senate had been trying to incite in the Roman mob.

Antony’s speech speaks to the disinformation fed to Roman citizens in a rhetorical triumph of emotion and logic. Antony begins by using his own stature as decorated everyman soldier of Rome being as one with the Roman people gathered: “Friends, Romans, countryman”; then, after reminding the crowd of his credibility with them as their defender, he asks them to listen to him. He starts his undermining of Brutus, the most publicly admired of the old guard, by questioning Brutus’ attacks on Caesar’s character. Antony then asks questions to make the Romans think not only about what they know about Brutus’ own character and reliability but, more importantly, about the efficacy of the actual facts or opinions they have been told. He uses several examples of Caesar’s public behavior to make his case: Caesar’s campaigns which kept Romans fed and safe, his refusal to be king, and his social programs that benefited every citizen. Antony concludes with sorrow that Romans have been so misguided by the Senate and asks if they have all lost their powers of distinction and reason. This is the lesson for everyone at the idea of March: what do we really know about the people and government we trust, where did we get that information, and to what purpose?

After Caesar’s death, Rome was favored with an excellent emperor in Augustus, the appointed heir of Caesar, certainly, but also a leader in his own right. He crushed the nepotism that had plagued Caesar’s tenure, eased the stranglehold of the old guard in the senate, and transferred more independence to the citizenry of Rome. He continued the social programs, territory gains, arts, and sciences begun by Caesar and led Rome to a golden age of relative peace. When Augustus died, his successors slowly but surely led Rome to its ultimate downfall through tyranny and greed. However, the lessons of the Roman empire, Caesar, Augustus, and the story of Brutus’ betrayal have endured to this day. What became of Brutus and Cassius and the other murderers of Caesar? Both Brutus and Cassius ended up suicides within a short time. After Caesar died, over 300 conspirators were hunted down exposed, and executed.

The Ides of March has an ominous feeling to it because we are reminded through one of the first well known political assassinations in world history, that evil sometimes triumphs. But, in addition to mourning for Caesar, it is a good reminder that what happens in the world is everyone’s responsibility: we must think for ourselves. Justice will ultimately be served. It is easier to find men who willingly volunteer to die, than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience. – Julius Caesar

Friends and Writers

Susann Hayden explores adult friendships and offers advice for writers to find fellowship.

Last week I read an article from a capable author in her forties who had gone broke, lost her career, never been married, and had lost each of her friends all while commemorating the first anniversary of her mother’s death. Her pain was palpable through every paragraph. The theme of the piece was adult friendship and the framework was centered around long time female friends who, in gender solidarity, were expected to stick around through thick and thin. Reflection on some of these questions made me recommit to solutions for myself around the difficulty of finding and keeping friends as an adult – and a writer.

It didn’t surprise me that this writer had lost her friends. As we go through our paths as adults, most of us drop countless people by the wayside and are, similarly, left by the curb ourselves. The reality is that if over half of marriages end in divorce, why wouldn’t an even bigger proportion of friendships end every few years or decades? Think about the friends you had in elementary school or in your childhood neighborhood. Didn’t you transition to different friends by junior high? How about from high school to college or high school to work? Have you ever relocated, changed careers, had a baby, endured a serious illness, survived a natural disaster, bought a house, taken up an adult hobby? Have you ever reconsidered your religion, changed your major, come out with a previously undisclosed sexual preference, inherited money, become a vegetarian? Think of all the changes and choices we are privileged to make as adults along with the unending list of more serious life events that can descend on us like comets falling from the sky. Many of us lose contact with family members through many of these events, much less friends we chose when we were 10 or 18 or 25 years old.

People who find romantic love that lasts to a golden anniversary or people who find friendships that last a lifetime may be just blessed in this way. Like a born athlete or a musical prodigy or a genius – maybe this is just the gift life has bestowed. Yes, we can improve ourselves as friends and people but it is no guarantee that others will do the same for us at the same time or at the time that we need it. When friends drop us in the times we need them most, as will spouses and employers and landlords, it can be devastating. (Gender has nothing to do with the endurance of friendship any more than any other race, age, lifestyle marker accounts for loyalty of any kind.) When life transitions, friends can behave as if bad luck or singular choices are contagious. We are shunned and unfriended and, ultimately, dropped. It’s the same feeling as having a lover leave who has been naked with you, knows your covert predilection for Sookie Stackhouse novels, and agrees that your sister is a nutter. Suddenly, all of those intimacies are gone; when you already are feeling vulnerable and hopeless, these losses seem compounded. The hardest part is not seeing it coming. We have made a social contract and the agreement is broken. It’s stunning and appalling. It is sanctimonious to think we have not made some of these hardened friendship choices ourselves.

Both of my parents died when I was much younger. One of the feelings that I never expected was a sense of freedom. My parents rarely placed familial suppositions on me. But during both of their funerals, I still had this surreal feeling that my life was now my own. I had no more fears of confounding them, celebrating the holidays the way we always had, dressing a certain way, or hearing again about me calling marshmallows ‘hush-mush’, or how I got the family car stuck in a lake. I was absolutely free of anyone’s expectations but my own. There was no history attached to me that would prevent me from being what I envisioned.

I have come to feel the same way about losing friends. If you have ever steeled yourself for a phone call where you will be explaining to someone who ‘knows you’ that you are now eating vegan, practicing Buddhism, learning to skydive, or voting for Jesse Jackson, then you can probably relate to this. In those times I always resented having to explain myself and my choices. This pre-conversation angst was always a reliable signal to me that it was probably time to move on from those friendships. In truth, I have also dropped people for marrying someone I couldn’t stand, raising obnoxious children, or forcing raw food or family newsletters on me. I have eschewed former pals for playing endless games of Farmville on Facebook, talking to me about going to hell, mentioning the Kardashians, or voting for Republicans. Usually, we are simply no longer compatible in any way and we need to move on. Often, I have become obsessed with a new passion and purpose and need to be surrounded by a circle of supporters who share my enthusiasm. And, my friends aren’t moving on at that particular time. The timing is off: one of us is changing and one of us is steadfastly maintaining. We have become cronies instead of compatriots.

When you change, people cannot always change with you. Some of the changes you make in life seem too scary, too ludicrous, or too risky for others to come along. Some paths have to be walked alone for a while. Sometimes you have to be your own best friend through transition. For everything we lose, there is something better to take its place.

Our society has changed. Look at the main ways we communicate now: social media, emails, texts, and phone tag. Change is not bad, it just is. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of personal time and gatherings and holidays and face-to-face talks, we have gained the ability to video call, share real time photos and video, keep our friends and family current on the daily reality of our lives – what we like to do, where we like to go – and communicate with a whole world of friends we could never have ‘met’ any other way but through the technology we feel is alienating us. It’s a trade-off. The important lesson is to find what works for us for an appropriate level of community and intimacy, and leverage technology to sustain it. Still, I miss the times when getting together with a friend for a drink, a movie, a weekend, was possible just be picking up the phone. And, most people – even those that use social media constantly – still desire a level of friendship that can’t be forged without personal contact.

Life in any city or small town makes meeting friends easier because activities are arranged for you all of the time from building get-togethers to gallery walks to sporting events to holiday festivities. But, you have to be patient and actually not pretend you are busy by playing with your phone apps -or, worse, talking on your phone – or look away the minute you meet someone’s eyes. City dwellers have an armor around them to stay safe or stay on time; small town people are worried about how you will change the dynamic they have grown to expect. It’s important to be authentic, open to opportunities, and keep at it.

Here are a few ideas for writers and other entrepreneur types looking to make friends as an adult.

Writers’ walking group: Let’s face it. Writing is a solitary pursuit and one that can make you inactive. Walking, getting fresh air, being joined for a while by like souls who understand what you go through at the computer could be just the antidote to writer’s malaise. Beware searching for the right criteria on places like Craig’s List. I looked for other writers and possible walking buddies last year and came upon the perfect ad line for what seemed like a writer who liked to walk and wanted some company. I clicked in to the post of a female lying naked, face down on her bed. Turns out, she liked to take long walks, was looking for an artist, and was really anxious for new friends. Yeah, that’s not what I meant. Like every worthwhile pursuit, finding walking buddies will be a process.

Find a stranger mentor on the web: My mentor is a total stranger named James Altucher; he has helped me more than he could ever know this year. James is a financial analyst and the best-selling author of Choose Yourself and countless other books about being an entrepreneur in the new economy. He is a prolific email and article writer and his style is humorous, specific, and self-deprecating. He tells the tales. He also has a plethora of practical advice to encourage walking your own path and understands that you have to make money at it. His ten ideas a day and 1% improvement theories really keep me on the right track. His books are sometimes free through the Kindle program at Amazon and his free subscription service to his website and email list offer me a daily dose of strength and motivation. I don’t know James and I have nothing to gain by shilling for him here. But, he has recommended many books and avenues of research for me and made me an idea machine for my thinking and writing. Thanks so much, James.

Start reading other blogs until you find a circle of like minds or minds that stimulate your own creativity. Don’t study the experts for this exercise; follow the fascinating. I trail photographers, postcard collectors, museum enthusiasts, fashionistas, astrologers, travelers, home cooks, surgeons, poets, pastors, and stay at home dads. They hail from Calgary, London, Dubai, Bangkok, Kowloon City, Tokyo, Moscow, Charlotte, New Delhi, New York City, Lisbon, Rio, and Dayton, Ohio. I love my gang of fellow creatives – and I have never met nor spoken with a single one of them. But, I do not feel alone or disenfranchised. They show me the depths of their thoughts and share minute, intimate, details of their lives with me. And, several of them make me laugh out loud while I am reading. I am so grateful.

Take a class: Seriously. It really works. Take a class in something unusual that will attract the people who have hidden dreams and quirky proclivities just like you. For example, I don’t know of anyone who ever met a new pal in a sadistic spinning class, but I know a lot of people who have met great friends at a sweaty co-ed yoga studio. (Co-ed is key: even if you find the opposite gender scary, it helps to have a well-rounded group with a lot of different perspectives when learning a new skill.) Ditto cooking classes and watercolor classes, pet trainings and scuba lessons. Dance classes are also great, but don’t pick the ones for two person dances. Pick something like tap or modern dance, where there is no gender or couples pressure. Take a class in chess or improvisation, public speaking or ornithology; learn a foreign language or music appreciation. Just pick something and go. Do it NOW!

Thank another writer with a note: I do a lot of reading and research for my writing. Recently, for example, I wrote a post on forgiveness after reading a compilation book on the topic and finding an excellent article to serve as my framework. I was so appreciative of the way this writer explained her theories that I looked her up online, found her website, and sent her a short note through her contact page. I simply stated that what she wrote really spoke to me and that I could grasp and synthesize her theory because of the excellent examples and stories she used to illustrate her points. I thanked her and wished her well. Less than a day later, I received a warm note from this busy woman, letting me know she was glad she could help and wishing me well right back. I have read about the importance of thanking your author mentors as far back as Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, but I never took the advice before now. I have now decided to do this at least once a month because it is a good exercise for future friendships and relationships, period. If you want a friend, be a friend. If you want support, be supportive. If you want give and take, give first and see what happens. Again, I will probably never meet any of the writers I acknowledge. But, I feel like the world is full of potential friends; I know I am not alone trying to be a pioneer.

Do Volunteer Work: Feel like you are friendless and alone because your college pals don’t support you as a writer? Feel hurt by being left behind to deal with your changes? Feel scared about looking for a new job or downsizing to make a career change? Then get your self up and go volunteer. Just type in ‘volunteer opportunities’ and your zip code into Google search then pick up the phone. Some place in your area needs your help right now to serve food or make phone calls or clean toilets or keep somebody company. One of the best ways to feel less distress is to go see the state of someone else’s life – someone else that needs a lot more comfort than you do right now. Want instant gratification and appreciation? One of those people you go help today will hold your hand or smile at you or say thank-you and it will sustain you for weeks. Volunteering is addictive to those needing humanity. And, as a writer, think of the stories and experiences you will gain.

By the way, I believe a new level of friendship is being and could be better forged through participation writing and reading these blogs. I don’t know how that would look, but I see more opportunity to connect beyond leaving brief praises and likes. Many longer term bloggers appear to have established a comfortable social network of followers and work friends through sharing posts. But, there may be a chance for more interaction or support for those who would like it. Please share any thoughts and ideas in the comments section: more ideas about adult friendships in general, how to forge them, how to keep them, how to forge friendships as a writer, etc.

We all deserve to be surrounded by people who understand and support us, however fleeting or enduring that may be. And, to the woman writer who has had such a rough transitional year, I repeat the eastern philosophy that I was told by a friend: When things are falling apart, they are really falling together. Who couldn’t use a few good friends?

Forgiveness

Susann Hayden explores the idea that forgiveness may imply a lack of understanding that all things in life are working to bring us to a higher purpose, a concept featured in motivational coach Jackie Woodside’s article, “Forgiveness: A New Paradigm, A New Possibility for Transcendent Living”

For a while now, the concept of forgiveness has troubled me.

A few years ago, I was building my way up a happy career ladder when I decided to take a risk on an entrepreneurial opportunity in a new industry. Looking back, I wanted to tell myself that I should have waited to build more solid foundations financially and mentally before taking on such a huge risk to my freedom and standing in the world. Certainly, after five years when the business had sucked hundreds of thousands of dollars of savings and earnings down its sinkhole, and my once fun and synergistic partnership resembled more of a grim, let’s-just-get-through-this kind of ordeal, I worried I had been rash and unwise. While transitioning out of that initial mess took another year – where my partner and I had to part with our homes, our business equipment, and our operation – I developed a bitterness, cynicism, and rage that surprised me. I found it really difficult to let go of this one. I found it impossible to forgive.

In some dark moments, I blamed my partner and he blamed me. With time, we gained enough perspective to honor having come a long way together on a ridiculously tortured path; we resigned ourselves to the conclusion that it just wasn’t far enough given all the other unknowns and pressures of our industry. But, at least we finally felt able to move forward. We were having trouble doing it together, though; we were in danger of losing each other after everything else. That’s what made me decide to solve the forgiveness problem, once and for all.

In the book Forgiveness: Heart-Healing Stories for the Stubborn & Hard Headed, a chapter written by Jackie Woodside, a professional speaker and motivational coach, resonated with me. The chapter didn’t so much illustrate a story, but more a transformation in thinking about the concept of forgiveness. In “Forgiveness: A New Paradigm, A New Possibility for Transcendent Living”, Woodside asserts that she takes issue with the idea of forgiveness as it implies a lack of understanding that all things in life are working to bring us to a higher purpose. At the very least, they are all necessary to shape us into the person we become, which is the total package we must embrace, since it is the reality of ourselves that needs acceptance and love – not a person that wronged us or who we have wronged.

Forgiving can perpetuate a sense of victim consciousness rather than a consciousness of acceptance of the spiritual tenant that all things are working together for [the] highest good. Yes, all things, even those things that we have determined to be inappropriate or hurtful. We hear all the time that the quality of our life depends not on what happens to us, but on what we make of what happens to us…. Your experience of life has less to do with what happens TO YOU and more about what happens WITHIN YOU. -Jackie Woodside

Thinking more about where I have been trapped with the idea of forgiveness is the constant need to ask “Why” something is happening. As an objective critical thinker, ahem, I can always see where I or someone else did something wrong. It’s a horribly unjust and unkind occupation to criticize a partner or friend who is with you in a mystifying situation. How many times in life are we relieved or helped up by someone we caused to fall down beside us? Additionally, seeking some imagined exemplar of behavior in ourselves as we navigate a completely foreign experience is futile and soul crushing. How far will we ever get if we constantly look to shore up our own and others’ weaknesses to the point of self-annihilation and total isolation? How will we ever find the courage to try something enlightening? How can we find the tenacity to appreciate the greater good of every experience?

Criticizing fellow travelers in a leaky lifeboat is simply a waste of time and effort, and it shows bad form. Even if they punched holes in the raft with a very big pair of scissors, you are still sitting in it with them. It’s their boat. They didn’t kidnap you. They didn’t hold a gun to your head. They said, “How about we take a little trip and see what happens? I think we can make it to the other side and have a fabulous picnic.” If you didn’t check the picnic basket, check the boat for leaks, check your companions for sharp objects, then haven’t you, by proxy, agreed that you are reasonably sure they can sail you to shore? And, aren’t you entrusting them to do their best to get you there? There is no lesson in a hindsight view of what dreadful leaders people can be when in the middle of shark infested waters. That is, I am sure, the opposite of grace under pressure, good sportsmanship, or good personal skills. It’s the Bill Clinton exercise of personal responsibility: the willfully obtuse justification. And it is an excellent way to miss the next good ship lollipop. Focusing on forgiveness is choosing to live in the past. It is a fear of the reality of something that has already happened; it is an insidious form of denial.

When I feel the need to “forgive” someone else, I am missing the opportunity to figure out the lesson I need to learn. Yes, I have whined through some of these last years, “I don’t want to learn any more lessons. I want to be comfortable and dumb.” Other times, I have tortured myself with the thought that I must have done some seriously bad stuff in my life to get this kind of karma punch, over and over again. But, when I look at the title of the aforementioned book again, Forgiveness… for the Stubborn & Hard Headed, I think I may just see the message. After all, isn’t being hard headed just a way of holding on to being right instead of being fully engaged in…being? And, underlying that, isn’t stubbornness really just the base fear of letting go of an outdated prism of experience that keeps us imprisoned inside an illusion of security? Does any of that have to do with my partner, anyone, or anything else?

Adapt or die. It is one of my favorite phrases. And, yet, there I sat, feeling despondent and reading books about forgiving someone else for his shortcomings. Et tu, Brute?

Exchanging forgiveness for empowerment reconnects us to the self-assurance of childhood. As a kid, I would wake up to the start of a long summer day with only myself to amuse and the whole neighborhood to prospect. I would leap out of bed and head out to explore, create, and entertain myself. I had a huge mental list of all the places and activities I could enjoy and a free floating plan of where to start; I was also open to whatever found me along the way. The ultimate design was discovery and engagement. Sometimes, I shared these days with accomplices. Other times, I spent the whole afternoon just lying in the grass with my arm flung across the neck of my best friend: a tremendous, solid black German Shepherd named Chief. As an adult, relearning to approach dreams with a beginner’s mind, working and adapting my own plan, and learning to master every part of the boat by myself while listening hard for my own counsel – is ultimately, the course I am plotting. If I am lucky enough to have a partner who wants to come along, I have to alter my course to be a shared one – with value for all. Maybe that’s what “Take no prisoners” should mean.

An appropriate level of discomfort is the sweet spot. When did the racing pulse and queasy feeling of trying something new and possibly – probably – inviting redirection become so loathsome? Where would Ben Franklin be if he was puffing disdain for the kite maker? Why would it bother anyone for Einstein to assert that perhaps none of his theories may be true since they were all built on other theories? In a society where corporate media discourages erstwhile soul searchers with Faustian whispers to pop a prescription pill, smoke a cigarette, eat a Twinkie – ad nauseam – as a salve for every boo-boo moment, I have to believe that gaining confidence and self-satisfaction facing overwhelming hurdles is more desirable than looking outward to someone or something else to blame or make it better. It’s gratifying to have support through tough moments from people who love us and want the best for us. But, ultimately, we go through those evolutionary changes inside ourselves – alone. For myself, the way forward turned out to be a renewed willingness to embrace vulnerability, change, and a novice eye. If I needed to ‘forgive’ anyone, it was myself.

In 1875, Victorian poet William Ernest Henley wrote a short, inspiring poem called “Invictus”, though many people wrongly subscribe it to Nelson Mandela…or Morgan Freeman. The last lines sum up the personal responsibility and majesty encapsulating such: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” Forget about forgiveness. Grab the wheel and discover new worlds.

Being Sensate

In this photo essay, Susann Hayden explores the sensory experience of the artist and the audience – featuring beautiful photographs from Trou Blanc Photography.

I’m not a visual person. Statistics show that most of my gender are not, compared to sight and visual cues dominating the sensory experiences of the majority of men. I take everything in without too much focus on any one thing and process it as a total sensory experience – combined with the smells, the tastes, the feel, the soundtrack. I am more surface that way, like taking a helicopter view that gives me a dominant impression that I can quickly process and store or discard.

123
Cannabis in the Mist, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

What am I sensing? Emotions, usually. The general mood. A sense of beauty or violence or energy, to name a few of the labels I use to sort it all. I retain all of the sensory details, with the visual cues in the background fading more often than not. My eye for detail is limited by my overall perception of the stimuli; I remember a couple of details vividly – those that support my label of the experience, and those that seem to most contradict it. Therefore, the more juxtaposition of elements there are in the sensory experience I am having, the more interesting it is to me and the more I need to spend time in it and figure it out. At the end of the day, almost everything is a giant jigsaw puzzle in my brain, and moving the pieces into place is my purpose. I liken it to my own personal predilection for math and science as the basis for a structure that makes sense to me in the world.

291
Blue Sky Cannabis, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My husband, Michael, sees everything in vivid detail; he is a technicolor observer.He processes all visuals first; he has to be reminded to smell the air, hear the laughter, feel the rain on his skin. That is probably why he is a natural at photography; he would be an extraordinary cinematographer. He seems to have that elusive third eye where he can see what the lens will capture and what it will ignore. He also labels his impressions, though he would be loath to tell you the words he uses in his big brain. He doesn’t much like putting words to his visions or experiences; his photographs are the only clue to what he was thinking and feeling. In other words, where I see myself as a mathematician of the universe’s meaning, I see Michael as the artist that keeps posing more questions. When I recently told him that I see him as a seeker, he said he saw me as a finder.

297
Shadow Leaf, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

My other senses are more acute than Michael’s. I grew up as a lovingly supported, creative kid with all manner of toys, paints, puzzles, pets, lessons, projects, scenery, travels, and experiences. All mundane and extraordinary stimuli were encouraged and discussed at length at our family dinner table. I read 472 books in 1st grade; I know because I got a gold star for each one. By second grade, the school librarian and I decided that I should just read every book in the card catalog; so, I did, from A-Z. There is no visual stimulation in most children’s books after you reach the third grade reading level. At that point, you have the colorful, illustrated paper jacket, but it is all text after you open the book. A love of reading may be the defining indicator of the potential for imagination and continued creative and sensate expression of an adult. The world is a reader’s oyster; there is nowhere – not even the minds of others – that is inaccessible to a person who reads. There is no question that can’t be posed, no situation that cannot be experienced.

253
Leaf Stairway, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2013, All Rights Reserved.

Reading is no substitute for living, the non-reader always argues. But, that is an illogical response. What support is there for the assumption that an avid reader confines herself to second hand experience? It can be argued that the reader is more open and available to all of life’s experiences and, thus, develops extra-ordinary sensory powers that are wholly independent of what the world may or may not be actually showing her. In other words, I propose that frequent reading develops more acute sensory perceptions because most stimuli are accepted and dissected – not confronted with the muffled layer of something new, something threatening, or something difficult to process or define.

 

 

106
Afternoon Sky, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael grew up in a constant state of poverty: poverty of environment, poverty of sensory or new experiences, poverty of education, poverty of food and drink, of activities, toys, clothes, colors, affection. He also never read books. He had limited, narrow forms of stimulus in keeping with his parents’ strict socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious beliefs. His parents interpreted most stimulus as new and dangerous and confined Michael to television and video games. Thinking anybody that made a movie must be trying to create art and that video games were the modern version of that all American icon, G.I. Joe, Michael’s parents parked him in front of one toy – the television set – and left him to figure out the world as network and Nintendo executives saw it.

Television and video games are predominantly visual. Yes, there is sound, but taste, smell, and touch are automatically excluded. And, since sound consists of theme songs and canned laughter (TV) and assorted grunts and screams (Video Games), let’s agree that Michael was left with one form of stimuli: visual. Since his parents grew up with even less stimuli than Michael, let’s also assume that their main stimulus was also visual. And, since stimuli was confined to entertainment on the small screen of a television (while wildly unsupported with any understanding in real life experience) any attempt at a full sensory experience was usually overwhelming. Overwhelming usually means too expensive, threatening, uncomfortable, or sinful to the uninitiated; that was definitely the message passed on by Michael’s parents.

101
Purple Flower, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

So, for Michael, every sensory experience is a warning. For me, most sensory experiences feel like being a puppy running through a big, sunny field of daisies. Once in a while, I will run into a bumblebee or a pile of poop, but that’s okay! For Michael, a sensory experience is like the scrawny weed that manages to pop up from a crack in the cement: a weird counterpoint in his apocalyptic inner landscape. He notices it but doesn’t ponder it. Unless he has his camera.

 

Michael’s photographs are teeming with sensory detail. They are beautiful and rich in color and texture and seasons and symphonies.

280
Port Angeles Morning Sky, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2015, All Rights Reserved.

Even the sepia ones instantly evoke a sense of nostalgia and sweetness not present in modern life. His landscapes invite exploration and travel; they provoke inner meditations on the vastness of nature and the relative miniscule stature of people. His animal portraits reveal unique personalities more interesting and layered than their human counterparts. Every time I see one of his photos, my imagination starts writing a story, like a phantom operated Etch a Sketch of character, plot, and scenery all quickly building itself in my head.

104
Silver Isle, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

His photos touch on long forgotten memories of mine, so much that I can feel a spray of salt water across my face, the sun baking me brown, the smooth coolness of a marlin my dad and I would catch and pull overboard on one of our deep sea fishing trips. And, all of a sudden I can see my dad’s face, finally relaxing for a second. I get all of that connection and experience from Michael’s sensory laden photographs. And, I know he is an artist.

 

131
Bubba in Bloom, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

As his wife, I can become annoyed that our holidays, our trips, our walks and our talks are not always remembered by my husband. He doesn’t see these in his mind’s eye any more than he can remember one detail about most of them. I could paint a picture with words that would evoke the very spirit of every one of those times. But, unless I write it down and somebody reads it, it only exists in our years together and, from that, the formation of a secret language, a smoothly choreographed handhold, and a thousand inside jokes – the shorthand and depth of experience that sweeten a relationship.

177
4:20 Ferry, Da Vinci Cuts, c.2014, All Rights Reserved.

Michael rarely takes photos of any of that stuff between us to preserve it in a visual style. But, in this way, he builds the experiences and confidence to display even more facets of what he does elect to photograph and, in turn, invokes the collective conscience of a much wider audience. And I am content to enjoy him, by my side every day, drinking in every luxurious sense of our experience.