"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Monday, May 28, 2018

Don't Ruin My Birthday!

A Chocolate Cheesecake for Ben ~ June 2, 2005


Because my happiness was based on external measures —
on tasks being completed, plans running accordingly,
goals being met, hairs being in place —
I was continually disappointed
— upset — impatient — and stressed.
Rachel Macy Stafford
from her article
"The Day My Child Lost Her Joy —
And What I Did to Revive It


Thanks to my friend Laura Thudium Zieglowsky for posting Rachel Macy Stafford's article, which is well worth reading no matter what the age of your loved ones. Whether or not you are surrounded by impressionable children, Stafford's points are well taken. I appreciate her observation that, yes, our moods and actions do indeed have an impact on others around us; and if we care about their feelings, we will modify our behavior accordingly. Easier said than done, however, when, rightly or wrongly, little things seem to matter so much: "I’m talking trivial, insignificant, minor inconveniences here, but that was the state of a distracted [or in my case at the time, pre-menopausal and strangely sad] woman who could no longer see the blessings, only the inconveniences, of her life."

Stafford's quest to revive her joy reminded me of my son Ben's 15th birthday (13 years ago!), when I went to pick the boys up from summer band and burst into tears because another mom had given me a mean scowl on the parking lot for being a bad driver. No one was hurt, no one's car was damaged, yet still I felt so shamed and stressed and worried that I could not stop crying to save my life (maybe because I took the scowl personally, and started hearing the tapes in my head: "you're so stupid, you don't belong here"). Why couldn't I just say, "Oh, well"?

I tried to proceed with my normal activities that afternoon, going home and making a cake, but crying all the while. Even an hour or so later, while Ben and Sam were in the study doing their homework and I was in the kitchen assembling Ben's favorite -- chocolate cheesecake -- I simply could not get a grip. Finally, Ben called in from the other room, "Mom, stop crying! You're ruining my birthday!" Now THAT was a wake-up call!

It was bad enough that Sam was constantly reminding me "to chill." But looking crazy in the eyes of my children or ruining their birthdays? That was the last thing I wanted. Quick! Send in the emergency perception checkers!

Around the same time, one of my most introspective friends wrote to say:
"Hope all is well with you. By which I guess I mean two things: I hope for pleasant circumstances to surround you, but also I hope you feel well deep within, where no circumstance can touch you. Lately I think of myself as a tree, and those two realms of life are the branches and the root system, respectively."

Similarly, Susan Jeffers, in The Little Book of Peace of Mind (which may sound trite but is not), draws a distinction between Higher Self (the source inner peace, peace of mind, etc.) and the Lower Self (who insists on struggling with circumstances). She says "that true joy comes not from something out there, but from something wondrous within our being . . . something . . . present and always accessible."
What a perfectly timed reminder that circumstances are merely superficial and not the barometer of happiness -- and most importantly, that they needn't touch me. Why give every little detail or misstep the power to determine my mood and the way I feel about and act toward others? Instead of being so reactive to all the inconsequential little bothers -- or even the larger hurtful ones -- I had only to shift my focus from circumstances to state of mind. It's partly a question of maturity and, perhaps, learning to live with our natures; and partly resisting the tendency to take every perceived slight personally -- even when there was no need at all -- particularly things over which we have little or no control.

Could I train myself to privilege peace of mind over circumstances? As Kafka reminds us, we can be so good at intellectualizing these precepts yet so inept at applying them to our daily struggles and living them out, all the time, in all areas of life. Rachel Macy Stafford explains the "positive mantras" that she finds helpful:
"Only Love Today to silence my inner bully. Whenever a critical thought would come to my mind or my mouth, I’d cut it off with Only Love Today. I used See Flowers Not Weeds as a pathway to gratitude, to see what was good in situations and people."
I too have a few of these mantras. Whenever I start fighting the circumstances too hard, I rely on one of my long - time favorites from Margaret Atwood: "You have nothing to live against." Whenever I start feeling frustrated and critical, I take the advice that Hugh Prather shares in How To Live in the World and Still Be Happy: Try going through the day saying to yourself, "Today I will be gently amused by everything" or "Today I will not make any judgments."

Ben displayed some "gentle amusement" (again this was years ago) when we were stuck up on campus at a boring meeting, and afterward I told him about my new Hugh Prather approach. He said, "Good luck with that, Mom. As for me, I judged the meeting to be boring and was not amused." Well, regardless of his assessment, clearly he retained his sense of humor; always a plus!

Another funny talk with Ben from those days occurred one night when we burned a batch of cookies. Rather than my usual fretting or blaming, I said, "Well, you know what the doctor says . . . ." Ben looked at me quizzically, and I told him that the best medical advice I'd received lately was to say, "Oh, well!" Furthermore, do whatever it might take (positive mantras, talk therapy, SSRIs, emotional tools) to keep your "Oh, well!" function in good working order, never forgetting the connection between emotional outlook and physical well-being. Whenever you might be otherwise tempted to "cry over spilled milk" -- or whatever it is that I might have just spilled or burned or broken or lost -- instead, just say "Oh, well!" or another useful variation: "That happens sometimes!"

So far, this post has not been very literary, but I am happy to share these lyrics, at times mysterious, about the lifelong quest for peace of mind:
One of These Days

Well I won't have to chop no wood
I can be bad or I can be good
I can be any way that I feel
One of these days

Might be a woman that's dressed in black
Be a hobo by the railroad track
I'll be gone like the wayward wind
one of these days

One of these days it will soon
be all over cut and dry
And I won't have this urge
to go all bottled up inside
One of these days I'll look back
and I'll say I left in time
'Cause somewhere for me
I know there's peace of mind

I might someday walk across this land
Carrying the Lord's book in my hand
Goin' cross the country singin' loud as I can
One of these days

But I won't have trouble on my back
Cuttin' like the devil with a choppin' axe,
Got to shake it off my back
one of these days

One of these days it will soon
be all over cut and dry
And I won't have this urge
to go all bottled up inside
One of these days I'll look back
and I'll say I left in time
'Cause somewhere for me
I know there's peace of mind
There's gonna be peace of mind for me
one of these days

Music & lyrics by Earl Montgomery / Sung by Emmylou Harris

On a slightly lighter note, but still introspectively,
the narrator of this little song urges the lovelorn to say,
"Oh, well!"

Why So Pale and Wan?

Why so pale and wan fond lover?
Prithee why so pale?
Will, when looking well can’t move her,
Looking ill prevail?
Prithee why so pale?

Why so dull and mute young sinner?
Prithee why so mute?
Will, when speaking well can’t win her,
Saying nothing do’t?
Prithee why so mute?

Quit, quit for shame, this will not move,
This cannot take her;
If of herself she will not love,
Nothing can make her;
The devil take her.

By Cavalier Poet, Sir John Suckling (1609 - 1641)

Interesting to note that both of these songs include a reference to the devil (as in "Get thee behind me Satan!") -- there's a connection for you! And here's a coincidence: just this morning, I ran across this inspiring short sermon about the devil by cutting edge priest Nadia Bolz-Weber:

The Devil = Your Inner Critic = The Accuser

Maybe you've seen her work before. I only discovered her website this week, and every video I've watched so far has been great:

Forgive Assholes / Longer Version

How Much BS Can You Call on Yourself?

More About Nadia

Being a Lutheran Pastor

Next Fortnightly Post
Thursday, June 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for giving me credit for inspiring this piece of writing--very kind, but completely--in my mind--the inspiration comes from the Stafford article. :-) I, too, have trouble separating the daily frustrations from the larger world of things I have to deal with every day. I really appreciated your thoughts on being in the moment and appreciating the important, small things in life. Well thought out and well-written. :-)