Friday, June 21, 2013

The Power of Perception

Mom and me, laughing our butts off at Knotsberry Farm, circa 1988

The strangest revelation I’ve had since Mom passed away is that I am able to control my mood much of the time. I’m suddenly acutely aware that my state-of-being is contingent upon the choices I make. For instance, if I choose to stay at home, sitting on the couch, watching TV under the guise that I need to “relax,” my thoughts will inevitably turn dark, sad, and I will end up crying. However, if I put on upbeat music, get some caffeine flowing through my system via iced coffee, take a nice shower and get out of the house, I actually feel good. Yes, even in the midst of coping with death, it is possible to feel good. Kind of mind blowing, right? The truth is that I know this is what Mom would prefer. If she saw me wearing pajamas at 2:00pm on a Tuesday, holding a framed picture of her in my hands, and listening to old voicemails she left me in January 2011, she’d probably smack me upside the head. There are times when the sadness comes anyway, when it feels like I am standing on ground that has suddenly given way to a landslide. And I know that it is important to just give in and let these emotions overtake me from time-to-time, because avoiding them or denying them won’t get me anywhere. But still, I am happy to know that I can still be happy, and that I do have some control over how I feel in any given moment.

One factor in choosing to feel good is drastically limiting what I allow to infiltrate my sphere of perception. Sad music, tear-jerker movies, and disturbing web sites have all been nixed from my life for the time being. Why exacerbate the situation by wallowing in other people’s misery? No, I have been careful to instead watch, listen to, and look at those things that inspire and delight me. From upbeat music (Talking Heads!), to animated movies (Lilo & Stitch! Why didn’t anyone ever tell me how damn cute this movie is?), to inspiring web sites, I am finding blissful moments any way I can.

This is why I am so excited to see that the Google Doodle for today, the first day of summer, was designed by one of the most innovative web presences around, Christoph Niemann! Do you know about Christoph Niemann? He’s an illustrator who has a New York Times blog called Abstract Sunday. He also has his own wonderful web site, and has published a number of books including I LEGO N.Y. I have been in awe of his work since I first stumbled upon it about a year ago.

Niemann is clever, quick-witted, and profound in his observations of everyday life. He hails from Germany, but lived in New York for many years, and his outsider’s perspective on America and Americans can be hilarious. But he is also unfailingly kind, a quality that is sorely lacking in much of what is seen on-line. Take, for example, his ambitious project from November 2011, in which he ran the New York City Marathon and live-illustrated the experience. That’s right – Niemann strapped a shelf-like apparatus to his chest that allowed him to work in his sketchbook while running a course that would undoubtedly kill me, even if my sole focus on running. Oh, and he also live-tweeted his illustrations so people could follow along in real-time. He had some humorous run-ins with Security, which initially wouldn’t let him in to the race with his drawing equipment, but allowed another runner in with a huge Italian flag and flag pole. He drew portraits of the more colorful characters he encountered, including Luana Liverpool who ran the race in curlers. And when he became emotional due to the spirit being shown by spectators and fellow runners, he used a John-Boehner-Alert-Level system to describe how teary he was. Classic.

"Security won’t let me in w/ utensils. Will I have to live-expressive dance the race?"

Among my other favorites of Niemann’s: a meditation on Debussy, sheep, and Mitt Romney’s hair that he doodled while waiting “On Hold”an illustrated essay about the difficulties of getting a good night’s sleep; and taking cloud-spotting to a whole new level via autumnal leaves, in “Bio-Diversity.” See? Clever and kind.

Another site I can always count on to perk me up is Color Me Katie by photographer Katie Sokoler. Though Katie does not post too often, I find myself looking back over her photo essays time and again when I feel the need to look at something beautiful. She has a very childlike, carefree spirit that infuses everything she does. When I first came upon her blog, I was a bit skeptical of her seemingly bottomless well of happiness. So many bloggers show only the good times and paint an unfair portrait of their lives which can sometimes leave readers feeling inadequate. But Katie explains, “Many people in my family suffer from depression. It's one of the main reasons I decided to become a photographer. I wanted to create colorful, positive, feel good images.” I think that is admirable and brave!

This looks like fun. 

Katie does not hoard her joy in her Neverland-like Brooklyn apartment. She takes her positive vibes to the streets in order to brighten the days of strangers. She once filled plastic eggs with tiny toys and hung them, with cute notes, around the city for children to find. She planted a tiny garden in the square of soil in front of her apartment building. She painted rocks with hearts and put them back outside where people could discover them. Katie also photographs weddings and other NYC events, is involved with the group Improv Everywhere, and she has the best interior decorating advice of anyone. It’s a pretty wonderful life she’s made for herself, don’t you think?

Life is never going to be a cake-walk, but I take solace in the fact that I will have countless more beautiful moments before I go. I feel hope in the realization that even when the unthinkable occurs, laughter will still come. Feeling joyful will forever be my daily tribute to Mom. That is how she would have wanted it to be.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Fine Line

When I wrote that blog entry about my mom a month ago, I had no way of knowing that 23 days later, she would be gone forever. None of us, including her, had any warning that there was a civil war quietly taking place inside her body. She complained of a cold, initially, and was diagnosed with pneumonia the day after Mother’s Day. Eleven days later, she was checked into the hospital. By the next weekend, the doctors were saying she might not make it. I booked a flight to Tucson and arrived to find that she had been moved to the Intensive Care Unit. She was intubated and sedated, a Sleeping Beauty in a hospital bed. A biopsy of her liver revealed the shocking truth: she had cancer; it had spread extensively; it was rapidly shutting down her major organs. The next day, my family said our one-sided goodbyes to her, and removed her from life support. She took a handful of breaths on her own, and then died.

Right now, the cold, hard facts are about all I can express. Words fail. For someone who works through her feelings via words, this is a tough pill to swallow in itself. I have no doubt that losing Mom will color my writing for the rest of my life. I know I will examine this experience in microscopic detail. I will pound out my shifting emotions and contorting thoughts on a keyboard. I will look to a blinking cursor on a white screen and search for answers, because that is what I do. But for right now, it is simply too painful.  

However, this blog has become important to me, and I do not want it to stay dormant for too long. My drive to follow my passion has been renewed by this experience, not snuffed out. So, until I can bring myself to create new material that is appropriate for sharing, I’d like to put forth a piece I completed a few months ago. Like After Innocence, that other very intimate piece I wrote, this one concerns events that unfolded while I was in high school. Those four years are such a treasure trove of… unusual memories and experiences; it’s hard not to return to that time again and again in my writing.

Thanks for your patience and for the well-wishes I’ve already received from so many of you. I promise to get back into the swing of things as soon as I am able.

Photo by John Thornton

Each time Ms. Walsh raised her arms to emphasize a point or write on the dry-erase board, the sweat marks came into view. It was always a bit of a surprise. She was a well-put-together woman with short silver hair, impeccable make-up, and a modest, mature wardrobe. I always thought the mole above her lip gave her an air of gentility. My classmates and I would be rapt in concentration, trying to decipher the mystifying combination of letters and numbers known as Algebra, when gasp! there they’d be, two damp circles on her silk blouse. It wasn’t unreasonable that a grown woman living in a desert climate would have pit stains, but as a high school teacher, Ms. Walsh was not allowed to have outward displays of bodily function and get away with it. Most students giggled into their hands as soon as her back was turned.  

As a fellow sweater, you might think that I’d feel some sort of kinship with Ms. Walsh, but in actuality she made me uncomfortable. She displayed her damp pits so cavalierly, whereas I exhausted a lot of energy hiding my little issue beneath baggy layers of clothes and the straps of my backpack. I kept my arms straight down by my sides like a penguin, afraid to even raise my hand to answer a question in class. Each time my classmates laughed at her overly active sweat glands, they were also laughing at me.

One day as I sat there, taking notes and willing Ms. Walsh to put her arms down with my mind, I felt something tiny and sharp puncture the fabric of my shirt. It pushed into my back and was quickly removed. Figuring the person behind me had accidentally brushed the jagged edge of their spiral notebook against me, I ignored it. Then it happened again. Puzzled, I turned around and looked at the person sitting behind me. He made eye contact and held my gaze. I saw a mechanical pencil in his hand, perched in the position it must have been in when he poked me. Still convinced it was an accident, I returned my attention to the front of the room. Then I felt him tracing circles slowly around my back and pushing the pencil lead into me again. I glanced back and he grinned. When I got home from school that day, I took off my t-shirt and looked at the back of it – there were faint pencil marks. I examined my back in the mirror and was shocked to see red, swollen dots on my skin.

The next day I gingerly took my seat in front of him. After about ten minutes, I felt the pencil lead prick my back. I tried scooting up in my chair to passively signal that he should stop, but he just reached further, poking me slowly, but repeatedly. Past the fabric and into my skin, past the fabric and into my skin. It hurt a little, but it also felt... kind of good? Like when someone is braiding your hair and accidentally pulls a bit too hard. I never told him to stop. I never said a word.

As the semester wore on, there were many days when I sat in front of him and absolutely nothing unusual happened, but there were many days that he… penciled me. It became an odd and silent ritual of ours. As soon as I felt the lead against me, my pulse quickened and I waited for that little, familiar stab. He would sometimes build up tension with long, gentle strokes before finally sinking the sharp tip into my flesh. There was always a satisfying pop as the lead penetrated the fabric of my shirt. We sometimes spent entire class periods this way, and I’d stumble into the hall at the ring of the bell, exhausted from the physical and mental restraint this activity demanded. When he decided to hurt me, I was filled with a mixture of dread and excitement. When he ignored me, I was relieved and sad to not have his attention.

Our desks were not discreetly positioned. In fact, we were right in the middle of the classroom and anyone who cared to notice could see what was happening. A few times, I saw girls looking at us with questioning eyes, but we just ignored them and continued our routine. On some level, I’m sure he knew that his actions could be read as bullying, but he seemed compelled to do these things, unable to control himself. I naively imagined he could sense the strange satisfaction I was beginning to get out of what was transpiring between us. These interactions were unexpectedly awakening something masochistic in me. Because of my inexperience with the opposite sex, I was excited by this perceived connection to him, by the fact that I had any connection to a guy. It made me the perfect “victim.” He could have done more to me and I wouldn’t have stopped him. I lay in bed at night and searched for meaning in the action of his hand creeping over the invisible barrier between our desks. I wondered if he was interested in me in a romantic way, but when we saw each other in the halls he wouldn’t even make eye contact.

I never told anyone what was happening, maybe for fear that they would put a stop to it or for fear of retribution. Perhaps someone finally did say something to Ms. Walsh or maybe she noticed these strange interactions herself, but mid-way through the semester, she announced that our seating assignments would be changing. Everyone was shuffled around and I was placed in the back row while he was placed near the front, another boy seated in front of him. As I made my way to my new desk, I looked to him, panicking. He didn’t look back at me. He took his seat and greeted his new neighbors with a smile. I sat in stunned silence. I knew that it was the end, that he would never touch me or speak to me again.

As the lesson began and Ms. Walsh began writing equations on the board, I opened my notebook and began taking notes. I felt a bead of sweat roll down my side and was finally comforted by the fact that Ms. Walsh was sweating a little, too.