Follow along here: https://katherinegoesplaces.blogspot.com/
Follow along here: https://katherinegoesplaces.blogspot.com/
This morning as I was drinking tea, listening to classical music on the radio, and about to open my e-mail on my laptop, the radio suddenly went silent and the internet went down. When I went to investigate, I discovered that I had no power in any outlets. My ceiling lights were still working, so I remained fairly calm, assuming that something had tripped a circuit and I just needed to do a little reset. But flipping the power breakers had zero effect. At this point, my calm began to fray a little. I texted a few people (struggle demands witness, after all) and decided to go to church and figure things out when I got back. I think part of me was hoping the problem would go away if I ignored it for a little while. But the power was out in my garage as well. I know how to disengage the little doohickey so that I can manually open the door, but when I pushed against its heavy solidity, all I managed to do in the zero-traction shoes I was wearing was slide myself back a foot or two. Not in the mood to wrestle with the door and realizing I should probably start making some calls for help, I went back into the house. After searching for some local electricians using the internet on my phone, I left several messages, then proceeded to slide into further agitation. Because now all I could do was wait.
What, oh what, was I to do with myself? I couldn’t watch TV to pass the time. I hate reading and composing e-mails on my phone. Which only left about 25 other options. I could call a friend, I could attack some type of cleaning/organizing task in my house, I could write, and I have enough reading material in my house to last me about the next 20 years. In fact, I frequently bemoan how little time I have to sit and read. So why was I so paralyzed? Because this wasn’t something in my control. Because I hadn’t planned to do those things. Because I felt helpless, and I really really hate feeling helpless. This unpleasant confrontation with just how dependent I am on my electronic devices and internet reminded me of another such encounter from a week ago: namely, forgetting my phone and driving down the freeway realizing that if I got in an accident and ended up in the hospital, I wouldn’t be able to call anyone because I didn’t have anyone’s phone number memorized and could end up suffering alone for days before anyone would figure out where I was and find me (I’m a regular Pollyanna). I made a mental note to myself to do something to remedy that, and this morning is when the note finally resurfaced.
Scrolling through the contacts in my phone, I wrote down several numbers on a little card that I put in the back pocket of my wallet (I will attempt memorization some other time). Then I sat around feeling helpless and frustrated some more, then got upset that I was getting upset. The fruit of this double-upset was a new determination not to be trapped by my circumstances and, wearing different footwear this time, I went back out to the garage, tapped into my anger, and heaved the door open Hulk-style. At this point, one of the electricians called back and said he could be at my house in a couple hours. Hooray! A light at the end of the tunnel! I drove to Trader Joe’s, full of upbeat optimism once again. I navigated the busy aisles like a pro, weaving between distracted shoppers and grabbing items off shelves with systematic efficiency. I even found a checkout line that had just opened up. And then I discovered that I’d left my wallet on my dining room table, full of my emergency contact numbers, as well as all my cash and credit cards. Mortified, I offered to put everything back, which was rejected by the cashier, who said “it’s no problem” for them to do it for me, although the subtext I read was “It’s totally a pain in the ass, lady, but this is what I have to say to customers who are too stupid to bring their wallets with them.”
When I got home, I found that my entire house was now without power. As I walked from room to room trying not to wring my hands and wondering what the heck was going on, it suddenly all turned on–lights, stereo, internet. And a couple minutes later, a giant utility truck from the city went rumbling past my window. Though I am at a loss to explain how my house only lost some of it’s power due to a city power grid/utility issue, it seems that was the problem all along and it was now fixed. I immediately sent word to my friends and family so they could get on with their lives, cancelled my appointment with the electrician, and decided to attempt another trek to Trader Joe’s, this time with my wallet. I confess that I changed my clothes and put my hair in a pony tail, which I could argue was because I wanted to get out of my nice(ish) church clothes and get my hair out of my face, but really I was just hoping that no one at Trader Joe’s would recognize me.
Some take-aways from this morning’s adventures (you know, like you sometimes get in a Sunday sermon):
For close to two months now, I’ve found myself a bit down in the dumps, to use one of the more alliterative idioms of our language. This is nothing new for me. Had I lived a few centuries ago, they would have said I had a melancholic temperament or “humor” and probably tried some type of purgative or blood-letting that would have been as likely to kill me as help me. I’ve learned over the years that these periodic slumps are generally temporary and I usually recover from them by simply waiting them out while continuing to live my life. After all, the laundry won’t wash and fold itself.
But this latest bout has been hanging on a bit longer than usual. It’s not a full-blown clinical depression where I need professional treatment and medication. If it were, I wouldn’t be doing laundry. I wouldn’t be sitting here writing a blog post. And, in my mind, that’s the kind of state that deserves genuine compassion and concern. My own lackluster state, on the other hand, has been more of a general listlessness/ restlessness, like some invisible cloud in the atmosphere is siphoning away my energy and capacity to feel excitement about anything while I drift from one activity to the next without any sense of real purpose or engagement. The words “yucky” and “blah” come to mind, but a more lovely and precise term a friend shared with me is acedia, which has Greek roots and means a state of apathy and torpor–a sort of spiritual malaise that some early Christian Church fathers believed was a precursor to sloth.
In other words, rather than being an actual illness (like depression), this tends to feel a bit like some kind of self-indulgent wallowing. Like my soul is currently stuck in whiny toddler mode. Rationally, I recognize that I have a great life. With so many people around me experiencing actual hardships and tragedies, I have absolutely nothing to complain about. But in spite of my rational mind sternly telling my inner toddler to quit its bellyaching (a favorite command of my mother’s when I was growing up) and buck up, I still seem to end up on my couch mindlessly playing Soda Crush on my ipad and/or watching TV while gorging on sea salt caramels far more often and far longer than is healthy. Which starts to feel pretty crummy and pathetic, especially when I find myself having to pick chunks of salt out of my bra.
What drives me even more batty than feeling pathetic (it takes about two days of this to make me start feeling sick of my own self) is not knowing why I’m feeling this way. I want there to be a reason so I can address it and bounce back. One thing I’ve realized might be the culprit (although I also recognize that sometimes there is no specific culprit) is that I don’t know what my “next” is. If you are a visitor to this site and don’t know me personally, let’s just say that I am an extremely goal-oriented person. I have to feel like my life is heading towards something or I am purposefully aiming in a particular direction. While I (perhaps somewhat contradictorily) also really like stability and security–I am rather change-resistant, actually–I’ve come to realize that what truly energizes and excites me is working productively on some type of new project or challenge. Or planning my next adventure.
When I was thinking back on the last time I experienced this type of extended slump that had no discernible reason (as opposed to the period of genuine grief and trauma I experienced after my mother’s death and my father’s attempted suicide), I remembered that it was after I finished graduate school–after years of high intensity study while working full time, culminating in a master’s degree. With this goal now behind me and hours of free time ahead of me, one would think I’d have all kinds of energy and my life would become even more enjoyable. I thought that. But the opposite occurred. I found myself constantly listless and bored, and rather than read the many novels I’d put aside for “later” or finally organize the clutter in my house, I ended up watching hours of junk TV. I went from researching Milton’s use of carnal rhetoric in Comus to watching marathons of “Behind the Music” episodes (you want to know who had a hard life? Pink did, that’s who).
In other words, give me too much time, stability, and sameness and it leads to entropy. Last year I had two major “nexts”–I applied for, planned, and went on a really exciting and wonderful trip. I went through the process of completing and publishing my novel, something I’d been working on for years. And now I don’t know what’s next. I also get a little scared that there might not be another next. I don’t know why having a meaningful job, a house, a lovely family and friends, and all the entertainment I could want right at my fingertips isn’t enough. It just isn’t. I am deeply and humbly grateful for all of those things, but I can also recognize that I am wired to need projects and challenges that keep me growing, learning, and creating.
And while writing this post feels like it’s perhaps just one more self-indulgent wallow (the diary entry of my neurosis foisted on you poor, unsuspecting readers), at least it’s writing. I might not have control over when or how the next “next” will manifest, but I can at least practice some of the habits that position me in a more open and receptive posture. As my good buddy and fellow over-thinker Hamlet once said, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.” Of course, this was him talking about death and he gets nicked by a poisoned sword just a short while later and dies. But I think this notion of practicing readiness applies to life as well. See? Look at that. I’m getting more positive already. And I only ate two caramels while writing this.
Here in southern California, the weather has been stuck in Santa Ana wind conditions for weeks–hot, sunny, and dry. It’s the middle of January, and we are all walking around in T-shirts, sweating through mid-80s temperatures, and accidentally shocking ourselves on every metal surface (and person) we come into contact with. I realize complaining about warm temperatures in the middle of winter is a bit sketchy. After all, there are probably more than a few people buried in snow right now who would be more than happy to come hit me with their shovels. This is assuming they could actually drive to the airport on their icy roads and fly out here through all those storms, although I suspect once they got off the plane, they’d be so dazzled by the sunlight and warmth, they’d drop their shovels and go order a frappucino at Starbucks instead.
So I’m not complaining, but I must confess to a tiny bit of longing whenever I hear about a big storm and people being snowed in. I know this is strange, so as I was putting on my summer clothes this morning, I tried to pinpoint what it is that could possibly be bad (aside from drought and fires) about constantly warm and sunny weather, and I remembered something from my sophomore year of college in Massachusetts. One weekend in December, a huge storm rolled in and dropped so much snow that all modes of transportation and roads into and out of Boston shut down. It was a Saturday evening, and no one could go anywhere. Having grown up a few blocks away from Disneyland, I had never experienced a situation where I couldn’t go somewhere because of weather. [While there are plenty of people who act like they can’t drive in rain, no one is ever actually unable to go somewhere here because of it]. Being restricted by weather was such a foreign concept to me, that my friends had to repeat several times to me that yes, we had to cancel our plans. And no, there was no way we could leave the dorm. “This is New England, dummy,” is probably what they were all thinking.
After that initial shock and disappointment, I was faced (along with everyone else) with a huge block of time and literally no place to go, and what resulted was the equivalent of the biggest slumber party ever. Everyone put on their sweats and pajamas and crowded into the common rooms, throwing whatever snacks they had into a giant collective pile, watched TV, made up relay races in the hallways, etc. Like children, who (let’s face it) have very limited options and freedom, I discovered that restriction can be fun. That it can force you to live in the moment and just enjoy yourself. With the snow falling steadily outside, our dorm and our forced time inside it felt cozy and special, and I felt a rare sense of solidarity with a group of people whom I would normally rush past in the stairwell on my way to class. We were all experiencing the exact same circumstances of weather and a complete lack of control over it. And it was really nice.
Here in sunny California, we have no such weather limits. We can go anywhere anytime and do anything. On the one hand, this is wonderful. On the other, this can be overwhelming and exhausting. There is no natural rhythm, no ebb and flow, directed by nature or the seasons. We have no weather restrictions and thus no reason to ever stop or even slow down. It feels ridiculous to stay inside all day reading a book and sipping hot chocolate when it’s sunny outside. So we all stay busy running around.
Perhaps my longing for inclement weather is just a sign that I am a shut-in deep down in my heart, but I think it’s more than that. I think constant sunshine and monotonously mild weather feels somehow artificial and disconnected. That it offers a false sense of constant control and propels us into constant action. Call me crazy (though please don’t hit me with your shovel) but I think it would be good for us all to be snowed in once in a while and have nowhere to go and nothing to do but stay put and discover how much we enjoy it. To discover that the world won’t end if we sit it out a day or two.
Yesterday, as I was scrambling some eggs, Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” came on the classical radio station I listen to every morning. Usually the station plays Ravel’s orchestral version, but yesterday they aired it in its original form–played by a single pianist–which is, by far, my favorite version. It’s my favorite in part because all of that intensity and richness coming out of a single instrument is somehow more majestic and dramatic to me than when it’s dispersed throughout an orchestra. But it’s also my favorite because it conjures up memories of one of my most intense ‘celebrity’ crushes growing up.
While all the other girls at my junior high were swooning over Duran Duran and putting up posters of Simon Le Bon, I was enthralled by an Irish concert pianist named Barry Douglas. He was the winner of the Tchaikovsky competition in 1986, which was aired in a documentary on PBS that my family watched together after dinner one evening. Both of my parents loved classical music, and all four of us kids took piano lessons. For a number of years we had two pianos in the house just so we could all fit in the hours of practicing required–one in the living room, and one shoved between my sister’s and my bunkbed and the closet. It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized growing up with a piano in your bedroom wasn’t exactly the norm.
Someone was always practicing piano at my house, and very often two of us were at the same time, which I would use to my advantage whenever I could manage to be the one practicing in the back bedroom. I would prop whatever novel I was currently engrossed in on the music stand and keep reading while I played scales and arpeggios over and over. It usually took awhile for anyone to catch on and bust me (yes, my rebellious behavior growing up was reading books when I was supposed to be working on my piano technique). One of the things I missed the most when my older siblings went off to college was hearing them on the piano, working through the same passage over and over until it flowed (my mother shouting comments from the kitchen where she was making dinner–“Ugh, that was so sloppy!” and later “Beautiful!”). I can’t even begin to count the number of nights I fell asleep listening to someone playing the piano.
So, all of that to say that the Tchaikovsky Competition (beat the Russians at their own game in their own country!) was a very big deal. There were a lot of engaging and appealing contestants featured in the documentary, but Barry was first in my heart from the beginning. There were several rounds in the competition, the finale being Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto, which was played by every single one of the finalists. This is the piece he won with and this is the work he recorded in his first major recording after the competition (which I bought on cassette tape as soon as it was released). But the performance I’ll never forget is the one earlier in the competition where he played Mussorgsky. Here he is, in all of his twitchy, sweaty, handsome, masterful glory–owning this piece like nobody’s business and, in turn, winning the heart of a nerdy seventh grader in braces and thick glasses: