The Full Catastrophe

I stood alone in a corner waiting for my friends to arrive. I was wearing a new dress bought for this special occasion, my American friend’s wedding. It was black chiffon with dark pink flowers. It’s a cute dress and I hope to wear it again somebody. It was a fun, happy, quirky wedding. I felt grateful to have been able to experience it with my friends. We drove to the next venue, stopping on the way for tea in a new cafe/bar surrounded by traditional houses and fairy lights. People were drunk and laughing and there was a chaotic vibe in the air at the afterparty. I said goodbye to my friends, we said we would catch up soon, in a few weeks, maybe have dinner.

None of us knew that just one week later a mutual friend’s brother would jump off a bridge and die. We didn’t know then that we would gather in nine days time at a funeral home where we would pray in front of a coffin and offer a white flower to the deceased. We didn’t go just to support our friend. We also knew the dearly departed. We had trained capoeira together. We had partied together. We were all social media friends and followers. We couldn’t quite believe what had happened. Our young, handsome, charismatic, intelligent and talented friend had taken his own life under difficult, but not insurmountable, circumstances. An irrational and permanent response to an impermanent problem. I thought to myself how amazing that I have gone this long in life and never been to a funeral. It was my first and I held his mother tight as she sobbed into my arms.

Pepper the past few weeks with some job rejections, a lacklustre birthday and some lonely Saturday nights with only a needy existential crisis for company and I do believe I am living what is known as the full catastrophe. It’s like being on a rollercoaster that you have no control over, over when or if it will stop and if you’ll ever be able to get off. There’s little time to process thoughts and feelings, to read the emotional data, to regroup before the next wave comes and washes over you. It’s those cliches again, you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf. Everyday there’s an opportunity for perspective taking, for saying a quick atheist prayer for my friend whose brother is gone far too soon and far too tragically. And least we forget the brother. Rest peacefully, HJ. You are forever in our thoughts, prayers and hearts.

My new spirit animal

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

So it turns out falling down the Internet rabbit hole does have some benefits. I found this extraordinary man whose accomplishments are rather amazing, especially given that he is sans one forearm and two lower legs. Dr. BJ Miller is the executive director the the intriguing Zen Hospice Project, a residential facility for dying patients in San Francisco that aims to offer a human-centered model of care. His credentials are pretty stellar: a BA in art history from Princeton, then an MD which led him to become the chief resident at the hospital he worked in, followed by a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Not too shabby.

He was in his second year at Princeton when he and some friends were fooling around after a party – he climbed on top of a parked shuttle train. He was severely electrocuted and almost died. He spent several months recovering and miraculously found a new lease on life. He doesn’t regret all that happened as he believes it turned him towards his calling as a palliative care physician and made him grow as a person. As he told one interviewer:“The gift was that it got me out of the habit of thinking about the future and comparing myself to others. It rammed me into the present moment. I’m actually grateful for that. I found a new confidence.”

It’s all about perspective. Miller’s mother suffered from the effects of childhood polio so he grew up surrounded by disability and saw that one could still live a normal life – even thrive. He didn’t let the suicide of his sister throw him into the depths of despair while at medical school. He sued Princeton over his accident and settled for $5 million dollars. Oh and he also owns a farm and part-owns a tea company. Now I’m going to leave my pity party, NOT ruminate on how lazy I am and instead meditate on the unbreakable human spirit.


Grace and Grit (& perspective)

grace and gritThe memoir Grace and Grit by American writer and philosopher Ken Wilber is a sprawling account of his late wife’s, Treya, grueling fight against the cancer that ultimately kills her. Although under Ken’s name, the book was the brainchild of both of them and before her death, and Treya gave permission to Ken to use her very personal diary entries, letters she wrote to loved ones and conversations they had during this time, so her voice is very present. Treya’s journey is a constant reminder of how, even when our body is giving up, our heart and mind must remain strong. The need to have grace and grit, not just for survival but for growth and meaning, is ever present.

From the beginning, we learn that Ken and Treya are well-educated intellectuals and immersed in various ‘transpersonal’ spiritual traditions, making the memoir sweeping in its scope. Questions about the meaning of life and death hover over every page, as well as inquiries into what it means to be fully human, to truly love someone, and the risks and costs of these endeavors. The themes of sacrifice, faith, freedom, science, medicine, and devotion feature prominently.

I recently completed my third reading of this cathartic book. I file it under ‘bibliotherapy/memoirs of catastrophe’ – one of those books you return to when you are going through a hard time and need some perspective, some comfort, a vicarious experience of suffering and triumph.

Through Treya’s own words, we get a sense of her world and where she’s at in her life as the book opens with her and Ken’s very fast courtship and wedding. She is young (mid-30’s), vibrant and adventurous. She is deeply spiritual, having spent some years living in a remote spiritual community. Although accomplished in her own right (degrees from prestigious universities, well-travelled, multilingual, involved in myriad spiritual and environmental causes), she reveals her insecurities – that before she met Ken she was resigned to a life of being a single woman who was unsure of her life’s purpose or daemon. She is relatable because like many women, she struggled with self-criticism and feeling unworthy of love. She died in 1989 and in many ways, was ahead of her time in her pursuit of independence and self-sufficiency.

As one of her diary entries reprinted in the book states: “Sometimes I think my real problem is that I just don’t believe I could ever get really good at something, that I have an inflated idea of how good others are, and that maybe by the time I’m fifty that will have been cut down by experience to match reality and I’ll then know I could be good enough. And sometimes I think I just have to stop chasing my daemon long enough to let some space in my life for it to begin to show itself and grow. I want a full-blown plant right away and have been too impatient to nourish the small shoots enough to see which one I choose or chooses me.”

Treya is diagnosed with breast cancer just ten days after their wedding. This puts a lot of pressure on the young marriage and as the main caregiver and support person in Treya’s life, Ken is under a large amount of stress. He makes a lot of sacrifices to care for her and must deal with the consequences of this while riding the waves of hope and despair as Treya goes through several remissions and relapses, each relapse pushing her closer to death.

As time goes on, Ken finds it increasingly difficult to hold himself together, becomes depressed, ill and even loses his will to write. In his words: “I suppose the simplest and most crushing mistake I made was this: I blamed Treya for my woes, I had freely and voluntarily chosen to set aside my own interests in order to help her, and then when I missed those interests – missed my writing, missed my editorial jobs, missed meditation – I just blamed Treya. Blamed her for getting cancer, blamed her for wrecking my life, blamed her for the loss of my daemon. This is what the existentialists called ‘bad faith’ – bad in that you are not assuming responsibility for your own choices.”

In his darkest moment, Ken considers committing suicide. It takes a lot to pull himself out of that black hole, but he does so and is able to be stronger for himself and his wife. Their journey continues but with more support, more therapy, more spiritual practice, more medicine, more awareness of the pressure they are under.

As her physical health declines, Treya finds inner strength and faces her fears head-on. She has many epiphanies as she learns to surrender to the inevitable – that she will die. She overcomes her fear of being dependent and needy and her harsh judgement of herself and of others subsides. A new psychological landscape emerges in which she is more tolerant, relaxed and free.

From one of her journal entries: “I’m less critical of others. I don’t hold them to the standards of conventional or ‘doing’ success…I’m not only more tolerant of but genuinely interested in the various ways people choose to shape their lives, and a quick judgment isn’t waiting in the wings, ready to pop on stage at any time. I see all of life as more of a game, not quite so totally loaded with importance. It’s more fun, easier. I hold life more lightly.”

She develops a sense of self-trust and is able to let go of the harsh self-criticism and perfectionism that has plagued her most of her life. Her evolution is revealed in the following entry: “I trust myself more. I’m kinder to myself. I believe there is a wisdom guiding my life and that my life doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s to feel good and fulfilling and, yes, even successful.”

The last part of the book recounts Treya’s last weeks as it becomes evident that she will soon die. She makes a conscious decision of when to ‘let go’ and one of the most heart-wrenching moments in the book is when she tells Ken she is ready to die:

‘“Sweetie, I think it’s time to go,” she began.

“I’m here, honey.”

“I’m so happy.” Long pause. “This world is so weird. It’s just so weird. But I’m going.” Her mood was one of joy and humor, and determination.’

Ken writes about this experience of watching his dear Treya fade away and concludes that: “Real love hurts; real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you. I kept thinking, if love does not shatter you, you do not know love. We had both been practicing the wound of love, and I was shattered. Looking back on it, it seems to me that in that simple and direct moment, we both died.”

Although exquisitely written, the last days of Treya’s life as they are recorded cannot come close to the actual lived experience. Years after her death, Ken has spoken about the growth that occurred for both of them through that five year ordeal. If nothing else, the story of Ken and Treya can teach us about the profound transformative power of love. Treya’s own tenacious struggle can give us perspective, remind us of our own mortality and teach us to face our own dragons and challenges with grace and grit.

Dear Sugar…

chi-printers-row-live-cheryl-strayed-08012012-20120703When an advice columnist starts off a response to a letter writer with, “My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small…”, you pay attention. You wonder who the hell would revel that in such a public forum (the advice column appears on The Rumpus). Ladies and gentlemen, meet Sugar, also known as Cheryl Strayed, the woman who wrote the best-selling memoir Wild about her solo trek through an arduous, never-ending trail in the United States.

I read some of her memoir (47% of it, according to Kindle) and while I thought it was interesting and well-written, I wasn’t compelled to finish it. Jump forward to a few months later when I find out that she also has a collection of her advice columns called Tiny Beautiful Things, which I bought. And I’m so glad I did. Her responses to a spectrum of readers’ problems are brutally honest, unconventional, insightful and hopeful. As I read through her replies to all manner of issues from teenage heartbreak to the death of a child, I was riveted by what she would say next, and in fact, made a game out of it, trying to guess what advice she would give to each person. I read the collection twice, and the second time, highlighted parts that I thought were particularly poignant (see below). I was fascinated by her because she is so real. Because she has been there. Because she has overcome abuse, addiction, poverty, betrayal, divorce, the death of loved ones and persisted in her dream of becoming a writer. She understands what it is to truly live – to die before you die. She’s liberal and smart and unpretentious and dishes out the tough love. Oh, and she is witty and hella sassy. And did I mention smart? Whip-smart, in fact.

Here’s a sampling of some of her advice that I thought was the most profound:

On a problem about love: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love.”

On a woman’s unfulfilled dreams to be married and have kids: “This is not ‘how your story ends.’ It’s simply where it takes a turn you didn’t expect.”

On a man who wants to find love but is extremely physically unattractive: “Inhabit the beauty that lives in your beastly body and strive to see the beauty in all the other beasts. Walk without a stick into the darkest woods. Believe that the fairytale is true.”

On a collection of letters by women wanting to leave an unfulfilling life/marriage/relationship/career: “Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone…Go, even though there is nowhere to go. Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay. Go, because you want to. Because wanting to leave is enough…Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve button has been eternally pinned.”

On unrequited love: “There are so many things to be tortured about, sweet pea. So many torturous things in this life. Don’t let a man who doesn’t love you be one of them.”

On carrying the weight of student loan debt: “Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.”

On catastrophizing and fear of death: “There’s a crazy lady living in your head. I hope you’ll be comforted to hear that you’re not alone. Most of us have an invisible inner terrible someone who says all sorts of nutty stuff that has no basis in truth…I have to cut the crazy lady to the quick rather often. Over the years, my emotional well-being has depended on it. If I let her get the upper hand, my life would be smaller, stupider, squatter, sadder.”

On jealousy of others’ good fortune: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous. I shut down the why not me? voice and replace it with one that says don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually do stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person. When you feel terrible because someone has gotten something you want, you force yourself to remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own.”

On an intense and tumultuous relationship: “I know your connection feels powerful, rare and incendiary. I know it seems like this woman is your own personal intimacy messiah. But you’re wrong. True intimacy isn’t a psychodrama. It isn’t the ‘highest highs and the lowest lows.’ It isn’t John Donne whispered into your crotch followed by months of not-exactly-agreed upon celibacy. It’s a tiny bit of those things on occasion with a whole lot of everything else in between. It’s communion and mellow compatibility. It’s friendship and mutual respect. It’s not having to say we must have an ‘absolute restriction on each other’ for thirty days…You don’t have intimacy with this woman. You have intensity and scarcity. You have emotional turmoil and an overwrought sense of what the two of you together means.”

On grief after losing a child: “The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of deep grief is making a home there…You go on by doing the best you can. You go on by being generous. You go on by being true. You go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days. You go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage.”

On marriage and infidelity: “Most people don’t cheat because they’re cheaters. They cheat because they’re people. They are driven by hunger or for the experience of someone being hungry once more for them. They find themselves in friendships that take an unintended turn or they seek them out because they’re horny or drunk or damaged from all the stuff they didn’t get when they were kids. There is love. There is lust. There is opportunity. There is alcohol. And youth. There is loneliness and boredom and sorrow and weakness and self-destruction and idiocy and arrogance and romance and ego and nostalgia and power and need. There is the compelling temptation of intimacies with someone other than the person with whom one is most intimate.”

On whether or not becoming a mistress/hooker is a good idea: “It’s our work, our job, the most important gig of all: to make a place that belongs to us, a structure composed of our own moral code. Not the code that only echoes imposed cultural values, but the one that tell us on a visceral level what to do. You know what’s right for you and what’s wrong for you. And that knowing has nothing to do with money or feminism or monogamy or whatever other things you say to yourself when the silent exclamation points are going off in your head. Is it okay to be a participant in deceit and infidelity? Is it okay to exchange sex for cash? These are worthy questions. They matter. But the answers to them don’t tell us how to rightfully live our lives. The body does.”

In a letter to her younger self: “You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”

“Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and loose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”

“Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naive pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupid saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.”



Why Dirty Dancing Will Always Rule

dirtydancingMy friend brought to my attention this brilliant article exploring the ways in which the classic ’80’s chickflick, Dirty Dancing, is a ‘subversive masterpiece.’ In case you’re too lazy or just not interested enough to read the article for yourself, here are the author’s four main reasons:

#1: “Dirty Dancing” Is About Abortion

#2: “Dirty Dancing” Is Rife With Class Politics

#3: “Dirty Dancing” Gives The Sheltered 17-Year-Old All The Sexual Agency

#4: “I carried a watermelon.” (You really need to read the article to get this one).

This movie was all the rage when I was at primary school. I saw it with my cousin, who just two years older than me, was like my sister. She got the cassette tape of the soundtrack for her birthday and I was insanely jealous. We listened to it on our Walkmans incessantly and knew all the lyrics by heart. That was when I was about seven. Cut to when I’m 17. Dirty Dancing was still a favorite among my female peers. In fact, there was one night in particular that I remember a group of my friends and I watched it at a sleepover. Of course, being so young and stupid, we thought it would be a good idea to also drink (and by drink, I mean binge drink) cheap, nasty gin (sans the tonic) while we watched it. Anyway, to digress, I remember spending the next day at work (at McDonald’s) cowering in the bathroom, vomiting out of my nose…but still Dirty Dancing remains one of my favorite films.

Of course, the first time I saw it, the film was just a simple story about a plain-Jane girl (Baby) who falls in love with a seemingly bad guy (Johnny), who turns out to be good – an ugly duckling transformed into a swan when the alpha-male falls in love with her. All of the subversion and plot intricacies went well over my head. As I matured and developed, I began to identify with the lead character, and probably most girls did – an averagely attractive, awkward yet intelligent girl overcomes barriers to live happily ever after with her diamond-in-the-rough prince.

As the author writes:

Although Baby is definitely fascinated by Johnny [played by the sadly deceased Patrick Swayze] early on in the film, by this point she is just being herself, and to a younger version of me, the notion of a boy just liking you for who you were was kind of mindblowing. And yet here it was! On film!

Also Johnny Castle was so very hot. I mean I don’t even really like romancey movies as a rule, but Johnny Castle’s impact on my adolescent sexual development cannot be overstated. I mean, those pants. And how could it be that the searingly hot guy liked the slightly awkward, opinionated, boundary-crushing girl? How did that even WORK?

(Also, let’s not forget David Bowie in the Labyrinth – my all-time favorite film. Just to remind everyone of his hotness in this film, I have plucked a few quotes from a fan website: Everyone found David Bowie in the Labyrinth sexy – I’m a straight male and I was still attracted to him…I would personally become his slave and do anything for him. And wreck him horribly…“KILF.” (Like MILF, but with a King)…The moment that David Bowie appeared in those tights, he devirginized the whole world).

Before I get too carried away, the point I’m trying to make is that as we grow and mature, as our brains develop, we can see things in a different light and recognize complexities that our seven year old self never could’ve dreamed of. It is seeing the same landscape with new eyes, or peeling another layer off an onion. So, next time I watch Dirty Dancing (and there WILL be a next time), it will blow my mind. In the meantime, there are some Youtube clips involving puppets that urgently require my attention.