Things that will happen

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You are starting out.  Maybe you are an infant, starting out a lifetime.  Maybe you are starting on a new hobby or large project or a marriage.  You might have chosen to start, or maybe you had no choice.

These are some things that will happen.

  • Phase One: At first you will not be afraid because you don’t understand the risks.  You have not seen anything go wrong, you have not experienced it.  Your body and your spirit are unblemished, at least as far as this thing you start on.  You have youth, either literally or figuratively, and so you naturally feel invulnerable.
  • Phase Two: After some time, it could be a very long time, things go wrong.  For you or for the person next to you.  You will see or experience pain or dismay or shame.  There may be wreckage.  This phase may be repeated.
  • Phase Three: After enough harsh dosing (the exposure required to move you to this next stage depends on an alchemy of your nature, your age and the damage done to you by experience), you will begin to be afraid or discouraged or both.
    • This is the critical juncture.  Will you carry on?
    • This is where many people abandon their projects or their hobbies or their passions or their lives.
    • This is why healthy, strong, middle-aged people grow timid and become spectators and accept a growing impotence.
  • Phase Four: If you carry on, there will ensue an awkward period.  It may be quite long or it may be short, depending on your determination to get away from the discomfort, your acumen and the kind of magic that attends you.  Something has driven you to persist and you may not know what.  You may feel you will only ever be awkward and afraid and vulnerable to damage but also unable to stop moving and you may think you are cursed or insane.  You may be.  Day will follow day and there will be bleakness.  You will cycle back again and again to the decision point and have almost infinite chances to give up.  Mostly, you won’t.
  • Phase Five: If you still carry on, something will change.  You might gain some skill.  Maybe you will become inured to the risks by sheer exposure.  Maybe you begin to understand that existence is a risk — of pain, of damage, of destruction — and those risks in your particular project are only incremental additions to the risks of breathing.  Having come this far, age may help you by passing you over the frightened precipice of middle age into the zone where death could come any time anyway and you may as well die trying.
    • Note: if you have decided not to carry on but are still breathing, this may become the zone of increasing frailty instead.  You will move to a one-story house, away from ice and snow, and be suspicious of strangers and expect dinner at the same time every night and watch only remakes.
  • Phase Six: I can’t tell you what happens next because I have only peeked through the curtain.  I believe you will settle into honing your skill or enjoying your journey or sitting in companionable silence.  Even if no less awkward and inept, you will be less plagued by fear and anxiety.  There will still be setbacks and confusion and failures, you may even slip back a stage or two, but having passed through once, you are likely to carry on.
  • Miscellaneous: Passage from phase to phase will not be linear or predictable.  Inside any given phase, you will not be able to see to an earlier or a later one.  You will have only faith and whatever it is that drives you.  A journey through on one project will help you get through on new and different ones.

The thing that is not fear but somewhat like it begins to go

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Here are a few things I’ve learned about fear.*

  • In a two year period: I sat with my father while he prepared to die and at the very moment that he did; I slipped over the brink of menopause; I lost my job and got no calls; I fell off my colt and broke my arm; and I tore myself from my beloved home.  From this recipe, or one like it, in mysterious proportion, fear may be conceived.
  • Fear sneaks in and sets up in your spare room.  You can hint that it’s not welcome, you can put away the breakfast things just as it appears of a morning, you can yell and threaten and throw its things outside, but it doesn’t care.
  • It smells like metal.
  • It makes you clumsy, it saps your competence.  With fear there, you are forgetful, stupid.
  • Fear whispers incessantly about the past and the future, especially the future.
  • It weighs you down and also prevents your feet from planting on the earth.
  • It ruins everything.
  • Fear comes close to winning by sheer, tedious ubiquity.
  • But if you try very hard, and you put on clean clothes, and you keep going outside, and you are civil to fear, and you don’t listen to it much, one day it forgets to wake up before you.  You find you are outside and getting on your horse before fear gets out of bed.  You think first of what might be done instead of what could happen.  You start to remember about joy, you are interested.  Fear looks shrunken, a little grey.  You tell it to go to its room and it does.  This is very good.

*I have no right to say any of this.  I live in a first world setting, lounging in the top 10% of income earners, in robust good health.  I don’t know what it means to live in threat.  Maybe I need a new word here, for the existential, self-regarding kind of overwhelming timidity I’ve been host to.  I don’t know what that word would be, my creativity fails me.  Please imagine I came up with a word other than fear and used it here, so that those who truly know fear can keep that word and be the ones who know what it is, while I admit that I don’t.

The miracle in the pattern

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So, I got my lost cat Max back after almost two months on his own in the wild.  It’s the kind of happy ending you don’t want to talk much about, you just need to melt into it.  Strangers are moved by such an ending to send good wishes on social media.  It earns over 1,000 “likes” when published in the newspaper and is popular enough in print to, with facts suitably garbled, get on TV news.   And when it happens just before Christmas, and on your birthday, it’s nothing but a live-action cliche, so it’s best just to be quiet and let it speak for itself.

However, I spoke to a reporter and thoughtlessly wielded the word “miracle,” which of course became the story.  I started it, but I’m agnostic on miracles, finding the true and actual working of the natural world plenty mind-blowing without getting super-natural on it.  But “Christmas miracle” is easier and more fun than a delightful series of perfectly natural events that yielded one of many possible outcomes.  When we can’t see or understand each step in the process, we have mystery.  And when an especially dramatic or hoped-for outcome results from the mystery, we might just have a miracle.

There’s some good mystery in Max’s story.  You can start with the prosaic: where the cat was and what he was doing for seven weeks, how he got that wound on his foot and avoided frostbite on his extremities during long periods of temperatures below 10 degrees.  I ponder these questions casually now and then, but they can’t hold my attention long.  We know too much: he was somewhere between where he got lost and where he was found; he was hunkered down or he was traveling; he stepped on something or got his foot caught somewhere; he snuggled into small crevices or someone’s outbuilding and tucked his nose and toes into his fur.  It’s too easy to construct any number of unsurprising stories, so my mind wanders.

The mystery I love is the one leading to the moment when I collected the half-dead cat in my arms.  It should not have happened.  There were infinite ways for it not to happen and, instead, this single, inexplicable thing did happen.  It’s mysterious and, because it resulted in a death-defying moment on a significant date, it could be a miracle.

You can’t see the extraordinary without knowing some of the details.  After weeks of trying to lure Max out of hiding in the vicinity of our house, I posted his story on Nextdoor.com in a last ditch effort to bring neighbors in to help me.  A couple days later, a woman on Nextdoor messaged me that her son saw a cat that looked like Max in a neighborhood called Lake of the Pines at about 6 p.m.  More than a mile and a half from our house.  We ran up there and looked around in the dark, finding nothing.  Three days later, a man on Nextdoor said he saw an orange cat in the same spot the woman had seen him, at 3:30 p.m.  He snapped cell phone pictures and they definitely looked like Max.  Back we went to search around again, with flashlights this time.  I set two live traps with tuna and two game cameras to snap photos of whatever came along.  Nothing came along in 12 hours.  But the next day, another woman posted that she saw a cat like Max a couple houses down from the first sightings, this time at noon.

I was now convinced that Max was alive and spending time in a defined area within my reach.  Even so, he was painfully distant.  Localized as the sightings may be, Lake of the Pines is a cat-hiding haven composed of large lots in a dense Ponderosa Pine forest.  It’s like a mountain campground populated here and there with large, expensive homes.  Feral cats, which Max was imitating mightily, are known to wander territories more than a mile in diameter, so he might not even be in this particular forest but could be anywhere within such a radius at any given time of day, with no guarantee of repeating visits to the same precise spot for my convenience.  By nature and for stealth, he was probably most active between midnight and dawn.  In his survivalist mindset, he was going to be highly skeptical of people, including me.  The most likely way to get at him was through lures and traps, but neighborhood dogs and raccoons were going to enjoy my bait and scare my cat away.  Besides, many cats, feral and domestic, will not come eat the tuna fish we carefully set out and will under no circumstances step into a live trap box.  I heard several stories of lost cats in feral mode appearing nightly on game cameras in their own backyards, casually bypassing every effort to catch their attention as they went about their business in tantalizing proximity.  Max had not touched anything I’d set out in 49 days.

But I had one ray of hope — Max was showing himself during the day, earlier and earlier in the afternoon, making him more accessible.  And there was one technique I had not yet tried.  The cat folks call it “simply sitting.”  The idea is to place yourself casually outdoors for long periods, as if looking for a cat were the last thing on your mind.  Without the intense and predatory energy of searching, you might seem acceptable to your cat as something non-threatening and even appealing.

It seemed my best chance was to go to Lake of the Pines and spend many hours where Max had been seen.  Strolling, sitting, talking on the phone.  Making myself apparent.  And now I could do it during the afternoon instead of on the graveyard shift.  The sightings were growing closer together and earlier in the day.  I felt some urgency to get on that wave, so I planned to take the afternoon off the day after the noon sighting.  Which happened to be my birthday.

I came very close to not going.  I had just started a new job and had almost no vacation time.  The chances of my crossing paths with him were infinitesimal, I told myself.  If I could commit to do it for days and days in a row, maybe, but just once seemed futile.  And what was I going to actually do up there for hours and hours?  If I saw him, how would that get me any closer to catching him?  I was just about talked out of it.

At the last moment, I decided to go anyway.  I recognized if I didn’t, I would always wonder what might have happened.  Knowing would be better than not knowing, even if it were an uncomfortable, disappointing afternoon.

I put on clothes I had worn before to amplify my scent. I rubbed catnip on my jeans.  I collected cat treats and kibble.  I loaded up books and a journal and water and snacks.  I did not put a cat carrier in the car, protecting myself from that one gesture of irrational hope.

I drove to Lake of the Pines.  For the sixth or seventh time, I silently thanked the helpful neighbors who not only reported Max sightings to me but gave me the code to access their tony, gated community.  I pulled in to the spot where I had parked on all my visits, planning to start by strolling up and down the road until I was tired.  I put the car in park and turned the key.  Glancing out the window, I saw Max sitting in the grass.

He was lying on his chest, feet tucked under him, in the sun.  Out in the open, wholly exposed.  In the grass not twenty feet from where I parked my car.  My mind emptied itself, leaving a single, breathless focus.

I feared he would bolt when I got out of the car, so I opened the door slowly and started talking to him.  I stood up slowly.  He stayed where he was.  I talked to him as I came slowly around the back of the car.  He stayed were he was and let out a small meow.  Cursing my disorganization, I took the risk of turning my back to open the passenger door and grab a few treats.  He stayed.  I took a few steps toward him, talking, then got on my knees.  I crept forward.  He stayed, continuing to meow at me.  I stopped five feet away and held out the treats.  Max got up and came to me, ducked his head to eat, let me pet him.  I grabbed his ruff and pulled him toward me.  He didn’t resist.  He let me put him in the car without twisting and fighting.  I collapsed into the driver’s seat, completely outside myself.

The story then becomes wonderful and mundane again.  The vet visit, the recognition of and treatment for his extreme emaciation and weakness, his apparent relief and contentment to be in human hands again.  The gradual improvement.

The heart is filled by the outcome, as the mind continues to visit the central mystery of how Max and I ended up in the same spot at the same moment when there was no logical reason for it to happen.  I needed to find him to end my miserable uncertainty.  He needed to be found — at 50% of his starting weight, he was not going to make it much longer.  But, as much as we might wish otherwise, our need isn’t an explanation, only a circumstance.

Human brains are hard-wired to make patterns and meaning.  And, thereby, miracles.  Not only is Jesus’ face appearing on a piece of toast something our brain does to us automatically, it fills us with a much-needed sense of awe and purpose.  A day with Jesus on your toast is a much better day than one starting with random patterns of darker and lighter cooked bread.  My brain can’t turn away from finding Max on a day I almost didn’t show up, in a place he should never have been, on my birthday, just in time for Christmas, not long before he was going to die, because it’s uber-satisfying.

A miracle isn’t required to explain that Max and I found each other.  It happened in the confines of the natural world, so it was natural.  He was increasingly showing himself in daylight because he was starving and knew he needed help.  He had seen me park my car in that spot repeatedly, or smelled me there, so was attracted to the spot.  If I had chosen not to go that day, he might have waited for me on another.  Or a neighbor may have found him and he may have been ready to go to that person.  My outreach efforts would have connected that person to me. The date of my birthday and proximity to Christmas are abstractions that don’t matter.  I know these things.

But I can choose to enjoy the otherworldly face on this piece of toast.  Before we found Max, there were many times we wondered if we should give up trying.  Persistence with success is heroic, while persistence without success is insane.  And a knife’s edge of luck between.  I brought Max home, so all that went before and all that happened at the crucial moment is imbued with glory.  It could just as easily have been otherwise.  But glory and miracle don’t come along all that often, so I’ll take it.  As if watching Max slowly gain weight and appreciate his warm safety isn’t satisfying enough, I’ll borrow more by admiring the pattern of events, turning them this way and that to see all the possibilities.  And setting them out for others to do the same.

Solstice Wishes

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The Winter Solstice feels more like the true turning of the year than December 31 ever did.  With the longest night, the year dies, folding in on itself in cold quiet.  Along with frogs and bears and maple trees, time slows and chills to a virtual stop.  The next day, the long, deliberate expansion back to light and activity begins.

All that and it’s my birthday, marking the literal end of another year of my existence and the start of a new one.

So it’s natural to light candles in the dark and listen to haunting, sacred chants designed for echoing stone cathedrals.  And to ponder years past and the year to come.

And to look at Rob Breszny’s Free Will Astrology horoscopes (the best around, check out freewillastrology.com).  As a solstice baby, I am on the cusp of two very different astrological signs, explaining much of my diffuse personality.  So I look at arty, fiery Sagittarius and steady, earthy Capricorn.  Here’s what Rob says for me, in highlights from the two signs combined:

This is great because 2016 pretty much sucked all the way around.  I got laid off.  We faced financial stresses.  My horse started flipping me off.  David Bowie died, and Alan Rickman and Morley Safer and Florence Henderson and John Glenn.  We left our hearts’ home.  I lost my beloved cat.  And, for god’s sake, the presidential election.
So this new year has to be better.  Starting into 54 has to be better than reaching 53 has been.  Not only because we need some uplift, but because sense must be wrested from confusion.  The balance must be righted.  Max may yet come back to us.  The corner Bridger and I have turned can lead us down broad avenues.  I will apparently cultivate professional and social connections that will serve my ambitions — which are to go back to the woods and ply my talents, whatever they may be.  I don’t know what to say about national politics, I choose not to think about that right now.
Not on this solstice night.  The candlelight presses back the darkness as it has for centuries upon centuries.  The white lights on the tree defy any tendency of the dark to become oppressive.  Like countless pre-industrial, pre-enlightenment people before us, we find ways to make light in the long night.  And wreath it around with music.  And find it beautiful.

 

On the occasion of realizing it’s time for a career change

Dear younger self:

I know you have no interest in what I have to say, but I’ll give it a shot anyway.

You know how it feels when you wear clothes that just aren’t you?  Maybe th5d2928c757dc5532846042821da5e92bey’re bunchy where they shouldn’t be or squeeze something they shouldn’t.  Maybe the texture sits wrong on your skin.  Maybe they belong on a much older body, or a much younger, or a much cooler or much more composed body.  You feel squirmy, you look over your shoulder, you pluck at the fabric.  You long to get home and change, to get out of the public eye.

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Let me tell you, it’s not just clothes.  Pay attention.  Professions, towns, relationships can all be wrong.  They can be gorgeous, well-built, classy, expensive.  They might be mainstream and popular, in great demand.  Profitable, convenient.  But they could be just as wrong for you as the lovely outfit your grandmother owned that shows no wear and will last forever and it’s a good color for you and why don’t you take it?  They could be as wrong as the get-up your artsy, emo friend with the heavy eyeliner stops traffic in.

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And here’s the thing.  If you spend too long in the wrong fit, it does things to you.  It gets into your bloodstream.  Slows the passage of your blood, or thins it.  Chafes your skin or makes it clammy.  You start facing the world as demanded by the outfit.  Maybe you hang your head a little, or slump your shoulders, or start shuffling.  You’re dressed like a preppy and you start thinking the country club sounds like a thing.  You’re dressed like a punk and you start wanting to smash things.  These insidious changes can be very hard to reverse!

 

So be very wary.   Each time you enter into something, pay scrupulous attention to how it feels there.  Who else is there and do you like them?  Do you feel like yourself?  If yes, go for it.  If in doubt, hold off.  Don’t ever, ever, ever let yourself fossilize where you don’t belong.

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We’re all Dead End Streets

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So you’re driving along a beautiful island on the Atlantic seaboard when you see a street sign with your name on it. “How serendipitous,” you think. You stop to take a picture, a strange kind of selfie, and only when you look at the resulting picture do you notice the Dead End sign. Your street, the street that is you, is a dead end. “Geez,” you think, Charlie Brown style, “figures.”

But hey, we’re all dead end streets. And we’re all one-way, for that matter (certain rifts in the space-time continuum excepted). It’s not a depressing commentary on my particular life, it’s a quirky note from the great beyond, applicable to one and all.

So we’re all headed inexorably to that mysterious cul-de-sac with no outlet (certain reincarnations and eternal lives excepted); the interest comes in how you make your way along. My street meanders a lot. It’s also perpetually under construction, the kind where the flag person stops you for an hour even though there’s not a truck or jackhammer in sight. Sometimes I get to envying other people’s see-50-miles, straight-shot, eight-lane boulevards. But then again, how fast do you really want to travel this particular road, right? The slower I go, the more interesting stuff there seems to be.

Please, step into my personality type

It’s time to visit with the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator!

Why, you might ask? Because it’s interesting! Who doesn’t love to answer questions about yourself and have your personality and character summed up by someone you’ve never met? Look yourself up, you know you want to!

But seriously, it’s pretty cool stuff. I’ve found it frighteningly accurate and it elucidates–or at least lays bare for the world’s inspection–the myriad things I don’t understand about myself. And, IMHO, for all those who encounter me in any form, it should explain a lot.

If you’re going to spend any time here, you’ll need to know that I’m an INFJ, variously dubbed the “advocate” or the “protector,” which isn’t what I would call it.

I knew being me was a challenge, and Meyers-Briggs makes it official (thanks, Isabel and Katharine!). Here are my personal highlights:

The good:
“INFJs are gentle, caring, complex and highly intuitive individuals.”
“Artistic and creative, they live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities.”
“They are usually right, and they usually know it.”
“INFJs are concerned for people’s feelings, and try to be gentle to avoid hurting anyone.”
“INFJs have uncanny insight into people and situations”
“The INFJ individual is gifted in ways the other types are not.”

The bad:
“They are deep, complex individuals, who are quite private and typically difficult to understand.”
“Because the INFJ has such strong intuitive capabilities, they trust their own instincts above all else. This may result in an INFJ stubbornness and tendency to ignore other peoples’ opinions.”
“INFJs hold back part of themselves, and can be secretive.”
“Life is not necessarily easy for the INFJ”

The WTF???:
“Only one percent of the population has an INFJ Personality Type, making it the most rare of all types.”
INFJs’ intuitiveness “is the sort of thing that other types may scorn and scoff at.”
“INFJs are rarely at complete peace with themselves – there’s always something else they should be doing to improve themselves and the world around them.”

So, in other words, INFJ is a rare bird, difficult to understand, scoffed at by other types and blessed with the inability to find inner peace. Sweet! But it’s all good because she is also unusually gifted with intuition and insight and is a pretty nice person. When she’s not being stubborn, dismissive and secretive, that is.

Snarking aside, elsewhere I will delve further into the gifts of the serious introvert, and they are legion (h/t to Susan Cain for being our champion).

I’d love to hear from the three other INFJs in the English-speaking world. And to hear what types you all are and what you think of MBTI generally (there is certainly criticism of it out there in the world, e.g., but it works for me).