Archive for April, 2011

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Pick your playwright

April 26, 2011

I came into work this morning and chatted briefly with two coworkers who said they suspected they were characters in a Kafka play. I responded that I’d always hoped if a playwright were writing my life it would be Oscar Wilde.

Minutes later one of my (brilliant) coworkers sent me a link to this:

“Jersey Shore” Gone Wilde is a pretty good way to start off a Tuesday, I have to say.

Now, hours later, what I said still rings true in my mind. I wish a comic genius had written my life, filled it with witty banter and sparkling verbal repartee. I wish my costumes had been professionally and elegantly designed, and that my hair was dressed to perfection before every scene. I wish there was fitting background music and that the acts and scenes were clearly defined, and that all major tensions resolved in clarity, forgiveness, or the appearance of another plate of cucumber sandwiches. Some small part of my brain, in spite of the reproaches coming from the rest of my brain, even clings to the hope that Teddy will be found, alive and well, in a handbag one day. And I wish (and still hope) that my life will be more filled with laughter than tears and that the end will have some sort of satisfying resolution.

I’ve said it before – I’m a comedy girl. I think comedies aren’t appreciated as much as they should be, especially in a world that needs them. I like comedies of multiple flavors – absurdist, dark, romantic (Hello, Philadelphia Story), Shakespearean, buddy comedies, raunchy comedies. I don’t love all comedies, of course – I am not as big a fan of Jim Carey as, perhaps, a comedy girl should be (Dumb and Dumber, Pet Detective left me cold), and I find myself feeling like something was missing after watching a lot of contemporary romantic comedies. But comedy at it’s best makes you realize that you are a part of humanity and subject to the  human condition; it makes you laugh, which is a good thing, and helps you to recognize bits of your life in the bits of life shown on the screen or stage (or page, though I’m mostly not talking about books right now). Really, really good comedy can show you what a thin line there often is between what is tragic and unbearable and what is funny, perhaps partly because so much of comedy is tied up in relief, in the releasing of tension.

I know, or most of me does, that Teddy won’t turn up in my last act, having been found in a handbag and raised to be the president of the United States by a good family in the Suburbs of Portland, OR, but even so, I think I could really enjoy a life written by Wilde (or possibly Gilbert and Sullivan if Wilde is unavailable), with costumes designed by Edith Head, produced by Julie Tamor.

But I sometimes worry that my life has been written by Tennessee Williams, with costumes donated by Goodwill, directed by Tim Burton.

Clearly my agent has a lot to answer for, but I just can’t seem to get her on the phone these days.

What about you?

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It’s not about you, except when it is, sort of

April 21, 2011

I was lucky enough to attend a Readers’ Advisory workshop not long ago, given by the really fabulous Nancy Pearl, who is the only person (never mind the only librarian) I’ve ever met with her own action figure. In person, she is warm and funny, with this amazing quality of really listening to anyone she’s talking to and making them feel like they are brilliant and worthwhile and capable of changing the world.

Readers’ advisory, if you’re curious, is pretty much what it sounds like – talking with readers and suggesting books that hopefully they will enjoy based on the information they give you about themselves and their reading. It’s one of the more personal services libraries offer – kind of like matchmaking (and you know how dangerous that can be).

She gave two main pieces of advice for good readers advisory work, and the first one just sang in my ears. Here it is, paraphrased: You must remember it’s not about you.

I sat in my seat, listening to this uber-librarian, my eyes wide, and when these words came from her mouth I wanted to stand up and sing “Hallelujah!” Because “It’s not about you” is the most important practical lesson grief has taught me so far. I keep going back to it, keep reminding myself of it. What I think and feel is important to me, yes, but when I am listening to someone else’s story, attempting to provide comfort or to just let someone know I’m there, reminding myself that these moments aren’t about my stories or feelings is incredibly helpful. It’s very easy to fail at this, too, as was also noted by Nancy Pearl. It sounds simple and easy, but it’s not.

To focus on someone else, to truly listen and to respond to another person instead of to our own needs and desires that often make themselves known (Me, me! Me, too!) when we hear another person’s story, is a difficult thing, and I suspect it calls for years and years of practice and discipline. To connect our stories and experiences to those of others without shifting the focus back to ourselves – that seems to me to be a very high form of empathy and connection. I want to be good at it, though, not only because I think it’s an important skill for anyone in service professions, but because nothing really drives home how rare this skill is until you are grieving and suddenly find yourself listening to people who try to comfort you by comforting themselves.

But in order to focus on someone when you are doing readers’ advisory, it is helpful and necessary to know quite a lot about how you read and what you like and to be mindful of your own moods, because someone who loves the same book you do may love it for very different reasons and because many people will love the books you don’t. For that matter, you may love a book now that you couldn’t stand three years ago because the you that’s reading it has changed. And so you pay attention to yourself so that when someone tells you he’s looking for another good read like To Kill a Mockingbird, you don’t automatically hook the poor guy up with Faulkner just because you loved Mockingbird for its Southern setting and tone. He may be looking for a plot-driven book about lawyers fighting injustice or for more character-driven coming-of-age books, or for something else entirely. You know yourself partly so you can recognize that other people are not exactly like you, even when there are similarities.

This particular nook of the online world is full of people with similarities. Loss and longing have written on all of us, and here is where we can show each other the marks, can seek and give comfort, even if it’s just the comfort of  “you’re not alone.” One of the common similarities I see that warms my heart is the awareness that while we’re all coping (or not coping) with grief, it hits us in different ways. I appreciate that, I want to get better at recognizing this, and I want to take some of this awareness with me into the often less empathetic world of work, neighbors, friends and family.*

I keep working on self-knowledge, and sometimes it’s an uphill battle, but to start, here are a few things I know about myself:

  • I get into books mainly through characters and language.
  • I am shy. Not just introverted, but shy. Less so online, but still.
  • I avoid conflict whenever I can for as long as I can. Sometimes I can do this indefinitely. It’s hard for me to believe other people aren’t like this.
  • Sometimes others’ stories resonate so much with me that it’s hard to respond, even when I want to.
  • I can pick a sentence apart in a hundred ways, and often do.

I’m not big on “the silver lining” of grief, but do you feel your loss has helped you become a better listener, honed your empathy?

Edited to add: most of my friends and family are, in fact, very empathetic and caring. I’m lucky in that. But it’s not the same as this online community.

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Be kind

April 5, 2011

Today I’ve been brooding, brooding over the unending rain, over missing my Teddy, over the way that cruelty is so stupidly and casually easy to so many people. This last seems especially horrible. We can’t control the weather. We can’t, usually, control life and death, or tsunamis, earthquakes, or the thousand random tragedies that wait for the unsuspecting every day. But we can control our own actions and words. When the world is harsh and uncaring, we can be kind.

I love this song. I love the way it seems to be about the lack of human kindness and the longing for it at the same time. It feels like today. And I’m going to keep it in my head (not hard with a Randy Newman song, after all) and remind myself to be kind. In the face of the rain and the grief and the world-weariness. I will slip up, but I’ll keep at it. Being kind is going to be my great Fuck You to cruelty and ignorance and tragedy.

I am so grateful for all of you who light candles in the dark, who speak caringly in the face of fear and cynicism and anger and ignorance. Thank you for sharing your kindness with me, for reminding me that human kindness isn’t a joke.