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Archive for July, 2014

Breakwater

Breakwater

Nancy Deming-May

April 2014

This morning I was coming across the James River Bridge on my daily commute to work and admiring the whitecaps on the cloudy, muddied water.  A recent weather front was blowing in from the west and whipping the waves into a frothing frenzy.  I marveled at how different the water is every day – whether in color or motion, light or attitude.  The day’s winds were expected to get especially strong, so I spent a moment appreciating the solidity of the bridge pilings and how they can withstand even hurricane force winds and water.  And then my monkey mind went off on a tangent – imagining what it would be like to be driving along and suddenly have the bridge collapse underneath me; how all my critical items – cell phone, wallet, ID, favorite boots, etc., would suddenly not matter much anymore. Maybe I could use my scarf and fill it with air and try to hang onto it as a floatation device because my wool jacket would surely not be very reliable in the chaotic chilly water.  How would I get those favorite boots off while they were full of water and trying to suck me down into the nether regions?  How long could I last in the chilly, brown angry waves?  I felt quick glimpses of empathy for those people in the San Francisco earthquake and that recent Minnesota bridge collapse before I got a hold of my monkey mind and refocused on the dramatic waves and white sea foam blowing in the wind.

I was nearing the end of the bridge when I observed the rocky breakwater on the right in front of the high rise condo building marina.  I admired the contrast between the brown frothy waves and the relatively calm harbor near the sail boat slips.  I thought of how important that breakwater is – to keep the occasionally violent water from damaging the boats, the dock, the shoreline; to keep the sandy beach nearby from being washed away when the current decides to act out. 

It made me think of our own breakwaters – the ones that protect us from life’s inevitable rough waters.  What are those for us?  Are they as simple as deep, calming breaths, or more complex – “little white lies” about why we can’t go on that dreaded family vacation because work is just TOO busy?  Are they  numbing substances that end up damaging our OWN shores or slips in the long term – stepping outside (and away from a conflict) for a cigarette, pouring another glass of wine after our mother’s (or someone else’s) latest insult (when we’ve had too much already – wine AND insults)?  Are they reinforcing mantras that we repeat to ourselves over and over again in the face of interpersonal strife; “I love and approve of myself, for I am worthy of both love and approval”?  Or are they negative stories we build about others in an attempt to protect ourselves by demeaning THEM and their motives?  Our breakwaters could even be simple avoidance tactics we employ to avoid situations or interactions that bore us.  Candy Crush anyone?

While we’re pondering our breakwaters, let’s also think about our “rough waters”.  What sets us off or makes us want to retreat to the calm, safe, inner harbor in the first place?  Rude people?  Family members or maybe co-workers that know our buttons and push them all too gleefully, or maybe even unwittingly?  Automated messages when we need to talk to a person?  Pressure at work?  Excessive consumption of food or alcohol or the behaviors spun off because of it?  Inconsiderate drivers?  Alternative political parties?  Selfish teenagers?  Inconsiderate spouses?  Rude exes?  Boredom?  How do we shore up our own inner harbor and keep it safe and ready for when we need it?

And is it always okay to go to our safe harbor when we want to?  Breakwaters sound like a good thing, but ARE they always good for us?  Can these “protective barriers” sometimes cause more harm than good in the long run?  If we are ALWAYS shutting someone out or pushing them away, refusing to revisit a past wrong, going way out of our way to avoid certain people or circumstances, in lieu of our safe place, is this always a good thing?  I think most of us know the downside of smoking or excessive alcohol consumption, but maybe we justify it because of our pain.  

Should we sometimes force ourselves to go out into the rough water and face the storm for a little while?  Have that painful, earnest, long-overdue conversation; tolerate that rude and hateful person for the sake of harmony; turn off that phone and be present; force ourselves to find something good in an intolerable situation. 

Could we focus on and create stronger, more durable, more reliable and healthier breakwaters?  What if we accepted the rough waters we know are going to come, and focused on building the most durable yet personally-environmentally-friendly breakwaters to help us deal with them?  A breakwater that isn’t going to surreptitiously secrete toxic materials (tar & nicotine, excessive levels of anything, hateful illusions, or mind-numbing video games) that end up damaging us more than protecting us in the long run. 

Maybe we can focus more on those powerful, healthy breakwaters that bring us the long-term peace we desire: those calming breaths, those walks outside to breathe the fresh air and look at the stars, a gentle pour of chilled, filtered water into our stemmed glass – and maybe we forego the cigarette and extra glass of wine.  Perhaps we can find something positive in those who vex us and feel some empathy for their circumstances – especially when we are forced to navigate near their toxic realm.  And when the next unsavory gathering beckons, what if we acknowledge how important it is to have our own protected safe-havens, and we plan a way to navigate our boat – while in the rough water – should we choose to venture out?  Or maybe we allow ourselves to feel comfortable staying in the sheltered area because we need to shield ourselves from the violent weather?  Maybe our boat is feeling a bit fragile or unseaworthy at the time. 

What are your breakwaters?  Are they effective?  Do they help you or harm you in the long run?  Can you try and look at them a little closer to see if you can make them better for your long term health and happiness? 

Let’s all try and make our own breakwaters as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible for our own long-term good.  And let’s also try and brave the rough waters sometimes and build on our life-faring skills. 

May you appreciate your entire journey and always manifest your healthy and resilient breakwaters when you need them.

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The Kindle Effect

The Kindle Effect

July 2014

Nancy Deming-May

 

Recently I found myself ordering a book on my Kindle, not because of a friend’s recommendation, or a bestseller list, or yet another wonderful interview on NPR.  No, this was because of a political controversy.  This book had somehow become notorious thanks to it being placed on the required freshman reading list by my college alma mater as well as the subsequent firestorm due to some aspiring politician who didn’t like its contents.  I think I stumbled on the controversy thanks to the notorious “People who ordered this book also ordered …,” a marketing prompting that frankly, I quite enjoy. 

This prompting led me to click on the reviews of the book where one reviewer mentioned the controversy which occurred about eight years ago.  It was in another state and happened at the state level, so I had missed the headlines.  The friction was familiar – a middle aged, white male running for office and complaining about too much sex, and drugs, and maybe even a lesbian relationship.  HOW could we EVER require our entering college freshmen to read such filth?!?!   There’s nothing like some prudish politician trying to censor stuff to arouse my fierce defense of the first amendment and dislike of prudish judgmental people.   The politician had lost, but the controversy did pique my interest enough to skim through some more favorable reviews and decide to do the one-click download to my e-reader.  

I LOVE the compactness of my e-reader – especially when taking a long trip.  You don’t have to worry about lugging a heavy, thick book onto an airplane – especially if you know you will finish it along the way and have to have another for backup.  You just take your slim little reader out and touch whichever book you please.  It’s also very handy for toting other books that you aren’t sure WHEN you’ll feel like reading or returning to them – those impulsive downloads that are sometimes just the right prose for your mood.  Or even the occasional “spicy” novel you don’t feel like letting those strangers (or family members) around you know you are even reading!

This book was well written, a compelling story, and an easy read.  It was about two female friends who met in college and were aspiring writers.  It was written in the first person – mostly about the other friend (of course) who had a life-long struggle with facial reconstruction after losing part of her jaw to childhood cancer.  I found myself wondering during the repeated bouts of the jaw-cancer friend’s surgeries, where was this woman’s family?  It was like a Gray’s Anatomy episode where even though the most momentous events are happening to these people, it’s only their friends in the hospital who share the journey with them.  No parents, siblings, cousins, or past friends coming to support and wage bedside duty.  The first-person author was bedside after almost every surgery, holding vigil as well as sick bags; changing sheets, filling prescriptions, and even carrying the waif-like jaw-cancer character up to her apartment in New York City after yet another surgery.  It was becoming surreal.

As these surgeries and the neediness of this poor friend were starting to drone on in the last third of the novel, I was beginning to form the impression that the author had submitted the first draft and the editor had said, “Add another 20,000 words and we’ll publish,” and the author had dutifully added a surgery here and there and dragged out some of the recovery and intermittent self destruction scenes ad nauseum.   Though determined to read to the end to see what would become of her friend, I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and had to know if others felt the same way, so I looked for some other reviews to see if any others shared my sentiment.

I was stunned to discover that this “novel” was a actually work of non-fiction – a memoir about a real person, Lucy Grealy, who actually wrote a successful book (documented in the book I was reading), Autobiography of a Face.  I was further amazed to see photos of Lucy – missing/deformed jaw and all.  The title of the book, Truth and Beauty, came from one of Lucy’s own chapters, which was derived from both of their love of Yeats – Beauty is truth and truth is beauty. 

Wow.  How could I be so clueless as to what I was reading?  I felt like I had been reading page by page in a dark cave – enjoying the book – but knowing very little about it.  After devouring the internet articles and interviews of the author, Ann Patchett, and getting her version of the speaker series experience at Clemson, the row with the politician, as well as the UK Guardian article by Lucy’s distraught sister – citing family issues, mental illness, geographic separation, despair over the “unfair” perspective by Ann, I had a chance to reflect on how I came to read a novel with so little knowledge of it. 

Before my e-reader, I would have had a paperback, with the reviews on the back, the short author biography on the last page, the other reviews up front – that would have mentioned the fact is was a memoir, and probably a few photos of Lucy.  All things I would have reviewed periodically when I closed the book after a cherished reading session.   I would have realized some of the “meta-data” about the book.  I would have known this lovable but extremely needy and tragic best friend did, in fact, exist.  That Ann wasn’t dragging it out to make another 20,000 words, but was actually telling her truth, about her friend – with all her gifts and tragedies.  Also, I would perhaps have been a little more empathetic (like I am now), instead of rolling my eyes at the drama I thought Ann had created.  Life is indeed stranger than fiction.

So next time, maybe I will research a little more ahead of time about the book I’m reading on my Kindle, so I won’t have not-a-clue whether it’s true or not.  (Though I did enjoy Memoirs of Geisha a lot more thinking it was non-fiction – I still can’t believe a man wrote that book!)  Or maybe I won’t.  Maybe I’ll just continue to read in my little Kindle cave and think what I like.  And maybe I’ll, or maybe I won’t, eventually do more research to find out the real truth behind the writing.  Or maybe I’ll just enjoy the simple beauty of it and leave it at that.

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