Saturday, July 31, 2010

Annual Benchmarking

One of the unexpected highlights of visiting the same place annually for decades is that you get a snapshot, year to year, of changes and growth. Thus, we notice the buried power lines and redone houses around us, and we notice the changes in ourselves. For me, still grappling with the overall changes--and often as not still feeling like an alien in my own life--this year’s snapshot has been particularly informative.

While my inner critic (okay, okay, my inner criticS) are still heavily judgmental about how much video I watch these days, slowly it’s become clear to me that’s in part a way of responding to my still-gimped fiction-reading ability. Whether my brain wants or is able to follow narrative in writing, something in my being longs for stories and character development. The video we’ve been watching, I think, works at filling that need.

It’s still odd, very odd, to have watched more video in the PBS (post brain surgery) era than in all the pervious eras combined, but it begins to make a bit more sense when viewed in that light. And, as the other (very tiny) defender voice says, 42 minutes every few days or so is still not all that much video, which when fetched via iTunes or on DVD (at home) is pretty time-effective compared to the broadcast versions. (Michael and I tried watching one of the shows the girls recommended in its broadcast version earlier this year, and still cannot stomach the commercials, we found, in common with our selves of 20-odd years ago when we dropped cable the year Kearney was born--that and the outrageous price then of $20/month). On vacation, I’ve even been letting myself watch two episodes some days, especially if I managed to do any useful writing (hat tip to you, Doug, and your reward theories) and you should hear the inner critics on those days.

Since one of my goals continues to be “fewer, nicer things,” and I’m particularly poor at being able to get rid of things, it’s always nice to inhabit the much more stripped-down and compressed life here, where there’s little choice. There isn’t room for much more than we have here, so if something comes in, other things have to go out. As always, as we anticipate returning to regular life, we hope that the practice here will carry over and we’ll continue to be able to pare down our regular lives more. Too bad we both come by our pack-rattery honestly: when we cleaned out Michael’s dad’s house, he had more rubber bands than anyone you’ve ever met, including us. His, of course, were organized and stored in an ingenious way, compared to Michael’s stash.

We had some overnight company this year again for a few nights, and there’s nothing like having someone stay with you--or staying with them--to learn about others. I suppose you could say we’re kind of set in our ways (I hear you laughing, K), and the approaches of other people are always eye-opening. One of the things we do particularly well together is to adventure, including navigating, for which Michael has an amazing in-built sense (and, of course, he always looks it up in advance) and also a willingness to problem-solve and listen to my map-reading as we go. We provided maps and directions to a really magnificent set of gardens to our visitors, who programmed the address into their GPS and then never got there. We were astonished at the reliance on the GPS when, after all, we’d also provided a map. Apparently, the GPS being fuddled, they gave up. And the signage here, once you get the hang of it, is particularly useful and helpful, especially for cultural attractions... It made me remember the year we rented a car with GPS that provided directions that made no sense to Michael, so we ignored them, going the path he thought was better--only to have it recalculate after we’d not taken several of the “immediate U-turn”s it commanded, and cut almost four hours off the travel time it had been estimating. In our family, that’s known as “doing it our own selves,” and I’d say we’re all, in our own ways, verging on militant about it.

As always, we are taking deep satisfaction from improvements large and small in the time we’ve been here. It’s another thing we do, improving things, and on this small canvas, in a compressed time period, it’s particularly visible. It’s nice to be reminded of that, as we go back to a number of larger endeavors. Now, if only this book would write itself, or the book fairy would deliver it, more completed, some night while I sleep. The failures of the book fairy explain the long gaps in posting here, that and being somewhat out of time in our alternate life here. Back to the book.... Cheers to all, and please do keep letting us know how you are and sending us your thoughts. We’re always glad to be connected and get word back from you.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Practicing Stillness

After making my schedule hectic in the spring through a series of choices that, mostly, I would make again, I’m practicing being still and quiet. I still have a long list of things to do, but along with setting times for working, I’m trying to spend some time just being still, without any structure, urgent goals or imperatives. The purpose is not only to stop the frenetic activity that characterized my spring semester, but to get the brain chatter to settle down a bit, too. I like to be busy and productive and have been incredibly fortunate to find work that is enjoyable at which I can succeed, but I do have a tendency to go overboard sometimes. Spring semester was one of those times. Aside from doing a whole raft of things I cared about--and that I’m still pleased I did--all that activity did provide cover to avoid facing the major change underway in my life. The stillness is a way to let everything integrate and sink in a bit. It’s a work in progress, as this is definitely not my strong suit. Hence the practice.

As for the book, I’m a hopelessly linear writer, beginning at the beginning (every time) and writing until the end, so the fact that the portion of the book that’s drafted (about half) needs to be restructured is a complication. The most efficient path would be to concentrate on writing the un-done sections first and editing it all together later, but I seem not to be able to pull that off; without understanding how it begins or how it all hangs together, I’ve been stymied.

Several days of practicing stillness, though, seem to be paying off, and ideas are finally beginning to emerge. Part of the problem is that the purpose and audience of the book have shifted since the project started, and so much of what’s written is tailored to the old vision of the book, not the new one. There’s lots to say, and the issue for me is to find the right frame and figure out what the overall question is the book is trying to answer.

Meanwhile, in the stillness, I’ve been appreciating all the truly wonderful things about my life, which of course, always begin with and center around knowing Michael. On top of that central, abiding happiness, the colors here feed my soul, and we have glorious blooms in the yard and on the terrace. In the sunshine here and in the quiet, good things are happening for me. Soon enough, I’m going to have to reinvent myself--again--for the next stage of my life, and figure out what comes next. I’m not going to worry about that until another later, after I practice stillness some more, and after this book either emerges, or doesn’t. Happy mid-summer to all.

Monday, July 12, 2010

More Thoughts about Enoughness

On Saturday, we went to lunch with some neighbors at a restaurant that had an indoor air-conditioned room and an outside terrace. Indoors was so noisy that Michael opted for outdoors, thinking (correctly) that the noise would cause problems for me. Outdoors, it was very hot, sweating hot, though we were sitting in the shade. Over the course of a long and typically good french lunch, we saw a lot of patrons come and go. About half sat outdoors, and after a while, I was struck by the fact that wasn't something we'd likely see in the States--unless of course the restaurant had a misting machine or some other way to cool down the outdoor tables.

Another thing you wouldn't see at home is one of the groups of people who came for lunch, all of them employees at the local hardware chain. All wearing their Castorama uniforms, they were clearly there on their lunch break. It didn't seem to be a special celebration, just a regular work day going out to lunch. Now, I'm not sure what Castorama pays, but I'm guessing that they each spent several hours of pay on lunch that day.

All that got me to thinking about the number of stores in this vacation-destination area that shut down during the biggest vacation months of the year so the owners can take their own vacations. Most US visitors who come here, and see the signs that the owners are on vacation while the town is crawling with potential customers, comment on this. We are often struck by it ourselves.

This is all a variant, I think, on enoughness: choices to put quality of life over "just" money. So the hourly hardware store workers value quality of lunch with each other and the store owners value their vacations, all more than money. It's one of the things that distinguishes France from the US and it's a healthy kind of enoughness to think about. Even sitting in the heat was a choice about quality of life--our neighbors don't really like air conditioning for the quality of the air it produces, though they have, in recent years, broken down and gotten an air-conditioned car, as it's gotten warmer and warmer here in the summers. Europe is having another "unusual" heat wave, though since we've had one of these unusual heat waves every year now for the last three or four years, they seem less and less unusual to me. For everyone else, it's about a society that isn't pervasively air-conditioned--yet. Here, only the chain stores have AC and few homes. So the heat is just a part of life, and it means that you slow down a bit and that you're hot. We went to see the new Harry Potter movie, the last time one came out, and had the lovely experience of being able to sit through a whole movie without sweaters or being cold. The theater had fans moving the air, and the place was large enough, and without windows that it probably retained a lot of its cool air, but it wasn't air-conditioned at all. So far, at least, that's the norm, though we see AC units moving into more and more offices. Even then, though, it's not central, and the cooling isn't to subzero; it's limited to directly around the desks of the people who are present, and only moderates, doesn't completely remove the heat. It's just enough to make it possible to wear professional summer clothes.

Is it only possible to acquire this sense of enoughness if the whole society around you is doing it? We see pockets of change at home, in the locavore, slow food, big-enough house movements in the US, but still, anyone who closed their business during the tourist high season, or chose to sit outside in a heat wave would stand out. Are there lessons to be learned from all this? How, and what are they?

postscript: Michael points out that I haven't grappled with another element present here, which is a sense of entitlement, which is true. I'm not actually that interested in that part, so it's easy for me to overlook it, though it clearly requires some more thought. That would be for another later, as they say.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Differences are Good: A Cranioversary Theme?

Among the lovely things that travel brings is a change in topics of conversation. Michael and I try to walk every day--at least every day when my balance isn’t totally wonky, when my knee isn’t acting up, and when the rest of life isn’t so crazed that it’s yet another obligation instead of something peaceful, healthy and calm. Changing locales means there are different things to notice and to talk about as we walk, which is always nice, because even though we take different routes, after you’ve done them for years, they do start to become more background than foreground. When we’re here, though we do some of the same walks regularly--the yacht basin is one of our favorite places, both because it’s flat and because it’s a different universe--with a gap of a year since our last visits, there’s always a lot to notice.

It’s on these occasions that the differences in our interests becomes most clear. Here’s a real conversation we had yesterday, walking along the Croisette, where there are many tony pay beaches, always an interesting spectacle.

Me: “Oh, look, here’s the same man setting up as last year, but the theme and the umbrellas and furniture are all different. It’s pretty!”

Michael: “Do you think the bathrooms here are below the sewer lines?”

Me: “huh?”

Michael: “That truck has a line down to the beach buildings, and it’s clearly sucking something liquid back up to the truck, not supplying from the truck to the beach. Do you think it can be sewage? I think it has to be.”

And that about sums it up. On the yachts, I notice the people and the size and the accoutrements, and he’s looking at their antennas and the cars parked across from them. I’m speculating about the people, and he’s looking at the equipment. In the parks, I’m looking at the people and the dogs, and he’s looking at the species planted and the watering system.

Or, walking in the neighborhood:

Me: “What a great view that house must have.”

Michael: “Right. And look at that! Wow!”

Me: [confused] “What? I don’t see anything. What am I looking at?”

Michael: “They buried their power and phone lines since last year!”

So, today’s 22-month cranioversary theme is how good differences are. Cousin South detected a change in my topical theme, about the time I changed the color of the blog, to one of reinvention, figuring out what to do with what I am now. That seems about right, and I was glad to hear it! It's amazing how often our friends detect what we're feeling before we do, in these realms. As for the status report, from the top down: the head clicking is newish and definitely weird; I’ll ask some doctor about that, sometime. Reading fiction and comics and doing certain mental activities comes and goes; my thinking processes are definitely different than they used to be, though certain facilities, like synthesis, seem to be improving steadily. I’m restarting all the shoulder exercises after letting them lapse, because it’s freezing up again and doing all its weird detours when moving up or down, though side to side is fine. So long as I’m willing to ask for and accept help, I can navigate stairs and since, mostly, I like life better without lots of crowds and loud noises anyway, the fact that I don't do well in those settings is not usually an impediment. Bottom line: I’m different than I was, and how I am is ok. It’s a journey, not a destination, as they say.

I’ll probably do status reports only through 24 months, because that’s about the outer limit of when positive changes can be expected, though someone recently told me that she’d seen the final real improvements five years after surgery. In any event, two years seems like more than enough attention for this thing that was in my brain. The book stuff is going v e r y slowly, but at least that's likely because writing is hard, not because of my broken bits, and I’m trying to keep at it consistently. My editor told me she thought I was probably one of the only authors in the history of the world who asked “who would want to hear what I think about any of this, anyway?” and (in the nicest possible way) told me to stop being such a girl about it all and get on with it; she’ll worry about the audience if I just write the words. So, off I go to try to write more words, hoping very much that, someday, there might be something someone, anyone, might want to read.

It’s a pretty nice life, sitting on the terrace trying to write words. Of course, it's even nicer when not trying to drag words out through fingers onto the screen: last night, Michael opened some champagne, just to celebrate how nice it is to be here, with each other, in this nice place. My wish for you is that you make time to stop and celebrate the nice elements in your lives. While you're at it, notice differences. They're good, too.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Sinking into the Silence

One of the things about our annual migration is that it gives me a space for reflection and silence. In France, Michael takes over the role of primary communicator, as his French is better than mine. This is a big change, and it alters our dynamic in ways that are interesting and healthy for both of us. On top of that, when the girls aren’t here, days go by without me speaking to anyone except Michael. That too, is a nice change, as my life is usually filled to the brimful with talktalktalk. I like that and it energizes and keeps me going as I’m an interactive person. Stepping into the silence each year for a bit gives me valuable time to reflect, rest and recharge. Resting is especially high on the agenda this year, as I’m tired.

We’ve learned over the years to do the gardening first, as the plants in the built-in window boxes rarely survive year to year, while the bigger plants generally do. This year, we have pink and purple new plants in the window boxes and the bougainvillea, while challenged by cats trying to rootectomize them through digging, are hanging on and determinedly surviving. The calvary has ridden to the rescue and they’re bouncing back with gratifying rapidity. The colors here feed my soul in important ways and I feel better already. Our indoor plants, two orchids and, I think, a bromeliad, do for the inside what the terrace does outside. Does anyone know what this one is? Dr. Google and I haven’t yet been able to identify it definitively.

On top of the recharging, this year calls for some serious reflection, both because of the major transition I’m facing and because this quiet place, where for decades my main activity has been reading, highlights that it is time to work through and find some resolution to my sense of self-displacement. With my ability and interest in reading disrupted, I’m plugging away both at continuing to try (and finding sporadic success) and at adapting to what seems to be the new reality.

A root problem for me is how to think about my personal challenge, which is not really a “problem” in any real sense of the word when compared to what’s out there in the world. It feels whiny (a serious sin in my book) to think or talk about this as a problem and yet, without thinking and talking about it, it is not possible to process or integrate it. It’s a conundrum. The central issue, I think is one of proportionality. It only takes looking around or reading a newspaper to recognize that I’m entirely lucky in every respect. Still, that doesn’t change this sensation of being an alien in my own body. There’s no real resolution, only a sense that it’s time to get on with it. Somehow. Any and all tips and pointers welcome. Oh, and did I mention? My scalp clicks consistently now. There is some kind of strange discontinuity in my skull that causes my scalp to click when touched in a certain way. It has a strange fascination to it which I can only liken to the feeling of quickening babies kicking inside. At least that one is completely understandable in its physiology; this clicking is just plain strange. It seems benign, and yet having an explanation as to the mechanism and cause would really help and probably let me accept it and move on more successfully, leaving it alone more.

Michael is off playing boules with the informal club that welcomes him annually--another change in our routines. He’s a social butterfly here (at least on his scale), and much in demand as a teammate. I’m getting ready to work, having done nothing but nap and try to read and sit in the sun for a few days. Wish me luck.

Endings, Beginnings and Middles (written July 3)

I’m terrible at endings. The endings of my classes are the weakest part of my teaching, goodbyes are not my thing, and my transitions from one thing to another are not usually any kind of high point. The single exception is that the end of my workshops is a strong one, developed years and years and years ago. In consequence, I use it in every single event, pretty much no matter the topic. Stick with something that works, that’s my theory. I read once that when speaking, the parts that matter the most are the beginning, the peak point and the end; I have worked hard to hone the workshops, and wish I could bottle whatever it is about it that works so well. Still, getting back to the train of thought that started all of this, the ending this week [last week, by the time of posting] of my formal employment at the university after 36 years, as might have been predicted, had some rough edges. Some of those were mine, but for once, most of them were caused by others. Some left me feeling pretty bruised. That was maybe inevitable, and as it now looks as though most of the problematic issues will resolve, because I did a good job of responding. (This is an acknowledgement of some success at my goal of giving myself credit when due and feeling good about it.) Maybe I’m actually improving at endings? Still to be seen.

In the same space in which my work transition was playing out, we went to a wedding of a very happy young couple, in a ceremony and party that seemed entirely suited to them and their relationship, and that yet once again made clear to me how idiosyncratic many of our ideas are. It was an interesting thing to stop and contemplate how well our lives fit us and how comfortable we are in them, and yet how different they seem to be.

Now, we’re in our time together in France again, and it’s a life that fits us well. We’re good at middles, and this middle is an especially good one, notwithstanding the technical glitches associated with getting the internet back up and running here this year. My computer doesn’t deal gracefully with the heat and I wasted a lot of time before we figured out, once again, that some of the strange symptoms were probably heat-related. I am SO ready for Apple to upgrade that particular part of their line! The one dissonant note in all of this is that my main activity has been for many years to soak myself in reading things I’ve saved up over many months. Now that I’m mostly unable to read the way I always have, I’m trying to find new patterns and rhythms. While I know full well this is one of the good problems to have, it’s challenging me.

I’m giving myself a complete break until after the holiday: come Tuesday, my goal is to try to write for two hours a day and keep with up with email and other work in a similar time, and use all the other hours of the day to play and rest. How’s that for a great middle?