20 Days of Love Stories

Norman Vincent Peale

One of the earliest books (In Western culture) written about the power of the human mind to alter what happens in the body is “The Power of Positive Thinking” (1952). Since it was written by a Methodist minister, Norman Vincent Peale, many people assumed that the focus would be Spirituality. Turns out, his book had much more to do with Peale’s un-scientific and non-religious experiment with his own cancer treatment, and his resulting belief that mental positivity can heal.

The story is that Peale, in his early 50’s, was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cancer. According to his doctors, his prognosis was grim. They suggested admitting him into hospital, but he refused. Instead, Peale did something that his medical team thought was totally crazy:  for 6 to 7 hours each day, in between dozing and eating light meals, Peale watched old black and white films (reel to reel copies he’d borrowed from a Hollywood friend) of Laurel and Hardy comedy sketches. Long story short, around 7 months later, Peale claimed that he had literally laughed his cancer into remission. His doctors agreed:  he was cancer-free. Peale lived another 43 years, passing away at the age of 95, from natural causes.

Laurel and Hardy. Courtesy, bottomshelfmovies

I have a good friend that I’ve kind of lost touch with. I went fast-forward into a demanding career phase, while Janelle left the work scene to care for her gravely-ill baby daughter. While the baby went to a renowned children’s hospital and lived by machines breathing for her, Janelle stayed in a dorm on the hospital’s campus. Janelle later told me that, for the 3 months her child struggled to survive, she got “hooked” on two television channels that were non-stop Love and Happiness. She craved the diversion, and her heart desperately needed a continuous loop of happy-endings.

What seemed like a year later, my friend phoned to let me know that the baby was out of the hospital and at home, though still under doctor’s care. She segued into talking about her tv “shows” and how they’d remained an ongoing part of her life. “They’re all I watch, anymore”, she said. I did a silent eye-roll, then caught myself going a little judge-y: Whatever works; who am I to criticize icky-sweet dramas that end, predictably, with happy outcomes for all?

What was most surprising was the fact that, previously, Janelle was what I’d call ‘tough’. She’d worked with hardened juvenile offenders and gangsters, and had herself grown up in a rough household of drugs and poverty. She was savvy, streetwise, and a bit cynical. How could she have ‘gone over the rainbow’ so completely? Simple answer:  her baby’s life was threatened, and Janelle needed the magic of Everything Will Always Be Ok. She’d dosed herself, the way Peale did, with the sights and sounds of joy and hope. For months. And it worked for her.

Mindless chores like dusting and folding laundry always involve Dance music and lots of it. On a particular day in early November, I decided instead to turn on the television. I didn’t check the channel, it didn’t matter; but before I knew it I’d gotten roped into a charming (and high-grossing, at the time) Rom-Com film I hadn’t seen in years. It had just started, but I had too much work to do so I recorded it to watch later that night. Which I did, until around midnight. Happy ending: check. Plenty of tears and smiles woven-together: check. Silly, simple and absurd at times:  check. Everything that I – apparently—had wanted and needed, because I nodded off in a kind of goofy stupor, sleeping better than I have in a long, long time. The next night, I found another film of the same genre and, I have to say, gave myself over to it in the same mindless way. At the end of multiple films over a number of days, I felt ridiculous — but strangely better.

Rom-Coms and funny skits don’t make The World go away, but there’s definitely something to be said for allowing our minds to take a break from so much worry, fear, angst and stress of daily living. There’s no danger of my falling into a place where I never again watch my news feed, or my favorites, Noir films; but I’ve re-discovered the amazing link between happiness-dosing and a peaceful mental state. So what if some of what we consume is cheesy (literally and figuratively)? There just might be a longer, happier life hidden in that mix. Peale called it “The Happiness Habit” and suggested that we should “cultivate it every day”. How we choose to do that might seem silly to others, but hey – if it works…?

Comfort in Chaos

I’ve accepted that Confusion is a natural part of the Human Experience; regardless of age, situation or stage in Life. Not the minor-league confusion over what the most ‘natural’ of natural supplements might be, according to Amazon (truly scary how much authority they’ve assumed). But the larger, ‘cosmic’ confusion on such topics as Happiness, and Life Purpose. According to much of what I read and hear from the collective of Wise People on our planet (I include writers, poets, philosophers and other Thinkers, in this mix), my confusion is all part of the fun. Yes, fun. Life is meant to feel like a gamble, a mystery, a stumble-in-the-dark to find the light switch. Even if you think you’ve found it, Life can plunge you back into the dark without warning, so, enjoy!  Comforting? Not so much.

I was in this thought pattern (read: cul-de-sac) when the Interweb, in its typical invasive fashion (which, It protests, is really all in my best interests), poked its nose into my current reality with its ‘predictive’ analytics. It seems that a deep dive into emerging topics that have foundations in science (the Heart-Mind connection is actually the vagus nerve in action, for example) can trigger emails from Numerologists. Yesterday, via one such email, I was advised to check my resistance to the many wonderful things (manifestations) lined up for me, like planes on the tarmac waiting for clearance from The Great Cosmic Control Tower. My problem, said this email (from an AI source, no doubt), was that I was not ‘allowing’ good things to flow. Clarity would come, I was assured, once I purchased the advertised product.

Like everyone else on the Interweb, I pretty much scan email headlines for any relevant bits, then hit Delete. But I couldn’t be too annoyed by this kind of spam, I reasoned with myself, since The Art of Allowing has become a commercial ‘thing’:  the obvious answer to every question involving everything from small personal struggles to major roadblocks to abundance and well-being. Accepting my responsibility for my own happiness is not a ‘stretch’ for me. But checking-in with myself on a regular basis ( read: meditation) about whether or not I’m self-limiting or even sabotaging my own dreams…is this really necessary? Amazon thinks so. So do a whole host of other people who want to make sure I’m living my Best Life, for a small fee.  But, is Resistance, and its cousin Suffering, optional?

Sometimes it’s good to look inward. Sometimes it’s better to just go for a walk, dance, have another cocktail, take a nap or soak in a hot bath. In my case, in this minute or two of self-analysis (about how resistant I am), I chose to re-read — ‘comfort food’ for my over-active brain – one of my favorite authors. Meg Wheatley’s an important thinker who shares her ideas using our natural world as an anchor for understanding. Wheatley uses Nature to explain how Systems – from our own bodies, to our relationships, to our larger external world – are the foundation of everything. Paradoxically, a vital part of any system is chaos:  the kind of chaos that creates momentary discomfort, but also leads to inspiration. As I knew she would, Wheatley had something to say – a reminder for me, really – about ‘confusion’:

“We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for what’s new. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing” .

(Wheatley, “Turning to One Another…”, 2002)

So today – whenever I catch myself thinking about all of the things in my Life that haven’t yet taken flight — instead of monitoring and nagging myself with questions about ‘resistance’ versus ‘allowing’, I’m going to take  comfort in the chaos of Not Knowing.  The blank canvas or page that requires confusion, uncertainty and especially skepticism about Formulas for Living Life Correctly.

Ready to Forget

Lately I’ve noticed what powerful emotional triggers certain sensory experiences – especially my sense of smell – can be. My dentist  tells me (I know, a dentist?) it’s all about the aging process, but I’m not so sure. I think I’ve always been what people who know about such things call a Super Receptor:  the hearing of a bat; taste buds that seem a little too responsive to extremes of sweet and sour; and a reaction to certain smells/aromas/fragrances that can send me floating up into fluffy pink clouds, or hurling into a vortex of panic.

Yesterday, for example, I was heading into a Sephora as a person was coming out.  I looked up, as I always do, to smile a ‘thank you’ (it’s official:  younger people of all genders are now holding doors for me), while catching a subtle whiff of her instantly-recognizable perfume. A very sweet floral:  the same scent that my beloved maternal grandmother (so influential in my life, until she passed at age 91) always wore. My breath caught in my chest, and for a minute I spaced-out as to what I’d come there for. The fresh flowery fragrance instantly took me back in time; so comfortable in the presence of someone I loved dearly. My grandmother’s smile came back; the house in the country came back; parts of me, came back to myself, as I stood before the store’s maze of goodies.

My dentist is involved in this mix because I’d recently shared with her how the odors of certain chemicals and diabolical medications they use (hospitals and doctor’s offices as well) freak me out. Which is why, I suppose, she felt she had to offer that, now that I was “older”, I should consider sedation for dental procedures, so that I wouldn’t “feel stressed”. That actually scared me more than medicinal odors do. Thankfully, most of the memories that come back to me via certain scents are really happy; even blissful.  

I look forward to hauling-out the sweet and savory spices that I use in dishes when the weather turns colder. Their aromas bring recollections of cooking lessons, in my early years, from now-passed family members that I still sorely miss.

The smell of spring blossoms on my lemon tree can put me into a trance of re-visiting Sicily; sweet cherry blossoms, and I’m longing to return to Japan. But some sensations trigger memories that I’d really rather forget. I get mixed-messages from lilacs:  the sprays were everywhere, at my mother’s funeral. The smell of a hospital (as well as the sounds) brings back the visceral fear I felt, as my son struggled with a life-threatening illness. A view of the setting sun, from a mountainside perch I’m still drawn to, brings longing for the happier times in my marriage.

Our sense of smell, so I read from experts, is one of humankind’s most primitive and potent vestiges from our ancient origins. I sometimes wonder if it’s part of Nature’s Wisdom, the fact that so many people in their 80’s and 90’s seem to experience a diminished sense of smell and taste. Being able to avoid reminders of Life’s darker moments might not be so bad.

Decades ago I had a friend, a medical doctor, whose specialty was Companion-Medicine. He traveled to many different countries, learning unconventional ways, alternative methods, of treating physical and psychological dis-ease. David’s interest and focus eventually became releasing and completely erasing deep sadness, even trauma, through Breathwork. Healing through certain types of breathing, combined with visualization, is even more widely-used today. I’m here to say, if done correctly and consistently, it does work.

Having lived a bit of Life, however, and so being acquainted with the spectrum of mild unhappiness all the way up to debilitating grief, I also have to say that Step One (for me) is being Ready to Forget. Despite what I knew would happen in my heart when it bloomed, I planted a lilac bush in my yard a few years ago. And, I’m still not ready to stop going to that special mountain spot, to watch the sunset and recall Love’s bitter-sweetness. In fact, I think I’ve decided that I actually like being a Super Receptor of the sights, sounds, and smells that sometimes, literally, take my breath away and rock my emotions. They make me feel alive, sparking appreciation and gratitude for every moment, and its eventual memory, that I might hold on to.

The Creative’s Conundrum, or Something More?

Over this past weekend I stumbled onto a PBS program, featuring a story about one of my favorite artists, Mark Rothko (1903-1970).The highlight of the segment was the fact that one of Rothko’s paintings recently sold for over 24 million US dollars. According to the spokesperson for the prestigious auction house that made the sale, such mind-boggling sums are less about the pleasure derived from the piece of art, and more about the investment with guaranteed re-sale potential. Would Rothko have cared about this? I’d like to think so.

NYC entry, Ellis Island

Like many artists, his drawings started at an early age. Rothko’s parents indulged his “doodles”, but insisted that he go to college to study engineering. Which he dutifully did — until he didn’t. Rothko left university without a degree, spending his last dollars on a train ticket from his uncle’s home in Oregon (his family had emigrated from Europe) to New York City. He joined an artists’ community in the 1920’s. Rothko later wrote that he’d spent years living without enough food, warm clothing or shelter, but he felt driven to paint. More than this, he was driven to find his own style and method of painting which, at first, was unimpressive to New York society.

nusu.co.uk

The Rothko story isn’t unique. Some of us may know, or have heard of, writers, painters, sculptors — as well as other creative-types — who were challenged by the process of living their most cherished dreams. If artists were the only ones suffering from such existential angst, we might think of it as an eccentricity. But a 2018 Quora article presented research showing that a large percentage of recent college graduates had pursued and received degrees in fields that actually held no interest for them. As one professor interviewed said, “How many of us would spend thousands of dollars on a product we knew nothing about, and cared even less about?”

Life regularly presents us with choices and options. We use our brains to analyze the facts and take action of some kind. We’re taught, in Western culture, to listen to our ‘heads’, as opposed to following our ‘hearts’. As adults, we like to believe that our choices are borne our of our own free will. But pressure comes from all directions, urging us, warning us, to tune-out our creative urges, tamp down our dreams, and lower our expectations about what our lives can be like. Recently I caught myself doing just that, as I was day-dreaming a new venture that felt exciting, but out of my Comfort Zone.

Then Mark Rothko’s story came to my rescue. What if this artist hadn’t risked life and limb, and even his own sanity, to create the the strangely-moving paintings that bubbled up from somewhere deep inside him? I can’t imagine a world without Rothko’s art; in the same way that I can’t imagine not being able to read poetry from women (like Sexton & Plath) for whom writing was as arduous as giving birth, and as terrifying as peering into the darkest of nights, in pain and in lonliness. I repeat my current mantra, once again: This courage; this is bravery. “This is Life…the very life of Life” (Deepak Chopra).

Thumbs-Up, Thumbs-Down

gettyimages

In the past few weeks I’ve had multiple experiences – first a trickle, then a steady daily stream – that’ve revealed a heartbreakingly common theme of being human. Many Readers are familiar with the thought experiment that shows the Law of Attraction at work:  holding an image in your mind during a normal day (a butterfly, for example) and noticing how many times you see images, or the real thing, from sun-up until sundown. It’s pretty remarkable – if you can maintain playful focus on whatever you decide you want to ‘see’.

The thought experiment I’ve been living recently first started (maybe 3 weeks ago) when a dozen or so of my colleagues were tasked with choosing teams for a project. Anyone could start the process of choosing – it began, and ended via email. But as those who were anxious to pick competent and capable friends began sending out Invites, others were left unchosen.  Memories from grade school athletics:  the unsparingly-cruel team captains selecting the best, or most skilled, players so as to avoid getting stuck with ‘losers’.

If you were in the small group of misfits no captain wanted (as I was, in most sports competitions), the lesson was unmistakable and painfully poignant:  no one wants you. In my colleague-teaming situation, this played out (via groupmail) in a very public way:  who was invited to join, and who was left asking to join. Yes, we’re all adults and this is Life, but still; it didn’t feel good. After all, we all want and need to be well-regarded; to be chosen; to be Liked.

In the 26 August “New Yorker” magazine, there’s an article titled “Trouble in Paradise” by Andrew Marantz. The piece focuses on the Tech industry’s efforts to confront its ‘demons’, in terms of its perceived (and fact-based) lack of ethics. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Apple and several others are being called-out for tactics that are now collectively referred to as “Human Downgrading:  …a reduction of human capacity…and human sensitivities” (p. 63).

There’s a ton of ‘psychology’, as it turns out, behind what these platforms do, and how they do it, in their quest for more and more presence in our lives. Turns out (many Readers might already know this), for example, an individual (not a Think Tank) came up with the idea of the ‘Like’ button. The button’s designed to gather data about our preferences, but also feeds our dopamine-hungry bodies in the same way that video games do:  by zapping our receptors with alternating challenges, rewards, defeats and punishments.

But what happens when we put ourselves ‘out there’, in the arena of social scrutiny, and we are not chosen? Or, we don’t get the number of ‘Likes’ we want and think we deserve? Studies are now showing that we grow panicky and anxious, sad and even despondent. Combatting the Awful Truth of the phrase “If It’s Not Insta, It Didn’t Happen”, Instagram in Canada has removed the ‘Like’ button entirely from its application, knowing full well what this means to the company’s bottom-line.

So after my “teambuilding” (a deliberate oxymoron, here) experience, I continued to encounter friends and family members who were feeling invisible, neglected, unloved and even shamed in their experiences and relationships. I’m not trying to imply that all of these outcomes are the result of being “on” Social Media, or, Under the Influence of Social Media, but the New Yorker article presents pretty compelling evidence of a connection. The Tech Giants (the humans running this industry) themselves seem to be in growing realization that much of their money-making relies on promoting and maintaining human emotions such as apprehension, uncertainty, insecurity and a sense of inclusion or exclusion.

gettyimages

Who are these people Liking and Following us, and why does this even matter so much? What might Likes and Follows be a substitute for? I note the symbolism of a simple ‘button’, like Roman Emperors of ancient times:  “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” as to whether or not a gladiator’s life should be spared. Wait – did you think that ‘Thumbs-Up’ was invented by Tech? (smiley emoji)

%d bloggers like this: