Saturday, September 22, 2012

Air Candy of Autumn: The Caramel Katsura

Cercidiphyllum japonicum, Katsura
     I am blessed to have several Katsura trees outside the entrances to the building where my office is located. This morning after seeing clients, I walked outside and entered the bountiful world of clear autumnal light through which a soft breeze wafted the delicious aroma of caramel. There is no candy maker at hand. The wave of scent derives from the Katsura trees. What a gift for the first day of fall!
     Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) is a small, multi-stemmed tree that grows to perhaps 40 feet in cultivation. It is native to Japan, where as a deciduous understory tree in the wild it can rise to nearly 150 feet. In the United States, it is hardy in zones 5 through 9 with reliability. The shape of the tree itself reminds me precisely of what I thought a tree should look like when I was a child: slightly lollipop shaped, and not puny like the ones you got in your Halloween treat bag, but big, like the ones you talked your father into buying you at Disneyland.
    In the spring when it first shows its buds, the Katsura can be mistaken for the Western Redbud (Cercis occidentalis, hence its name, Cercidiphyllum, though there is no relationship between these two trees) because the shape of the leaves is similarly heart-shaped. But that's where the similarity ends. Cercis shows maroon leaves early on, and then produces clumps of harsh blue-pink flowers that clash stridently with anything harboring even vaguely yellow undertones.
     In greater harmony with most of the natural springtime palette, Katsura buds tend more toward coral, and the leaves can hold a coral edge until they open to a pure, bright green. In a summer breeze, they flutter lightly due to their shape, giving an overall effect of quiet dynamism. In all, it is a lovely specimen in  a small garden, but even better planted in groups, when the energy of these trees is palpable.
     The true magic begins in autumn when the first cool nights suspend the production of chlorophyll, revealing the magnificent range of colors that underlie the Katsura's summer green: butter yellow, gold, salmon, red, maroon, bright orange, burnt orange, brown. It is a most glorious spectacle when the green takes off for the season.
     And then the aromatic feast begins.
     The floating scent of caramel, the blue sky, and the lower angle of the sun's rays tell me this is the day, now is the moment, when a transition can be felt in all its glory. So many times, things move and blend one into the other without lines of demarcation. We wake up one morning and realize it is no longer spring, but summer. We realize our new pet is no longer a puppy, but a dog. But the moment a Katsura fills the air with the scent of caramel, you feel the moment of the seasonal cusp. With a Katsura in your garden, you have the opportunity to stand on the very spot where summer turns to autumn.
     Soon the scent of caramel begins to fade, and the leaves turn in their chromatic variability for uniforms of yellow before dropping to the ground. The naked tree shows delicate tracery against winter's rain and snow.
     The Katsura tree is garden enchantment. It is our universe up close. It is peerless in its autumnal majesty, and for all the other moments in a year, the Katsura's elegant beauty is gift enough.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where Do You Go, My Lovely?

     Where do you go, when you're sitting in that meeting so full of acronyms and good-feeling mission statements? When the light shines through just one tiny corner of the window and strikes an important piece of crystal corporate art just so - opening wide the full spectrum of visible color - and you're the only one who notices it? When voices around the table sound no more distinct than the caw of an individual crow in a full murder?
     Do you sit numbly, smiling and nodding, or frowning and shaking your head,  as befits the topic at hand? If so, can you feel your soul shrinking, your energy drawing in tightly, like a shroud? No more the rays of enthusiasm that emanate and enchant others when you are feeling alive. No more the glow. No more.
     It doesn't have to be that way.
     You can decide in advance of a deadly meeting or any other unwelcome event just how you will face it. You can decide in this moment. Will you be present? Or will you dissociate so completely that you don't even hear your own name?
     Being present does not mean having to endure the pain of something you don't want to do in the first place. It can also mean being hyper-present: alert to all the information your senses bombard you with in any given moment. In a meeting, you can hear the tone of each voice, feel the firmness of chair upon you sit, become aware of the mixed aromas of coffee, muffins, aftershave, perfume. You can extend this alertness to include all the tools in your imagination. This is a moment that will never come again. It is a moment in your life.
     We often allow ourselves to feel bored when things aren't captivating to us. But isn't that a big demand to place on things we cannot control anyway? Such as a meeting? Why constrict your experience so tightly? Why create boredom for yourself? Because you do create it, you know. You create it by having such narrow guidelines about what interests you.
     If you expand those guidelines way out to the edges of the universe, all of a sudden there is room for wonder once again in your life. You remember wonder. You felt it as a child. One of the reasons you felt it then was that you had not been hardened by your life's experiences into expecting one thing to happen, preferring one thing over another, and deciding that you absolutely detest certain things. Time and your life did that do you. And  you can undo it.
     I believe there is no place or situation on this Earth where a sensitive person can truly be bored. You have the universe inside of you. Pull a piece or two out and toss it around next time you're feeling that numbness begin to crawl up your legs. Allow yourself to see colors streaming through the room. Hear the musicality or lack of it in someone's voice. Imagine what would happen if everyone's hair disappeared all at once.
     You will love it. Every minute of it. You will love that meeting.
     You will be present.
     You will hear your name.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Time, Time, Time

     Strains of A Hazy Shade of Winter rolled through my mind this morning. It is the first day of summer, so the weather had nothing to do with it. Rather, it is the opening lines..."Time, time, time, look what's become of me..." that I heard so loudly and clearly, as if I had never heard them before.
     How time gets away from us all! At one point in my life, not too long ago, this blog was of paramount importance; it allowed me the opportunity to explore topics I seldom had an outlet for in my daily life. Now that I am a practicing therapist, I have less time available to discuss such things, and unfortunately, even less time to write about them.
     So it is time to make the time.
     It passes inexorably anyway. There's nothing to be done about that. If something is important, you will do it; if it is not, you won't do it. That's true, but it's only true to the extent that we allow ourselves to act on our impulses, to acknowledge what it is that derives from true passion, straight from the heart.
     We get snagged so easily by the quotidian aspects of existence. Our precious allotment of time on this earth slips away unremarked, and what we have to show for it is often a body of work, if you will, that could bear the signature of any number of people: reports written, meetings attended, vacations taken, and cocktails imbibed. Is there a unique mark on any of those experiences, anything that suggests that you, and only you, could possibly have brought them into being?
     For most of us, the answer is probably not one that we would like to see carved on a tombstone: Did a lot of stuff, but frankly, most of it could have been done by anybody.
     I am back to the exploration of ideas. I am back to exploring them in the manner I alone can do. It's not earthshaking news, nor thunderous accomplishment. But it is authentic, it derives from my deepest gifts and talents, and, most importantly, it sustains me.
     It may just be a footprint in ever-shifting sands. But it is my footprint, mine alone, and for this minute I am here in all my uniqueness and particularity.
     I want to explore ideas once again, say I to myself. I'm willing to make the time.
     Permission granted, say I to myself in reply. Proceed - no caution required.
     That's all it takes for one to soar.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Deep Winter, Sheltering Winter

Spring is coming early to the Northwest this year. As the Northeast is white once again, we are nearly four weeks ahead of what the calendar would otherwise suggest. Prunus blossoms scent the air. Camellias, sculpted from pure beauty, radiate iridescence. The temperatures roll around in the 50s day after day, and it becomes less likely by the minute that winter will visit us at all.

Winter is the quiet space between the beats, the interlude after the earth exhales in late autumn, and before it catches its breath again in spring. When spring comes early, and crocus and hydrangea alike are lulled into taking the stage prematurely, the shock of their early glory delights our weary eyes. But the vulnerability of such precocity means that the slightest turn of a fickle sky can cut them cold to the ground.

So we enjoy the early show with a tinge of fear rustling around the edges of our appreciation, because we know it is susceptible to nature's sway, and there is nothing we can do. Like a child pressed ahead by parents beyond the point that his maturity can support, early lilacs run the risk of failing to thrive.

The human heart needs winter, too. If we are in the midst of making a decision, we do ourselves no favors by rushing to an early spring. We need to nestle in the quiet in-between that separates this time and that time. It is in this space that our hearts nurture and prepare us for doing the right thing, the thing we were born to do, the thing wrapped up in our being as tightly as the DNA that declares one plant a tulip and another a rose. Under a protective blanket of snow, or a deep grey sky, or the fog of indecision, the latent prepares to go forth into the world.

This year's early spring, by virtue of its departure from norm, reminds me of winter's great value: it slows down metabolism and keeps tender buds from rushing to show themselves until the time is right for them to do their best.

Winter is the time of glowing embers deep in back of the fireplace, of ashes that will grow cold. It is the time when we know we must build another fire, until the sun replaces it as the source of warmth and light, and we can move outdoors for seasons of growth and abundance. We must stay in our state of ambiguity until the light shines through and we know what to do next.

We can only move forward in spring if we have spent our winter tending the resources we will need in order to burst forth when the timing is right. The constant center in the middle of change is your heart's desire. And your heart's desire is the becoming part of you.

So bundle up. Protect and prepare. Bloom when the sun shines. And should an early spring be forced upon you, take care not to blame your tender heart.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Woman who Played George Clooney (Spoiler Alert)

I didn't see it coming. Did you? I believed that the woman in Up in the Air was every bit as busy as Clooney with her crazy flight and work schedule. It was difficult for me to imagine a woman being able to manage the emotions of the intensifying relationship between them, though, and then turn her back and catch a plane, but I chalked it up to one more aspect of contemporary society that I don't understand emotionally. I figured maybe young women today are possibly more inured to heartbreaks, both the getting and the giving, since so many topics are so openly discussed in public these days. Maybe this is what the level playing field looks like: we are all able to use each other, men and women alike.

I thought, But I know myself. If I had spent that much wonderful time with Ryan (George Clooney), I'd have wanted more than the occasional airport tryst. I'd have tried to keep my head, but my heart would have been racing ahead to thoughts such as, This feels different. I really like this man. I'd like to see more of him. I'd like a normal relationship. The Road Warrior life wears a woman down. I know. I did it for a few years and couldn't tell the difference between Arizona and Connecticut because all I saw was the inside of airports and hotels.

So in the movie of the supposed role reversal -- as Ryan/Clooney feels his own passion build, leaves the podium from a speaking engagement, and flies to Alix's home in Chicago presumably to profess his love -- we are asked to believe that the loving, attentive, sexy woman he has fallen for has been playing him the way generations of men have done the same to unsuspecting women across the country.

We learn she has a husband, and children: she has what she calls a real life. That her time spent with Ryan/Clooney is a diversion.

I don't buy it.

You can't just write a man's perspective into a women's role in a script and expect me to believe that's how a woman would behave. I don't care which generation she calls home. This woman was aware of her own feelings, and those of her lover Ryan/Clooney. We are asked to forget about any guilt or shame or ambivalence she might feel as a wife and mother, and believe that she would not inadvertently display some of this pathos in her behavior.

This movie is based on a novel written by Walter Kim, with a screenplay by Sheldon Turner and Jason Reitman. It was directed by Jason Reitman. I don't know why they thought all they would have to do is switch the dialogue in order to switch the traditional roles. It takes more insight, and a lot bigger heart, to do that.

I'd rather have seen the same story written by a woman and directed by Nancy Meyers. Then perhaps we'd have had more than a gotcha cartoon. We might even have seen compassion.

What do you think of the man scorned turn of this movie?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kindness: It's Where to Live

It is commonly accepted wisdom that every generation complains about the immanent decline of civilization. In fact, it’s a cliché to bring it up in the first place. I do so because I think it may actually be time to think hard about this.

Usually, there are ways to defend the new, even when you don’t like it. For example, those who condemned automobiles may not have imagined the great progress the internal combustion engine could bring to food distribution. Those who condemned the telephone may not have envisioned the way it brings people together from all points on the globe. In our own time, microtechnology spreads into every domain.

Those are big examples. They’re easy to discuss, and their virtues are easy to dissect and define. What about the smaller things, though?

Here’s a mixed bag of concerns: What about decorum in small spaces (airplanes, for example)? What about people with car stereos so powerful (and invasive) that they shake the buildings as they pass? What about individuals who stand outside of a building with a cigarette and, with disregard, blow smoke in the faces of all who enter? What about talking in the movies as so pervasive that now it is expected, to the extent that every film is prefaced with a short clip that tries to be funny and clever while telling you to keep your mouth shut once the movie starts?

These are behaviors my mother would have called crude. By that word, she described acts that no one who knew better would ever perform. Her assumption was that there is a broad population of people who do know better, and that those who behave crudely would, therefore, stand out from the rest. Their crudeness would be obvious to all and worthy of a raised eyebrow, which, in her case, was delivered as a means of informing someone that a line had been crossed.

My mother, who died young 15 years ago, would be in a state of fixed horror if she were to come back for one day.

Please don’t think I’m talking about manners here as if they were the showy artifact of a privileged upbringing. My mother’s position was quite practical: if you are polite and treat people well, they will treat you well and you will get what you want in life. It was equal part kindness and self-interest.

Isn’t that the basis of the Golden Rule? It’s not just about treating others the way we would like to be treated, and, therefore, the way we teach them to treat us. It’s also about getting our own needs met by harmonious interactions with others. It means understanding the nature of compromise and that sometimes you have to give up something to get something else.

Our lizard brains understand this. We can feel its truth. That’s why we say things like, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” In our hearts, we all have experience that supports the notion that the kinder we are to others, the kinder they are to us and the more likely we are to have peace in our lives. Collectively, that would add up to a peaceful society.

To go back to the examples I mentioned at the start of this essay – the telephone, the automobile, microtechnology – I happen to think they are all early signs of our demise. This is not because these developments were inherently bad, but because we have not been intelligent enough or kind enough to harness their energy for the greatest good.

When you add to this the Supreme Court's decision which seems to define a corporation as a person, values such as kindness and thoughtfulness feel greased, as if they are slipping from our grasp.

I may be setting myself squarely into old fogey territory, but this time I truly do believe the breakdown in social interactions is serious. It is symptomatic of our deeply held values of self first, the individualism upon which our nation was built. That virtue has decayed, however, and the assumption that strong/kind individuals make a strong/kind nation has been lost. Now we think individual means one who gets his way all the time and this often manifests with no concern for the welfare of others. The battle cry is, “No fair!” Fair in this instance means I get what I want when I want it or I’m pitching a nasty fit, and I don’t care who knows or who gets hurt. There is no shame, just blame. And now a corporate board gets to decide how to spend shareholders' funds to influence political campaigns through advertising, which in my opinion is the least honorable of all expressive pursuits.

There are, of course, many individuals who don’t fit this mode, just as there are a few birds that don’t fly south when autumn chills the air. But can you honestly say that things are going well for our society, that we are kind to one another in our daily lives, that our children are being raised with values that take the welfare of the community into consideration? Remember: there were probably many solid citizens who got wrapped up in the vortex when Rome imploded, too. Saying, “I’m not like that,” is not the same as saying, “We are not like that.”

Labeling my perspective as cynical is actually appropriate here, though not for the reasons one might expect. The Cynics were a group of philosophers in fourth century BCE Athens who valued virtue and non-materialism. They distrusted such things as common wisdom because they thought that taking on a socially accepted position whole robbed an individual of the opportunity to think about something and come to his own conclusion.

So I don’t mind being called cynical if it means declaring myself openly after giving the topics of civility and the future of our country serious consideration. I don’t mind a bit if it offers a chance for re-examination and re-direction of our social constructs.

If you disagree with me, though, all I ask is that you look around and come to your own thoughtful and personal opinions.

I believe crudeness in society is the sign that we are slipping down the other side of the bell curve. It happened in Rome. It happened in Mughal India. It happened in Ming China and the British Empire.

It is hubris to think our society is so brilliantly created that such decline will not happen here. Scholars and journalists alike have outlined for us the reasons why our society and ancient Roman civilization follow similar trajectories, for example. And about that word ancient: Rome reached its pinnacle only 2000 years ago. Think about how long human beings have inhabited this planet. Then ask yourself whether Rome was really all that ancient. Technologically, yes. But emotionally and psychologically? I doubt it.

The Romans’s brains weren’t all that different from yours and mine. Their daily life just looked different, which made their cognitive structures different. They may have had different thoughts from ours, but they had the same feelings as we have. It must have been a frightening and directionless time to be alive as once-mighty Rome slid into obscurity. No wonder the entertainment industry was the only game in town. It distracted everyone from questions they couldn’t answer, questions they actually dared not ask. Does that sound familiar?

The question I see is this: what do we do, given this understanding of the thrust of history?

What do we do with our moment in time?

There is nothing new under the sun. But we can have peace in our own lives. It starts in the kindness of each individual’s heart. Yours. Mine.

Kindness is the place to live when everything is crumbling around us.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why Does Rita Wilson Overact? It's Complicated

I saw It's Complicated yesterday. I laughed myself to tears and enjoyed every minute of it. The setting, dialogue, familial structure, social milieu -- they all had a ring of truth and familiarity about them that made seeing into the emotional complexity of the story a more profound experience than I had expected from what was billed as a light romantic comedy. I'm still thinking about feelings that came up for me while watching this movie, but I'll write about those another time.

Today I have a question that truly perplexed me: why does Rita Wilson overact?

In this movie, she plays one of Jane's (Meryl Streep's character) three friends, with Mary Kay Place and Alexandra Wentworth. They represent us in the movie: it is to the three of them that Jane confesses to having begun an adulterous relationship with her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin). Two of the three, Mary Kay and Alexandra, respond with subtlety. They both appear a little surprised, a little confused, even a little incredulous; they want to know more about the situation and all the details that led up to such a possibility's even having presented itself. They want to know how Jane feels about it, what she's going to do next. They hold her up with their good will. Yes, of course they have lives of their own. But right now those lives are offstage. This conversation is about Jane.

These are Jane's friends. They know her. We sense that they have witnessed her growth during the past ten post-divorce years, and while they are curious about what is going on between Jane and Jake, they also appear concerned about her, protective of her, unwilling to stand by and watch if she is at the point of sliding backwards into something that hurt her terribly in the past. You get the feeling that if Jane goes off track too much, these women will support her and help her find her way back.

Rita Wilson is another story altogether. Her character gets the news at the same time as the other two women. Instead of trying to take it in the way they do, however, she fairly bounds up from where she is seated on the sofa and exudes a glee for details that to me demonstrate more interest in salacious considerations than the heartfelt concern the other two women demonstrate for their friend's well-being. This is not friendly enthusiasm. It's bad acting.

That's not all. Rita has a few more lines. She delivers each with the fervor of a chorus line dancer determined to stand out from the crowd, who, in placing her personal goals over the success of the group, ruins everything. It's as if a member of the Greek Chorus in a classical play were to step out toward the audience and mug a particularly pained response to lines being delivered by the main character. What???

I asked myself why I was so annoyed by Rita Wilson's performance. First, I thought, maybe no one has the courage to criticize her acting; she wields power as a producer, and her husband (Tom Hanks) is a powerful player in town. Second, it is probably safe to say, simply, that if she knew any better, she'd be a better actress. But still, there was something nagging at the back of my mind that couldn't be explained by Hollywood. This morning when I awoke I realized what it was.

Rita Wilson's performance annoyed me because she reminded me of the person who makes your problems all about her. You break your leg: she tells you about the time she broke her leg. You get a divorce: she compares every step with what she went through during hers. Your daughter is getting married: she tells you about all the details involved in planning her daughter's wedding.

You feel as if your role with a person like this is Topic Chooser.

You leave such a conversation, if that's what it is, feeling slightly less well than you did before. You also feel the nonverbal message was It's no big deal; get over it. Lots of times, it may well really be no big deal, but that doesn't mean you didn't want to talk about it, explore it, just to be certain it was, in fact, just as you suspected, no big deal. You don't bring up something personal just to have someone else short circuit your process.

And you certainly don't bring it up as an oratorial platform for her.

I don't know what you do with someone like Rita Wilson if you're directing the movie. I do know, however, what I do in my personal life when I encounter someone like her; or, more accurately, I know what I don't do.

I don't invite her over for a glass of wine when I'm seeking compassion and feedback from friends during a transition in my life.

For times like that, only the best friends will do.

Photograph: Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated, courtesy of Universal Pictures