Saturday, January 16, 2010

new construction

Let me give you a piece of advice (and I speak from experience): If you’ve suffered a romantic disappointment, or if you woke up with a nagging sense that love isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, do not that very day go see South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater, in which Paulo Szot’s gorgeous, compelling baritone first overwhelms you with the promise of romance (“Some Enchanted Evening”), then destroys you with the pain of lost love (“This Nearly Was Mine”), before you’re completely undone with a last-minute true-love happy ending (orchestra goes mad, music crashes over you, stage goes black — oof). I staggered out of the theater into a bitterly cold Sunday afternoon and felt about as far from a tropical happy ending as is possible.

My romantic disappointment this time around was a minor one, on paper, yet somehow felt crushing. The only loss, really, was of the castle in the air that I’d built in mere moments, out of nothing but a few thrilling moments and promising “signs” and lots and lots of daydreaming.

“You’re letting your imagination run away with you,” my mother always said to me when I was a child. And it’s true: I did feel that once my imagination got started, I had no control over it. If it wanted to freak me out with thoughts of disaster and danger, off it would go, heedless of my growing terror and quickly working me up into quite a state, where a slow creak or a shifting shadow in our old house would make me nearly implode with panic.

That imagination still causes me plenty of trouble. I may not have to check under the bed at night, or fret about something dropping down onto me from a tree in the dark, but give me a little material and I can build a lovely 3D vision of the future—or rather, a future—that is so lovely and captivating that I can find it rather crushing to come back to earth and return to my real—and much more prosaic—life.

There’s nothing like romance for derailing my ongoing attempts to try to follow the Buddhist advice of living more in the moment. Perhaps this is because romance, bottom line, is all about anticipation of the happy future, about projecting into an imagined bliss. Not matter how enjoyable the romance might be in and of itself, the thrill comes from dreaming of what may come, from hoping that what’s happening now is a promise of what we want to happen later.

So a disappointment can feel wildly out of proportion, because it’s not about missing the actual person, or feeling their absence. It’s about mourning the loss of an entire envisioned life, a relationship and a person that didn’t even exist and yet have left a yawning absence behind. It’s about wrenching your gaze away from some glorious vista of love and happiness and enchanted evenings and returning your attention to what, in comparison, can seem as drab and flat as a cold, gray January afternoon.

My other current struggle with my imagination involves my now-active search for that ever-elusive next apartment. I’ve seen literally dozens of apartments; if it weren’t for the stress of having to make a decision, it would be nothing but fun to see all the different apartments—and all the different lives—available in Manhattan. You can do quirky in the West Village, rugged in Flatiron, perfectly nice in Gramercy, mad luxury in the Financial District (lap pool! three roof decks! room service! ping pong! billiards! indoor rock-climbing! free breakfast!), corporate in Chelsea, charming on the Upper West. (Can you tell I’ve been reading a lot of real estate listings? I’m actually having nightmares about floor plans and obstructed views and closet space.)

And you know, it all sounds pretty great. I walk into an empty apartment and instantly visualize my brand-new life—making breakfast in a cool open kitchen, working at my desk overlooking killer river views, kicking back in a sleek design-y pad, all of the above set to a groovy soundtrack and starring a completely organized and with-it version of me.

Early in my search, I found a really fantastic place, which I now refer to as The One That Got Away (damn that broker!). In this one, my fantasies of my future life got seriously out of hand. I had already picked out my outfit for the great housewarming party, had met with clients at the giant metal desk that sat in the middle of the space, had trotted to and from the yoga studio around the corner, zipped over to Whole Foods to pick up some yogurt and apples…. You get the picture. After I had created such elaborate visions, not getting this apartment felt like someone had ripped my whole future away from me. (Again: damn that broker!)

And then there’s the fear of picking the wrong apartment! Of making a mistake! Then what? How will I live with myself and my poor decision?

With all of this pointless anxiety and self-inflicted disappointment, I need strong reminders of why living in the moment is so key. I got one the other night, again at the theater, this one the Sunday following the emotional tidal wave of South Pacific. This time, I had my wine before the show, and this time, the tidal wave was of an entirely different variety.

It was a performance of Thorton Wilder’s Our Town, at the Barrow Street Theater. (Go, now—don’t miss it.) Our Town has a reputation, I believe, of being corny and old-fashioned—sentimental nostalgia—but I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s lean and poignant and packs a major wallop at the end that smacked some sense of perspective back into me.

For those of you who didn’t pay attention in high school English class, Our Town is set in a small town (Grover’s Corners) in New Hampshire, beginning in 1901. Wilder wrote that, with Our Town, he wanted “to find a value above all price for the smallest events in our daily life.” He specifies right up front that there’s to be no scenery, no curtain; we’re just plunged right into life as it’s happening, with no sets or props to distract us. As our guide to the town, the Stage Manager, tells us after the first intermission, “The First Act was called the Daily Life. This act is called Love and Marriage. There’s another act coming after this: I reckon you can guess what that’s about.” Daily Life, Love and Marriage, and the final act: That about covers it, right?

That final act is set in the graveyard, up the hill from town, with the dead sitting calmly and patiently, remote from the drama of the living. A young woman who has just died in childbirth—a character we watched in the first two acts—comes to join them, but can’t quite let go of her life yet. She asks the Stage Manager to let her go back and live one more day (her twelfth birthday). He warns her against it (“As you watch it, you see the thing that they—down there—never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards”), the others warn her against it, but she must see for herself.

She goes back, with all her knowledge, and tries to live in her life again—her mother making breakfast, her father back from a trip with a birthday present for her, the cold winter weather—but it’s too much. It’s not only that she knows the future; it’s that now she knows the great tragedy of life. She knows that we all die, and yet we don’t pay attention to life while it’s happening. She sees (and so do we, thanks to an astonishingly powerful coup de théâtre that I'm not going to give away) everything that she missed the first time around, everything that was too familiar to be noticed. And she delivers one of the great devastating speeches in theater:


I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. {She breaks down sobbing.} I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.

Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners… Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking… and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths… and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager

No. {Pause.} The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Shattered. I was simply shattered, and reading the lines now, I’m hit all over again. It’s so obvious, so simple, and yet so shocking: The clock is ticking, we’re all rushing toward the end, and yet, as Emily puts it, we’re “shut up in little boxes…. That’s all human beings are! Just blind people.”

In her brief time back among the living, Emily can only be heard by her family when she is speaking as her twelve-year-old self, so her mother cannot hear her great plea, but we, in the audience, can hear it:

Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama. I married George Gibbs, Mama. Wally’s dead, too. Mama, his appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it—don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s look at one another.

Monday, January 4, 2010

upson downs

Well, here we are: Twenty-Ten. (Such an odd-sounding and -looking year, isn’t it? Very Space Age.) No matter how much I resist assigning meaning to New Year’s, it was still a thrill watching the clock hit midnight straight up, and the calendar flip over to 01/01/10. I suppose, surrounded as we are by top-ten lists and post-holiday diet tips and tax forms (already!!), it’s impossible to stop ourselves from looking back and looking ahead, from taking stock and making resolutions.

My favorite resolution ever came from a friend in L.A., years ago: “No more cheap shoes.” As much as I applaud and support her admirable goal, my 2010 resolution, such as it is, is a bit less concrete: I want to work on my court vision. In basketball, court vision refers to a player’s ability to take in the whole picture—to see everything that’s happening on the court, and to strategize the right moves given the situation and the various ways it could potentially unfold.

I want court vision for my life—to be able to see the whole, not just the parts, to figure out the different ways a scenario can play out. This would be a change for me: I tend to get focused on some fraction of a given situation, and to react solely to that one aspect—good, bad, or indifferent—and to tamp down any distracting awareness of the whole shebang.

This is especially true of high-emotion moments, whether positive (going on a fun first date) or negative (being yelled at by an evil boss). In the past, it’s been nearly impossible for me to step back in such a moment and weigh the situation; instead, I just react out of my own tangled emotional history—in the first example, by projecting way ahead into a happily-ever-after future, in the second by zooming straight into “fight or flight” mode.

I have really tried, over the past couple years, to learn to be “in the moment” as much as possible. For me, this means looking at what is right in front of me, right now—not what it was, or what I hope it will be, or what I wish it were, or what it represents—and, given that, to figure out my options and my best move.

I’ve had a lot of guidance in this effort—from books, from yoga, from therapy, from wise friends—and have managed to get myself in a much better place than I was just a couple of years ago. Of course, a huge part of this can be attributed not to any innate yogic goodness on my part, but instead simply to the fact that I left my hateful job; it’s much easier to be more mindful (and grateful) if you’re not in a continuous state of exhaustion and jerk-induced panic.

But while the lessons I’ve learned are valuable, and while I can see the progress I’ve made, it doesn’t take much to plunge me back into an inchoate emotional turmoil. I was initially going to call this post “nothing but net,” and blather on for the whole time about my astonishing spiritual development, but then I had a setback that forced me to face how far I have yet to travel. Simply put, that fun first date (on Christmas Eve, no less) doesn’t seem to be leading to the finish line of bliss that I’d envisioned. I’m disappointed, naturally enough. The issue is that I’ve instantly taken a relatively minor incident and blown it up into a symbol of everything that’s wrong with me and my life, and, to be honest, I’m wallowing.

Still, I’m trying to put into practice what I’ve learned—to try to create a bit of space where my rational self can step in and prevent my slipping straight back into an emotional mess. I hope I can keep my sense of the big picture—that this one incident has no larger message, that I’m not stuck, that I have choices, that I can act in different ways than I have in the past.

What I’m working to remember right now is that, as much as I wanted this potential romance to work out, the disappointing outcome is not a measure of failure. As the ever-helpful Buddhists remind me, “Your journey is to know yourself.” The goal isn’t romance, or a new job, or a fat bank account. The goal is being aware, and learning, and appreciating. And if I don’t get the outcome I wanted, whether in a romance, or a work project, or what have you—well, no harm, no foul.

Speaking of outcomes: I hope that in 2010, I can more fully understand this concept, so that my sense of the big picture—my court vision—can carry me through rough times, without crazy roller coaster rides like the one of the past couple weeks.

An admirable intention, to be sure. And I’ll get right on it—after a bit more wallowing.