Thursday, July 30, 2009
CheatingLet's talk about cheating. The weakness of telling lies because telling the truth is too difficult. The trail of destruction the cheater's actions leave behind, and how it poisons all primary, secondary and tertiary relationships for years to come.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it. The more I know about cheating, the more disgusting a crime I believe it to be. I once theorized that sleeping with other people could be acceptable in an open, authentic relationship. But I don't think anymore that people can actually be open and honest enough to make that possible. And doing it in a covert way is one of the most emotionally destructive activities we can do to ourselves and the other people in our lives.
In the early days after my divorce, I had two affairs with married men. I am not proud of this and I grow increasingly ashamed of my actions as time goes by. I did not know their wives, and I rationalized my actions by telling myself that their marital problems had nothing to do with me.
Bullshit. I was wholeheartedly and enthusiastically helping the husband be less of a person, avoid his responsibilities, and develop his ability to be deceptive and sneaky -- all in the name of someday being together ourselves. What was I thinking? I was helping someone become someone I would despise. I was honing his skills of deception and reinforcing his ability to compartmentalize and rationalize. And somehow I kept losing sight of the fact that if we were ever to get fully together he'd now be fully capable of using those skills on me.
I have also been cheated on. Profoundly and profusely. I have discovered more than one boyfriend either in the act or after the fact. I have been lied to by jedi masters of deception. I won't go into it here because it does get to be a litany of the same kinds of words: betrayal, rage, despair at ever finding a safe haven of trust and kindness.
So I know how it feels, both ways. It is an ugly, gutless, selfish act. Take the easy way out and damn the consequences to the hearts closest to you.
That's the emotional side of cheating.
But yesterday I came across an article in last year's Psychology Today (Love's Plan B, August 2008) that has me thinking about other aspects as well, in this case the psychological side of cheating. The article talks about "Plan B" relationships -- relationships, or even fantasies of relationships -- that we carry around with us in case our primary relationship fails. Here's how the article describes "love insurance":
Although we may love our exclusive partner, we can still think about other romantic possibilities -- people we keep in a mental box that might as well be labeled "Open in case of current relationship's demise." No matter how content we are, we still seek a sense of security by creating a web of potential future romantic alliances. That's why people are hardly shocked to hear that a sizable percentage of men trawling online dating sites are married.
The theory is that we all have to keep gauging our viability in the marketplace in case the current relationship fails. And one of our security blankets of love is keeping a little something on the side, just in case. This little something something is more than just a casual fling or flirtation, but at the same time it's less than the primary relationship. It is nothing more, or less, than a backup plan.
This sheds some new light on the concept of cheating. Maybe we keep those options open because of some ancient genetic imperative to make sure that we, as women have a mate to take care of the offspring if our main squeeze gets in trouble with a boa constrictor. We all know about the "need to seed" that we attribute to men, but it probably works on the emotional level as well. It's like having a backup pint of Ben and Jerry's just in case you need some comfort food asap.
Which makes it sound pretty rational. But there is a catch: once you get labeled as a No. 2, you are rarely going to ever make it up the ladder to the No. 1 spot. Backup plans stay backup plans, even if the primary relationship goes sour.
Whether you're a man or a woman, the problem with being a backup is that once your inamorata labels you second tier, your chances of becoming the primary love interest diminish. Labels, once created, tend to stick. Plus, once you accept the role of runner-up, you risk seeing yourself as a perennial backup in many walks of life. You can find someone for whom you are Plan A -- but not if you're inertly functioning as someone else's Plan B.
Which brings us back to the fundamental assertion: it's just wrong. It's wrong morally, it's wrong socially, it's wrong emotionally, and it's also wrong psychologically. It's wrong in the same way that suicide is wrong, or anything else that negates our higher sense of self and dignity. It decimates the self worth of every one involved. It churns up innocent people in the wake of its selfishness... and usually those people are our children.
It's disrespectful - both to your No. 1 partner and to your No. 2. It's wrong when you're the cheater, and it's wrong when you're the one on the side, and it's especially wrong when you are both.
The Plan B relationship is not a relationship. It's a strategy. At best it's a safety net that no one actually ever wants or plans to use. It almost never turns into a Plan A and when it does, it's fraught with memories of the deception that brought it into the world.
I used to think that a lying, covert, secret love was all I deserved. That is simply incorrect, for all of us. Somehow we need to realize that doing things fully, in their right time, without deceiving other people in the process... is worth the fear, is worth the wait, and is worth the value of our sweet little souls.
It is terrifying to be someone's Plan A. It is vulnerable and precarious to put all your eggs in one basket. As someone newly married, I feel these things acutely. Roger and I have both been involved in situations with Plan B people (and, actually, Plan C and maybe Plan D people), and we both knew, even at the time, what shabby facades those structures were. How much less than authentic. How hard it is to be fully present, and how -- in the final analysis -- it's the only way to be.
We are tender little seedlings, precious beings trying to hold ourselves together in the midst of a turbulent planet. We have better things to do than to be each other's Plan B's. We have a higher purpose than to degrade ourselves in the name of some pale variation of love.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 7:54 AM 4 comments
Monday, July 27, 2009
The Dharma of TravelAs we settle in to being back in "real" life, I'm noticing something kind of sad and possibly important. Time goes by in a blur when one is doing the habitual thing. Days blend into each other. It's like frames of film going by without stopping for a 24th of a second for the eye to register. Life becomes a kind of swooshy blur, rather than a narrative to become engrossed in.
When we were traveling I kept a journal and was amazed at how long ago yesterday felt. There was so much packed in to each moment that the days felt long and rich and chock full of goodness. My days now are also good, but I've noticed they don't have that clear definition, that sense of constant wonder, the feeling that this is my LIFE and I'm really LIVING it to the fullest.
I think that one of the reasons for that difference is that we notice so much more when we're in a foreign country. Every sense is on full power, listening intently to the announcements on the Metro, feeling the change in humidity in the evening air, tasting the nuances of difference between a Parisian croissant and one from the local Winchell's. For two weeks I was inhabiting my body fully (and not altogether blissfully, due to the accumulation of wedding fatigue, jet lag, and the lugging of luggage). I was tuned in to every sense, in rapid succession, at every moment -- like five radios playing all at once. Not much opportunity to get cerebral and start worrying about what a loser I am for letting my yoga practice lapse. No time for maudlin grousing. There was too much of the world, inner and outer, to experience.
And by the time we were ready to pack up and come home, I was ready to stop all that wonderment for awhile. Living that fully attenuated to your senses and the world around is kind of overwhelming. There was a part of me that wanted to just stop and go back to a life where I wasn't constantly marveling at the way the street signs were constructed, the differences in journalistic style, the configuration of the toilet. Travel opens up all the sensory floodgates and everything comes washing in.
It struck me, of course, how travel is the ultimate meditation. In meditation we strive to train our minds to stay in the present moment by finding a sensory object to focus upon. In vipassana meditation, that object is usually the breath. It is always with us (hopefully) and always gives us a touchstone to anchor ourselves with. We pay attention to the breath and then notice our our minds always want to veer away into ruminations about the past, or anxieties about the future, causing us stress and fatigue and that sense of numbness that comes when life is passing you by without seeing each individual frame.
The trick to recovering that sense of wonder is not to travel more (don't ever tell anyone I said that) -- but to learn how to incorporate that noticing more into our daily lives. As Sherlock Holmes says, I am training myself to notice what I see. Travel gives us the opportunity to notice the entire world constantly. Instead of the film frames going by at 24 per second, travel bombards us with 1000 images per second. It's incredible, and mind blowing, and cannot be sustained. After changing countries several times, I started noticing how different the third day felt from the first. Our tendency is to make things normal. Even in a foreign country, after a few days the mind becomes acclimated and able to file experiences away in safe little files. We can't live with that kind of density of experience.
On the other hand, we can't live -- truly live -- without it. Maybe not at 1000 frames per second, but the sweet spot is somewhere between that and a deadened blur. We need to train our mind to notice what we see. Take in the small pleasures of little everyday things. Not letting habits become lost in the gray fuzz of the habitual. Not letting days go by in a daze.
There's a lovely graceful place to be, when we live in our "regular" world. It's a place where we are not deadened or numb, but are comfortable and attuned. Where we stop, frequently, and pay attention, on purpose, to our lives. Eating a bowl of cornflakes out of a new tangerine-colored bowl with a summer peach on top, is not that different from marveling at a French billboard. The joy is in the noticing and the appreciating, not in the content itself. The noticing slows life down so we can live it as it's happening.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 8:16 AM 0 comments
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Arriving where we startedSo we're home. Have been home for a week and, to all outward appearances, we have resumed life where we left off.
Our dreams are littered with scraps of Europe: a fruit market on the corner of Rue St. Honore, the cold lofty beauty of the Rose Window of Chartres, the discordant haunt of a bagpipe melody in Scotland. Roger says that something about Paris has infected him. He cannot get it out of his mind.
When we first got to Paris, Roger asked why we were doing this, why do we care about Paris. (I forgave him for this and we are, in case you are wondering, still married.) It had been a long ride in from the airport, past graffiti and trash and through a massive urban traffic jam that seemed, for all the world, like a plain old garden variety gridlock that we could get here in LA. The taxi driver was archly condescending, the streets narrow, and the sirens incessant. So Roger made a good point: Why? Why Paris? What's the fuss about?
Today, after he awakened and said that he was again dreaming of the city, I asked him if he's figured it out yet. And he said that, simply put, Paris embodies everything there is to know and love about life. The streets, the air, the architecture, all contain such a passion for living, such a consummate gusto for the art of the palate, the symphonies of space, the music of the streets, the rhythms of love and life force and passion... it's all just there. Fully and unapologetically.
It's like a rare rich wine, greater than the sum of its parts. It's a city that is hectic and moving; the locals walk along the sidewalks with tightness around their eyes and a clip to their step. Sirens blare and the pulsations reach deep into hidden alleyways, sheltered passages, narrow jazz clubs, secret doors. It's built in upon itself for many centuries, so much so that the mysteries have mysteries, each city block could seemingly yield its secrets begrudgingly for dozens of years and still have plenty to hide.
So we've touched these places, walked through Scottish graveyards, sung in pubs, strolled long paths by ancient streams. Two weeks is obviously not enough to do anything but sample a quick hint of foreign flavors, and then return to the known and comfortable... but it was enough to change us. We're back, but there's a difference.
Every day I am grateful that summer waited for us to get back. I am reveling in the heat, that searing anvil of sharp bright warmth that Pasadena does so well. I drive by the low slung ranch houses and remember how it felt to go inside them when I was young and visiting my better-off friends. Walking through the dark, oak-shaded yards and entering these air conditioned homes was a reprieve, and I felt like I'd entered a world of quiet muted efficiency, a life of grace where the temperature was modulated and the harsh sounds of the outside world were muffled and remote.
We'd drink Nestea instant iced tea in the spacious living rooms and play card games while we holed up from the weight and press of the air outside. Going out again, the air would feel encompassing and bold against our chilled skin. That was the feeling of being a teenager in the summers of love, with the Vietnam war accompanying our Swanson TV dinners, and KRLA and KHJ tuned on our handheld transistor radios, playing Light My Fire and Up, Up and Away.
I feel summer these days when I drop the kids off at camp, a ritual that I've been doing for more years than I can count. But right now, after returning from other places, I start feeling a whiff of euphoria just smelling the sunscreen on the tanned bodies, listening to the happy din of kids playing on the grass, knowing that there are silly songs to be sung and lanyards to be woven. It hits me in the solar plexus in a way that it's never done before.
I love summer down here. I love the feeling of salt water and sun and long daylight hours and the taste of a Dodger dog washed down by a cold cold beer. I love the soaring ecstasy of a good wave caught with a boogie board. I love the feeling afterward of having a body in tune with the powerful rhythms of the sea.
I know this place where I live. I've spent many summers here, but despite how many summers I have enjoyed, it is still all happening for the first time. Somehow, I've been graced with even more of that understanding than ever.
We've just undergone a series of life-changing rituals: a marriage, a reunion of family and friends, seeing people who represent every part of our lives for as long as we can remember, and a honeymoon. We've been on a hero's journey, one with obstacles and quests and treasures to recover. We have discovered that we have the tools to survive, both emotionally and in the world. It's not the world that's changed, it's us. And with that change we have come back, with newly-refined senses, to see our lives with brand new eyes, and inhabit the world with a fresh awareness.
We shall not cease from exploration
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 10:54 PM 1 comments
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Dis-orientedAs I write it is 4:10 pm in Paris, the day after Bastille Day. The festivities for Bastille Day last from midday on the 13th... and I suspect they'll still be felt for a few days to come.
Yesterday we woke up at 6 am in Paris, took the Eurostar to London, flew from London to Toronto, and thence to LA. When we landed, it was about 11 pm here on the Pacific Coast, giving us the rare privilege of a 33 hour Bastille Day. From start to finish, our travels took 29 hours, across 9 time zones and encompassed two taxi rides, two train rides, two sets of customs, and two air flights.
The human body is not built for this.
In maybe 10 million years, or even 10,000, if we keep doing this to ourselves, maybe it will be easier. Maybe we will evolve a switch that just lets us adapt to time zone changes effortlessly, or with a minimum impact at worse. We are not there yet. I woke this morning musing on the word "disoriented" -- without the east, without direction, without bearings. It's an appropriate word for today.
We talked a lot about Time during this trip. When flying over Greenland (on the way out) we realized that clock time has no bearing when you're in an air plane. Roger would ask me what time it was, and the answer became increasingly complicated. Yesterday, in Toronto, we tried to figure out how we should be feeling based on the clock: in Paris it was 5 hours later, in LA it was 3 hours earlier. Where were we in all of this? What does this clock thing mean?
And we realized: clock time only means something if two things are happening. First, you have to be on the ground. Clock time is only calculable if you have your feet in one place and the sun is positioned somewhere relative to those feet. The more those feet move east, the later the clock time because you are moving away from the setting sun. Move the feet west, chasing that sunset, and you have an earlier clock time. Simple. Sort of.
But the other thing is that clock time only means something between people. It's an agreement. It is useful for, say, meeting people at Starbucks. Or having conference calls with people all over the world. Clock time: good.
But if you take away the people and our need to agree on certain schedules, there's really no need for it. We don't need it to tell us we're hungry. We don't need it to tell us when the sun is setting. We don't need it to differentiate the changes between the seasons... and in some ways it makes some of those things more difficult rather than easier. We eat when it's noon whether our bellies are still full from breakfast or not. We keep working regardless of whether the days are short of sun or last until midnight. Without clocks, we could not have our technical, busy society. Clocks obviously enable all this. But when it comes to figuring out where you are, what you're doing, or how you're feeling... they are not fully up to the task.
The first thing Roger did upon landing in Munich was buy a watch. The watch got him, literally, grounded. And we used that watch constantly... to give us information about where we thought we should be in our day. We had a surreal breakfast last night around 1:30 am at Carrows. Right now, at 7:26 am, my stomach is growling and I could use a steak, a beer and a good night's sleep.
Dis-oriented. But awfully glad to be home. More on that soon...
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 7:09 AM 0 comments
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Cafe Society and the Heart ChakraRoger is hearing the music of Paris for the first time. And in our conversations, we have been trying to figure out exactly how and why France seems to be so entirely different from the US. Not only France, but the little snapshots of Europe we've been lucky enough to see this time around.
I've used this metaphor a lot over the years, that the US is a young country and got very powerful very quickly. With good reason, we have become a very strong, affluent and intimidating country. But we've grown up very quickly relative to the rest of western civilization, and the uneven growth spurt has had some unintended consequences.
In many ways, we're like the big adolescent on the playground, who likes to throw his weight around and make sure all the other kids know who's boss. It's getting better now that we're approaching diplomatic relations with a bit more humility and grace than we have in recent memory, and of course the image is gross and crude and does not take into account a lot of mitigating details. Still, every time I travel abroad, I get the same image. Bullies on the playground; adolescents; a country still so young that it has not yet gracefully learned to understand some of the bigger picture.
And this time around, I've realized something else. Countries like France are not even ON the playground. They're sitting at a cafe somewhere, sipping wine and conversing about history and politics and art and love. They understand the importance of fewer hours in the work week, gatherings of friends, the need to take care of the sick in a compassionate way, the sanity of taking time off to spend time decompressing. This is something that we haven't woven into our culture and don't even understand the need for. We are too busy being on the playground, defending our position in the world.
Roger phrased it perfectly: the societies we've been visiting live in a whole different chakra than we do in the States. We are very "third chakra" -- the yellow solar plexus chakra, seat of will and action. Driven, motivated, pushing -- all attributes of the third chakra. And the French are more "fourth chakra" at this stage of their history -- the heart chakra, seat of emotion, compassion, refinement. They have certainly had their time of living in their solar plexus. We walked through halls in Versailles dedicated to the battles of Napoleon III, the conquering of other nations, the power of the state. And they've had their moments of humility as well, with their revolutions and occupations. They've done the third chakra, and -- at this moment at least -- seem to be living more in the heart, concentrating on activities that embrace the family, the social structure, the things that provide joy.
It's an interesting concept: that civilizations can move up the chakras as they evolve. One could argue that the further east you travel, and the older the cultures are, the higher up in the chakra ladder the people ascend. But then there are places where the cultures collide, and you have the technology revolution in India, and the commercialism in China, and it all gets very interesting and the center of power changes yet again.
All the aspects that we move through have power. There is no better or worse aspect. Every chakra, every aspect of an evolution, has a unique and powerful meaning and purpose. Individually we move through our phases, and our personal change is mirrored in the cultures we create around us. As we age and mature and learn, so do our civilizations. The tides of history evolve the underlying structures of a society much like the ocean creates new shorelines.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 2:17 PM 1 comments
La MusiqueAfter nearly a week in Paris, I'm starting to be able to verbalize what the magic is about this city. I think it's musicality of it: the rhythms of the people moving through the day; the accent notes of detail and decoration that adorn the buildings, the bridges, the clothing of the women; the music itself that seems to seep out of every nook and cranny, revealing itself in an Irish fiddle player in the courtyard archway of the Louvre, a brass band partying on the quai of the Seine, a clarinetist outside the Musee D'Orsey. There is music everywhere, and to be in Paris is to be caught up in a song of such complexity and beauty it nearly takes your breath away.
We were in harmony with the rhythms of the city last night as we discovered a lovely bistro near Les Halles and had a late supper of l'entrecote, frites, and red wine. Watching the people stroll by we saw lovers and tourists and friends in an endless river, moving at different paces but all seeming to follow a certain inner beat. After we ate, we stumbled into a store that was filled with open bags of spices, rice, and dried fruit, and a ceiling hung with hundreds of clay pots, an antler head on the wall, and a back room filled with painted ceramics and other wonders from the east. On a fez hanging over the cash register was a Barack Obama pin... an instant testament to the intertwining melodies of all our worlds.
Afterwards, we walked in search of a jazz club we passed on our first night in town. Finding it, we decided to risk 36 Euros to go upstairs and hear what was on the ticket. What we got was beyond our wildest hopes - a quartet led by a guy named Khalil Chahine, with an exotic, eastern, fabulous sound. They are from Egypt, but the sound was like Pat Metheny, until they added this violin in the second set that turned the thing into a journey to distant lands. We sat enthralled until they were done, then walked back to our apartment in a sweet light rain around 1 am.
Today we went to my personal mecca, Shakespeare & Company, and pushed through the piles of books and people that symbolize for me a kind of wailing wall of writing, a place where I once stayed 30 years ago this summer, with a soaring heart and certainty of my eventual place in a venerated constellation of great writers. Today we found my book nestled in the stacks, left by me with Sylvia Whitman a few years ago on my last visit. Roger found it and took some pictures of me pulling it out of the wall, and then -- much to my delight -- a young woman started talking to us and ended up buying the copy.
We sat upstairs in a room that George Whitman, the owner of the store, once inhabited and that I once helped clean as part of my obligation for staying there. Looking through the window at the Seine and the towers of Notre Dame, I realized this was as much my holy ground as Chartres was for the pilgrims seeking a glimpse of a holy relic. It seems I have lost my faith in books and my work as a writer; coming back home to S&Co today acted as a re-statement of that faith, and a humbling gratitude for the gifts that I have been given.
So, for me, the music of Paris ultimately is about the words that have been written here. The rich literary tradition, the veneration accorded to writers, all can be felt in its bookstores, its cafes, the naming of its streets. When I am here, I write. And musicians play. And artists put incredible paint on canvases, or create pieces of sculpture that move you to tears.
This is a city where the tempo of the city life moves to a rhythm that is nearly impossible to resist. It pulls you into the streets on long summer nights, draws you into conversations, creates philosophies, and weaves romance around lovers. It puts a soundtrack to the streams of people walking past the sidewalk cafes, syncopates the nightlife in the pubs and clubs, and serenades the revelers on the boats floating down the Seine. Once you've been here once, Paris haunts your dreams and you wake up humming its tune.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 1:42 PM 2 comments
Friday, July 10, 2009
Walking the LabyrinthWe took the railway down to Chartres Cathedral today to walk the labyrinth. It is centered on the floor in the middle of the cathedral, and is as far away from the front door as the rose window above the door is high. Which means, so they say, that if the wall with the rose window were to hinge down to lie flat over the floor, the rose window would directly overlap the labyrinth.
The center of the labyrinth, so we heard, catches a beam of light on a certain day of the year (offset by a meter after nearly 800 years) that shines through the middle of the Rose window. A plaque showing the minotaur used to be in the middle, but was removed and melted down for cannon balls during the Revolution.
It's the only labyrinth in any of Europe's gothic cathedrals that remains both intact and in its original site. So when Roger and I took off our shoes and walked the path, we trod in the place where thousands of pilgrims have walked, over nearly 800 years. The stones were worn and slightly uneven and perfectly constructed to accommodate the stride of a human footstep. The air was rich, the stones were smooth, the vibes were intense.
What you do is enter through the only opening and just walk the path. The path is intricate and even though there's a definite pattern, when walking it the turns are unexpected and somewhat disorienting. There are 28 turns and the precise pattern of the design takes you through all the quadrants at different times, in varying distances from the center. It looks different on paper than it feels in three dimensions. You kind of have to do it to get what it's all about, and even then it's difficult to articulate why it's so simple and complex at the same time.
Once you get to the middle, you are supposed to take a moment to reflect. Some people move from petal to petal on the inner blossom, contemplating various states of ascendance, from mineral to animal to human, finally coming to the middle where the divine and spiritual state is signified. It can also be seen as a stepping through the seven chakras, and moving from the red base to the ethereal white light of the spirit. No matter how you see it, the center is the heart of the experience, and the place where the peace and contemplation repose.
I have walked Chartres-style labyrinths before, usually in a ritual that is dedicated to mindfulness and walking meditation. What was interesting about today's walk is that there were dozens of tourists, from many nationalities, roaming through the cathedral (and hence the labyrinth) as we were trying to walk it. There was a woman before us who was walking it prayerfully, and then there was Roger and, a few paces behind, me. Among us were waves of tourists and kids and picture takers and gawkers, standing on the paths in our way, running along the lanes in games of tag, and generally being about as un-meditative as you can get.
As we were walking, there occasionally welled up some ethereal choir music, coming from some unseen nook of the cathedral. The sounds of the squeaking of our shoes, the rapid patter of the kids who were chasing each other around the circles, and the distant murmer of voices throughout the dim canvernous hall were actually comforting, human, full of life. When we sat in a nook set aside for prayer later, I meditated on those sounds some more and found them to be extremely warm... and far different from the creaks and moans and whispers I fancied I'd hear if locked up in the huge stone building and crypt overnight.
The oddest moment was when I got to the middle after about 30 minutes of walking -- an experience that, no matter how distracted you get is still pretty profound -- and turned around to face the Rose Window. A tour group had just filtered into the labyrinth and were leaning up to take pictures of the window. Surrounding me was a sea of maybe two doezen digital screens glowing back at me in the dark, echoing the image of the stained glass. All the shadowy bodies were craned up at the same angle, all were taking in the sight using the camera as their viewing device. It was not enough to look up at the window; it had to be perceived first through the technology of the day.
It's a unique type of meditation, walking a labyrinth. And today provided new insights that I'd never had before. For example, some people go through life running through and over patterns that are interesting to pay attention to, and never get a clue that there's something else going on. They are intent on moving through the space, or getting on with the "real" stuff, or taking a picture so they can dwell on the moment later.
If some of the people do figure out that there may be something more going on besides just space to get through, there are various ways to approach that apparent pattern. We can study it, we can analyze it mathematically, we can consciously ignore it, or we can try over time to make sense of it. We can decide to be mindful of it as we walk it, we can make a game of it, we can race our companions through it, or we can get extremely peeved that we're constantly running into obstacles that dislodge us from what we perceive is our goal.
Finally, once we've decided that we're going to move through the experience with contemplation and as much consciousness as we are able, the experience itself dislodges and unnerves us. The more I felt I was getting closer to the center, the farther away I actually was; as I moved away from it, I was actually getting closer. Once I thought I'd figured out the pattern, it switched on me and turned back on itself. No matter how rigorously I put one foot in front of the other, at a couple of points I was sure I'd lost my way.
Very comforting, this last part. I always travel and vow to make things different, better, more exciting, more deep when I get back. I make plans to learn a new language, to study up on my history, to relax more, to keep my sense of wonder and openness. And yet, that's just my mind telling me it knows how to keep the bends in place, how to figure out the design before it happens. It never works out the way I think it's going to, but it always actually works out far better than I could've ever envisioned. The trick, as always, is to just stay on the path, one foot in front of the other, and watch the journey as it happens. As with the labyrinth, you kind of just have to do it to know what it's all about. And even then it's difficult to articulate why it's so simple and complex at the same time.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 2:15 PM 1 comments
New Thoughts on AccountabilityOK. That last post was a bit one-sided. There are many facets to a story, and this accountability issue is no exception.
We've been noticing one area where Americans are far more responsible than (it appears, based on the world's worst empirical data sampling) our European neighbors: littering. Our streets are, basically, a lot cleaner than those we saw in the UK, Scotland, or France. Again, based on the worst statistics possible (the only sampling that would be less rigorous was if we had never stepped foot in these countries at all), we are finding littering to be an eyesore very much in France, and London, and (surprisingly) even in Scotland. Admittedly, Scotland is so very beautiful that even one misplaced soda bottle is an abomination, but we did see a couple of those, and some strewn about newspapers that were, in that setting, really jarring.
A hasty research on the 'net (made more difficult by the fact that my browser seems intent on displaying everything in French despite my many attempts to change my settings to English), indicates that the worst culprit in UK littering is fast food. And -- of the five worst offenders of fast food litter -- the US owns three of the chains (McDonald's, KFC, and Subway.)
So... we may not be that great about packaging our food, but we are pretty damn good about picking it all up afterward. And that goes for dog excrement as well. We're not too bad with that issue as well these days.
So, hats off to us. It may not make up for global warming, and it doesn't even start atoning for W, but it is a start, and it really does make a difference. I'm kind of looking forward to going home and not watching every footfall with care.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 2:03 PM 0 comments
Wednesday, July 08, 2009
It's inevitable, I think... to compare who we are as Americans with the rest of the world as we travel through it and notice all the differences. And I've been noticing something recently that I'd like to capture here.
The first time I noticed it was on a posting on the wall of a train station near Hampton Palace outside of London. The notice said something like "The ticket office is now relocated due to repairs. I hope you are not inconvenienced by this. If so, please come and see me. (signed) The Station Master."
Another time I heard it was on the Virgin UK train, between London and Dumfries. There had been a massive screw up with the computer and all the reserved seated were screwed up. It was hot, crowded, chaotic, and actually a fairly unpleasant situation. The head conductor got on the PA system several times and said something like "I apologize for the problem with the reserved seating. It was due to a computer error. I am changing trains at Preston but will alert the next conductor as to the problem and make sure he is aware of the situation."
"I" am sorry. "I" will take responsibility to tell the next guy. "See me" and "I" will make it right for you.
Am I crazy, or is this unfamiliar language to our American ears? Don't we usually phrase things more in the passive voice, or couched in a less personal "we?" "We are sorry if this causes any inconvenience." "Please be aware that seats are not reserved on this train." No one says "I'm sorry," at least not in writing, least of all in public. No one says "This is a problem that happened on my watch, I'm going to take responsibility for it, and if you want to see me about it, I welcome the conversation." Our phraseology seems to always be constructed with one eye on the jury box, hedging away from taking responsibility, worrying that some attorney is going to smack us for saying out loud, and in public, that we are responsible for something that may, someday, cause someone to sue us for money -- money that we might not have had to pay had we just been a bit more careful with our words.
This idea of responsibility goes in the other direction, too. I was explaining to Roger last night that the French are a proud people, people who have contributed an inestimable amount to civilization and art and our western culture. They are part of a culture that stretches back many thousands of years, and they -- actually, shockingly, amazingly -- don't actually need us. They don't particularly love us, and they don't need to love us. They don't have to speak English (but they mostly do.) They don't have to kiss our asses. We are in their country, and -- for the most part -- we act pretty rudely to them. I have seen more than my share of belligerent, obnoxious, and stupid Americans in my travels, and have tried extra hard to change that legacy. But the fact remains that, individually and collectively, we have overall behaved somewhat badly in the world. And even though we don't apologize for that, or hold ourselves accountable, other people do. They remember the Americans who yell at them in order to make them understand English better. They remember the Americans who are pushy and rude and make jokes that are all too well understood by our hosts. They remember.
And then there's the collective. There's the role the US has played in the world during the Bush Administration. There's the fact that -- because of our race to greed and our cavalier mismanagement of an unthinkable amount of money -- everyone's lives all over the world have changed, jobs have been lost, financial empires have crumbled. There's this matter of a war that everyone, even us US citizens, understood to be wrong in action and intent and conception, and was engaged upon neverthe less. These people see this all too clearly. And just because we provide incredible diversions with our Michael Jacksons and ubiquitous iPods, it doesn't really excuse us from playing recklessly with the world's stability.
Taking responsibility. Accountability. I'm sorry to say, but I don't think this is one of our core competencies as Americans. We don't say "I'm sorry." We don't say "Please talk to us if you have a problem with what we're doing." We pretty much do what we want to do, and hedge our language to be as legally defensible as possible.
It smacks of immaturity. It reminds me again of how young we are, how callow, and how unseasoned. It reminds me of how much weight we throw around and how relatively easily won our power has been. I am not bashing the US.... we have contributed an enormous amount to the world, not only in technology and innovation, but in our ability to govern ourselves with relatively little bloodshed and instability. In our election of President Obama (and the overwhelming shift from right to left in Congress), we have shown that change can be effected in our system, and that we can self-regulate. I am once again not afraid to call myself an American when traveling abroad... but I am also very well aware that just because we collectively pulled our head out of our arses, we still have much to be accountable for.
Reversing this needs to start with us as individuals. Maybe taking our own personal responsibility a bit more seriously will start to ripple up to the collective. As we travel through Paris this next week, I am going to keep an eye open for ways to be more accountable, both personally and as a representative of our country. We are not a bad country, but we are a young one. Maybe increasing our individual maturity can help our nation grow as well, at least as we are perceived in the eyes of the world.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 6:54 AM 0 comments
Monday, July 06, 2009
Auld Lang SyneAuld lang syne... idiomatically, it is sometimes translated as "once upon a time," or "long long ago." Once upon a time, we spent an idyllic three days here in Dumfries, Scotland. Those days happened to be today, yesterday, and the day before.
It's very difficult to put words to this country. Robert Burns, the poet laureate of the country and a highly revered man in these parts, was able to put pen to paper and compose thousands of words in song and poetry in his 37 years on the planet. I have been here for these three small days and am having a hard time formulating even a few.
But... the ones that have come to mind, go like this: It's different over here. We have visited a medieval castle (Caerlaverock) and Drumlanrig castle, which is still a home to the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry. We have gone to a village gala and seen a massed band of bagpipes and drums marching up and down the street, playing haunting and inspiring songs of valor and war and love and country. We have been escorted through several of the town's many pubs and found warm cozy clusters of people, laughing and drinking and spinning yarns. It has rained just about every day, and even though the nights do not get dark until after 11 p.m. right now, it is altogether too easy to guess what life here is like during the cold wet winters, when the night falls at 4:30 p.m. and does not lighten up until well into the morning.
We are in the border lands. These rolling hills have seen many centuries of fighting and blood. Loyalties shift constantly. Border rievers rustled cattle back and forth between the two countries, opportunistically taking advantage of the constant flux. The sense I get is that all this change has only solidified the people who thrive here; they are flexible, tough, and stalwart. They are attached at a deep level to their land, their heritage, their music, and their love of independence. They are not afraid of getting sentimental when they hear certain songs. They understand that love of country is vastly different from politics.
We have been staying at the Ferintosh Guest House, a B&B run by our dear friends Robertson and Emma. Again, words are failing at describing the experience. For one thing, the B&B is terrific -- well run, extremely comfortable, well situated in the town, and with terrific food and amenities. I strongly suggest everyone who reads this book a trip over here and experience it directly. So not kidding. We actually have contemplated canceling Paris (where we are flying tomorrow) to stay another week here. That good. And we will be back.
Our experience, however, has gone way past the comfort and fun of staying at a great B&B. We have found magic moments. Long conversations into the night, talking about politics and the world and people and relationships and family and art and theatre. Robertson shared with us his best whiskey, and loaned Roger his kilt tonight to go to a Jean Armour dinner (a dinner held in honor of Robert Burns' wife). Robertson and Emma took us to their favorite pubs and together we crawled around an old graveyard, reading headstones by the failing light. Our gratitude to them is boundless, and humbling.
The Jean Armour dinner encapsulated the magic. We sat in Burns' favorite pub (The Globe Inn, still in operation) along with about 50 members of a Burns society, a group dedicated to preserving his memory and celebrating his life and art. Tonight's dinner was to acknowledge his wife Jean, who not only understood and supported the poet, she also took care of at least one his illegitimate children and tolerated his many other mistresses. The men at the dinner were all dressed up as they paid their respects to the occasion. There were toasts and recitations and jokes that we could not possibly unpack from the brogue that surrounded them. There was whiskey and ale and an abundance of food.
They talked about Jean Armour and paid tribute to how she steaded Burns, learned how to live with him, understood him. These were not politically correct men; they made sexist jokes and were very much about being a men's club (that invited the women along only for this special occasion.) And yet they still understood a good woman when they saw one; and they knew that Robert Burns had a good one with Jean Armour. And to their credit they seemed to understand that the wives who sat beside them were good ones of the same caliber. And in their way they paid deference and homage to them as well.
They sang songs to haunting, beautiful old melodies. They recited poetry while the rain dripped from the eaves outside. They spoke in an accent that was almost completely unintelligible to us, but was unmistakable in its sincerity and respect.
And I kept thinking: All this is for a poet. A writer. He was a man who put words on a page. And yet he has become more than that as well. He is a voice for the lower class man. In him, they hear a comrade, a spokesperson, a flagbearer. His words are like the haunting, reedy notes of the bagpipes as they stir the warriors' hearts to march into battle. And I wonder -- why don't we have this in the states? Why don't we have these deep underpinnings of passion for certain songs, certain words, certain art forms?
I don't know the answer, and I certainly don't want to imply that we are without all forms of patriotism or love for our artists and our battles. But this is different. This truly is in the blood, and has been for thousands of years longer than ours has. This seems to come from many centuries of battles fought, blood shed, clans bonding together in death and victory. It also may be born of a class system that was so oppressive that our own forefathers fled it and established a country that was resolutely and consciously going to avoid a noble class, or any kind of class structure that results in such unfair stratification.
It feels very different to be in a land where family lineage defines you, where love of poetry and song can be expressed openly, where old men wipe their eyes when they hear certain tunes. I looked around the room tonight and met people whom I most likely will never meet again, older people who have lived lives I will never know, and who embraced us, the Americans, with friendliness and a strong desire to make sure we "get it."
I'm not sure we do, or can, fully "get it." But the feeling of being in an older world, a world where story is put into song and sung beside fires to ward off the cold, a world where the cozy warmth of a pub provides entertainment and community that television can never match, a world where there is a social fabric that is as elaborate and rich as a Belgian tapestry... is something that I want to carry back with me. I want to spin stories long into the night. I want to continue exploring places and things that make me wonder and long to know more. I want to grow old with some traditions. I want to be like the lady I sat across from tonight, her lips moving to the words of an old familiar love song, her face transfixed into that of a wistful young lass.
# posted by Katherine Doughtie Nolan @ 4:34 PM 0 comments