Self Portrait

I’ve never paid much attention to obituaries, or as the San Leandro Times refers to them “Local Deaths,” but this one captured my curiosity:

Manual “Pop” Sotelo – October 1, 1924 to August 8, 2017. His commemoration begins, “What is a life? Our father would say that it’s the way you lived, and treated others.” In my opinion, that pretty much sums it up for Pop. But the author goes on to list that Pop was a decorated soldier, native of Oakland, and was dedicated to the home team A’s. He and his wife Sandy produced nine children who in turn produced even more children. Pop’s and Sandy’s legacy is the clan they created.

Obituaries attempt the impossible. Summing up one’s life at any stage is equally impossible. Very few of us can write a memoir. Even fewer think that it’s necessary. Most of us are content floating in the current moment, like fish facing upstream to feed on one tidbit of experience after another. Writing one’s own obituary in itself is impossible, assuming that you’ve waited for the last moment in order to capture the entire final scene.

Pop died at ninety-three. Needless to say, a lot can happen in ninety-three years. We’re left not knowing how the war affected Pop. We can guess that he was dedicated to fighting for the freedom of future generations. I would bet that his valor ennobled his aspirations. I would also suspect that for Pop, church and state went hand-in-hand with family. Being loyal probably came naturally.

Surviving battle can define a life. The love of country or family can provide definition as well. Is there something that defines you? Can you look at yourself and think, “If it wasn’t for (fill in the blank) I’d be different today.” For good or bad, we all have at least one episode that caused a shift in our sensibilities or beliefs. Take the time to name one for yourself. Consider how your life changed. Paint your self-portrait whether it’s real or imaginary. Let others know the inner you before reaching the final milestone.

I’m telling you my story. Go ahead and tell yours.

What to Feed the Hungry Mind

Just as food fuels the brain, daydreams feed the mind.

According to the psychiatry and psychology professionals at Psychology Dictionary (www.psychologydictionary.org), daydreaming is “a waking fallacy wherein aware or unaware desires, and at times fears and worries, are played out in the mind. A portion of the flow of thoughts and pictures that take up most of an individual’s time awake.”

 Allowing one’s mind to wander, especially if entirely for pleasure, has been viewed with disdain and aversion throughout history. Busy hands may make for a productive mind. However, research confirms that an idle mind is often immersed in wave after wave of electromagnetic impulses fired off by the brain. These explosive jolts of nerve activity shape the structure of our daydreams. Without this idle activity, our inner lives suffer.

Jerome Singer, the groundbreaking Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University, and John Antrobus developed an elaborate questionnaire for studying individual differences in daydreaming. They named it The Imaginal Processes Inventory (IPI). The IPI consists of twenty-nine scales of twelve items each, covering topics such as daydreaming frequency, failure in daydreams, sexual daydreams, heroic daydreams, guilty daydreams, visualization in daydreams, problem solving in daydreams, and just plain mind wandering. From all of this, the researchers distilled three different daydreaming styles: a positive-vivid daydreaming style, a guilty-dysphoric style, and an anxious-distractible style.

People with an anxious-distractible style simply lack the ability to sustain the deep thinking necessary for productive daydreaming. Those with a guilty-dysphoric style are generally obsessed with irrational fears and aggressive fantasies. In contrast, the majority of those studied had a positive-vivid daydreaming style which is indicative of emotional stability, confidence in the future, and being open to new ideas and experiences. In fact, positive-vivid daydreamers expressed high levels of happiness and demonstrated high levels of creativity. They used daydreaming to find fresh ways to solve problems and envision their aspirations.

So how does daydreaming feed the mind? Positive daydreaming replenishes our mental stamina. It strengthens our ability to cope with a reality in conflict with our core values. It allows us to construct a future that fulfills hidden desires. It can deepen the bond we have with loved ones. Research confirms that daydreaming allows our so-called left/right brain functions to merge, balancing our thought processes with empathetic analysis. It allows us to penetrate the superficial tasks that make up our daily lives, providing us with insight into our motivations.

Anyone who has taken up the challenge of meditation knows how difficult it is to quell the inner babble. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to arrest the daydream and silence the mind. Maybe we should just enjoy the chit-chat.

Labyrinths: One Path, Many Patterns

What do you suppose was going through the mind of the first human to doodle a spiral? If imagining what our ancient ancestor was thinking while doodling is difficult for you, then try to put yourself in the boots or sandals of the first humans who decided to construct a labyrinth. It’s quite likely that they were descendants of the doodler; or at least distant relatives.

Just to be clear, a labyrinth is not a maze. A labyrinth is comprised of a single pathway in and out. It’s this simplicity that adds to the labyrinth’s mystique. A maze is a puzzle.   They are each physical metaphors of our life’s journey. The maze very well could represent the playful side of one’s journey. It’s a mysterious game that baffles every entrant, leaving them longing for relief and exhilarated when it comes.

One of the most notorious labyrinths was home to a Minotaur; a man with the head of a bull and a deposition to match. Every nine years, fourteen Athenian youths, seven boys and seven maidens, were delivered to King Minos who reigned over Crete. These young men and women were to be sacrificed to avenge the death of Minos’ son, Androgeos.   One by one they were forced to wander into the labyrinth with only the agonizing hope that there was another way out. Of course, there wasn’t. Each became the Minotaur’s meal.

Theseus, an Athenian youth who was of both divine and royal lineage, took up the challenge of freeing Athens from this Minoan curse. He volunteered to be one of the fourteen unfortunate ones. With the aid of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, who he had managed to seduce, Theseus found his way into the dreaded labyrinth, plunged his sword through the Minotaur’s heart, and followed the string that he had laid down to mark the pathway back to the labyrinth’s inevitable entry.

You may be asking yourself, “So what does this heroic adventure have to do with me?” The answer is, “Everything.” Which pathway are you following, the labyrinth or the maze? The Greeks had their heroes, divine and otherwise. The Theseus adventure is emblematic of hundreds of other tales of heroes who meet their primal self, the animal within, and have the courage to conquer or at least tame it. The legacy of the bull as the embodiment of virile fertility, relentless strength, and unbridled passion lives on. For example, the literal representation of Theseus’ feat can be seen today in bullrings.

We all face our own challenges. We follow our own interior pathways to see where they might go. Given the growing number of labyrinths around the world, folks apparently still need to visualize what resides within. Some people are repeatedly drawn to the labyrinth’s quiet potential, while others see it as just another primitive pattern. The lucky ones see beyond the labyrinth’s pattern and gain personal insight.

Such was the case for Sally Quinn, a columnist for The Washington Post and Editor-in-Chief of On Faith, an online conversation on religion. She first encountered a labyrinth at a spa in California. Despite her skepticism, traveling its path lead Sally to see her son, herself, and her life as never before. I think Sally would agree that we each have one path. Those most fortunate know what it is before reaching the end.

Sally is one of the fortunate ones. I hope you enjoy her story.

A New View

“For those who study the great art of lying in bed there is one emphatic caution to be added. Even for those who can do their work in bed (like journalists), still more for those whose work cannot be done in bed (as, for example, the professional harpooners of whales), it is obvious that the indulgence must be very occasional. But that is not the caution I mean. The caution is this: if you do lie in bed, be sure you do it without any reason or justification at all.”  On Lying in Bed – G.K. Chesterson

Chesterson’s appreciation for the horizontal view of a ceiling had me thinking about light fixtures and retirement. I guess that’s because I’m a homeowner and 65 years old.  I get a little anxious when I think of waking up entirely on my own without the help of a twinkling-moonbeam iPhone alarm or the alternate razzle-dazzle jailbreak blasting from the other side of the bed. My only insight into what that would be like is when I imagine every day being Saturday. Although, Saturday is typically the day I try to press every bit of pleasure into 24 hours, whether it’s food, drink, sex, or anything else, just to compensate for the burden of answering to someone else for five consecutive days. But Chesterson’s source of pleasure requires far more composure.

So I’ve taken up the challenge of lying in bed, or anywhere for that matter, without any reason or justification. I’ve heard it said that relaxation makes one a better person. However, the terror of not having an immediate purpose scares many folks into hyperactivity and spreads the fear that retirement is much like evaporation. Welcome to oblivion.

Like many other boomers, I’m discovering that the day-to-day can actually be unscripted. Listening to your own voice can become a pleasure again. Daydreams can come true if balanced with incidental planning. I’ve decided not to let repetition dilute my desire for change. I’m plotting my future.  Why not join me?  Step away from your computer or put down your tablet or turn-off your phone and find the nearest place to lie down. Forget that either I or Chesterson may have had anything to do with it. Lie down and look up. Take in the scenery whatever it may be. Do this without a conscious purpose and, most importantly, don’t you dare feel guilty. Relax. If there’s any goal whatsoever, it’s to give your Self time to come into full view.

Flying the Friendly Skies

For me, the thought of having to make another business trip is like having to see a dentist. I’ll go, but I won’t like it. Vacation is a whole other matter. I can endure the drudgery of selecting a week’s wardrobe if it’s for a good cause. Collecting seven pairs of underwear and socks can be a pleasure if you’re daydreaming about tapas in Barcelona or catching a train to Paris. But revisiting somewhere that you know beyond a doubt that you’d never live is a punch in the gut.

I was reading a short travel essay by Paul Theroux the other evening. He pointed out that very little gets written about the tedium of travel. My guess is that’s because people generally don’t want to experience the tedium twice. I know for sure that I intentionally avoid thinking about travel time spent strapped to a seat in a plane. Unfortunately, that’s my primary means of business travel these days. So in between trips, I waste time lying to myself that I’ll never have to do it again. I realize it’s a lie, but it’s consoling.

The anxiety begins to build the week before actual departure. It’s like preparing for prison. I’m never truly convinced that I’ll return home. The thought of encapsulation weighs heavy. Rubbing elbows with a stranger stuck in the center seat is certainly easier than San Quentin, but I still cringe. I’m hardly a germophobe. I’m absolutely comfortable with most any food drop rule. It’s just about being compressed.

After diving into my seat to avoid the exasperated faces following me into what could become our community casket, I sink into anonymity. Once the aisle clears, it’s nothing but profiles, bald spots, and clumps of hair bobbing into view from this perspective. Then the countdown to arrival begins.

Eventually I crawl over my seat-mates’ possessions for a brief escape. I’m always somewhat surprised to see the gaping mouths and varied expressions occupying the seats behind me. My legs are often numb at this point. It takes the momentum of the tilting aisle to get me moving towards a restroom the size of a phone booth. Swaying from headrest to headrest, I make my way forward trying not to let either hand land on a head or a stranger’s face. Once I reach the end of the line, I feel relief only to immediately begin dreading the return trip. Worse yet, I dread the possibility of the seatbelt sign going on and everyone being instructed to return to their respective pods without the benefit of urination.

This is the tedium travel writers try to avoid. They rather start the adventure with scenes of the descent onto a fresh terrain to be explored; or the discovery of what lies beneath endless rows of palm trees; or what they view from the terrace once they’ve retired into a comfortable cotton robe. While in the unwritten Travel & Leisure assignment, the business traveler wrestles their computer case from under their neighbor’s seat and bumps their unsuspecting head on the storage bin above. It feels so good to get out. But the ordeal has just begun.