The other day, my mind wandered into wondering about the motivations of early humans. Here’s the list I came up with, in order of priority:
To make their lives
• more secure
• more convenient
• more beautiful
• more meaningful (to find/define the meaning)
And then I wondered what has changed. And then I realized NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Nothing has changed, in regards to general human motivations, in 50,000+ years. The technology with which we attempt to achieve them has changed (vastly and drastically), but our incentives? Still the same as cavemen.
And then I decided to assume, for the sake of a mind game, that these motivations are no longer sound. Let’s say we’ve solved them, wholly and completely and permanently. I decided to try to see if I could:
TO MAKE OUR LIVES SAFER: Einstein said, “The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Platitudes can be found in many religions, spiritualities, and philosophies which all boil down to “you are always safe (if you believe).” I say “platitudes” because it is hard for me to reconcile the words “you are always safe” when juxtaposed against the facts of this speech and this book and this story and the truth that I could continue this list of examples for pages. So let’s circle back to this one.
TO MAKE OUR LIVES EASIER: “Easier” isn’t a sustainable thing. What if we collectively let go of wanting things to be easy all the time. I’m taking this back to the premise of my commencement address: you can’t avoid pain. It does not matter how much money one has or how much power one has or how much love or how much sex or how many awards – these things do not magically make people exempt from pain and difficulty. To attempt a life of permanent easiness that is free from pain is futile, and therefore a waste of time, energy, and opportunity. So let’s take EASIER off the list.
TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE SECURE: “The illusion of safety” is a concept my aunt and I came up with right before my cross-country Vespa ride. I did not have room to bring a tent. And I didn’t want to bring mace because I didn’t know how the pressurized canister would handle the extreme heat and elevation changes of my ride (I didn’t want it to explode on me). And my aunt and I came to realize that “tent” and “mace” do not guarantee safety, or even do much to mitigate potential harm the way my helmet and leathers did. And even my helmet and leathers didn’t guarantee my safety. We want guarantees so badly and we just don’t get them. Perhaps a better term is “the illusion of control.” The ancient Greeks called it the “caprice of the Gods,” and built their entire mythology around it. I have an IRA and I wear my seat belt and I recommend both, but they don’t guarantee anything. So let’s take SECURITY off the list.
TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE CONVENIENT: Convenience is killing us. I decided this when I was living in the cabin, which was glorified camping, especially through six Wyoming winters. I didn’t have a furnace and I had to chop wood for the woodstove and haul water from the horse trough but I was in excellent shape, just from living – I got strong because I didn’t have a button on the wall to make my hovel warm. And while I wouldn’t really wish that kind of lifestyle on anyone, nor on myself at age 50-plus, going from furnace-heated-house to car to elevator to office to sofa to bed with some take out meals in the middle is not great for our health. So let’s take CONVENIENT off the list.
TO MAKE OUR LIVES MORE BEAUTIFUL: I love art, I make art, and, in my opinion, music is utter magic. But we’ve got nuthin’ on Mother Nature – her work is the best. I don’t NEED jewelry when I have a sunrise. So let’s accept that there is BEAUTY all around us all the time and take that off the list, too.
TO ASSIGN MEANING TO OUR LIVES: I may have become a bit cynical after so much loss and death in the past few years, or maybe I’ve become more realistic, but I’ve come to think that so much of the meaning we try to assign to our lives (and to death) are bedtime stories for grownups. Stories we tell ourselves to feel better, to feel less out of control, perhaps to guide but mostly to comfort. Here’s the meaning I’ve assigned everything at this point: all we have is right now, and we really don’t know f*ck-all about any of it. So that takes MEANING off the list.
And then I wondered what’s left. If we can go back to the first point of safety and determine that we are not in imminent danger, and everything else on the list of caveman motivations has been refuted, what could motivate us? What WOULD motivate us?
And I decided the answer is KINDNESS. Kindness to others.
Vonnegut was right: “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
And if we were able to do this, REALLY were able to, collectively… the first point of safety would be granted to so many who don’t have it now.
It’s been interesting, fun, and disturbing to analyze myself since going on this mind trip – my thoughts, my choices, my actions – am I leading with a caveman motivation or am I leading with kindness? It is a work in progress.
Back when I was in high school, a pal and I came up with a brilliant idea for an amusement park – a series of pools, but none filled with water. Instead, one would be filled with honey, another with ball bearings, another with super-saturated salt water, others with types of grain, etcetera. The point was to jump into the pools and… that’s it. Sensory amusement. Obviously impossible to implement due to sanitary reasons.
About a year ago, my ambulance director told us about a special training event, grain bin rescue, open to all Fire & EMS personnel in the region and taking place at the Coors plant. Grain storage warehouses and grain elevators are common around here, as barley (for beer) is one of the big crops in the area. I jumped at the opportunity to attend, even though it was just after my surgery and I still felt 90% non-functional. Not only was it an extremely unique training opportunity, it was one that would get me in the vicinity of a decades-old fantasy. I immediately volunteered to be a “victim” so I could half-bury myself in a mountain of grain.
Turns out pools of grain are extremely dangerous and can cause death and dismemberment.
Barley dust is nine times more flammable than coal dust. Our training was held in a gigantic warehouse (like, the size of a city block); a spark in that environment could cause an explosion that would rattle the building, which would kick up enough dust from the eaves and rafters to cause a second explosion that would level the warehouse. If someone is trapped knee-deep in barley, they have about 400 pounds of pressure on their feet. If they were to be pulled out with a harness from above, they would literally have their body pulled apart (dislocation occurs with about 150 pounds of pressure). In a grain silo, which is an enclosed space, oxygen can be replaced with carbon dioxide if some of the grain is molding. CO2 is heavier than oxygen and sinks to form a puddle in the lowest point. Depending on CO2 vs O2 levels, this situation can cause someone to fall unconscious or even die if they become trapped in the grain and can’t get to oxygen.
As a volunteer, I was asked to carefully climb up the mountain of grain and stand in a particular spot. There were trap doors all over the floor of the warehouse, and I was standing ankle deep in grain, about ten feet up the grain mountain, directly above one of these trap doors. A man with a walkie-talkie said “OK, open it up,” and I slowly began sinking down into the grain, drawn down as the trap door in the floor below me opened and the grain rushed through. The action created a sinkhole and I sunk. When I was buried to my waist, the walkie-talkie guy ordered the trap door to be closed, and there I was, stuck in a grain mountain. It was very, very cold in the grain. It was hard to even slightly wiggle my feet.
The grain is like a quicksand avalanche – you can’t be pulled out, nor can you dig yourself out without displacing grain from above, which slides down to fill the area you’ve dug and bury you further. To rescue someone who is trapped requires creating a chamber that is immune to the pressure of the surrounding grain. First, panels are placed above to block the fall of grain while rescuers work – you don’t want to go from one person trapped to three or four people trapped.
Then panels, which are slightly curved and slide together at the edges, are placed around the trapped individual. Rescuers use the ladder rungs to jam them deep into the grain, being careful to avoid the buried limbs of the patient. Then, a rescuer climbs into the steel compartment and digs out the patient, bucketful by bucketful. The full buckets are passed to helpers outside to be dumped. One of the panels has ladder rungs on the inside, so that both parties can climb out.
The view from inside…..
March was tough. I cannot lie, working my way through the aftermath of a thyroidectomy has been hard. Yet I would not trade everything I’ve gone through, and what I still have ahead, if it meant going back to being the person I was January 1. The growth and shifts this has inspired and required have made it worthwhile… I’ve said similar before: about being stalked; about living through my oldest, greatest fear of having my home burn down; about the terrifying downward spiral of my health due to undiagnosed celiac disease nearly fifteen years ago.
So much of this traverse reminds me of that time – celiac and gluten intolerance were virtually unheard of back then, and I dove into researching, recovering, getting healthier than I’d ever been before, and writing my first book. That foundation, that history is serving me now. Back then, pre-packaged gluten-free food did not exist. If I told someone I was gluten intolerant, I’d get the response, ‘You’re allergic to sugar?’ Glucose was a more familiar term. So I’d say, ‘I’m allergic to wheat,’ and the reply to that was always, ‘Don’t worry, this is made with white flour!’ Such exchanges are hilarious now, and it’s thrilling how far things have come. I can go out for gluten-free pizza in the miniscule towns of Wyoming, “gluten-free” is an ubiquitous marketing catch-phrase, and while people may still roll their eyes or think it trendy nonsense, it is so freaking easy for people to make the transition now, and to get healthy without feeling like their entire life is being dismantled while they are floating in a sea of question marks.
Ten years ago, when Eating Gluten Free was published, I dreamed of things looking like this – of such awareness, understanding, and convenience for those dealing with gluten intolerance and those suffering undiagnosed (when I went to a gastroenterologist at UCSF and told him my symptoms, he offered me Xanax, and when I declined it, the door). And it’s here! It’s reality! And it happened so much faster than I expected back then. Ten years is a long time, but not when you consider the transformation that has occurred in the lexicon, in marketing, and in medical care. It is so awesome. And this probably seems like one very large tangent – I started this post on the topic of thyroids – but I needed to write this all down for me because once again, I have dove into research, and the state of affairs regarding thyroid issues and the number of people suffering and the dated (dare I say dangerous) “conventional wisdom” is very reminiscent of how it once went with gluten. What I have read and what I have been told makes my blood boil, but the shifts I have seen (and been privileged to be part of) with celiac and gluten intolerance give me hope.
All this to say, despite a bumpy month, I cannot call this a Bad Thing, even though I haven’t yet found the sweet spot with my meds and it’s been scary and expensive and there have been a few days where I just plain haven’t gotten out of bed. I had an epiphany in the shower a couple weeks after surgery; I was sobbing – like hysterically crying – about all the things I wasn’t getting done and POOF! Epiphany. I suddenly realized just how much of my self worth was wrapped up in what I accomplished (and, of course, the inverse – how much self loathing appeared when I wasn’t accomplishing All The Things). And I have spent much of this month letting that go. Practicing patience and practicing grace – two traits that do not come naturally to me – with myself and with others. Patience is another form of will. And grace is a gift.
One of the big themes of this year has been cooperation, and, for a loner like me, it has been new and scary and enlightening and uplifting. Surgery itself was cooperation, and a massive trust exercise. As was posting the donate button here – that was so difficult for me to do, not because I felt it was wrong but because it was new. And vulnerable. And the first day it was up, I felt very uncomfortable. Remember growing pains, in your ankles and knees? It was like that, in my psyche. When leaving a donation, there is a place to leave a message, but I didn’t see these notes until the next day (I saw the donations, but not the messages), and the blog post itself received very few comments that first day. So I had to spend that day determining my feelings about what I’d done and what I was being given, in a vacuum, without being comforted or influenced by the opinions of others. This was such a blessing. I had to reconcile it within myself, and after the period of uncomfortable newness, my overwhelming sense was of holding hands. The connection of holding hands with people out there, of holding hands with you. And then when I finally discovered and read the notes, that feeling intensified exponentially.
It was so intimate. Regardless of dollar amount, with each donation I saw this: ‘Here is a part of me that I am giving to you because I can and because I want to. You don’t have to do anything to deserve it; by being, you deserve it.’ I think getting that message from outside, from you, opened me enough to be able to get the message from within, from the shower epiphany. I don’t think too many of us are where we want to be – by which I mean, we have goals. But to have that kind of acceptance – of ourselves and of those around us – before we reach our goals, is profound. It takes patience and grace. And we all deserve it.
. . .
PS: I finally joined instagram. I take so many photos that never end up here, on the blog and now, they will have a home. If you don’t have instagram and don’t want to join, you can still see all the photos by clicking HERE and bookmarking the page.
Oy! I did not mean to invoke politics in my last post. My “Thanks, Obama” was meant in this vein (if you’re not familiar with the meme, it’s very funny and obviously a joke, though my joke was obvious only in my own head). I certainly do not disparage those who’ve finally been able to get health insurance. I do think the ACA should have a different name and there’s a lot more work that needs to be done; health care is still not affordable to many. My heart broke and my blood boiled reading other people’s stories of crazy-expensive care in the comment section.
My first boyfriend was a young Republican (still is) who, during the mandatory high school reading period, read the Wall Street Journal which he carried around in lieu of a book. He wrote me lots of love notes and, beneath his signature, always added “Pat Buchanan in ’92!!!” or something equally horrifying. I was an anarchist hippy (still am); I spent that reading period with Anais Nin and got suspended for smoking pot at school. We were constantly debating – either debating or making out. One debate that I remember: I was using bicycles to make my point, as I was still too young to drive. My thesis statement was that everything should be free. If you needed a bicycle, and there was one sitting there on the sidewalk, it should be accepted that you could take it and ride it to where you needed to go and then leave it for the next person to use. And this extended to everything, all the time. He was like, “if everything were free, nobody would do anything” and I was like, “honor trumps money and cooperation trumps capitalism.” And then we glared at each other and then we made out.
I was not expecting the offers of donations after my last post. Not expecting – but also not surprised because you out there are wonderful to me. But at each mention, the response in my head was NO! No way. Thank you and you’re amazing and so generous and full of kindness and I love hearing your love but no.
When I rode my Vespa across the country, I received help from others nearly every day. People offered help in quick moments – giving directions or high fives – but equally often, they gifted me with major investments of time and trust. People I met on the road – in ice cream shops, coffee shops, gas stations, and bars – invited me into their homes, gave me a bed or a spot on the floor for my sleeping bag, fed me, let me soak in their tubs, offered up their washers and dryers. I never once had an internal debate about accepting their generosity. My response was purely “WOW!” and “THANK YOU.”
But money is weird. There’s a lot of superstition around money. There was an early morning ambulance call a few months ago, a terrible rollover – I’m guessing the driver swerved to avoid a deer and lost control. His Bronco flipped and rolled multiple times. The solo driver was thrown through the windshield and was killed instantly. His belongings were scattered all over the road, tossed from the vehicle during the rolls as every window blasted out. I, too, have a Bronco, and a vehicle like that becomes like a storage locker – it’s really easy to accumulate a lot of random cargo. Since there was nothing we could do as EMTs, we began picking up the dozens of items that had been flung across the road, putting them back into the Bronco through the broken windows. Tools. A hard hat. Numerous wrappers and crumpled receipts. A small cooler. Lots of clothes. A dollar bill. There was a single dollar bill lying on the pavement pretty close to the Bronco. And none of us picked it up. None of us COULD pick it up! A fellow crew member mentioned it as we were driving back to town. “Did you see the dollar bill? I couldn’t touch it.” And then a chorus of “Neither could I!” “Neither could I!” Neither could I. I still don’t know why.
A couple of people suggested, in the comment section of my last post, that if others wanted to help, they should buy things from my shop. My immediate thought, upon reading that, was YES! That I can handle. And right on the tail of that thought came an equally honest but far less comfortable thought: why should I make people jump through hoops because of MY hangups? Giving feels good – and for me to put conditions on that is kind of gross. I’ve given in the past and will give in the future, so why have I removed myself from the other side of the circle? Maybe I need to examine my thinking and my feelings – or at least figure out why they are the way they are.
I still believe honor trumps money and cooperation trumps capitalism. So, by receiving money, am I trading my honor? No. I mostly know the answer is no… but not completely. Is the faltering because I don’t feel I deserve it? Because of some cosmic, internal worthlessness? Because there are others in worse states than I? Are some people going to roll their eyes and think I’m a freeloader? “Oh, man, those debating skills DID get honed at an early age! Look at her convincing herself that it’s a matter of personal growth to take other people’s money!!”
This was difficult analysis. I’ve said those things to myself, and more. There were tears. And yet it kept coming back to one question – can I sit on the circle of cooperation and let it flow without micromanaging the seating arrangement? It’s time to try. I’ll report back with how it feels. I’m scheduled with a surgeon in early February and will report back with the status of my bod just as soon as I know what’s what. Thank you for caring.
The last twelve months have been really hard. Which is not to be confused with ‘bad’ – a lot of spectacular things have happened, but there has been a lot of time spent in hospitals and talking people off of ledges (both literal and figurative) and witnessing things I deeply care about getting eaten by the nothing. Which is why this blog has kind of fallen off its tracks. I kind of fell off my own tracks.
By spring, I was no longer managing my stress very well – I was walking around with my shoulders up around my ears and something as minor as stubbing my toe would set me off on a hysterical crying jag – release I wasn’t allowing myself or even realized I needed until I started noticing the pattern. Then Fiona had her calf and I wrote this in my notebook:
When Fiona’s calf was born, before it had even gotten up, Sir Baby came over to check it out. Well, he was just walking by, but then changed his course to come see Fifi and the baby – he is the grandfather, after all (he’s shown zero interest in the other calves that have been born around him). I didn’t want him too close, not until the calf had gotten up and nursed, so I picked up a long, straight branch and held it horizontally between Baby and me, eye level to Baby. He stopped his advance. The branch looked like a fence pole. Then I took a few steps toward Baby, still holding the branch horizontally between us, and he started backing up. An interesting experiment in psychology. Sir Baby had the strength and power to bash through me and my flimsy stick, or he could have simply walked around the end of it, but he believed it was a fence and that he was powerless against it – that he had to surrender to it. It made me wonder if the barriers we see as indomitable in our own lives are nothing more than sticks held at eye level.
I decided to test this concept. I wrote a list of things I was upset about (the first step is always identification). And one by one, these things that seemed so huge, so solid, so impenetrable, that had been governing me emotionally and physically, just….. evaporated. Like I was able to find the floating end of the stick and walk around it, one at a time, one after another. It’s an ongoing practice.
Related: Man On Wire. If you need a hit of faith and wonder, check out this documentary, streaming on Netflix. It is exquisite.« go back — keep looking »