Climbing Down the Family Tree

Tree of life

I cry at the sound of bagpipes. They’re pretty much the most cacaphonic instrument around, so much so that they make a lot of people’s eyes water, but in my case, they bring tears of joy…or longing..or something else I can’t put my finger on. Years ago, at Hogmanay in Edinburgh, I heard a band of fifty bagpipes (some of them from Canada), and I thought my heart would burst from my rib cage and ooze Scottish pride all over the pavement. It’s been almost a century since anyone in my family lived in Scotland. I don’t drink, I don’t eat haggis, and the thought of an itchy wool kilt makes me cringe. In every way that matters, I feel Canadian (and proudly so), but somewhere in my cells, there lingers a hint of the old country, and the squeak and squawk of a bagpipe makes it light up.

What is it about our genealogical roots that’s so fascinating? Why should our lives be coloured by the experiences of people from centuries ago, in another place, in very different circumstances? Why do we swoon to find out we’re genetically linked to someone important, be it a hero or a scoundrel? There are entire industries built on our desire to dig through the past, along with television shows and tourist destinations. Why, even after several lifetimes of change, do I still get misty over something as strange as the whine of bagpipes? Is this some sort of bizarre muscle memory, or a set of semi-dormant genes?

I wonder if our human compulsion to look behind us like this is what makes us different from other species. Animals show signs of using tools, having language, forming communities, even making art, just like we do. Do they look around and think things like “Great grandpa monkey swung from that tree over there.” or “Long, long ago, we gazelles grazed in a field far, far away”? Does the existence of elephant graveyards suggest a recognition of those who have gone before? Do other species identify with and draw strength from their ancestors the way we do?

And what of the possibility of life on other planets? Do interstellar travellers tell their offspring about how life was back when they lived on planet X?

For a lot of people, this time of year marks the beginning of a season of tradition after tradition. True, we do a lot of festive things out of habit, but there’s also a part of us that recognizes that these rituals connect us to our predecessors. We want to eat what they ate, sing what they sang, and feel what they felt. For a few weeks, it becomes abundantly clear that even while we sit at the top of our family trees, we’re still compelled to look down at the roots once in a while.

Happy almost holidays everyone. May we all enjoy the bagpipes.

 

Go Ahead, Overthink Things.

Amythinking

We live in a time and place in which information is more plentiful than clean water, and it’s not surprising that many find it overwhelming. It’s also not surprising to see so many invitations to “switch off”, “detox” and generally quiet the noise for a little while. I get this. I crave it too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was space in every single day for the “there, but not there” kind of feeling that comes with meditation?

What concerns me are rampant messages about “not overthinking” things.  When things get hectic, stressful or confusing, we’re encouraged to turn off the little nag in our heads, to go with our gut, or just not go at all. To be honest, I don’t think we overthink things at all. In fact, I think we are a culture of chronic underthinkers. We praise people who’ve managed to “get out of their heads.” When things get complicated or difficult, we cut corners in our thinking, committing just about every fallacy there is, floundering to find easy answers. It feels awful and chaotic because we know, somewhere in the back of our heads, that we haven’t followed our ideas to their logical conclusions, that we’ve left them hanging there, half-formed.

Here’s an analogy: Imagine you have a gym membership, and you’d like to get into really great shape. While at the gym, you pile more and more weight onto the machines, you do obscene numbers of reps, and you run on the treadmill until you feel like your lungs will burst. At the end of it all, you feel completely trashed, like you want to do anything but exercise. You worked hard, but you didn’t work smart, as the old adage goes.

We often do the same thing with our minds. Rather than being rational, objective and circumspect in the ideas we accept, we suck up as much information as we can, we spin it around in our minds at full speed, and eventually, we get exhausted.  We mistake being pedantic and picky for being logical. Pick your favourite social media platform and do a search for a major issue. You’ll see what I mean.

In thinking, as in workouts, quantity is never an adequate substitute for quality, and the ironic thing is that there’s as much (maybe more) peace of mind to be found in thinking well as there is in thinking less. Thinking properly, as opposed to thinking too much, helps us avoid being taken of advantage of and lied to. Thinking properly leads us to awareness of the fact that there are always other options and choices, sometimes even good ones. Thinking properly helps us to know ourselves better, and to know the world around us better, as opposed to being overwhelmed by it all.

So it’s okay to overthink things. Stretch first, use the correct weight, and if it feels like you’re about to pull something, make sure you’re not doing it the wrong way. In life, as in a workout, think smart, not hard.

A Love Note For Paris

Paris

I must be about the millionth person to be sitting down at their computer tonight to say the kinds of things I’m about to say. My favourite city in the whole world is in tumult at the moment, and I’m not entirely sure what I can do to help. Pontificating about politics and morality just doesn’t seem like the right thing, as I’m a starry-eyed ignoramus on the other side of the ocean. So I’m going to send love and positive thoughts, and because I’m a writer, I’m going to put something into words. I hope you’ll humour me.

The first time I visited Paris, I was utterly lost. No, I didn’t take a wrong turn in Spain, I was lost in an existential sense. I had a lackluster job that made me feel like I had a head full of steel wool. I was living in a house that felt like it still belonged to someone else. I was creatively stunted. I spent a lot of time coiling and uncoiling, like an angry slinky. It only took about a week in Paris to change all of that. We soaked our tired feet in the fountain at the Trocadero. We found out how big the Venus de Milo’s feet were, and how small the Mona Lisa was. We discovered the biting, yellow miracle that is Tarte au Citron. We felt what it was like to sit at a table and give ourselves over to a slower pace, to the quirks of passers by, and to the simple act of sipping a cup of tea. We came home, and soon after, we quit our jobs, and we moved. Smiling, we blamed our new life on Paris.

Paris 2

The second time I visited Paris, it was as a philosopher. I had my birthday dinner in a cafe once frequented by some of my idols. We visited cemeteries and left thank you notes and flowers for rebels and revolutionaries. We marveled at The Thinker and imitated his furrowed brow. I swooned at Victor Hugo’s writing desk (I swear, I didn’t jump the rope and sit at it) . There was a debate about educational reform with a sandwich vendor, and advice sought from a waiter about how to properly caramelize apples (both in French, I might add). Yeah, it’s cliche for a thinker to find inspiration in Paris, but there’s a reason for that. You can’t swing a baguette without smacking it against something literary, historical, or philosophical. It’s magnificent.

My third visit to Paris was as a mother, and I saw an entirely different side of the city. There were romps in parks and playgrounds that had been around since the Napoleonic era. We gobbled endless warm croissants, and crepes with gooey chocolate creeping out the sides. We retraced the steps of Madeline, practiced our “merci” and bought whimsical wooden toys. I have vivid memories of a toddler in a giggly Marilyn Monroe moment atop a vent near the Moulin Rouge, and of tiny feet dancing in the grass in front of the Eiffel Tower as it twinkled.

Three trips, each with a different purpose, and every one transformative in some way. When a city gets as much hype as Paris does, it seems impossible that it will actually live up to it. But it does, it really does.  It’s a little bit sweet and nostalgic, a little bit clever and aloof, and a little bit over the top and opulent. Three times, Paris has sent me home a little more like myself. With any luck, there will be a fourth time, and a fifth, and a sixth. While Paris holds its breath and waits for life to make a little more sense again, I’m going to mentally squeeze all three trips into an imaginary parcel and send it along. It’s the least I can do.

Merci Paris, et je t’aime. Soyez forts et courageux.

Beware of Dog

Dog and cart

The ancient stoics have this story about a dog who is tied to a cart. The dog can struggle and get dragged through the dirt and gravel, or the dog can trot merrily along. Either way, the cart will move forward. It’s been a while, but if memory serves, the story is a commentary on how foolish it is to struggle against things we can’t change, as opposed to accepting them and moving on.

This dog has not yet learned to trot along merrily. I am the worst, THE WORST at accepting things I can’t change. With a few exceptions, like the laws of physics, I can’t even accept that there are things that can’t be changed. I guess this makes me a very good existentialist, and an epic failure as a stoic. If there’s an opportunity to stay up all night worrying about something, I’m there. If it involves obsessively making lists of possible scenarios, I’m in.  The idea of leaving something important to chance makes me want to kick holes in the wall, and no amount of herbal tea, hot baths, or meditation seems to take the edge off.

So I’m a control freak (well, duh). The “freak” part of this label intrigues me. In most dictionaries, “freak” is defined as something or someone that is abnormal, unusual, or unexpected. Tell me, am I abnormal in the amount of control I want over my life? Am I just cranked up to 11 when it comes to having things go a certain way? Or is it freakish of me to expect that there is control to be had in the first place? Is the universe and everything in it inherently out of control, and I’m a lost cause for not seeing this? If I’m the exception, then what (or who) is the rule? Are there really happy wanderers out there who can be content to just let things happen to them, without complaining?

So, what of the dog who resists the pull of the cart? What happens to her? Well, she spends a bit of time picking twigs and bugs out of her hair, and she has to go to the chiropractor for neck strain. She burns a lot of calories in playing tug of war with a moving, wheeled thing. Resistance is pretty tiring. Eventually the cart stops rolling, either temporarily or permanently. During those moments, however fleeting they may be, she gets the satisfaction of knowing that she probably gained a few inches here or there, made things go a little faster or slower than they would have if she’d just given in. These small victories are hers to claim and celebrate. Most importantly, she gets to go to sleep at the end of the journey thinking “I tried.”

Of Circuits and Symbolism

shutterstock_179581451 (1)

This morning, my phone is on a feminist kick. I’ve got my music on shuffle, and it keeps bringing up songs about powerful, no-nonsense women celebrating their bad selves.  Here’s a small selection:

  • “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan
  • “Honey Bee” by Bif Naked
  • “I Love It” by Icona Pop
  • “Big Girl (You are Beautiful) by Mika
  • “He Wasn’t” by Avril Lavigne

Just to be clear, I don’t think my electronics are tapping into any sort of inner rage or resentment. I also don’t believe there are magical elves in there playing DJ, nor do I think I am downloading playlists from the great beyond. Jeepers, it’s bad enough to subscribe human traits to electronic objects. It’s even worse to think they’re psychically attuned to their users (although sometimes it seems that way).

Nonetheless, this mix just happened to pop up on a morning when I’m overtired and braindead, and it has given me a little extra mojo when I most need it. Taken out of context, the songs are just background noise, but in the right combination, at the right time, they mean something. My phone seems to deal out just the right mix for many occasions. I’ll admit, I sometimes ask it questions and play “magic 8 ball”, hitting the forward button and thinking hard about what the title or the words of the next song could mean to my current situation.

It seems that even in my 21st Century existence, symbolism is still important. I need to know that things mean something, even if it’s just me attaching my own selfish interests to them. I see it in the bits and bobbles I have collecting dust around my house: a beaded voodoo mermaid from New Orleans, a storyteller doll from Mexico, evil eyes made from punched tin. They all look cool, but they also spark something primal in the back of my brain. In a way, they’re like weird 3-D sticky notes I leave everywhere to remind myself to revisit certain ideas.

I can see it in the children I work with as well. Even before they’re ready to associate symbols with huge, abstract ideas, they still know that a crudely-drawn house can mean family, a crooked paper heart can mean love, and a lightbulb above someone’s head can mean they have an idea. When you’re little, the entire universe is one big scavenger hunt, with each squiggle or treasure yielding a secret about what it’s like to be exist. It’s not such a bad thing to regress into this once in a while, even if I have to use a gadget that lights up and makes noise in order to do so.

Now hitting “next” to see what the rest of the day will bring.