Monday, April 19, 2021

Someone died yesterday

Someone I've never met whose name is in my diary and whom I saw from a distance died yesterday.

Someone I've never met whom I saw from a distance died yesterday.

Someone I've never met died yesterday.

Someone died yesterday.

Why is it that no matter how many steps removed I may be from someone, the pain of their loss hits so hard?

I've thought about death a lot since I was a child. I had no choice. At 15, I lost my mother before anyone else I knew had died. I still have not fully reckoned with her passing. I don't expect myself to ever truly be at peace with it.

That makes sense. No one would fault me for never fully recovering from the traumatizing loss of a parent at a young age. But why is it that I cry even for the dead I've never met?

One year ago, I was sitting and watching a swing band perform. I saw this band often, their live music a salve to my stress and a way to discover "new" old music. When I became indefinitely stuck at home, I turned on their music to remind me of the beautiful ordinary moments of the before times.

I never met the leader of the band, but his crooning radiated through my body from loud speakers on Saturday nights. His titular band's name featured in my diary entries. His voice filled my room for a year to remind me of home when home no longer felt homey enough.

Why would I miss someone I have never met? Why would I think about them and worry about the children they left behind and the legacy they won't continue to build?

An entire year has passed spent thinking of the people I will never meet. Whether I knew them well, saw them from across the room, passed them without noticing, or never inhabited the same space at all, they existed. Existed with an -ed. I lament that. I try not to beat myself up for it.

Death does not feel inevitable at any given moment. But when it arrives, the reality of it is inescapable. The sadness is all consuming. The lost potential is a heavy weight.

No matter how close or how far away it hits, it never hurts any less.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Want versus need

(Rachel Poletick)

As a child, I spent a lot of evenings out shopping. My mom — dedicated and overworked, often tired and looking to unwind — treated big box stores like a respite for us. After commuting home from work by train and picking me up from daycare, we rejoiced in our daily retirement by gallivanting long white aisles in celebration of American consumerism.

While we picked up odds and ends, my mom might ask me what I needed. New shoes? Underwear? A jacket to replace one that I’d lost?

I’d respond. Dolls? New gel pens? A colorful boombox to play my Aaron Carter CDs?

While for me shopping was a coveted opportunity to obtain the latest toys and clothing, for my mom trips to stores weren’t just for fun. They were a chance to breathe. A necessary break from thoughts — from life.

Since March of this year, I have been forced to sit with my thoughts more than ever before. Isolation, boredom and quiet all seem to breed a kind of hyper-focus. And with so many things missing, so much that I can’t have, I’ve had no choice but to reflect on what I want and need.

Being lonely and driving to a friend’s house for company. Want.

Feeling my body ache from being sedentary, then exercising to revive my sore muscles. Need.

Craving food and going out to my favorite restaurant for dinner. Want.

The distinction, while seemingly obvious, can be pretty hazy in practice. As a child, even more so. But for the first time in my life, I am starting to gain more clarity.

So what is the difference, then?

I want something because it is desirable. I need something because it is not negotiable.

But it’s even more complicated than that. Because for many of the things I want, there is a root need that must be addressed.

While being lonely and driving to a friend’s house for company is a want, I do need company when I am lonely. But that company doesn’t require me to visit anyone. I can call, or text, or video chat. My need is still met.

While craving food and going to my favorite restaurant is a want, hunger is a real need. But I don’t need to be at a restaurant to eat. I can make food, or I can get some take out. As long as I eat, I am meeting my needs, even if I am not quite getting what I want.

For me, shopping was simply a want. When I was walking those aisles, I could ask to buy what I desired. But if I didn’t buy a single thing, life would go on just the same.

For my mom, shopping felt like a need, but was truly a want. For her, it symbolized letting her hair down. And in that respect, if she’d denied herself the privilege, it might have made her life unhappier. But there were so many ways that my mom let down her hair — she watched mindless reality TV, crocheted beautiful pieces of art, rented every horror movie from Hollywood Video, cuddled with our cat. She did not need to shop.

We do not need to shop.

We do need peace. And comfort. And joy. And occasionally we also need to do something we want, even if it isn’t necessarily something we need.

Right now, I’m waiting to do the things I want. I wait out of respect for others, because my wants do not come before their needs. I wait out of respect for myself, because I believe in my strength and self control.

And I wait because waiting is something I need to do, even if I don’t want to do it.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

You're not the center of the universe

It's A Small World (Rachel Poletick / Instagram)
There was only so much I knew as a little kid. My name is Rachel. I love wearing dresses. I live in California. California is in the United States.

Though I can't pinpoint an exact moment, eventually I discovered blouses, overalls, skirts and jeans. I also discovered that there were places beyond California and the United States. There were Japan and Norway and Madagascar and Uruguay. And all of these places were also home to kids not unlike myself who were discovering the vastness of the planet Earth.

I would soon learn that even our planet isn't singular in its existence. It is one among several in a solar system in a galaxy that is one among many galaxies.

I could have felt small when I learned that. I could have felt inconsequential. Released of the burden of my existence, even.

Well, that didn't happen.

Because I'm human, I went on to live a life lacking in that recurrent cosmic perspective, instead feeling every triumph deeply and every failure even more.

According to the geocentric system agreed upon by Plato and Aristotle and standardized by Ptolemy, the Earth was considered the center of the universe with all other visible celestial bodies circling around it. It seems absurd now, that the sun, the moon, the stars and our neighboring planets revolve around us. What makes us so special? A relatively tiny planet among many in the vastness of space?

I contend that, although we have the perspective to see our planet now as relatively insignificant, as a people we still struggle to apply that same logic to our lives.

Take today, for instance. I was in the waiting room in Emergency at a local hospital. Though I won't go into details, the person I was accompanying was pacing as one is wont to do when sitting or standing still or doing much of anything while physically uncomfortable. Without provocation, a woman also awaiting being seen aggressively called out my companion, saying the pacing was an attempt to be seen and attended to by the nurses first, though she had arrived at the ER before us.

She proceeded to berate my companion, so I tried to step in. All awhile, my attempts to extricate everyone from the situation created even more ire from the offensive party.

With all this going on, a thought kept repeating in my head:

"She doesn't know. She doesn't know. She doesn't know."

Our day has been difficult. Our week has been difficult. We have been near to breaking. I have broken. But I have never tried to break someone else.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of someone who would pick a fight in the Emergency Room. This is a place where people are in peril, in sadness or in mourning. All I could think is how easy it is to fall into that geocentric way of thinking. That you-centric way, for lack of a better phrase. You are the center of this little ball in space and as that center, everyone else is orbiting you. They are all as extraneous and secondary as the sun, moon, stars and planets to your Earth.

But that's just it. That makes no sense. While there had been rumblings about it long before the 16th century, in 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus became the de facto father of heliocentricism through his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). The book illustrated an astronomical model proposing a solar system with the sun at the center and the Earth and its fellow planets orbiting around it.

In a great big universe with you at the center, the people around you, the communities, the states, the countries, the planets are irrelevant. But that universe doesn't exist.

I am as important as you are and you are as important as they are. My bad day does not negate your bad day. I have no right to make your day worse because I perceive you unwittingly disrupting my orbit.

I do, however, have the right to make your day better. In big ways or in little, seemingly insignificant ways.

Childhood was a simpler time. What I could not comprehend was not a burden to me. But children also cry when they're asked to share. They get cranky when they're told they can't have dessert before dinner. They grumpily tell you to go to your room when you ask them to stop hitting others. I grew out of childhood and became better behaved in my little universe and better informed about the broader one.

I can't begin to know your story, but in the moments when it counts I'd like to think my impact will be a net positive in your life. With a little insight, maybe we can all see that we're all orbiting the same sun together.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

20 per diem: How I really learned to play the piano

(Rachel Poletick)
Every once in a while a thought will pop in my head that sounds something like this:

Could I be a ballerina?

I look down my short frame at my tiny feet and try to cycle through the five ballet positions I learned in a beginner's dance class. Sometimes I even take the opportunity to prance around the room, pretending I'm on stage. I move with a reckless abandon that's usually reserved for kids up to age nine.

Then I come back to reality and remember that while my fantasies may quickly plop me on a stage in the middle of a performance of Swan Lake, reality may not be so kind.

Sub in just about any incredible talent that takes time and practice, and you begin to approach my dilemma.

Could I be a novelist? Could I be a marathoner? Could I be an artist? Could I be an actress? Photographer? Programmer? Comedian? Designer? Historian? Pottery maker? Lion tamer/clown/unicyclist?

As I cycle down the list, landing on a singularly desirable path becomes more and more unlikely. Instead I become trapped in a loop of possibilities.

So a few months ago I decided I would stop the madness. And I started playing piano.

The piano and I have had an on-again, off-again relationship for years. With a piano teacher for a father, my chance to learn and eventually grow into a virtuosic pianist was always on the table. At times I even toyed with the idea of focusing on the instrument. Yet something never quite clicked.

I would spend a few months on it and give up. Years would pass and I would try again, ending up starting back over from a more intermediate skill level because unlike riding a bike, the piano requires consistency.

The piano requires practice.

When I sat back at the keys recently, I quickly had the same realization. I was back to square one yet again, agonizing over my diminished recognition of chords and my inability to play through songs I'd memorized years before. I thought about walking away once more.

Instead, I listened. First to the music. Underneath each wrong note, I heard the right one in my head and searched for it among the keys. I played through and accepted warts and all. Accepting the screw ups allowed me to pride myself even more in the triumphs.

Second, I listened to my Dad. Play every day, he said. It seemed daunting, like forcing a square peg through a round hole. If I'm not good now, how will I ever be? I asked when I would ever witness the progress I craved. He advocated patience.

So I set on the task, spending at least 20 minutes at the piano each afternoon.

As the keys became friendlier, increasingly familiar with each passing day, I fell more in love with the piano than I had in my 20 years of sporadic playing. Why, though? Why now, at 24, am I finally seeing what seemed unfathomable at 10, or 14, or even 22?

I spent years assuming something about the piano, about all learned skills for the matter.

John Keats once wrote, "...if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all."

In my inability to accept my beginner's status, I'd lived and died by this axiom. The way I saw it, the piano did not come as naturally to me as it did others. Instead of testing my theory, I believed it completely and without question. And I never improved.

What I discovered in returning to the piano for 20 minutes per day (give or take a few) was that the absence of perfection need not equal the loss of enjoyment. Prodigious talent may be sought after, but it is no substitute for hard work.

It is one thing to cast off a never-ending list of wishes, complaining to the unseen forces of time and motivation for your inability to make them come true. It is another to make an effort to see them through yourself.

If only 20 minutes a day can make a difference, perhaps those wishes aren't so far off.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Memento mori

In the Victorian era, hairwork (jewelry made with human hair) was a popular type of literal memento mori, used to preserve a small token of a loved one who had passed away. (Gordon McDowell / Flickr)

Memento Mori. "Remember that you must die."

I don't wish to send you off into an emotional downward spiral, but the translation of this Latin phrase has spun around my head, waltzed in one ear and out the other over the past few weeks. Besides being a humorous catchphrase on Dear Hank and John, my favorite (and probably the only) "comedy podcast about death," it is a sobering reminder of something we know every day, but choose also - in some ways - not to know.

This is how I treat the reality of mortality, but it is how I treat other realities too. The reality of loss, the reality of failure, the reality of fear. I cross out the remember in "Remember that you must..." and replace it with "Ignore all signs that you must [insert unpleasant thought here]."

But on occasion, willful ignorance is no longer possible. I have to see what's directly in front of me. Quite literally. Because, like so many, I keep relics of the past.

These are actual mementos, not-so-figurative remembrances of those unpleasant thoughts. Things like a college rejection letter, a ring from an ex-boyfriend, a handwritten note in the final days of a sick relative.

Once we have established positive associations with our belongings, it can be difficult to let them go. When we couple those positives with negative associations, however, it becomes downright impossible.

There is something poetic in the notion of bittersweetness, that we cannot think of a word to describe the feeling of simultaneous sadness and happiness, thus we must associate it with a much more palpable sensation: taste. I liken the experience of looking at a deeply meaningful yet tainted object to having a better than average cup of coffee. At first it reels you in with the taste of cream and sugar, that which can render the beverage tolerable. But there's also something soothing in the slow-to-arrive bitterness. It keeps you there, lingering on the flavor. On the duality of the experience.

Tonight I threw away some things because those tastebuds had been used to such great effect that they lost their appeal. Like that fateful day when I went from having Chex Mix every afternoon to having it next to never, I had to come to an unwelcome realization that my needs were changing. I had to give up what was tiring me out.

At what point do we say goodbye to sorrowful memories, and how do we accomplish it? I don't have an answer for this, and I think that is the most human dilemma. We cannot forget. We compare our capacity for memory to other creatures - describing it as gnat-like or using the saying "an elephant never forgets." Like physical mementos, memory can be a blessing and a curse.

As with the realities I choose to ignore, but cannot forget, there are objects in my life I have struggled to let go of, hiding them in plain sight so that I can pretend they aren't there while trusting that they are just the same. On some level, they ground me, reminding me of a tumultuous past. On another, they burden me with a constant hovering dread.

So today I let go. Not fully, that takes time. But in releasing some mementos, I have given myself the permission to feel things independently and without interference. Whether my mind can trash negativity as easily as my hands can, I don't know. I'm searching for that reality most of all.