Monday, November 23, 2009

Re-entry of a spark friend

(you're entering a pivotal scene in an ongoing plot, so don't be alarmed if you're slightly disoriented...)

And as I walk into the room, my eyes are drawn to a familiar figure, his head turned in conversation. A beat before I really recognize him, my heart surges open with unexpected pleasure. It’s been at least nine years since I last saw Ian. We had a spark friendship, short and intense, having met at a Hallowe’en party and connected in a way that felt more open and familiar than I’d ever experienced with a man. I could accept his attraction because he was gay. Even though I sensed a sexual element somewhere in there, I knew instinctively that our mutual lure was more primal than sex. As though our essences recognized each other as kin.

Through the following months, we were constantly drawn together, talking on the phone every day, meeting up for coffee or lunch at least once a week, often more. We always greeted each other with a smile of special recognition and a hug. We shared our childhood experiences of difference, our deepest shames, our dearest wishes, our uncertainties, while cuddled under a blanket sipping tea. We discussed and debated music, science, politics, spirituality, and a host of inanities. Within a few weeks we had developed the habit of holding hands, leaning on each other and touching naturally with genuine affection. People started whispering and wondering, but we hardly noticed inside the bubble of connectedness we shared. We laughed a lot, we cried sometimes.

Then he met Ristic. Ian was no pansy-boy, but he was slight and fine-boned, hovering on the masculine side of androgyny, with a quick wit and discriminating sensibilities. Ristic was a baseball-playing, jovial boys-boy, laughing while he pushed the limits of propriety to see what it took to offend the current room. He was overtly sexual in his comments and conduct, and though 110% masculine, more openly gay than even sexuality-secure hetero men preferred. He was gorgeous, tall and muscular, with ripped abs accentuated by tight t-shirts, and he exuded an edgy, challenging kind of charisma that made other men fall in line around the top dog.

This was the man who grasped Ian’s heart with a tight fist and squeezed until I hardly knew my friend. Ristic, who only knocked Ian around if he’d had too much to drink. Ristic, who publicly denigrated Ian’s femininity but tolerated no masculine challenge. Ristic, who time and again created situations that forced Ian to choose him over me, clearly marking his possession. Ristic, who held on to Ian for dear life when he discovered that he had HIV. But by the time that happened, I was already in the distance, no longer able to reach the part of Ian that was me.

Now, seeing him, I long for our connection, long for him in a way I thought I’d forgotten to feel. He looks up, drawn by my stare; instantly, my essence leaps with joy at the bright recognition in his eyes. And the next second, plummets as those eyes cloud over with caution, his face settling into the barely amused, polite demeanor of his social mask.

Fear, Responsibility and Change

I recently read Nadeem Aslam The Wasted Vigil. It’s terrifying and fascinating and I don’t know what to do with this information about the nature of terrorist thinking, religious thinking. I start to understand why the right wing pro-war people, the Generals and politicians, sound so crazy – they’re more scared than the rest of us and can’t understand why we aren’t. I begin to understand the appeal of deciding to be just fine with the ideals by which we live existing in a protected bubble, and in the zone of “protection” anything is permissible to keep the centre safe.

And why not? I love my life. Am I really willing to live in an equal world where my average goes down so that more people’s averages can go up? Am I willing to accept more filth, more careful use of resources, more manual labour, less privacy, less convenience, less safety, less individual power? Other people in the world live daily lives filled with fear and powerlessness, concern about having enough food, water or protection to stay alive, let alone comfortable. The slightest inconvenience, delay or difficulty can try my patience – I’m spoiled, whiny and undisciplined next to people who learn to live and grow in those environments.

Which means my “hierarchy of needs” are being met at a pretty high level. Ideally, everyone would have a standard of living high enough that they could become aware of inconvenience, because achieving that level of comfort is a milestone past which people can settle in and look around themselves, start thinking and wondering and looking for creative outlets. Below it, many people are too desperate and busy to spend time analyzing or expanding their understanding beyond opinions handed to them, especially within environments where such activity is not valued or is actively discouraged.

But I’m not convinced that there are enough resources on this planet to allow for that standard of living for the entire earth’s population. In fact, the current system in which some part of the earth’s population has much while most of the population has very little, looks to me like a bell curve with the height of the bell at too low a comfort level, and a very steep drop at the edges. It’s possible this is part of “the natural pattern,” allowing some portion of the human race to focus beyond survival. Even in the poorest places, there are people who have more and people who have less, and those power structures often go right down into family units.

Ideally, the lucky people able to focus beyond survival will turn their minds to finding ways to move the bell curve forward on the comfort scale, so eventually the height of the bell is at a level where people can focus beyond basic survival. I’d like to see the entire human race move toward that. The world’s poor play a role, as do the world’s rich.

It’s like that old, old concept of Divine Right. What if our privileged lives are serving a purpose towards the greater good of future generations of a larger portion of the human race? If our society fed back to the people it uses and exploits to achieve its standard, raising their standards bit by bit in ways that made sense to them at a basic survival level, would that just breed more resentment, or would they see the greater good?

It doesn’t really matter because North American society is not focused on raising the world level of comfort over generations, it’s focused on raising it’s own level of comfort in decades. There’s a chance that the resentment much of the world feels wouldn’t be affected one way or the other by our society’s actual behaviour, given envy and limited available information. But when the behaviour is overtly exploitative, dismissive and violent in nature, there is much to fear.

We need to get the mean comfort level up to above survival – those who have the luxury of looking beyond survival have the responsibility to try to get others there, too. That doesn't mean we’ll all be equal, mind you – the “haves” continue to increase their own standard of living as the bell curve shifts to the right.

I follow the arguments that the current system must be destroyed because it is cruel. But I don’t think that will solve anything. If there is to be a general positive trajectory toward a world of abundance for all, it can only occur as a deliberate, steady improvement over time - a concerted effort among a majority of "haves." When there are too many desperate people and revolution takes place, it shifts the “haves” and “have nots” around, but doesn’t change the basic issues with society. There is loss and suffering, but no progress towards greater good. It’s the new saddle on the old donkey.

The current system can be turned toward an increased awareness of, and willingness to invest in, raising the mean comfort level. Those of us who understand that it’s our duty to do this need to work hard at helping other people see that it’s in all of our best interest to be devoting a larger part of the world’s resources to the general good of the human race.

We can do it, we should do it, and we must do it faster, or the whole system will come crashing down and none of us will be comfortable any more. At the same time, protecting the current system is like taking drugs for symptoms while they research a cure. But, we’d better make sure the means we employ to protect the system aren’t causing other side effects, or killing us in other ways, and I don’t think anyone knows how to do that.

I want to protect my life as it is because I love my life – I wish everyone could love their lives like I do, and I think it would be a lot easier to get along if everyone did. I also think the current system has hope of producing a strong, cohesive, concerted effort at raising the world’s comfort level, even though it will take generations beyond my own efforts. If the current economic system is destroyed by anger and ignorance, hatred and selfishness, it could be several generations before another group of “haves” gets to the development point where the “human” cause is taken up again. And so much knowledge will have been lost in the meantime, ground to re-cover, learning to re-learn. It’s true that most of western society is not focused on the human race. Yet, maybe only this decadent a society can produce a sufficient number of aware, committed “haves” to really make change.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oh, elusive fulfillment

I recently achieved exactly what I set out to do, and yet, here comes dissatisfaction. I can hear its footsteps around the corner.

I've always associated my identity with being a professional. Even my spare time was spent working on interesting theories or programs in my field. When I left the workforce for my first maternity leave at 34, it was the first time in my life that I didn't constantly feel the anxious little twangs and spasms that my body uses to remind me to stay on high alert. I was just here, with my son, accountable to no one else. It wasn't long before I mistook being relaxed for being bored (I still have a hard time telling them apart).

When my body relaxed a bit, my brain started feeling really uncomfortable. I felt disconnected from my profession, and I couldn't shake the nagging sense that I was slipping, stagnating, wasting precious career time. Even as I felt the value of the time with my son, the moments of pure joy and discovery were still fewer than the moments of monotony and drudgery. I found myself joking that I was a pretty expensive babysitter. I couldn't settle into it, and I started doing contract work when Blaise was 5 months old.

I decided to make a clean break and took a new job well before the end of my maternity leave, only to discover that I was pregnant within a week of starting. I'd hardly gotten back in, and I was off again, but this time with two. Caring for a baby that couldn't hold it's own head while herding a newly-walking toddler with no sense of danger was not the same experience as my first maternity leave. We stayed home a lot. I really started to notice that the moments of joy and discovery were outweighed by the drudgery, monotony and general difficulty of parenting two extremely young, and very intense, children. I decided that I just wasn't cut out for being a stay-at-home parent, so I started back to work when Sabine was 8 months old, 3 days a week.

My second return to work was a flop. My energy had never been so low, and the role itself was not emerging as having interesting projects. Eight months in, I flip-flopped my opinion, deciding that I simply wasn't engaged enough in the work to justify not being with the kids. I was optimistic - they were a bit older, both walking and talking - surely it would be more interesting to be home with them. I left my job. It was more interesting and slightly less exhausting, but I was not happy. I was restless, impatient, and felt prickly with resentment a lot of the time.

So now I was not feeling interested in the profession that had previously encompassed my identity, and not happy home with the kids, where my energy and life force felt constantly sucked dry. So I wondered if maybe I just hadn't found my calling - maybe I needed to serve the world to feel fulfilled. I decided to take some contract work 2 days a week when we fell short of money, but not to accept a job until I was able to feel like my work would make a difference in the world.

Within 6 months I'd achieved my goal - a role with a local non-profit focused on systemic-level poverty elimination initiatives, engaging the community using all the same skills I'd built in my previous career. I even negotiated a perfect week - 3.5 days for the family, 3.5 days for work. I have time with the kids, but it's not my whole life. I have work that adds value and keeps me at least moderately stimulated. The kids themselves are now really fun and interesting, despite the roller-coaster ride of emotions that comprise the days. Life is better. Overall, I'm happy.

But I feel it again - that same irritated dissatisfaction that starts chipping away at my energy and enthusiasm. This time, I think it's because of the story I feel compelled to create, the frustration when I lose clarity of ideas because I don't have time to capture them, and an almost physical pull to give more time to that project. But I've misdiagnosed before, and I'm cautious.

I have a strong suspicion that there is something else going on here. I'm restless and dissatisfied, despite my gratitude for the many moments of love and joy that belong to me on every single day. Is it the pull to write? Is it fear and disappointment of watching possibilities and potentials wither and close their pathways as I approach middle age with two small children in tow? Is it unresolved parent issues?

As my husband likes to say when diagnosing problems, "it's never one thing."

Maybe fulfillment isn't something to get so worked up about. If I find a way to calm the anxious seeking for life purpose, stop comparing (for real!), and enjoy riding the waves of my life, I'll be happier. Sometimes I achieve it. But there is always this nagging tug towards "purpose," "fulfillment," and, as I type those words, a third comes unbidden: "respect." Hmm.

I wish I had time for this level of self development!