Archives for Relationships
When I was little, my folks (and most everyone else) liked to joke that I was "5 going on 35." I was apparently very mature for my age. Or any age. I do remember being a rather serious child, very much in my own inner world at times, and sometimes feeling like I saw the world and the people in it differently from my peers. An example - one day an older neighborhood girl was babysitting my brother and me. Her younger sister accompanied her and began to talk about some problems she was having with her boyfriend. I was about 10 at the time and had never had a boyfriend. But when she told me her issue, I instantly understood what was going on with the boyfriend and quickly explained to her the most likely reason why he was behaving the way he was (although now I don't remember exactly what it was he was doing). She looked at me - shocked - and said, "You are right! But how do you know this?" I had no idea. I still have no idea. Now I suspect it is just because I am an introvert and a natural observer of life and people. Maybe I just had seen the same pattern play out with other peer relationships. Or perhaps I saw something similar to what the girl described on a television show. All I know is, whatever I told her worked, and it resolved her issue with her boyfriend. That being said, as a "mature" 5, and 10, and 15, and 25-year-old, I was very faithful to my parents' assertions that I should always have a long-term plan. So I did. For instance, I was saving for retirement the moment I paid off my student debt. After college, I chose a career with a stable company in a beautiful place (California) and anticipated maxing out my 401K plan so I could be secure the rest of my life. The only problem with this very wise long-term plan is, it didn't fit me.
Last month my boyfriend and I took a trip to West Texas. I was so excited by our itinerary! First of all, after being born and raised here, I had only just learned Texas has MOUNTAINS. I couldn't wait to see them. I also had my heart set on climbing one of them, and not just any mountain, either. I wanted to climb the highest mountain - Guadalupe Peak. According to the brochure, standing at 8,751 feet tall, Guadalupe Peak is the "highest point in Texas." The views are said to be spectacular. Of course I wouldn't be able to verify that, since approximately 10 minutes into our straight vertical trek up the mountainside, I developed a severe case of heat exhaustion/altitude sickness. Coughing turned to hacking, which turned to wheezing and then vomiting. Sweat was streaming down my face and body. My boyfriend called it and I hobbled after him back towards the air conditioned sanctuary of our rental car. To say I was mortified would be an understatement of Peak-level proportions (approximately 8,751 feet's worth, if you happen to be interested). I was sure my boyfriend was going to break up with me. Heck, I was contemplating breaking up with myself. I wanted to squeeze myself into a teensy invisible ball and activate my cloaking device until....well, no sense putting any time limitations on it.
Relationships with people have never been easy for me. I grew up watching my extroverted mother and extroverted younger brother making friends with ease. When I did make a friend, it was usually the other way around - that person (for some obscure reason I couldn't ever quite put my finger on) chose me. While I found relating to my pet parakeet, Perky, effortless and joyful, and I delighted in the company of my 5 slider turtles, I mostly lumped "birthday parties" and "dentist appointments" into the same category of "events to avoid at all costs." People mostly just mystified me. Often they would say one thing and then promptly do another. Sometimes they would say one thing when a particular person wasn't around, and then say just the opposite when that person finally appeared. It took me years to realize that many of the strange interactions I had with various classmates might have actually been attempts at bullying. Once, a girl in my class (a notorious puncher) walked right up to me and punched me in the stomach. I just stared at her.
Somehow, turning 45 (which happened just this past December) triggered what I can only call a "mid-life fear of death crisis." For anyone who is just joining us here now, it probably won't surprise you to learn I blogged quite a bit about this issue last year. While I have continued to ponder and reflect on my oddly cantankerous relationship with the reality of my own death, I haven't blogged about it for awhile now. I think this is because I haven't really come across anything new to re-open the topic for discussion. Until now. A few months ago, when my regular weekly issue of Time magazine arrived, there was a long section in it about "longevity." While most of it was focused on answering questions about how to prolong life, why the healthiest folks aren't always the longest-life winners, and what species of beings tend to live longest, sandwiched in between all that was a topic about how old people are less scared of dying. Because, apparently, they are. According to Time and a University of Colorado research professor named Thomas Pyszczynski (who I suspect would win the prize for "most consonants in a last name"), old people actually feel more satisfaction and less anxiety when contemplating their own death. They also take bad news better - as in the "sorry old sport but there's nothing more we can do" kind of news. Leeds, England psychology professor Steve Taylor says this is because old people stop trying to take ownership of everything in their lives.
I learn a lot from Facebook. I mean, not from Facebook itself, but from the awesome folks I meet there. Recently, a sweet friend tagged me in a post featuring 17 slides. Each slide addressed an area of life where people commonly struggle. I scrolled through, and the slide that first caught my eye said this: Anger is a natural defense against pain. So when someone says "I hate you" it really means "you hurt me." This statement hit home like, well, (insert compelling sports metaphor featuring fastball + pro athlete here). And (just for clarification's sake) I don't mean to imply on any level that "I hate you" doesn't also mean "I hate you." But under that feeling of anger, rage or hate, more and more these days I am personally finding pain. Hurt. OUCH. To further complicate matters, I'm learning that sometimes, when I say "I hate you" to someone else, I really am talking to myself. Sometimes I am talking to both of us. Sometimes I am addressing the circumstances rather than any particular person, or I'm stomping my inner 2-year-old's frustrated little foot, because, after all, life isn't fair! Saying (or shouting, or even thinking) "I hate you" is sometimes the fastest, easiest, and most effective means of getting the e-motion OUT. So the hate-feeling often comes first. But then the pain hits. Then the grief process begins to unfold, with its denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and (if I'm lucky) whatever I needed to learn that can lead to an eventual acceptance and the ability to move along. Why is this realization so impactful for me? I would have to say it is because I used to hear myself thinking or speaking the words "I hate you" and I would immediately stop whatever I was feeling/thinking/doing to jump on myself with judgment and condemnation.
I'm not sure exactly when I began to believe I didn't have any surprises left in store for myself. After all, I still learn new things about other people and my pets each and every day. But at some point I guess I just stopped paying attention to myself in that way...like there wasn't going to be anything new left to learn about me. That ended last month. It has taken me a bit of time to wrap my mind around what I recently discovered about myself, but it has been time well spent. By that I mean, I've needed the in-between processing time to finish a big task I set for myself - constructing my growing baby tortoise's new habitat. My red-foot tortoise, Malti, is one and a half years old and nearly 4 inches long. She is growing fast, and her habitat must grow with her. This is more challenging than just buying a bigger enclosure for several reasons:
Recently I read a fascinating book called "The Naked Ape." Written by zoologist Desmond Morris in 1966 - four years before I was born - it nevertheless reads like "breaking news" in the ongoing human-animal consciousness debate. Morris states quite matter-of-factly in his introduction that he has always both liked and felt more comfortable with animals than with people. He discloses that his work on "The Naked Ape" book is in part an attempt to help remedy that. His literary premise is therefore fairly simple: by stripping humanity of its rather glamorous "top of the food chain" status and simply taking a look at lifestyle, behavior, breeding, feeding, fighting, even anatomy from an apples-to-apples, ape-to-ape perspective, perhaps it will then become possible to feel more connected to the vast variety of non-human life that exists all around us. Maybe, in this sense, Morris's goal is to finally discover some sense of normalcy - a feeling that he, that we, belong here on this planet we are so intent on dominating and (these days) over-populating.
I can answer this question on my own behalf - YES. and YES. My 15-year-old parrot, Pearl, and my nearly-2-year-old tortoise, Malti, are two members of my closest support circle. I work from home, and guess who shares my tiny office with me (it is actually more "their" office that I share with them!). They come with me to most family events and all Sunday brunches at my folks' house (where they are pampered and spoiled while I occupy myself by doing the brunch dishes and documenting each occasion with multiple cute photos). In fact, in pondering this question further, I can honestly say Pearl and Malti are vital - essential - in terms of their ability to keep me on an even keel in what often feels like a very uneven-feeling world. Recently my brother and sister-in-law launched a crowdfunding effort to assist with training a service dog for my three-year-old nephew, FuMing. As it turns out, this is not an easy or cheap undertaking, especially if the child in question is under the age of 12. So here (and as my perhaps all-time favorite article on the topic clearly details) there is a different between a trained service animal (usually a dog) and a registered emotional support animal, or ESA. There are many differences. I think the most critical difference is the training aspect. Service animals are formally trained and certified, and many who go through the process don't make the final cut (I found this out when a friend of mine volunteered to train a candidate dog for a year, then was able to adopt him when he didn't qualify in the final round). Emotional support animals, on the other hand, go through no formal training process at the moment. The process to register an animal as an ESA basically involves two parts: a) stating you have an emotional issue or need, and b) forking over some cash.
As I've continued reading Dr. Emily Nagoski's "Come As You Are the surprising new science that will transform your sex life," I've happened across all kinds of very surprising new insights indeed. But very few have been about actual s.e.x. For example, an eye-popper that crossed my mind right before lights out last night: Why is normal the goal? What do people really want when they want to be normal? I think that to feel normal is to belong." What if our continual ruminations (individually and as a society) on the word "normal" have far more to do with our early clan and tribe days than with today's oh-so-independent and largely low-risk lifestyle? What if, to our ancient limbic/reptilian brain that just wants to help us survive, this is what "not normal" translates to mean: I'm not normal. = I am an outcast. = I must live alone with no one else to rely on. = I will likely be lunch for a hungry predator very soon.
Out in California, something special is taking place. At a sanctuary called Serenity Park, traumatized parrots and traumatized people are connecting for mutual healing. What is interesting about this is, well, pretty much everything (of course, as a lifelong parrot lover, I may be just a touch biased here). The people participants are formerly homeless veterans (both men and women) victimized by the many and varying traumas associated with wartime military service. The parrot participants have been victimized by a different kind of war - mainly abuse by or loss of their human owners. On both sides, there are emotional and mobility issues to contend with. But in all cases, it is clear that the interspecies participants' minds are still sharp and eager to heal. Speaking of minds, there is no doubt in mine that the pioneering work of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and her now-passed African Grey parrot, Alex, (two of my own most cherished mentors) are responsible for laying the foundation for what is going on at Serenity Park right now. Thanks to Alex & Dr. Pepperberg, we know that parrots can display emotional and cognitive abilities to rival young humans. We know they feel deeply, form intense social bonds, understand abstract reasoning and have the capacity to develop complex and extensive vocabularies. This means that, in some capacity, parrots may be even better suited than dogs to participate in animal-assisted therapy as service and support partners. Perhaps this is what veteran volunteer Lilly Love meant when she told New York Times reporter Charles Siebert, You can look in their eyes....any of these parrots’ eyes, and I myself see a soul. I see a light in there. And when they look at you, they see right into your soul. Look around. They’re all watching. They notice everything. It’s intense.