Monday, April 11, 2022

Callings

When I was young, I thought I had one Calling, one enduring vocation or purpose in life. Lately, I've come to realize that it might be more of a hierarchy of Callings, and that like everything else in the universe, these Callings and their relationships are dynamic. As Mrs. Judy Berry told us repeatedly in Chemistry class, the only constant is change. Certainly, the way I have learned to listen to God/ the Universe's callings has changed. The tools I have acquired to serve these Callings have also definitely changed as a result of my education and experience. 

In fact, I have reached a pain point. I hear Conflicting Callings. Sometimes even contrasting Callings, like Art and Science. And so many Callings that I cannot serve them all, or even a few, well at once. How do you decide what calling to serve when all are noble and necessary? When all help you remember the joys and miracle of all creation? When all are open to you and require roughly the same amount of work and resources to pursue (i.e. there is no one obviously expeditious pick)?

In high school, I knew I wanted to help. "Helping" was my calling. Specifically, I wanted to help people process their emotions and find meaning in their lives. Mainly I considered two possible careers, one as a writer, or one in psychology. Eventually, I decided that I could be a writer with any education, but I could not be a psychologist without degrees in psychology.  I also thought it likely that learning psychology would make me a better writer (with a better understanding of characters' motivations). This realization solved the painful need to make decisions about what to do after graduation. Granted I still had to make many decisions along the way...like would I be of best helps to others in finding meaning in life as a Clinical, Counseling, or Industrial-Organizational Psychologist? Could I serve well enough with a master's or did I need a doctorate? And the questions have never really ended. Should I work as a research scientist or as an applied scientist-practitioner? As an internal or external consultant? For a non-profit providing a critical service or for a private corporation employing hundreds of thousands providing infrastructure? What about teaching too, just adults on the job or higher education as well? Where is the sweet spot of greatest need fitted to my particular greatest strengths?

I was always looking for that one, sweet spot. The Calling...and maybe that is the problem. Maybe there is one big Calling factor with dimensions and sub-factors, just like we have a personality with 5 dimensions (OCEAN) that can be interpreted into 16+ further sub-factors (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personality)? Maybe my main Calling is simply, "to help others find meaning in life" and there are dimensions I must shift my attention to over the course of my life like writing, psychology, art, love, caretaking, etc. And even among those dimensions, there are sub-factors, like poetry, fiction, research articles, and textbooks under the dimension for writing. I couldn't stop myself from writing poetry in my first 30 years of life, but after that, I longed to write books. Every dimension has competing sub-factors like that for me. When asked what I want the next five or ten years of my life to look like now (compared to being asked this question a decade ago)...I have a very difficult time answering. Now I want my life in ten years to look like everything. I want to be the old lady in argyle socks with a chicken and two cats in the front basket of her bicycle peddling to the farmer's market to sell paintings on Saturday who does yoga and a cooking class with kids on Sunday, who coaches the executive board of the SPCA on Monday, runs a teamwork simulation for firefighters on Tuesday, writes a romance the rest of the week, and then leaves to present Grand Rounds at a hospital in Auckland and hike in New Zealand on Friday. It's impossible.

Or is it? It's certainly impossible to achieve so many outcomes. But what if I let go of the outcomes? What if I let go of the timetable? What if I just think about the doing, the dimensions themselves, instead of what doing them looks like or achieves? What if I just make sure I am doing something in every dimension of my Calling? I can do art, do writing, do psychology, do love, etc. That is possible. Maybe I won't "achieve" much in any one dimension, but is that really the point? What if the point is simply that I help myself find joy and meaning in life? What if that helps others do so too? Just that. 

Lately, I think the Calling, sounds like it is telling me to serve as a polymath. A polymath is traditionally thought to mean a "renaissance man," who has mastered many talents, and we picture someone like Leonardo DaVinci. I'm no Leo. But the dictionary definition of a polymath isn't about talents or outcomes. The dictionary definition of a polymath is "a person of wide-ranging learning." When I am widely active, open to and learning everything, I am happiest. I find life has great meaning for me the more widely I learn. I gain a wealth of experiences...even when I accomplish very little. In turn, that wealth of experience makes it easier for me to listen to and understand what others are sharing more fully. I become someone who understands others well, I become more equipped to help others...and maybe that is the biggest, most helpful calling I could possibly serve anyway? Is there anything more needed than someone who helps others feel heard and understood? That sounds like a grand Calling to me.

Maybe the sweet spot isn't where my interests in writing, psychology, art, love, etc. all coalesce to serve in the greatest possible way to help people. The sweet spot could be doing all of these things in ways that bring me a great balance of joy and learning. If I enjoy the learning, I will learn more. If I learn such a wide variety of things, I can understand and share in more ways all the things that bring others more meaningful lives. I have no doubt that a deep connection to purpose is important, but I think I  hyper-focused on depth for a while. 

The universe is deep and broad, and to paraphrase many religions, "I am nothing. I am everything. I am the universe." We are all made of the same stuff. The signal I hear now says be broad and deep.

I am writing, consulting, teaching, and braving another dimension now too: creating art. I've always doodled, and I've been into photography since 1992...these arts were a way for me to notice and honor the existing beauty in the world. A hobby. I started sharing #RandomEverydayBeauty photos on Facebook in 2005...I felt a calling to share the glimpses of beauty I noticed in case others needed them too. In 2018 I felt a tug to try drawing for Inktober: a commitment to doodle one thing a day in ink for 31 days. The act of drawing centered me. For a few minutes each day, I didn't think about anything except observing and creating. I've done Inktober every year since then, but in 2021 something special happened. Another polymath professor asked me to join a faculty, staff, and student art club online so we could share Inktober efforts and inspirations. The sharing went so well, we made it go on beyond October. I started drawing something every week, even after October. I asked friends if they wanted a painting or drawing of anything just so I could stretch my skills on new subjects. Friends offered birds, pets, landscapes, loved ones, random ideas (...I'm looking at you fellow author who asked for a chicken smoking a cigarette) for me to paint. 

I decided to sell a few of these efforts on RedBubble.com so I could pay for more art supplies, so I could paint more, so I could learn more. More artists started sharing their art with me, inspiring new ideas, and helping me understand their motivations better. I became even wealthier in friends. And one gift I did not expect...I've found such joy in painting portraits of family, babies, and pets in ways that are meaningful for others. I just did it to practice at first, but lately, everyone I've done one for has mentioned something about how the painting allows them to represent their memories and the spirit of the subject better than their photos (that have stuff they don't want in the backgrounds or don't have all of the people they want in it together, etc.). I am answering a call to help that I didn't hear before today. I'm open to these calls now too. Van Gogh lost an ear, lived in an asylum broke and unknown, but loved art enough to just do lots of it every day anyway... it could be that he knew learning in this dimension was worth everything for him at that moment? Van Gogh only sold one painting while he was alive, for 400 francs (roughly worth $4,000 today), seven months before his death. He never knew any of the outcomes like how many millions of people would study and love his art because it helped them see the world's beauty. I take it as a lesson...I may not know how I'm helping, but I can't help at all if I don't answer the Callings, listen to their dimensions and reply to whatever sub-factors come up.

https://laceysarts.com/

This is my painting of a Queen Butterfly serving its "Calling" as a pollinator.



Tuesday, April 5, 2022

The 7 C's of Psychologically Sexy

Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D. (a biological anthropologist) describes 3 brain systems for love: lust, attraction, and attachment (http://helenfisher.com/downloads/articles/15npolve.pdf). Our neurology, biology, and the environments (both social and physical) that we live in have conspired (through evolution) to create these 3 brain systems. In one way or another, all 3 systems are interested in helping us perpetuate life (our own, new/ next generational, social communities, etc.). The Lust Brain drives us to seek sexual gratification (inspiring us to expend precious energy to procreate, i.e. create lives). The Attraction Brain inspires us to focus on winning and guarding the beneficial relationships that make us most interested in living. The Attachment Brain influences us to cooperate and build the communal and compassionate relationships that sustain lives. Obviously, being physically sexy helps you engage someone's lust brain...but in humans, something curious happens pretty quickly...we start looking at the deep-level characteristics in others (e.g. personality, values, principles, faith, etc.) as we interact with them in groups (https://journals.aom.org/doi/abs/10.5465/256901). Maybe even more shocking, we can find ourselves eventually lusting after someone we've become attached to, who didn't physically trigger our lust...attraction can sneak in after the fact! (https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1971-08141-001) We can even come to think of an objectively attractive person as downright homely or ugly if they are (or become) psychologically ugly (e.g. aggressive, cynical, abusive). It turns out that being psychologically sexy is where it's at!

So regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, race, culture, and dozens of other specifiers...what generally makes one person psychologically sexy to another? The answer from psychological research so far seems to be easiest to summarize using these seven C's: (Note: Famed teams researcher, Eduardo Salas, Ph.D., has the seven c's of effective teamwork; so I owe the conceptual model to him.)

  1. Consenting: People who first consent or agree that we are interesting, earn our interest in return. Furthermore, people who ask for our consent before taking action that impacts us earn our trust. For example, most of us think it's pretty nice when someone tells us they find us attractive and ask if they can kiss or hug us. Even in long-term relationships, we rate our spouses as more attractive when they habitually tell us they would like to surprise us and ask if a specific time to do so would work for us before committing to expensive trips or dinners, etc.
  2. Competent: We find it sexy when a person has the necessary knowledge, ability, or skill to do something difficult that we value. This is part of what makes certain professions so attractive and why romantic heroes/ heroines frequently have jobs that obviously involve some calling (rather than just an occupation) - such as civil rights lawyer or ER doctor. It goes further than that though (after all we're still attracted to unemployed folks who answer callings in other ways)...because our brains associate competence with integrity and this triggers our trust that they will devote the time necessary to learn and care for our relationship too.
  3. Caring: We like people who perform acts of kindness, and we love people who perform acts of kindness to us. Why? Because acts of kindness maximize our social benefits and minimize our social costs. We feel a sense of obligation toward those who do good things for us. When the caring/ good acts pile up enough we feel loved. Please note though, that to be considered a good thing, a caring act must be competently provided by someone in a consenting fashion (see the first two C's).
  4. Compassionate: I know, you want to know how compassion is different than caring, so allow me to describe it a little first. Caring is an act. Compassion is a feeling. Specifically, the feeling of empathy or sympathy for the suffering or misfortune of another. Suffering cannot always be avoided or alleviated, and in these cases, we love folks who help us validate our feelings--it's all the emotional satisfaction we can obtain in some cases. We also love folks who try to understand us, it is part of expressing their interest in us even when they cannot provide caring.
  5. Confident: There are two important meanings to this C. The first is we love those we can confide in. Those who make us feel like it is safe to be vulnerable, to be our full awkward selves. They won't hold our ugly moments against us in the long run. The second meaning is that they are confident/ self-assured enough in their own worth to accept our apologies when we do admit mistakes, and even, more importantly, to accept our acts of caring and compassion for them as the truth when it is. As anyone who has ever been in love with someone battling depression or drug- abuse can tell you, it is very difficult and demoralizing to offer caring and compassion to someone who cannot or will not accept it because their struggles have ruined too much of their confidence or self-worth. While we appreciate humility, most of us also find it unattractive when someone declines a deserved compliment. We're attracted to folks confident enough to accept a compliment (caring) when they deserve it. (Note that different cultures do define what deserving is very different though.)
  6. Cooperative: We are more likely to be attracted to someone when we share a common goal, and we are attached to those who labor mutually toward that goal with us. Folks are psychologically sexy when they agree to cooperate to achieve something we both love or value (e.g. raising a child, building a home, saving enough money to retire, etc.). Families grow together faster and stay together longer when they keep agreeing and focusing on common goals that suit their energy realities. We find folks who will build something with us psychologically sexy, whereas folks who refuse to cooperate toward achieving a goal we've agreed on are a big turn-off...and often the seeds of divorce.
  7. Creative: The last C is a tall order. We're attracted to people with original ideas, especially those people who have original ideas about how to embody and exhibit some of those previous C's over the duration of our relationship with them. When someone invents a new way to show us they care, express their empathy, build confidence with us, or cooperate toward an interesting new goal with us, then we love them all the more for it. When we are invited to mutual creativity we feel more alive and satisfied with living together.
Now for sailing the 7 C's...
Here is the good news. You can learn to be psychologically sexier...even if you're already sailing these seven C's you can always continue your mastery studies. As those of us with a growth mindset or a learning orientation already know, everything in the universe is constantly changing so there is always a need to learn how to adapt strength to new variations.
Here is the (maybe) bad news. Since everyone in every relationship you will ever have is growing and changing you can never completely master these seven C's. You will always have something to learn, but this also means you can continuously become more and more psychologically sexy, even as you age and your physical beauty fades.
Beauty is in the perceptions of the beholder, a cognitive process that happens behind the eye, rather than in the eye.
A few additional words for my fellow authors...
When it comes to writing romance, I think it becomes very obvious which authors must know this. The ones who do know are able to create characters that we come to deeply love in the span of a story by showing us how their behavior embodies these 7 C's. Whereas authors who rely on physical descriptions are able to create characters we can imagine lusting after but aren't really all that memorable (we don't really love to love them enough to remember them).

Gertrude Stein wrote, "Rose is a rose is a rose" and Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet."



Tuesday, March 8, 2022

First-Generation Ph.D.

Very few folks (less than 3% of college graduates) choose to go on to a doctoral program. Most jobs don't require a philosophical doctorate (Ph.D.), but for those who want the jobs that do, the pursuit of that degree may be even more difficult if you are the first generation of your family to try it. When you're "first-gen" anything there are even fewer people you know well who can tell you the practical outs and ins of getting it done. Professors and other mentors are all very helpful, especially in helping you figure out where to apply and how to get in, but they will likely forget to tell you a few practical things about actually going to grad school to earn a Ph.D. I've been there, and while I did make it blindly, I'd like to share a few things I learned so that you can make new and different (and hopefully more exciting) mistakes.
Things I wish I knew when I started my doctorate...

  1. Most Ph.D. programs waive your tuition. You only have to pay for university services and fees (and living and eating). My father earned a DVM, and like a medical student, he had to pay for everything, including tuition, so I assumed I would have to do so too. I turned down some perfectly good programs that accepted me on my first try at a Ph.D. program because I did not know this and thought I'd have to come up with the tuition fees they charged college students. This was an INSANE mistake...the programs that I had applied to had less than a 1% acceptance rate, and it took me three years and three attempts to get into the program at UH (a great program that I knew I could afford). I could have gone to a great school the first time!
  2. Most Ph.D. programs offer you a paying job as a research or teaching assistant. The pay isn't great, but it is typically enough for you to buy basic groceries and live frugally in an apartment with roommates. I worked several part-time jobs and as many full-time summer hours as possible as an undergraduate to save money up, thinking that I would not be able to spare the time to earn any. Admittedly, having savings did allow me to stress less in school about making ends meet (and even buy a new car). However, in retrospect, I wish I'd worked one less part-time job or taken an extra week or two in the summer to hang out with family.
  3. Most universities do offer housing (at good discounts) and/ or help finding roommates, but unlike in college, you have to ask around for it. No one is going to call you or email you and ask you if you would like to know your housing options. No helpful administrator called like they did in college, so I thought there were no housing options for grad students. As a "first-gen" you've likely learned that you have to figure things out for yourself, but you're also more likely to just get things done yourself... it has worked every time so far, right? That mentality is probably part of what got you to grad school, but it will keep you from succeeding in grad school if you don't modify it. There are resources, but they are probably buried in the complexity of bureaucratic departments. You may have to call 16 people and look at 57 web pages four different times to find them, and since you are first-gen, you will need to ask your new classmates...before you get to school (which brings me to #4).
  4. Most Ph.D. programs will help you connect with your classmates before you start school if you offer your own contact information and ask the department to share it with your classmates. You can also ask to talk to several students already in the program, some you may have already talked to about how best to get into the program. Now you need to talk to your future classmates about how to live in the area, commute to class, connect to people quickly, find resources on campus, and what expenses surprised them (e.g. there is a fee to apply for graduation! and you have to rent your robes!). I did all this connecting to classmates after I started, in my first year, and while it worked out great still (your classmates will be the most amazing part of your experience)...it could have been so much better if I'd started sharing two to three months before the first day of class. I would have enjoyed a much stronger social support network from the very start.
  5. You'll be in a hurry to "make good" and "get out" so that you can really make a living. First-gens don't go to grad school to avoid work (although anyone who does so is sadly misinformed about how much torturous work grad school really is). We go to school to hurry up and start using our knowledge to kick ass. I tried to go as slow as I could because I wanted to learn everything. I did take the four internships and earn the two extra certifications, but I had a much harder time than necessary savoring the learning. I didn't take into account how much my earnings would exponentially snowball after graduation because I did those extra things...all I knew is that I wasn't making as much money as my friends who didn't go to grad school and they'd been earning that every year I was stuck in school. I felt like I would never catch up. I did though. A year after graduation I was making double what most of my friends who didn't earn a doctorate made (and I didn't have the debt most MDs, DVMs, and JDs have). Within a decade, those earnings tripled, and now there are 10 job openings for every Ph.D. in my field and lots of jobs that don't require a Ph.D. still prefer candidates who have one. I wish that I had worried less about my degree being practical or fiscally worthwhile. Honestly, even if I'd never caught up with my peers after grad school, the Ph.D. has been worthwhile because it opened doors to amazing working experiences and colleagues that I would never have accessed without it. The degree wasn't sufficient to get everything, but it was a golden ticket to the amusement park of life and as a "first-gen" you can rely on yourself to do what it takes to get in line for all the great rides once you get in. 
  6. Imposter syndrome/ phenomena (i.e. always feeling like you're a fake and everyone else knows what is going on and how to do it) is real. First-gens feel it particularly sharply sometimes. I know I did the first time I got verbally smacked for being "unprofessional" in my presentation of statistical analyses. I know my suits were cheap and my shoes weren't shiny and there were obvious bags under my eyes and doubt in my voice. What I did not know is that everyone feels this. Everyone. Even the professors mentoring you. Even your internship boss. Even the committee evaluating your grant applications. Even you, even after your degree and decades of experience, will likely still feel like you are faking it. I learned to embrace that feeling...I'm faking it every day, so I can go in and learn more and fake it even better tomorrow. I just wish I'd embraced that idea more at the start of my doctoral degree. There is great freedom in embracing the knowledge that failure is required to grow...it takes a great deal of fear and pain out of the process.
You may already know all these things if you're a first-gen going for a Ph.D. I hope you do, but I wanted to spell them out for those that don't because I wish someone had been able to for me. One final note, if you're muscling your way through a Ph.D., good luck, God speed (but not too much speed), and congratulations!
The Fancy Ph.D. Robes!


Friday, February 18, 2022

My Wake Playlist Requests

Waylon, my black kitten
No need to mope!

The first three letters of a funeral are fun. I want to make sure if I have one, you have fun. I know I cannot control what, if any, service happens. I seriously doubt my family can arrange the Sean-Connery-as-King-Arthur style, flaming arrow send-off of my dreams; or even an approximation of one of Terry Pratchett's Nac Mac Feegle wakes. However, it's pretty easy to include a little meaningful music with some whiskey (and if you want to cheers with one of my go-to whiskies, those would be Macallan 12 Scotch, Woodford Reserve Bourbon, or Sagamore Spirit Rye). Without further ado, here are the songs I am requesting and why; and please return the favor in the comments with some songs you'd pick for yours (NOTE, I reserve the right to borrow good ideas and add to this list at any time).

1. Nothing I can do about it now, by Willie Nelson https://youtu.be/PRGpr7VansU 

Why this one? My first live concert was Willie at the Summit Arena. The Summit was bought by a Mega Church and is now lovingly referred to as the "God Bowl"...ironies? It's good to go out to the music you came in on. Also, this song is my sense of humor. I'm a compassionate smart-ass. I try to laugh at myself. Life is absurd. I was nothing in this world without my sense of humor, my key to survival.

2. Sea Image, by the Chieftans https://youtu.be/tUoVIZ4RMPo 

This one is for "Cheers" to the journey! I have an image of an endless sea. The end of this life may be the ultimate journey of exploration and the start of any great journey makes me feel giddy...all those potential possibilities still shining ahead. Please, hoist my memories to the sailing wind and be happy for our time.

3. Brindisi (The Drinking Song, from the opera, La Traviata), by Giacomo Puccini https://youtu.be/UZvgmpiQCcI 
I want to invite anyone listening with me in mind to "Fill the cup, let us drink, that beauty blossoms, let the new day find us in this paradise." I am content that the next adventure opens. Energy cannot be created or destroyed in our universe, only transformed. Let the new day find us.


4. She's My Ride Home, by Blue October https://youtu.be/Vj7dDACpC0w 
Granted it may take a weird sense of humor for folks to understand why I want this one played at the end of my life, but "I am reaching for the stars with you" now as surely as ever and "who cares if no one else believes," because you're my ride home and you're what mattered if you're listening to it. Also, I found myself more at many of Blue October's live performances in Houston before they had a record label, and the song is a great reminder that we, and our art, make each other.

5. Honky Tonk Heroes, by Waylon Jennings https://youtu.be/I94VCjY_E7Y 
Because, "I done did everything that needs done," and "there weren't another way to be." I'm satisfied as long as I "danced holes in my shoes" and hope you are too. Waylon was one of the first 8-track cassettes of my parents that I wore out, and some of the first songs I sang standing in the back of pick-up trucks with the other kids on family farms...just being was enough then and it still is now.


6. Dreams, by The Cranberries https://youtu.be/tYFYoLEO0dM 

This why for this one is literally in the lyrics, "The person falling here is me...you're a dream to me." Thank you for having my heart.

7. Beloved, by Mumford and Sons https://youtu.be/IqFsRt0uYzA 
Because I remember that you were with me, and I hope you remember that I am with you. "As you leave, I won't hold you back," please, "sit and talk the stars down from the sky" and know our conversations are cherished still.

8. Concerto for two trumpets in c major rv 537, by Antonio Vivaldi https://youtu.be/gtvwSwiBIG4
I like the idea of ringing in the next adventure with a triumphant blast. Also, Vivaldi wrote this when no one wrote music for trumpets (they were military communication instruments only at the time, like an early 18th-century satellite phone) ... he turned something used by humans to facilitate war into something beautiful to celebrate life (a pretty great metaphor for a funeral).


9. Close to Me, by The Cure https://youtu.be/FY-zoTZjSVM 
This song played at our wedding, and it should play at my wake too. From wedding to wake, my love made the, "works of my every day/ Not a reproach, but a song," and I never thought it'd be this close to me.


10. The Flower Duet (Aria from the opera, Lakme), by Leo Delibes (As a Houstonian, I'm partial to Rene Flemming singing) https://youtu.be/832M0B3X6Lg 
Life is so beautiful because it is absurdly ephemeral. I take joy and comfort in #RandomEverydayBeauty and hope that others will too. Some horrible things happen for no reason, and that means we do not need a reason for joyful things to happen too...just a will to bring them about. Revel in the beauty of the flowers and remember how rich life is for our love.


11. Amazing Grace, performed by Destiny's Child https://youtu.be/LUGoGHpGndE 
To date, many family members' funerals have included Amazing Grace, so this is a tribute to my ancestors. This version, by Destiny's Child, is also a tribute to my home in Houston and the diversity of artists and thoughts that make it strong. Also, I firmly believe that spirituality is intensely personal, and the world works better when religion respects that. This song, written by the profane sailor reformed to a clergyman, John Newton, epitomizes that. Please practice Amazing Grace in my memory, please grant both my life's failures and successes Amazing Grace.


There are some songs I'm still deciding on. Maybe George Strait's Troubadour deserves a spot? Or the Stone Roses' Breaking Into Heaven? Or the Gypsy King's BambolĂ©o? Probably Emmylou Harris' Where Will I Be...and now that I think about it, definitely Brandi Carlile's Murder in the City.
The one thing I do know is that you won't have time for all of the music. Mine or yours. So let us share now. What would you have me play?

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Death and Absurdity: A Valentine



February 10th marks a milestone memory in my loss of innocence calendar. Before that day in my 8th-grade year, I had been introduced to the death of old and distant relatives. I understood grieving for the expected loss of someone who has had a good chance at living, and I'd picked up a few healthy grieving habits; but not enough to prepare for the sort of resilience I was going to need.

I was thirteen, gangly and awkward in the eighth grade, but a seventh-grader named Nicole Caviness thought I was heroically cool. She mimicked my volleyball serve, my three-point jump shot, the way I tilted my batting helmet, my affinity for reading books in the bleachers, and my crushes on outsider boys. She found me after basketball practice one day when I was feeling as dejected and worthless as my cheap generic tennis shoes, plugging balls at the basket in an empty gym. I was too young and self-centered to know what she wanted and so I didn’t invite her to shoot too. I quit to give her the gym and as I picked up my ball and smiled on my way out, she waved and shouted, “Hey, you know you’re my hero?” Like anyone without self-confidence, I shrugged off her praise with a self-disparaging retort.

On February 10th, Nicole and two of my other friends went to a high school basketball game. I’d planned to ride with them, but I was running a fever after school and feeling crummy so I opted out. I spent the evening curled up in a blanket in a lawn chair on the deck, drifting in and out of sleep. The next morning, our softball coach called to say our Saturday practice was canceled. The car my friends rode home from the game had been hit from behind by a drunk driver at a stoplight. Nicole died at 13 years old. The drunk diver, previously arrested and convicted for DWIs, was driving without a license. After years of prosecution, the driver was convicted of manslaughter and served a one-year sentence, but even without that knowledge, I was still mired in a great sense of existential injustice for the first time.

Adults tried to console me with platitudes about how the good sometimes do die young, there are no guarantees on how long we get so we have to make the most of it, and our memories of those we love do live on. The sentiments were well-meant, but for the first time in my young life, they sounded hollow and absurd. Unfair and absurd things that had always been happening became even more apparent to me from that point on. Why did family members beat innocent newborns to death? Why did strangers drag James Byrd Jr. three miles behind their truck until he died because he was black? Why did LAPD officers beat Rodney King to death? Why did people use that as an excuse to hurt more people in a riot? Why was Matthew Shepard crucified on a fence post in the freezing cold? 

My father is a veterinarian, so I was also very familiar with the death of pets, even before Nicole died; but that summer added an extra level of absurdity. Texas law (at the time) required veterinarians to put down pets as directed by the owner. After a client died, his son inherited his 5-year old Golden Retriever. I loved that dog. He was sweet, obedient, beautiful, and loving...even through his annual vaccine shots. His son, in his grief for his father, requested that we put his dog to sleep. We offered to adopt the dog, but the son insisted the dog should join his father. The son could not stay to hold the dog though. I held him, I petted him and told him how wonderful he was, and how we all knew he was a good dog and would miss him. I kept my voice calm and loving. I thought of Nicole. I didn't know if she had been scared if she'd had time to recognize she would die. I didn't know for sure if that wonderful dog knew what was happening or why. I couldn't do anything to be sure he understood, but I did learn that I could hold him. I could just be there, looking into his eyes with love, as the light faded into whatever is next. 

While I have a great life, I have lived through many injustices and absurd losses since then, and I think it would be hard to continue to cultivate my compassion and happiness without the hard lessons I learned about death and absurdity, and resilience that year. Sometimes the only thing you can do in the face of such horrific absurdity is just stand there, admit the absurdity, and hold yourself with love anyway. That love is the lifeline I use to pull myself from the gaping maw of absurdity. Life is unreasonable, even the existence of life on a rock hurtling around a sun in a galaxy spinning out on itself orbiting through a universe that's defies all conceptions of time...only allowing space...seems absurd from human eyes. 

Resilience is the ability to recover from difficulties. All this absurdity is a difficulty that never goes away. I can only recover from the fright of seeing such overwhelming absurdity, from the shock of the brutal reminders that death brings, by accepting absurdity. It will always be, as long as I live, a fact of my life; but it only wins if I ignore it and let it cripple or disarm my compassion. I see you, Death and Absurdity, you are the bitter sweetheart companions I will never shed no matter how clearly I express my desire to break-up with you both. You are grim dates, but you do remind me to love with abandon and resilience. I can be absurd too. I can make art, investigate, write, educate, hug, laugh, cry, dance. I don't need a reason either.

"Raven Perch, on the Battlefield of Death and Absurdity"" by LLS Art
"Raven Perch, on the Battlefield of Death and Absurdity"" by LLS Art



"Ironweed Hope is Resilient" by LLS Art
 

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