Reverse psychology

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 29, 2013

You. Yes, you.

You are no longer allowed to have New Year’s resolutions, by decree of the highest court in the land, signed and dated this 29th day of December, 2013. It is expressly forbidden and punishable by law. So don’t even try.

When the ball drops and we’ve turned the page on 2014, all pending resolutions must be quashed. You must be standing there without resolve, fresh, clean and stress-free, mainly because the highest court in the land wants you to be happy. At least for a little while.

So …

No standing there in the middle of main street on Jan. 1 all cold and tired from a big night, gripping a cup of strong black coffee and pretending to window shop, pretending to stare at that watch you really like and would like on your wrist as you actually think about making better use of your time and how that resolution might go — something like, “Those lazy 10 minutes in bed before getting up are now the property of your new self. And your efficient new self knows what you can do in that amount of time with a good list to tick at. Put in a load of whites. Sort the unpaid bills. Fill the birdhouses. Meld the honeys. Iron the 14 shirts you haven’t worn in months.” And so on.

You’re going to stop all that, which, by decree, is no longer allowed. The birds will survive without unlimited seeds and nuts, just like they have for millennia. If you don’t iron, you won’t burn yourself on the iron or struggle with the cord or knock it over. You’ll wear sweaters. Every day. Or cotton jersey, right out of the dryer. You’ll be liberated, un-starched and happier. Maybe one day, you’ll actually want to iron again and maybe then you’ll be allowed to. But not now.

On the first of the new year, you will not be standing at the counter having that piece of spelt toast thinking now is the time to 1) not stand while eating anymore, and 2) not eat so much butter. You sit down all day some days, remember? And your brain needs fat. By nothing less than a writ, you are encouraged to rebel and do just the opposite. Gain a new perspective by enjoying standing, doubling the butter and even doing it over the sink. Hunched and in a hurry. And if someone else is doing it in your life and it bugs you, you will not in any way enable them to think they need to change, to resolve to change.

Because at the present time, the authorities do not want even an inkling of whatever general malaise you feel because you think you should weigh less, or work more, or read more books, whether they’re about geology, or Greek gods, or carbohydrates, or carbon footprints, or codependency or having less anger in your day. The projects you’ve never completed shall continue to pile up in 2014 because it is not only unadvised but against the law to complete them. Set it all aside, in a pile! Enjoy the pile in your mind. Enjoy the heaviness and the having-ness of the pile, the fact that you have things to do and work on in this life. Just not in 2014. There will be other years for all that.

And, whatever else is going on, there is not to be any trimming the tree of your character. Leave that tree alone. You came with a certain number of ornaments and lights and garlands and your job is not to scrutinize and refashion or amend in 2014. Make zero promises about changing. Fervently, try not to improve yourself. Don’t think of other resolutions you’ve made in the past years and edited, and do not think to yourself “Wow I haven’t made good on these resolutions in six years.” That alone is reason enough to stand there, mute, staring in the mirror without judgment.

Hey, dog walker: Stop resolving to do something else with your life. Hey, accountant: Stop making bucket lists. Hey, jitterbug: Stop endlessly saying this’ll be the year you drink less joe. Hey, pretty much everyone: Stop saying you’re going to stretch more in 2014, that a stretching routine is in your cards. Because it’s not. All of you resolvers, addicted to resolving and feeling the tug of it as we approach dropping-ball day — just stand there. Resolve nothing about nothing.

Because by decree and for the good of all, in 2014, we are taking a break. Permission granted to all to breathe a sigh of relief.

Transcribed from the original…

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 15, 2013

Transcribed from the original letter, dated December 13, 2013.

Dear Michelle,

True, true, I don’t generally reply to letters. And I’ll admit it was the missus who suggested I make an exception – not because you’re particularly needy, or worthy, or unique, my dear, but because I know I can count on you to type it up and send it to your local newspaper for publication. Right?

You might mention how good my handwriting actually is, even to this day. I take my time with it, use fountain pens and such. A graphologist would say the big loops prove I’m of a philosophical bent, which is correct except when dealing with the reindeer, then it’s just a lot of discipline and shouting and sometimes even my swatting a broom at them. Blitzen drives me nuts most days: he’s fast but he can be careless and a bit vain. Plus, the flying, because it’s an act of will, has to be relearned every year; I simply cannot explain the subtleties and challenges of this.


My devoted wife also wanted me to tell you – just so you know it’s really me —  that that recipe you’ve been looking for, for the snickerdoodle cookies your mother used to make is in the old wooden recipe box about halfway in, mistakenly filed under Appetizers, right next to the cream puffs with blue cheese. People sure did love those cream puffs, didn’t they. Anyway, the wife says you could find the same exact snickerdoodle recipe online and that the Betty Crocker version is what Millie Standish gave your mother in 1964.

In re-reading the letters you’ve written these past few years, it occurs to me that maybe you don’t realize how many adults actually do write to me. I don’t think many people realize. In fact, these are the most poignant letters of all, adults writing to Santa. It would break your heart to read them – or crack it wide open.

Now, I’m not talking the kind of people who would enroll is a workshop to learn to write a good letter to Santa Claus — people wanting to get in touch with their inner child, or their sense of wide-eyed belief, or wanting to un-calcify their imaginations. People, in other words, who metaphorically never learned to crawl and now want to go back, get down on their baby knees, and unfetter themselves enough to write me a letter.

No, the letters I’m really talking about are from the people in dire need — who have nothing to lose by writing to an old man in a red suit who cares more about children than anything else on the planet. These are the people, and there are plenty of them, who, for whatever reason, have surrendered, gone far beyond the point of anger and resentment and bitterness and are simply asking with a sort of scrubbed-down and naked sincerity: Help me. Help me get me through this. Help me carry on, sleep at night. Help me breathe.

They are the ones asking for spontaneous remissions for their children, for their marriages to survive, for messages from the dead. For loneliness to end, for hope, for a safe port in whatever dark, roiling, and lashing storm is working them to the bone. Without saying so much, they are asking to believe in tomorrow, to be present when the sun blazingly rises and shines one more time and hits them square in the face.

Mostly, they write in private, you know. They send letters without signatures or addresses – as if I didn’t know who was writing and where they were from. But the fact is they’re writing from a place where everyone is the same, where everyone is one person, and every voice of need is all of ours.

So for all you adults out there who have a hard time with the holidays because you feel cynical, or lost, or confused, or dead tired, I’d like to say a couple things: One is to keep writing me, whether the postmark is Esalen Institute or East LA, because it’s a good practice. The other is hold fast to life and not give up. To make room for healing and to take responsibility for whatever light – big or small — we can shine.

Rudolph wants me to add sometimes we shine where least expected and the light may be red. Ho, ho, ho!  Good one, Rudy!

In closing, Merry Christmas. Especially to all the adults out there who need me most: you know who you are–


Don’t spare me the details

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, December 1, 2013

Hey, just in case.

In case I get up in the morning already chomping at the number one task on the number one list, already back in last night’s thoughts, the ones sputtering like grease in a pan before I drift off to sleep. In case I forget that my old-seeing eyes can be freshened every day with things like light, surprises, a magnifying glass or my palms on closed lids for a second of peace.

In case I get lazy or bored or take things for granted or don’t make room for something a little harder to handle but worth it.  In case I start looking at nature as if were part of the furniture, or the furniture as if it weren’t a privilege to sit on something soft and comfortable and cozy. In case I idle too long in one place without noticing what’s right out the window or the breeze coming in against my cheek. In case I stop rolling down the window.

In case I start thinking that life is all material world and bills and piles of stuff. That it’s all about me and my body and ego and personality and the three percent of the brain I use, the forty or so percent of heart and who knows how much spirit. In case I forget the power of my five senses to reboot my take on things at any moment of any day. In case I lose track of what’s real – and in case I think I know what’s really real all the time. In case I flag, and stand there under a twinkling black umbrella sky, thinking, “Is this all there is?”

Whichever case, give me details to set me straight. Shove me up against the wall with them and then once I’ve surrendered, let the rich particulars of the world spill out of their gilding for me. Gifts — if only I will let them in.

Give me a panoply to remind of abundance in my life, the ridiculous show of riches that are mine. Give me sliced lemons, and mint, cardamom, pomanders, orange blossoms, eucalyptus. Give me the smell of oil paint, the smell of graphite, of pencil shavings, of shorn grass. Give me leaves, turned yellow and tossed in the wind. Give me the mountain air in my nose, and wood fires and chestnuts and wet woolens and wafting perfume in a spiral stair. Give me the earth of spring and the rot of fall. Sweet berries and sticky, piney resin dripping from a tree. Give me every taste bud on active duty and five senses acting more like fifty.

Give me pocket watches and owls and fountain pens, dark clouds, bits of paper, wooden matches, scrawled words, silver dollars, cactus blossoms, babies’ heads, gold tassels, Lucite, insect wings, the pants on crows, a cat in a window, candlelight, pressed handkerchiefs, old movies, gold ink, grey mists, clear lakes, and elk snorting in the snow. Give me things I’ve never seen, heard, or smelled before. Give me to patience to be there for them.

Give me a hand in mine, soft looks that cannot be described, a child’s quick smile, pealing laughter, cool sheets on a hot night, the smell of someone’s skin. Then give me silence. And dreams that weave their gold threads through a tapestry of days.

Give me sunrise and the leaping heart to witness it right. Give me heavy cream in my coffee, a heavy blanket, a blanket of snow, the sound of familiar footsteps, familiar songs, music like dental floss through my ears. Give me stained glass, cathedral spires, buttons in a box, brass zippers. Give me city lights. Dripping icicles. Sand under my feet. Shoulders relaxing. A yawn. A sneeze. The feeling of feet, my feet, firmly rooted on Earth, Mother Earth. Give me bluebirds following me, post to post. An eagle sitting tall in a tree and then – miraculously – taking to the air. Give me the sound of those wings, of flight itself.

This is my Thanksgiving prayer, my prayer for the holidays – to raise details to their rightful place and pluck them like sugarplums one by one. May we all have the grace, gratitude and imagination required to truly savor their sweet harvest.


Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, November 17, 2013

It is nearly midnight and you have just arrived in New York City. It’s your first day of vacation, and your first vacation in a long time. The approach, right over the city, is unbelievable — lights for miles in the crystalline black of night, Manhattan Island like an ornate jewel, pulsating, scintillating, set apart.

In the silence of the taxi, you scream quietly through streets, over the Robert F. Kennedy bridge and then down through East Harlem toward your friends’ apartment.

You haul your stuff up and settle in the guest room, the one next to the bathroom that has better water pressure than any hotel you’ve ever been to. Which is one reason you left New York all those years ago, because of the carbon-footprint mindbender of fantastic water pressure three floors up in a city of 10 million.

Though you’re tempted take a hot shower, right then, instead, you reach for your carry-on and unzip it, given that the toiletries are right there on top.
When you flip it open, however, you don’t see your cleanser. Or toothpaste, or little pills. Or the Ziploc holding them — or anything else. Instead of your clothes is a pile of brochures sitting loosely on a stack of men’s socks. White socks you’ve never seen before. And shirts. Someone’s shirts. That you don’t recognize.

You drop the flap and freeze. What is happening here? Who are you? All of a sudden your hands aren’t your own. You feel like you’re in a movie, a dark comedy written by people who hate you.

It occurs to you then, as you launch yourself into the bathroom like a missile, that it is your companion who has taken the wrong bag down from the overhead compartment on the plane! You tell him he’s made a terrible mistake, terrible! Spitting out his own perfectly packed, tracked and traveled-with toothpaste, he tells you the mistake was probably made in Denver at the gate check cart. Because there was only one bag to take from the overhead, which is the one he took.

Where is your silver carry-on, then, the one purchased specifically not to look like the hundreds of plain black ones? Now, of course, it’s obvious: This silver thing is not yours at all. It’s scuffed. There is a tag with a phone number on it (708!), which you call and text to no avail. Maybe this non-existent, faceless man has gone off without any bag, had a heart attack and died. Where does that put your bag, though, a bag without identification of any kind?

Numbly, you fill in the required online form, which is pointless unless you have checked your bag (in the future, you never even hear back). And then you start to think about everything in that bag, the only bag you have ever really been proud of packing, since you are a worthless packer, the kind of packer who, despite lists, panics at the end and either packs too little or too much, and then throws stuff in indiscriminately. This time, you have spent an entire week editing the bag for New York and for 10 days abroad. All the gifts for the relatives (12) have painstakingly been packed as well. There is plenty of underwear. The right ratio of shirts to sweaters, jeans to other pants. You have even packed a safety pin.

The next day, fully discombobulated, you find yourself buying pants and underwear, and even though you love this particular store, you cannot think straight. Can you travel to France with two pairs of pants and a shirt? Arrive with no gifts? Your companion leads you around like a person trailing an IV. You might as well be wearing a backless hospital gown because that is how it feels.

While in the dressing room, a call comes in. Finally: white-socks. His phone has died but now he’s received your message and, boy, this is a catastrophe because he is about to go to a conference without his brochures. He quickly tells you that you’ve obviously picked up his bag first since he was sitting in the back of the plane. Huh? Utterly unnerved, you take responsibility. And two days and $360 later, you are reunited with your bag and he, presumably, with his.

You force yourself to forget the money and proceed to have a fantastic trip. You narrowly miss running out of gas (see six rainbows that day, in fact). You narrowly miss having your wallet pinched in the Paris metro (you feel his hand on it and see him flee). You narrowly miss a major flight-canceling storm in Europe (you get driving rain and flapping shutters in Paris).

Somehow in the great pachinko machine of cause and effect, it all evens out. Which is reassuring. But that doesn’t change the one take-away from this:

Tag the bag, sister. Tag the freaking bag next time.