Imitating Art: Between the Method and the Madness

“Why do you wear black all the time?” Medvedenko asks.

“I’m in mourning for my life, I’m unhappy,” replies Masha.

These familiar lines that open “The Seagull” by Anton Chekhov may feel a little stiff and melodramatic out of context, but there is truth in them. This classic nineteenth century drama set on a Russian country estate explores universal themes that transcend time and place, such as love, fame and regret. So, the fact I resonate with Masha’s malaise is not surprising. I have always adored Chekhov. I remember recreating many iconic moments during my thespian days at Northwestern—cavorting through waist-high snow in the bitter sub-zero cold.

“This is just so Chekhovian!” we’d announce between the method and the madness.

It’s been decades since then, but the poignant words possess a different kind of relevance today. Mourning is draining. And most days, I am merely surviving. That said, I know that mere survival is not sustainable. It’s not living, but I think I’ve lived there most of my life. Gratefully, there have been countless glimmers of joy and grace along the way, but I think it’s time to recalibrate—to find new and durable meaning, since the worst of all nightmares has happened.

Is that what my grief is trying to tell me?

When I ask grief that question outright, the short answer is this: “Well, Elaine, this totally sucks, and you are completely screwed.” However, if I sit with it a bit and get curious, I discover some nuances and layers. Though the pain of losing my brilliant and complicated 26-year-old son Elliot Everett Wright far exceeds all other losses in my life combined,  I find it also acts as a kind of an accelerant, like a flammable substance CSI might detect in the ashes after a horrific fire. Grief is a ubiquitous, unstable chemical compound that can ignite seemingly innocuous psychological debris in a heartbeat. The spontaneous combustion of new griefs inflaming ancient wounds makes carrying the most unbearable of all losses even more painful.

And while we are pondering incendiary substances, I am reminded of the potent odor of turpentine spirits that would hang in the air and seep into every surface of our suburban house growing up. My mother, Ann Cushing Gantz, a passionate artist who was profoundly frustrated by the fickle art world, liked to repurpose B&M Baked Bean jars to soak her paint-caked brushes. The small, amber-brown containers covered every table, every shelf and ledge in her cluttered studio over the garage—messy and mesmerizing, like an overgrown garden of potted pigment. I can’t think of my mother without catching a whiff of that bittersweet aroma—stringent at times, but strangely appealing. Anything can trigger a grief pang, even years later. And every loss is its own.

Like putting out fire with gasoline, my efforts to quell grief’s urgency simply don’t work very well. And it’s hard to separate it from its grave context. At first, I thought Elliot’s loss had its own private room in my broken heart, but I think compartmentalizing it increases the internal friction. I wish I could find a way to disengage it from the rest of the root system. I don’t want to go under like someone hanging on to a bag of rocks in the middle of a pit of quicksand. 

My grief is shouting at me—but so is everything else. All the experts say I need to feel the ache of this unimaginable loss to find a way to carry it, along with the rest of the baggage I seem to have brought to this place of fresh awareness. I will never reverse the agony of losing my precious Elliot and the relationship we might have had, but one day, I may be able to soften the sharpness of his absence—if I create a space for forgiveness and empathy for myself and the other players in my drama.

“Forgive to live,” Grief says. “But never forget.”

 I guess I’m just not sure what to do next.  

“At this rate, it may combust into a blaze you  cannot extinguish,” Grief warns.

It’s an inside job, as I say so often—getting grounded in the now and establishing healthy techniques to soothe my fractured nervous system. I am no longer that frightened little girl who grew up in an atmosphere of confusion, resentment and secrets. So I need to stop trying so hard to fix things that aren’t mine to fix. It’s all bigger than I can ever imagine—a mystery beyond naming. That is where I need to live.

So now, I’m remembering a different Masha from another Chekhov play:

This Masha says, “I’ll go. . . . I’ve got the blues today, I’m feeling glum, so don’t you mind what I say [laughing through her tears]. We’ll talk some other time . . .

Perhaps, I’ll adopt the countenance of  this Masha—from Act I of “The Three Sisters.” Laughing through her tears. Acknowledging the hurt but finding a way to laugh. She might be on to something. Recently, I read an article recently in The Atlantic that said the expression of seemingly incongruent emotions can actually help moderate intense feelings—tears of joy, smiles of sadness, etc.

“Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions,” asserts Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón. “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well,” 

Well, Masha, for now, I’m going with that . . . laughing through my tears, and we’ll talk some other time, my dear.

Finding Peace in Community: When Your HOA is an SOS

“All politics is local.”  ―Tip O’Neill

I attended the monthly meeting of my Home Owners Association (HOA) this week. As I entered the room on the humid summer evening, the atmosphere was heavy with expectation and simmering with skepticism.

You see, we are in the midst of launching an extensive and costly community-wide renovation project addressing years of deferred maintenance. But the project we are all funding is more than six months behind schedule. It has not even begun. Now, the board and residents are at loggerheads ― embroiled in a major kerfuffle over the financing and management of our seriously delayed initiative. With tensions festering, tempers flaring, and barbs flying, I felt very uncomfortable in the middle of this murky morass.

About 15 neighbors and I were attending the “working board meeting” to inquire about project status and related decisions impacting our finances and homes. But some of the board members were not amused. They responded to our questions with escalating hostility and defensiveness. One fellow resident even left in tears.  Such drama. The whole event was profoundly disturbing.

Days later, I am still feeling unsettled ― but I recognize this small community meeting in Lake Highlands, Texas  was truly a microcosm of our nation’s broader, brooding dysfunction. I do not understand this behavior, this lack of tolerance. When some folks encounter differences of opinion, they tend to lose all ability to relate as mature adults. In this unconscious breakdown mode, listening, respect and compassion cease. Polarization sets in.

Why is this happening? Why do opposing opinions make us all enemies? It reminds me what happened in the 2016 election as we hunkered down in our separate psychic silos. But, here’s the rub ― don’t we all want to live in happy, healthy, pleasant environments? So, what is getting in the way? Why are thoughtful, honest questions interpreted as personal attacks ― lambasted and dismissed? Evan McKenzie, University of Illinois political science professor and author of the book Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government, explains that a complicating aspect of HOA disputes is that they often become personalized, “so you can’t even resolve them.”

One thought is this. The road to resolution is an inside job. It requires that we all commit to building authentic, aware relationships with ourselves, first. What I witnessed Monday evening ― and afterward, in harassing texts from a participant who took issue with my right to ask questions, was unconscious reactivity. And it spilled out all over the patio after we were dismissed as the “closed session” continued. There is no changing other people. Ever. But we can shift our own realities.

So, there is hope. There is mindfulness.

Essentially, I’m talking about the discipline of staying present, awake and aware in the moment. A great Forbes article states:

When you are mindful . . . you become keenly aware of yourself and your surroundings, but you simply observe these things as they are. You are aware of your own thoughts and feelings, but you do not react to them in the way that you would if you were on ‘autopilot.’”

I love this definition, because it’s about aspiring to a higher level of consciousness. Yes, it takes practice, but it is a practice that improves mental health ― as well as relationships. This means building mastery over your emotions and impulses — allowing you to adjust your behaviors.

According to a 2014 study from Carnegie Mellon University, self-soothing skills, mediation, and relaxation techniques that are part of mindfulness training have been proven to decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and meditating for just 25 minutes a day for three days in a row is an effective way to alleviate psychological stress. There is a great, new app I’m using to keep me on track with my meditation called Headspace. It’s been proven that meditation can actually enhance empathy, creativity and focus ― all core elements of a joyful, peaceful, centered existence.

SOS: Small Organization Stress

HOA board meetings can be tough rooms. Stress levels for the board members can be high, because the job is voluntary with very little appreciation involved. Resources and time are limited. The organizational structure is likely insufficient, and there is usually no official training for positions that carry significant responsibility. Boundary function is probably not optimal regarding task assignments, and these unexamined resentments can easily manifest as contentious and unsavory behavior. Not exactly a recipe for a good time!

An insightful Entrepreneur article reminds us of the importance of process ― not mistaking impulsive action for productivity. This is something I have been tackling in my own life for the past couple of years. It involves becoming aware of my own emotions, taking a breath and a beat ― and retraining my brain to intentionally consider the pros and cons possible options. It’s called “wise mind.” Start your day with a contemplative practice ― breathing, mediation, journaling, etc. Or, spend 15-20 minutes a day walking outside in nature. Gain perspective. Space. When you feel yourself reacting emotionally, take a moment ― and ask yourself what the reaction is about. Is it an unconscious response?

Make Mindfulness Matter

Mindfulness is the cornerstone of emotional intelligence — and a way to help you create a more fulfilling life. Here are a few tools to make that journey more manageable for leaders in organizations:
• Delegate
• Listen
• Empathize
• Resist making snap judgments
• Ask for guidance and opinions ― know that asking for help is not a sign of weakness
• Evaluate your operating structure and responsibilities
• Realize that you are completely biased ― love that one!
• Get clear about what you really want out of a relationship, transaction or activity
• Prioritize — you won’t get everything. Clarify for yourself what is most important
• Recognize that folks have other opinions, and they have nothing to do with you.

Above all, get real! And find a way to enjoy the process. Courageously assess your strengths and weaknesses, continuously. We are all spiritual beings having physical experiences, so let’s try to make the best of it.

Do you have suggestions or questions regarding nurturing healthy communities ― from the inside out? Please share.