Monday, May 18, 2020

The Boxes: Making Hay Under Quarantine

I've hauled a slew of cardboard boxes from apartment to apartment since college. They grow as I go, and I'm pitifully unable to organize them. Or go near them. I've tried a few times over the years, and it went poorly, and I've blanked it out. Bad, bad, bad, bad. Bad boxes.

You wouldn't particularly notice them, because they're artfully scattered and concealed. A few behind the sofa, beneath the piano, atop the closets, around the basement, etc. I distribute them as craftily as squirrels hiding nuts. I'm as skillful as any alcoholic at maintaining the appearance of normalcy. If you took a photo of any room in my house, you could have endless fun playing "spot the box".

Sanity note: No, I'm not a pack rat. I do not navigate through narrow pathways between towers of teetery mouldering boxes. Nothing like that. I'm high-functioning. The three behind my sofa contain extra books that don't fit on my bookshelves. Four boxes of office supplies and lost gadgets lurk in my office closet, too densely-packed and inaccessible to be useful (so I keep buying fresh). A shocking number of historical, borderline-usable pillows gather in the laundry nook. A couple dozen boxes further out of sight harbor things like Chowhound press clippings, coin collections, Matchbox cars, Hot Wheels cars, baseball cards, wind-up toys, queued magazines from 1992, my high school diploma, my father's high school diploma, extra Palm Pilot batteries, a chin-up bar, several thousand takeout menus and business cards....
Business cards might be the single most foolish element of the human experience. I have no idea who/what any of those people or businesses are, except for a handful that I know so well that I don't need their damned business cards.
....kind, funny notes chowhounds sent along with their "Good Will" contribs (I suspect a few are reading now. Thanks for the good vibes!). My grandparents' silver wedding anniversary party photos and invitations. A backscratcher from Niagra Falls. Rolls of super 8 film from an abortive high school effort at amateur filmmaking. Forty gazillion inexplicable AC adapters, cords and dongles. Gadgets which would have had value if I'd sold them promptly on eBay, and I hate myself for sloppily missing that boat. Quisp beanies. Mounting clips for long-lost Ikea items. Beloved belongings I once took apart to try to fix but couldn't get back together and left splayed out on some surface for months gathering dust until I eventually needed to hastily dump it into a shoe box when yet another landlord gave me X days to vacate because his son/friend/criminal associate needed the apartment (the unmistakable stench of panic permeates these boxes; a pungent tang of a low-end NYC renter's heightened stress).

Whatever I accomplish in this life is trivial in comparison to my pressing, gaping, monstrous failure to tame this beast. I'm not a writer, musician, nor entrepreneur; I'm no food, beer, yoga, jazz, or community management expert. I am, at heart, the stricken, paralyzed owner/victim of these boxes. I don't live in a house. The boxes live in the house, and I'm just their hapless caretaker. They're my ball-and-chain; my cross to bear. My abomination.

Crazy perspective, right? But everyone has some arbitrary pain point they've blown up as the root cause of all that's wrong with their life and world. See "Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings" (which explains how such preoccupations can blow up into major societal issues). More tersely, I once wrote this:
I have no doubt that, in the most private corner of his psyche, Albert Einstein deemed himself a hopeless loser due to his funny-looking hair and disorganized desk.

Meanwhile, in other news...

The virus situation has stress-tested two major themes of this Slog:

1. It's folly to live in "What's Missing".
This was such an important insight for me that I've created a monster index page cataloging its evolution. It all started one Christmas Eve when I had a devil of a time deciding whether I was having a peak experience or a miserable ordeal, and it all revolved around a choice of framing. I needed to choose which was true: 1. what was actually happening, or 2. what was missing. Choosing the latter is mental illness, so I am a recovered crazy person. But I looked around, and saw, to my immense horror, that it’s the normal approach for most everyone. I've tried multiple angles (this one turned out particularly well) to persuade people to choose Heaven (What Is) over Hell (What's Missing). This simple flip of perspective flicks like a switch, and is utterly transformative. As I once wrote:
Leave a person in a quiet room, and he might meditate and one day leave in a state of vast peace. Put some bars on the window and the same person might decay into a debilitated wreck.
Pandemic version: watching Netflix, cozy on your couch, safe, well-fed, hydrated, in fine health, not under attack, no warlord compelling you to break rocks in the hot sun or demanding your spouse's sexual attentions, isn't Hell. Unless, that is, you live in What's Missing. If so, then, yes, your life truly is hell, regardless of the particulars, because there's always a vast litany of things missing. I love lasagna, but have spent .0001% of my life eating it. So is my life a tragedy?

I once recounted a story told by a woman....
...who'd worked as a driver for some Buddhist monks traveling around California for a series of meditation programs. The monks had fallen crazily in love with a certain brand of coffee they'd discovered during the trip. But while they practically jumped for joy whenever they came upon some, she found it interesting that they never showed the slightest trace of disappointment if they failed to find any. Even when days went by without finding their coffee, they were no less happy. It began to dawn on her that if they never drank that coffee again, it wouldn't bother them in the least. Yet each time they found it they positively basked in the delight.
When I first heard the story, I considered the monks remarkable. But I’ve come to realize that they were merely sane.
It's far easier to live in What Is than in What's Missing. Hell is tough to conjure up (it takes lots of mental horsepower and commitment), while Heaven's a snap. It’s where we actually are. 

2. Resilience is just reframing.
Resilience is about redirecting your attention, just after something goes wrong, toward the next handhold leading to the point where you'll say "In retrospect, I'm actually glad it happened." Rather than lingering post-crash, enjoy the climb to the next peak, like, right away. Don't pause. Don't steel yourself. Don't tighten up and curse the world. Just redirect your attention. Reframing is perpetually available. Be blithe!

I'm not naturally resilient. I've got scads of energy, but when my considerable momentum is impermeably blocked, I'm inclined to spin down into stupor. But I discovered that I can live straight through it all, come what may. Merely living shakes the dice and resets the board. I've opted out of disappointment and the "Oh, Shit" response, as well as other frothy modes of drama, amiably leaning forward like an ant. This attunes me to embrace serendipity as it arises - while other people, in their haughty world-rejecting sorrow, miss myriad lifelines and opportunities. I don't need to reach an acceptance point because I never deny in the first place. I embrace it as it comes, exuberantly playing the cards I'm dealt, and don't love the universe any less when things don't go my way. This makes me extraordinarily resilient.

The quarantine is a proving ground for both notions. There's obviously quite a bit missing in all our lives. And, rather than spin down into stupor, I can reach for a handhold leading to an outcome where, in retrospect, I'll be glad it happened. This can only mean one course of action: working through The Boxes.

The Boxes are the only wine bottle special enough to pull out for this occasion. And so I did it. I'm actually halfway done (I wanted to be sure I'd overcome the paralysis before mouthing off about how I'd done it). Along the way, I've learned about unfreezing frozen processes, and why they freeze in the first place. How to integrate the detritus of previous identities. And, most pragmatically, how to winnow and organize the ugly mound of Stuff so many of us drag around like a ball and chain. I'm far from the only one endlessly hoisting this albatross.

I've received truths. I've developed procedures. Stay tuned.


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