M.C. Escher knew it.
The Dalai Lama knows it.
Timber Hawkeye talked about it.  He puts it this way:

“The opposite of what you know is also true.”

Not, ‘the opposite of what you know is true, but also true.

It was rather an arresting comment.  If there had been anyone in the room whose attention was drifting, that sentence brought it back.

“The opposite of what you know is also true.”

I think the most important word in the sentence is ‘know.’ Because so often we fool ourselves into thinking that what we know is absolute. Finite. Provable. Truth with an uppercase ‘T.’

Timber expanded on the notion by giving examples.  He saw a TED talk by Derek Sivers, who talked about traveling in Japan and asking for an address so he could find a particular place.  He was given the name of a block.  He asked for the name of the street.

“The streets don’t have names. They are simply the empty space between blocks. The blocks have names.”

He was confused.  Clearly there was some language barrier.  The person giving him directions asked, “What is the name of the block you live on?”

His reply: “The blocks don’t have names. The streets have names. The blocks are simply the empty spaces between streets.”


He offered another example from the same TED talk.  In remote, rural China, each small village has its own doctor.  Every morning, the doctor makes his rounds of the houses in the village, collecting coins from a box hung near the front door of each house.  If he comes to a house where the box is empty, he knows that someone inside is sick and his services are needed.  You see, in this model, the doctor is supported by the entire village for keeping them healthy. He is not paid when treating them for an illness and, thus, is given an incentive to prevent everyone in his village from getting sick.

“The opposite of what you know is also true.”

Since hearing this phrase and digesting the examples, I have seen it in action.  I was reading an article about a documentary film that followed homeless teens in Seattle and came across the story of a young girl who left home after being molested by a family member.  She talked about how filthy her mother’s house was, with rotting food and dirty laundry strewn throughout, and what a relief it was to live under a bridge in the city because it was actually cleaner than her home.  She found places to wash and brush her teeth and worked hard to keep herself presentable and live according to her standards of cleanliness.  It was only a few weeks before she realized, however, that being young and female on the streets makes you incredibly vulnerable and that not washing or paying attention to how she smelled was the best way to prevent herself from being raped.

The words keep kicking around in my head, finding me in the quietest times and in the loudest.  Much like stubbing my toe, I keep bumping up against my own ideas of what I “know” and challenging them.  I suppose that, before this, I would have seen a filthy young girl on the street and assumed she was either mentally ill or been disgusted by her – maybe both – instead of thinking about what it must be like to go against your own convictions in order to simply survive.

Yesterday, I came across this photo on Facebook:

At the original site, there were comments ranging from “right on” to nasty, blaming, shaming diatribes from people who “pulled themselves out of poverty without any social services.”  My first instinct was to rise to the defense of the person who posted this photo, and then I stopped to consider what I “know.”

I know what my experiences are. That is all I can know.  I don’t have to know everyone else’s reality or even strive to.  All I have to do is realize that there are limits to my knowledge and that, while it feels terribly, starkly real, it is not “Truth.” Except for me.  And so I cannot go out into the world trying to spread “Truth.” I can only go out into the world with compassion and a desire to understand and expand my own experience and knowledge and not make any judgments or actions based on my own brand of knowing.

Because the opposite of what I know is ALSO true.

I decided to take advantage of the Indian Summer we are having in the Seattle area today and finally pull some of the weeds in the yard.  As I squatted in the dirt, my beloved hori hori (Japanese weeding miracle pictured above) in one hand and an enormous pile of dandelions and chickweed piling up next to me, the neighbor’s toddler began to scream.  Great, gulping wails of sadness punctured every few sobs by a blood curdling shriek.  My sequence of thoughts went a little like this:

  • Thank God that’s not my kid.
  • Poor dear. He sounds so sad.
  • I wonder what’s going on in his head right now to make those screams necessary.
  • Thank God my kids are too old for naps.  I’ll bet she’s just put him down in his crib and left so he’ll sleep and he’s crying it out.
  • I wonder if she sits in the kitchen and cries like I used to.
  • And just like that, I was transported back to those incredibly lonely days of parenting a toddler. The days where I never really felt like I knew what I was doing and yet I had convinced myself that I had to present a confident picture to the world and my child.  The days where I woke up determined to follow the parenting books and let her cry herself to sleep so she would learn to soothe herself and caved somewhere around minute two, going in to lay down with her and stroke her back and kick myself for giving her mixed messages.  
    I hoped that my neighbor didn’t feel angry or scared or frustrated. I hoped that she felt like she had a good plan and didn’t feel a searing pain in her core each time her baby cried so dramatically.  I hoped she didn’t feel like this was more than she could handle. 
    I remember visiting my grandfather the week after my high school graduation.  He had been caring for my grandmother in their home as she struggled with Alzheimer’s Disease and was coming to the point where he would have to make a decision about whether or not to move her to a nursing home.  I was there to party since he lived in Southern California near all my cousins and he had an extra bedroom.  Thanks to my grandmother’s dementia, he also had an extra car I could use.  
    I was shocked at my grandmother’s decline.  She was confused almost all the time and prone to wandering off for hours on end.  For someone who could barely remember her name, much less her address, this was alarming to say the least.  My grandfather had been reduced to a prison warden in his own home, watching his wife of 50 years waste away physically and mentally and having to scratch all of the grand retirement plans they had made together off the list of possibilities.  He was sad and a little bitter.  One night as we sat chatting after dinner (grandma was asleep on the couch in the living room clutching a bottle of Butterscotch schnapps), he talked about his frustrations.  I didn’t know what to say. I had no life experience to draw from and I was at a complete loss.  I opened my mouth to say I don’t know what and he cut me off.
    “Don’t you dare say what your mother did. That God never gives us more than we can handle. That’s a load of bullshit! This is more than I can handle and I don’t believe that God stuff.  I only went to church  because it made your grandmother happy!”
    I was stunned.  I hadn’t been anywhere near about to say what he anticipated, but I suspect that what I was going to say would have been as cliche and useless as what he thought I would say.  I simply put my hand on his freckled arm and squeezed, my eyes full of tears.  
    And so, knees in the dirt, I contemplated that platitude – that we are never given more than we can handle – and found it lacking.  I can count many times in my own life where I felt overloaded with grief or responsibility or pure ignorance in the face of obstacles.  Everyone I know has felt that way multiple times.  
    I decided that, instead, we are often faced with more than we can handle and maybe this is by design.  I know that when I find myself in that position what I have learned is to ask for help.  For most of my life I thought that asking for help was the definition of weakness and was determined to figure things out on my own.  The messages I got from my parents and the media and society as a whole informed me that independence is an important trait. That people who do things on their own are revered and praised.  I was in my 30s before I realized that the only thing independence got me was isolation and a deeper hole.  I felt lonely and less capable than ever when I tried to handle everything by myself and, while I may have eventually found my way out of that hole I was in, I didn’t do it in the most efficient way – often reinventing the wheel as part of my process – and I was bloody exhausted by the time I got out.  
    Human beings are social creatures.  We draw strength and information from each other.  Even those individuals who may be examples of pioneering spirit and a can-do attitude didn’t truly do anything on their own. They built on the successes of others who came before them. Or they benefited from the support and love of their family and friends.  Maybe being routinely faced with more than we can handle is the Universe’s way of ensuring that we continue to find ways to work together, to ask for assistance.  
    And when assistance isn’t possible, perhaps this overwhelming feeling serves another purpose – innovation.  For people who are struggling with lack of finances or mental illness or disabilities for which there is too much bureaucracy or too little empathy to find help, maybe the mounting troubles prompt action.  No one person is going to effect policy change, but if your difficulties spur you to action, to build community around your cause in an effort to make a difference, to rally voices loud enough to be heard by those in power, I’m not going to say it was “worth it,” because, honestly, we all wish we could simply sail through our days with fewer challenges, but maybe it serves a purpose.  
    Some of my closest friendships have been forged through the process of asking for help or being asked for help.  The people I most trust are those who recognized when I was in trouble and offered a hand without judging or mocking me.  And so, in that light, maybe I can appreciate (just the slightest bit) being given more than I can handle on occasion, if only to remind me that I should reach out and ask for help.  If only to help me recognize how much farther I can go when I am supported by others, buoyed by their wisdom and love.  

    When I was a kid, I don’t think I thought much of aging. I can recall thinking that my grandparents were ancient and my parents were just plain old.  There wasn’t much worry of mortality in my worldview, but I do remember feeling lucky that I still had the majority of my life ahead of me, wide and expansive. Everyone said I could do whatever I wanted to, be whomever I chose (within limits – my father was a Marine and was big on personal responsibility and ‘doing the right thing’).  It seemed as though my parents’ lives were set in stone. Their careers chosen, families begun.  Other than maybe buying a new car every few years, how were their lives going to change much in the future?

    That view was mostly reinforced by mass media – wrinkles were bad, anti-aging products and jazzercise were there to help you look younger and feel younger.  My mother’s contemporaries lied about their ages and winked, complimented each other on how ‘fresh’ they looked when they met at school events.  My father was obsessed with physical fitness and his vanity showed in his crisply ironed shirts and slacks. I blame the shiny shoes on the Marine Corps.  It’s no wonder I was convinced that being a kid was where it was at.

    I don’t know whether things have changed significantly or if, now that I am older (‘old’ according to my child self) I am more prone to listening to the views of older generations, but it seems that despite the physical challenges, most of the folks I know enjoy their lives increasingly as they age.

    “At twenty we worry about what others think of us; at forty we don’t care what others think of us; at sixty we discover they haven’t been thinking about us at all.” Author Unknown

    At this point, I am firmly in the “don’t care what others think” phase of my life, at least chronologically. I will say that I have a completely different perspective on aging and while there are some things I don’t particularly appreciate like sporting both wrinkles and pimples, and discovering new grey hairs on a daily basis, I wouldn’t trade where I am for anything.  The notion of going back to childhood or puberty sounds atrocious and I’ve developed what I call the Horizontal Hourglass theory.

    If you lay an hourglass on its side, you will notice two things right off the bat.  First, the sand stops running and settles with some in each of the large sections and a few grains in the chute between.  Second, the middle portion becomes a bridge or channel between the two ends.  That’s where I am right now.

    The wide open area to the left represents my childhood, not bounded by any particular age range, but more by maturity. This was the time of my life when I could see that thin channel in the center but felt no particular push to get there. More than anything, I felt free to roam and explore, spread my wings and move around.  Once or twice, thanks to circumstances, I found myself shoved in to that center portion, my options diminished to three: forward, back or still. I felt trapped, panicked, out of control.  Somehow I always managed to find my way back to that child world view, seeking someone to take care of me while I licked my wounds and finding possibility for the future.

    But at some point I moved in to that center portion voluntarily, choosing to pare down the boundaries of my world and focus my energies on parenting and working in a certain chosen field.  At this point, those close-in walls felt protective and safe.  I cocoon myself within, feeling a certain sense of relief at knowing that I don’t have to decide what I want to be when I grow up or which of the myriad exciting things in the world to devote my energies to. For now, my attention is on being the best parent to my children I can be and using any extra time I have to honing my writing skills and dedicating myself to causes for which I have passion.  It is freeing to be released from the extra noise and chatter of other things I don’t have energy for at this point in my life.

    I can see ahead to a time when I will again forge ahead and live within the expansive space of the hourglass to the far right (politics notwithstanding – I’ll always lean ‘left’).  Once my children have moved into adulthood and become independent I foresee more freedom to structure my days.  I look at my in-laws in their retirement and marvel at the delicate dance they did during the first few years, trying to prioritize how to spend their time.  All of that freedom was disconcerting in the beginning and they had to negotiate preferences (he loves to travel, she wants to stay close to home) and find new activities to explore.

    I think what I love best about this notion of aging is that I realize moving through each of the stages is less rigid and more voluntary than I used to think.  And while the wide open spaces at either end might initially sound preferable to the tight, sometimes gritty, quarters in the center, it is in this place where I have learned the most.  It is in this place where the sand sometimes rubs me raw as I grind against it that I have perspective on both sides of me.  Here is where I learned who I truly am and what is most important to me and what I am willing to give up to remain here.  Despite the fact that time marches on and I do continue to age in years, eventually getting to 50 or 60 or 70 years old, because the hourglass is resting on its side, I can choose when to emerge from any one section and move into another.  Right now, frankly, the endless possibilities to my right scare the hell out of me and I am perfectly content to stay where I am. I know that won’t always be true, and I am encouraged to know that, when I get there, instead of feeling as though my life is over, even if I suffer physical ailments, my options are many and I will emerge with the wisdom gleaned from years spent in the middle.

    I haven’t had much time to contemplate or philosophize lately, given the mad chaos of trying to get our house ready to put on the market. I am blessed and cursed to have a real estate agent who is also a dear friend and happens to be very particular. Like she won’t put the house on the market until it’s spotless – bark in the beds, countertops polished to a high shine, carpets shampooed, driveway pressure-washed spotless.

    The kid I hired to pressure wash the driveway wasn’t able to finish up on Saturday before he had to leave, so I told him I’d polish off the rest on my own.

    Enter: contemplation time.  Pressure washing is a messy, wet, monotonous job.  It is gratifying in the sense that it gives immediate results, but it is also time consuming and gave me a lot of time to just stand and think.

    For whatever reason, my mind drifted to The Four Agreements.  I read the book a long time ago and the most powerful lesson I took from it was to not take it personally. No matter what ‘it’ is. Bar none, that is the teaching that has most impacted my daily life since I read the book.

    As I peeled layers of moss and mud off of the concrete driveway, my mind revealed a deeper understanding of this teaching as well.

    When I first read “Don’t take anything personally,” it took a few minutes to wrap my head around the notion that the words and actions of others always have more to say about that person than they do about me.  That someone’s sneer of derision or mocking laughter or shout of anger reflect their feelings about their own life, their own condition, their own state of being and are not an accurate assessment of me as a person and my value and worth.

    It took yet another period of time for me to apply that to my own actions, but I soon discovered that when I yell at my kids or roll my eyes at Bubba, it is really out of some frustration or longing or sadness within me and, while I might think initially that it is one of them that caused me to act in such a way, I know that’s not true.

    Saturday afternoon I came to yet another understanding of this teaching.  I was thinking about a friend of mine who is going through a difficult time right now and feeling sadness and frustration and some degree of stress about it.  When I began to unpack that bundle of emotions I realized that I was taking her situation personally. That is, not that I was causing her life to be challenging, but that I was somehow expected to do something about it. Offer some solid advice or jump in and rescue her or perform some tangible act that would alleviate her suffering.  She is not asking me to do any of those things.  In my mind, though, simply standing by and offering love and reassurance and support doesn’t feel like enough.

    I was reminded of a time when a close family member was in a very stressful situation and I immediately wound myself up trying to come up with some solution for him.  I called often to ask if I could help, spent hours ruminating on different scenarios and even wondered what the ripple effect would be on my life if the situation got worse.

    If that isn’t “taking it personally,” I don’t know what is.

    Before I could finish thinking through what this all means for me going forward, the driveway was finished and I was soaking wet and speckled from head to toe with moss and mud.  I guess I’ll have to find some other tedious project like polishing the silver so I can continue to think about all of this.

    I love the notion of the Platonic Ideal. I don’t recall exactly when I heard the concept – probably in my Philosophy 101 classes in college – but it struck me with the weight of a 2×4 covered in goose down. A solid thwack with a side of oh.

    “What makes a chair a chair and not a table?” When the professor asked the room, I’m certain we were all thinking he was high. Or at the very least that we were infinitely more intelligent than he. Honestly, who asks that kind of question?
    He went on to explain and get us to think. Why is a chair a chair? Both a table and a chair have four legs. Both are often made of wood.
    “A chair has a back you can lean in to,” someone called out.
    “You use a table and a chair differently,” came another answer from the room.
    As the discussion continued, we realized they weren’t all that different, though. A beanbag chair has no back, but we still consider it a chair. Some kids sit on top of tables. Especially in college. Some tables don’t have legs – what about a tree stump in a rustic setting? That could be used as a table, too. So what is it that makes a chair a chair? Is there some essential quality of a chair, every chair, that makes them chairs? No matter the individual design elements, we still recognize them as chairs, in some particular category of solid object that possesses some essence of “chair-ness.” And if you extrapolate that out to every object, is there some seminal essence that renders each of these things exactly what they are? Is there some quality of dog-ness, car-ness, cloud-ness for everything?
    What about me?
    I have spent a lot of time lately trying to define just who I am. Perhaps it has something to do with recently turning 40. Perhaps it is because I am finding myself at a bit of a crossroads as a writer trying to decide which project I move forward with (or not). How can I be the best me, the best version of Kari? I have to incorporate Mom-ness, wife-ness and writer-ness, all things that encompass multiple things within them. It is a process fraught with peril. I would have thought I had some definition of myself by now – know myself well enough to know what drives me, what is important to me, which things need to fall away – but it turns out I am not as close as I thought.
    Some things have fallen away. I no longer define myself as a sexual abuse survivor or a child of divorce. Those things are part of who I am but like the tree whose trunk grows around the nail placed in it as a young sapling, I have formed a scar and incorporated them into myself.
    So the question remains, what is the essence of me? At my core, what are the definable attributes that make me Kari and not Bubba or Eve or Lola? Or, on a larger scale, my mother? (Yes, that is a concept to wrestle with, too, as I age.) How am I different, unique, special and, yet, the same as these other humans near and around me? What is it that makes up my inner essential quality?
    As I examine this notion, I am struck that it is not as frightening to ponder as I once thought it was. What ever these things are that make up my essence, they are immutable. Whether or not I ever discover them and am able to put a name to them, they will exist. Whether or not I can excavate them and polish them to a perfect shine does not really matter. Like the chair, even though I have a special “chair-ness” all my own, I am free to express it however I want. Like the chair, I can have four legs or three, or none at all. I can be plush and velvet or carved from a redwood. It does not change my essential Kari-ness and the fun is in playing with that, secure in the knowledge that I am me. No matter what.

    I love a good philosophical discussion. Especially when it is a pure exchange of ideas versus an attempt to come to some conclusion. Add in tea, smart-as-a-whip women, and some chocolate, and I’m in Heaven.

    The other day we happened to be discussing a book we were all reading, despite the fact that this gathering of women is in no way, shape, or form a book club. One of the ladies wondered aloud how the writer could possibly reconcile the idea of free will with his notion that there is some predetermination of outcomes.
    Back in my college days, before I truly discovered philosophy and was strictly a Science/Math/No Such Thing As Woo Woo Spirituality kind of person, I would have laughed in the face of predestination. I would have taken the definitions of both free will and destiny to their most concrete meaning and decided in favor of free will, assuming that the two could never co-exist. Never. Ah, ah – don’t even try to take the conversation any further. Lalalala I’m not listening!
    Predestiny scared the crap out of me. The idea that I couldn’t be in control of each and every moment of my own life frankly sucked. The notion that some of the nasty things I had lived through were actually supposed to happen to me was unfathomable. Even considering the possibility that I couldn’t make my own decisions and effect change gave me hives. As I have grown and lived, suffered and triumphed, read about and experienced things that I can’t explain using laws of matter and physics, I’m not so sure anymore.
    Kristine entered the discussion by talking about her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and went off on a tangent about not booking a photographer to take any family pictures, despite having a conversation with her brother about it months before the event. Of course, it turned out that as the entire family was assembled in one place celebrating, a stranger came by, engaged them all in conversation and offered to take their picture. Of course he was a professional photographer who proceeded to take hundreds of shots of them all, burn the images to a CD on his computer on the spot and present them with the finished product before the party ended.
    So it occurred to me to wonder whether this was an example of precisely what we were dancing around. If Kristine is one thread in this tapestry, running through at some angle she can’t comprehend, one part of this work of art she doesn’t have the perspective to appreciate, does she have free will even as she is bound by the borders and edges and the threads that surround her? She can dive down beneath an adjacent thread and come up an inch or so farther down the line.
    Before I risk becoming too nebulous, let me put it this way: Say Kristine and her brother had booked a photographer for their event. If it turns out that this other photographer was “destined” to be the one taking the family photos, it is possible that despite the first booking, the original photographer gets sick or cancels for some reason. In that way, it was through no action of Kristine’s that the events occurred, but the eventual outcome happened because it was supposed to. Is it just the stuff of fairy tales and horror movies that we can’t escape our destiny or is it possible that even as we exercise our decision-making skills according to our beliefs and knowledge, there is some larger framework that exists that will, in some subtle way, exert itself to effect the outcome that needs to happen?
    I used to need to know the answers. All of them. I used to think it was possible to find them – that they existed out there somewhere and I simply needed to discover them. Now I accept that, as one thread in this vast tapestry, it is my connections to others and the ultimate picture that we all make together that are more important. I don’t have to know all of the answers and I can still exercise my free will to make decisions for myself and my family and know that if I dip when I should have flown, it will all work out in the end and the end result will not suffer.