Ask A Poet An Abstract Question…


“Mom, what is the meaning of life?”
Oh, it depends on which meaning you mean.
Sometimes it’s amorphous, ephemeral, obscure—
Other times it’s the spaces in-between.

I’ve glimpsed it in sunshine and moonlight,
Walked its beat in a graveside procession.
Been smacked by a smile, a laugh, a look,
Lost its trail in shrouding depression.

This question is too complex without context!
I could fill books with the conflicts I’ve had.
Saints and philosophers have failed as I—
“Umm…thanks, Mom, I think I’ll find Dad.”

My kids ask me a lot of questions, big questions, and I do go on. Sometimes I can tell it’s all rushed over them like a gust of wind, barely ruffling their intellectual hair. Other times, we spend an hour talking about cremation or self-respect or kindness, and I feel like I’ve made a little bit of an impression. I think we owe it to them to try, though, even if they won’t get it until they’re adults. Every bit of understanding of the human condition leads to self-awareness. Self-awareness plants the seeds that blossom into empathy, and good grief, do we need more of that.

I also use a great number of words my kids don’t know or understand–yet. How’re they going to learn them if they never hear them? Slap out those five and six-syllable monsters and then define them. It’s hugely entertaining when they work them into conversation later.



in this middle age
I find a crucible of
molten metal me

Middle age is often an inflection point where a person decides, again, what direction their life will take.  I like this image of the crucible.  The metal has the potential to become something strong and beautiful, but must be handled with care lest it reduce its surroundings to ash.  Mine has not yet been cast, but I think I see the shape of it shifting underneath the surface.

(Coincidentally, element 43 on the periodic table is technetium, a transition metal that is radioactive and mostly not found on Earth, but rather in red stars.  Transition, indeed.)

Optimism Is the Powdered Sugar On My Bitter, Cynical Doughnut

I  suppose I owe you an explanation of what exactly an “optimistic cynic” is, should one exist beyond hipster irony.  I have branded myself this after a great deal of thought.  The question about the glass–half-full?  half-empty?  It seems a little simplistic to me.  If it does it for you—“I’m an optimist!  Super big YEAH for a half a glass of something!”—then I am a little suspicious of your intelligence.  If you are going to get all weepy about the glass being partly empty, well, go suck that egg somewhere else.  Sure, it’s half-empty, but I’m pretty sure we can DO something about it if you stop whining for a minute.

Sad glass is sad (and pensive).  Perhaps it is thinking about when it was a full glass.

Sad glass is sad (and pensive). Perhaps it is thinking about when it was a full glass.

It comes down to this minor point: Optimism and cynicism are in a struggle for my immortal soul.  Optimism is a form of humility.  The optimist believes that others are probably doing the right things, that the world will work out, because they feel somewhere inside that they are not the pinnacle of creation.  Those sunny optimists are always ready to believe that someone outside of themselves could, probably even DOES, have a good answer.  The right answer.  This is very, very silly, but bless their little hearts anyway.

The cynic is inherently arrogant.  She can find a problem with your plan in five seconds flat, has no reluctance to tell you about the problem, and harbors a suspicion that you will pretend to listen, then go off and do your damn fool thing anyway.  I worked for a company at one time that tried to “value” this as a necessary part of progress, despite it being very annoying.  I did well there.  I also worked for a company that nearly fired me for it (that, and my lack of appropriately dangly gender parts).

Here's a close-up of dangly bits!  (No, this is not that blog, you can stop looking.)

Here’s a close-up of dangly bits! (No, this is not that blog, you can stop looking.)

That experience led to a year of pretending to be someone I was not, in order to keep my job.  It was transformative and awful.  I had to keep my know-it-all, how-dumb-are-you, that-is-the-worst-idea-ever mouth shut.  FOR A YEAR.  I still knew that the folks in charge of the projects were wrong, and I still knew that my idea was smarter, better, more efficient, etc…  I just didn’t say anything.  I learned to take orders.  I found another job and QUIT.  The partners were sort of shocked, because they hadn’t seen that the cynic was still there, chafing at every stupid command.

Let's pretend!  I'll be the Japanese schoolgirl.... (No, this is not THAT blog either!  Move on.)

Let’s pretend! I’ll be the Japanese schoolgirl…. (No, this is not THAT blog either! Move on.)

The transformation was this, however:  I listened.  I had to hear out the idea/opinion/thoughts of the people in charge, and sometimes, it was fine.  It was good enough, and it was easier.  I didn’t love it, but I learned to trust a few people, and I learned some things from them.  In this new and humbler incubator, the repressed optimist stirred, stuck her hand up out of the primordial ooze, and claimed a breath of life.  Couldn’t put the silly tart down after that.  She keeps popping up.  “That’s the dumbest thing ever, but it just might work!  Let’s try it!”

Get thee down into my belly, thou evil tart!

Get thee down into my belly, thou evil tart!

Some amount of cynicism is a requirement in the world we live in.  You could believe all the stuff in your e-mail.  You could have lots of friends in Nigeria that you help with a little cash.  If you hadn’t sent that chain letter out to 200 of your Facebook friends, you probably would be bald and impotent!  Great job!  Coconuts are a miracle!  I know, pretty snarky, but in order to avoid the bad actors with bad motives, it’s necessary to evaluate a lot of things with the presumption that the “person” on the other end is all-in for themselves.

That said, it is just as necessary to operate with a degree of optimism.  If you don’t have some hope that things are going to turn out alright, how do you get up in the morning?  How do you touch a doorknob, knowing that half the people who touched it before you probably just pottied and didn’t wash their hands?  You have to grasp that knob like an old friend, and believe that whatever germs and crud are living on there will get along with you just fine.  Having children is the Xtreme version of this.  I can’t think about all of the things that are going to go wrong there long enough to write about it.  I just hope for the best and try not to screw them up too badly.

Yes, I did just compare touching a doorknob to raising a child.  Toooooouch meeeee!

Yes, I did just compare touching a doorknob to raising a child. Toooooouch meeeee!

Where does this leave me when I face another day of washing approximately six million Disney-branded plastic dishes?  I am still going to see all the things that are wrong with your thought/idea/project/baby, and if you catch me at the wrong moment, I will tell you all about it.  Most of the time, though, there will be enough sweetness to keep you hopeful that somehow, it will still all be okay.

PS.  If you like the term, by all means use it.  I have a feeling a lot of us GenXers are in the same boat.  The same poorly constructed, taking on water, probably built by one-armed orangutans, just might make it to the other side boat.  We need some sort of secret handshake.