Forty Rooms, Every Woman’s Story of Dreams Deferred

Every so often I read a book that speaks to me directly and stays with me long after the last page has been turned. Inevitably, these books tell one woman’s story that reflects the truths and emotions experienced by all women. Of course, these truths and emotions are probably experienced by everyone (and in fact a male friend who also read this book has said that it spoke to him in the same way) but because I am a woman, I can only tell you about Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin from a woman’s point of view.

The story is told through 40 brief chapters, reflecting 40 rooms inhabited throughout a woman’s life. Through these rooms, we watch this woman grow from an imaginative child who sees her mother sifting through a box of her own memories, and imagines her as a mermaid, into a woman with six children who has pushed aside her dreams of becoming a poet for the sake of raising her family. At some point during her journey, though, she is no longer deferring her dreams for a higher good, but using her daily responsibilities as an excuse to no longer pursue them. At what point did this happen? Was it a conscious decision (nowhere does it seem like it) or just an ongoing postponement that finally eroded her vision? And what does that tell us, the readers, about the consequences of postponing our dreams?

Early on in the story there is a mysterious man who comes to her in her dreams and who questions her and offers her advice. At one point he says, “You can spend your days baking cookies for your offspring, or — as ever through the ages — you can become a madwoman, a nomad, a warrior, a saint. But if you do decide to follow the way of the few, you must remember this: Whenever you come to a fork in the road, always choose the harder path, otherwise the path of least resistance will be chosen for you.”

As the woman moves through adulthood, the reader senses a shift where her path does become chosen for her because she herself has neglected to choose. It is interesting to note also that this woman is a nameless narrator through childhood and young adulthood, but in middle age, when the shift becomes apparent, she begins to call herself “Mrs. Caldwell”, narrating her own story as if “Mrs. Caldwell” is an entity separate from herself. When I reached this part of the story, I have to say I found it genius. This woman had become so removed from herself, that she told her own story as a stranger would!

Forty Rooms has a thread of the surreal or supernatural running through it and this is especially prevalent in the early and later parts of the woman’s life, from her childhood imaginings, to the dream visits of the mysterious man, to the final rooms of her life where her memories and “what-ifs” crowd reality. In the end, I was left with an understanding of how easily a life can slip away if one allows the path of least resistance to be chosen for them, and really, how little time each of us has to realize our dreams in the first place! What a wake-up call!

Few books have stayed with me the way Forty Rooms has, and certainly fewer have motivated me with a sense of positive urgency to take a good look at my life, accept the choices I’ve made, and recognize where and why I may have strayed from my early dreams. The good news? While not a story of redemption for Mrs. Caldwell, it can be for the readers who take her message to heart.

Cultivating Hope (and Attitude)

With the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, and reports of an over 30% increase in suicides nationwide, much has been written in recent days about who may be at risk for suicide, the symptoms, and ways in which we can all be more aware of and ready to help those who have reached such deep levels of desperation or depression. Social media has been full of posts asking everyone to remember that we are all fighting a battle and to be more compassionate with each other, which is all good advice, of course.

Today in one such post, I read these words of the Dalai Lama and this really stuck with me. “It is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” Two facets of this idea are intriguing to me. First, that our attitudes have such a powerful impact on how hopeful we feel and second, that a more hopeful attitude can be cultivated.

Neither of these ideas is new or earth-shattering. We’ve all heard about the significant role that attitude plays in our day-to-day happiness, but few think of someone who is feeling hopeless as having an attitude problem. And it seems too harsh to accuse a person who is already feeling down of having a bad attitude, doesn’t it?

But listen to the phrasing the Dalai Lama uses… “it is important to cultivate an attitude that allows you to maintain hope.” The attitude has to be cultivated first, and then the ability to maintain hope will be present. Maybe the very fabric of hope is woven from our attitudes about life.

The last few days I have been feeling really down. There are practical and imagined reasons for this, I suppose, but when and where did my attitude go so far south that I was unable to see or feel any hope? And how does one cultivate the sort of attitude that’s needed for hope to grow and more importantly, to stick around through life’s many difficulties?

Maybe the key is just to recognize that life is uncertain. Period. A resilient attitude, one that encourages us to count the highs and learn from the lows every day, is bound to result in a more resilient spirit, a more hopeful spirit, over the course of a lifetime.

And when you have already begun to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt, fear, longing or sadness? My mother often said, “This, too, shall pass.” Such a simple thought, and so true. Can you remember happier times and how you got there? Can you know that those happy times will return? Can you rest in that knowledge just for today and be at peace with it? Maybe one day at a time is how one cultivates a more hopeful attitude, despite whatever is happening in life.

The Dalai Lama had one other thing to say, “Choose to be optimistic, it feels better.” And so it does.

Ten Ways to Keep a Positive Perspective

Everybody goes through rough patches, times when they feel very alone or perhaps misunderstood by the world. Rough patches can sneak up on you. Things are going along just fine, and then one by one the little things add up and all of a sudden life feels intolerable, a trap set by surroundings or circumstances beyond your control. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? How do you find your way back to a positive perspective when you have forgotten how?

Depression runs in my family and I am well-acquainted with the its defeating weight, with how desperate you feel when you’ve forgotten how to hope. But I have found ways to recognize early on when I have begun to sink, and ways to help me keep a positive perspective, even when things look bleak. Here are ten that work for me (most of the time!):

1) Recognize that what you are feeling is a feeling and not a way of life. Someone once told me that saying “I am depressed” is not ever true. You are not depressed or sad or despondent or rejected or misunderstood. You may feel those things, but they do not define who you are.

2) Recognize that all feelings come and go, and this one will, too, if you let it. Try to remember a time when you felt hopeful and positive about your life and relive it in your mind. It may feel false to do this, but it is a gentle reminder to your soul that you will feel this way again.

3) Breathe. Right now, this second, you are fine. You have all you need and probably most of what you want. Relax and breathe again, and every time that those feelings of desperation rise up within you. Those few seconds of pause throughout the day can keep everything in perspective until hope returns.

4) Feel gratitude. List five or ten things or people or circumstances for which you are grateful. Keep a notebook by your bed and do this every night before you sleep. No other habit has been so effective as this for helping me to remember how truly fortunate I am.

5) Envision where you want to be, how you want things to change or grow. Spend a couple of minutes in meditation every day envisioning in as much detail as you can how you’d like to feel and what you’d like to be different. Everything starts with an idea.

6) Do something, anything, to move you closer to where you want to be. There is something about taking action, however small, that reminds us that we are in fact the active agents of our own lives. Life isn’t happening to us if instead we are making our lives happen.

7) Get a little more rest. So often a down mood really just stems from being overtired. Treat your self to a nap.

8) Be nice to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend who was feeling down. You wouldn’t berate a friend and tell him or her to get their act together, and you wouldn’t tell them they were hopeless and they might as well give up. Talk to yourself as you would a good friend and see how well you feel.

9) Take care of yourself. Get some exercise and eat healthy foods. Just like rest, these habits improve your well-being both inside and out.

10) Spend some time in nature. Few things can calm the spirit so well as a walk in the woods or on a beach.

When things aren’t going your way, sometimes the only thing you can do is keep it all in perspective and know that this, too, shall pass.