Monthly Archives: December 2014

One Year, Two Stories

Let me tell you about two women I know, and what kind of year they had.

Susan didn’t have a good year. In fact, 2014 sucked for her. Susan is kind of a loser, and 2014 was just another in a long line of years in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to be something else.
Susan fought a losing battle with a mental illness, repeatedly failing to be as productive as she longed to be or relate to other people the way she longed to do. She was lazy and self-absorbed, allowing her depression to keep her from reaching out to others.
Susan was, at best, a mediocre parent. She failed to do so many things she could have done to improve her daughter’s life, and the efforts she did make were inconsistently performed.
She also failed miserably at her efforts to maintain and improve her health. She gained almost 35 pounds this year, a little at a time, by falling to her compulsions and engaging in horrific sessions of self-destructive eating. When she did get her act together, it didn’t last, and she reenacted her lifelong pattern of failure in this arena.
Her efforts to be creative were laughably underpowered. She neglected countless opportunities to spread her work, make contacts, submit efforts and deepen her knowledge.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Just thinking about Susan’s year makes me feel exasperated and tired. I really wish she would get out of this rut and work harder next year.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Then there’s Mary. I admire Mary because she worked really hard this year. Mary is a person with a special inner quality that makes her willing to keep trying, using humility and courage to come back to the game no matter how many times she loses a round.
Mary learned a lot more about her mental illness this year, and continued to grow in both awareness and acceptance. She left her comfort zone many times, doing things that made her anxious or afraid in an effort to improve her life or the life of others.
Mary sat with her daughter and taught her about subjects ranging from Shakespeare to the Napoleonic Wars to algebra. Mary was a mother she could, and did, come to if she felt anxious at two in the morning. Mary made it possible for her daughter to get a more accurate diagnosis for some of her health issues. Mary overcame her phobias and insecurity to call, write, and meet with people to advocate for her daughter’s education, and thanks to Mary her daughter is doing better and making friends.
Despite some really tough struggles with her eating disorder, and the panic and despair they caused, Mary continued her years-long abstinence from drugs. In doing so, she broke a very old pattern of alternating the intensity of these two addictions and making it impossible to progress in healing either. She did not let financial fears, pain, shame, intense depression, bipolar symptoms, or loneliness drive her to put drugs in her body. She showed up for meetings and service positions even when she desperately wanted to hide.
Mary wrote many essays and poems this year, continuing to unearth this neglected part of herself. Some of them encouraged or inspired other people, and all of them enacted the precious ritual of creating something from nothing. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Go Mary. Hope next year is even better.

So, how obvious is it to you that Susan and Mary are the same person?
And that they’re both me?

Crafting these two stories is part of a technique I once studied called narrative therapy. A person is encouraged to “spin” the story of their lives or an event in two or more different ways, noticing just how different in content and tone the stories end up being. It shows us how we filter our lives inside our heads, emphasizing or deemphasizing things to fit a storyline a part of us has already decided. It shows us that the things we think about ourselves are, indeed, a kind of story, and encourages us to experiment with different writing styles.

What story do you tell yourself about 2014, and how is it slanted?
Does it need any alternate versions?

Happy New Year.

Colors in Winter

The winter holidays are upon me; denial has proved useless. Whether my psyche is in a good place or not, they are here and the only way past them is through.

As is my way, I’m fighting the overstimulation and depression by searching for some personal meaning. Last year, in Nativity, I sought to identify with the iconic Christian birth scene in a new way. This year, my thoughts are traveling to a different time and place for perspective.

I’m imagining myself somewhere in northern Europe, sometime in the Dark or Middle Ages. I’m a peasant, dwelling in a hut and scraping a living from the land the local nobles allow me to farm.

And winter sucks. There’s no denying it. It fucking sucks.

Winter means I’m usually confined in a small, inadequately ventilated place, stuck in close quarters with screaming babies and everyone else.
Winter means there’s probably less to eat than usual.
Winter means what there is to eat is even more monotonous than it is the rest of the year.
Winter means my loved ones and I are more likely to get sick, a potentially lethal thing here and now.
Winter means that when I do get outside, it’s gray and dull and cold.
Winter means that when I’m not working I am bored, bored, bored.
Winter means dark.
Winter means no colors.

But sometime during winter, there’s a holiday or a series of holidays. If Christianity has come to my region, it’s Christian holidays, substituting for and probably adapted from older ones. People bring branches and berries inside, providing a spot of color. People play games or have ceremonies or just get together. Maybe we make a special trip to a bigger church and marvel at the intense hues of a stained glass window.

People make special foods, sweet and complex foods I only get to taste once or twice a year. There’s an old Christmas dish called frumenty, made simply from finely hulled wheat and a sugar loaf. Sugar, any sugar, is a rare and luxurious treat.

The purpose of having a holiday in midwinter, whatever the current rituals attached might be, is ultimately simple and practical. It’s meant to provide a small amount of pleasure in order to keep me from going batshit crazy between now and the release of spring. It’s meant to give hope; a sense of rhythm or renewal.

The things that make it special do so because they are rare; they are things I can’t have on a daily basis.

Now I come back to the present, and look around at holiday activities in my area of the world. What do I see? People are traveling to see loved ones; that’s good, and rare if this is the only vacation they get. But the rest? Shopping–well, we are surrounded by stores; we can do that any time. Eating–well, if we are lucky enough not to have difficulty buying food, we can make sweet and tasty dishes at any time. Decorating–fun for some, but we already live in a world of color and light inconceivable to past centuries.

Though some of us are prone to seasonal depression, First World dwellers like me just don’t experience the kind of deprivations that used to come with winter. I can usually go where I please, eat fruits and vegetables and enliven long nights with all sorts of entertainment.

I’m grateful for this, but gratitude isn’t my main reason for thinking about these things. I’m thinking them because I’d like to find something special for myself in these winter holidays; something that will give me pleasure.

So I’m thinking that what gave pleasure in the past were the rare things. What’s rare for us these days? And could I give myself some of it to help me get through this time?

Maybe I could celebrate with a day of silence, or a silent retreat. Mmmmm.
Maybe I could celebrate by unplugging from all technology for a few days.
Maybe I could celebrate by doing some obscure but interesting type of crafts.
Maybe I could celebrate by going to a clothing-optional resort, reciting poetry in public, getting a new tattoo…the possibilities are endless.

Grammar and Hope

Peace on Earth, good will to men.

That’s how the old text is translated, and how it’s quoted in English in religious texts. During the winter holidays, we tend to hear it in Christmas carols and readings.

But to a word geek like me, it comes across a little differently–and that difference is speaking to me this month. Comforting me, teaching me and giving me a much-needed dose of tough love.

You see, I encountered the Latin words many years ago when I sang my first Mass, one by Beethoven. Beethoven, like many composers of his time, composed a lot of religious works because the Church was one of the only potential providers of support to a musician.

The experience of singing the beautiful music–my first piece of this nature–forged a positive association with the Latin Mass, even though I don’t belong to this religion. The phrase about peace on Earth occurs in the second of five parts of the Mass, and the Latin text reads: et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. When, years later, I dabbled in beginning Latin, I dug into the phrase and realized something really cool.

The translation works at the beginning: pax is peace, in terra means on Earth, hominibus is the form of “humans” that implies something being given to it. So we have peace being given to mankind. But the last phrase–bonae voluntatis–is in the possessive case, attached to hominibus.

It’s not “peace on earth, good will to men.”
It’s “peace on earth to men who have good will.”

Holy shit. It changes everything.

Now, before you scholars start having heart attacks, I’m quite aware that the oldest forms of the Christian texts are not in Latin; thus I might be wrong about the most original meaning of the New Testament text. I could even be wrong about the Latin. It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m only using the Latin the way I use so many things, as a personal talisman du jour.

But why? Why is it helping me?

Several reasons. In general, it helps me to understand that this idea of general good will may not be realistic and I don’t need to beat myself up about not feeling bathed in it. It helps me to be given a message of hope mixed with accountability: yes, there is peace and grace, but it doesn’t come for free and it doesn’t come to all. The aether won’t fart rainbows just because it’s a certain season of the year. It’s by having good will that we experience peace, even if the “good will” may only be strong enough to help us ask for more of it.

Peace, in an external sense, has never come for free; we know this. Bits and pieces, at best, are bought with bitter conflict and sacrifice. Peace, in an internal sense, doesn’t come for free either, and today I get to remind myself that good will is one payment I need to come up with if I want some.

Good will; good voluntatis. As in voluntary, volition, volunteer. Not only will or desire, but conscious intention and willingness. I don’t have it, or at least not enough of it, and it helps me to know that.

Saying this about myself isn’t a way of putting myself down. It’s a relief. The way we are relieved, though not necessarily happy, when we find a cause for those mysterious symptoms we’ve been having. Thinking about this phrase puts me over the line separating “I should really get this looked at” to “I’m calling today.” It just got to me: I want some feeling of peace so badly, and this is why I don’t feel it.

My spirit and soul are sick, and I have been unwilling to look into the depth of the pain they are in. The recent depression and the thoughts that come with it have left them bruised and flinching, and I need to understand how greatly they are in need of care. I have been unwilling to ask people for help with the actions I need to take, and unwilling to cry out to my God for healing. I am sick with fear, and envy, and guilt, and resentment, and the various other assassins I carry inside me. My will is not good, and there isn’t going to be any pax in my personal terra until it gets a bit better.

On The Advice Of My Solicitor

Amplified self-loathing is one of the worst aspects of depression. It’s been vicious for me lately, and I’m feeding it with everything from news stories to Facebook. I go around in the emotional equivalent of sackcloth and ashes, dwelling on the fact that while I struggle to carry out the most basic functions others are working to change this troubled world.

Yes, I also hear the voices telling me that even my guilt and self-loathing is ultimately another sign that I’m unworthy; that it simply marks me as self-absorbed. I also know that even the more functional among us are subject to feeling as if they’re never doing enough because the world’s supply of suffering and injustice isn’t running out.

I haven’t stopped believing the things I wrote about in Are We Disposable? But the voice that’s been dominating my thoughts is a part of me too–and someone, somewhere, might need to know they’re not alone in thoughts like these. So here it is: in the darkest moments, what I want most is to believe I’m useful. And when I can’t believe it, I just want not to be a burden anymore. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and consume resources and imagine the contempt others feel toward me.

I don’t want to die–not really–but this frustration makes me want to rip myself apart. To sink claws of intention deep into my chest and tear it in opposite directions; scatter the pieces into a new configuration that might work better. I want the spirit of this world to rip me up like a worn-out quilt and make something useful out of my remnants.

Take my eyes and give them to one who is blind. Take my hands and create, build, fix what is broken. Take this pretty-good soprano voice, that sings so little, and play lullabies for children fighting nightmares. Send these feet to march in the protests against racism and social injustice. Take this brain, hammer out these kinked chemical impulses, and turn its intelligence toward solving the dilemmas of our species. Take these words and craft them into speeches that will liberate, or into the right phrase at the right time for someone who needs it.

Take this neglected flesh and feed it to starved dogs in dusty fields. Take the food I’ll no longer eat and give it to the hungry. Take the phosphorus and minerals from my bones and replenish the tired soil of my planet.

These thoughts are real, and the guilt that feeds them is a real feeling. But the melodrama and extremism associated with them is something I need to question–if I’m going to get through a dark phase, there needs to be a part of my mind that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

When I was wrestling with my need to write something and break my silence of many days, a bit of that grace came to me. An irreverent corner of my brain latched onto these “take me apart and make me into something useful” thoughts and linked them to an old Gilbert & Sullivan number: in the play Patience, a man named Bunthorne is desired by all except the one woman he wants, Patience. He decides that if he can’t have the woman he wants, he might as well do something useful with himself. He’s later found, surrounded by the group of damsels who have been pursuing him, passing out tickets:

Heart-broken at my Patience’s barbarity
On the advice of my solicitor
In aid, in aid of deserving charity
I’ve put myself up to be raffled for…

So, this bit of song got into my head and kept nattering on there…and, wouldn’t you know it, the association started to make my extreme thoughts seem a little silly. I began to see the ridiculous Bunthorne, on the stage, magnanimously waving to his simpering admirers and their bunches of tickets. The opening of the song began to beat in my head as I dragged myself from one lackluster task to another…Come walk up and purchase with avidity, overcome your diffidence and natural timidity, tickets for the raffle should be purchased with avidity, put in half a guinea and a husband you may gain!

It’s extremely hard to concentrate on dramatically self-destructive thoughts with that catchy, annoying tune going on. It’s just another example of unlikely grace in my life; the idea that anything can turn into a totem or talisman–and there’s no way to tell which of millions of experiences might do so.

I’m still quite depressed. I know I need help, both emotional and spiritual, and I’m looking into getting my meds adjusted as well. But an obscure and silly tune is, at this moment, helping me.

Birthright

Thanksgiving is over for another year. Gratitude has certainly been on my mind, not because of Thanksgiving but because of my general need for grace. But I am one of those people who tend to find the holidays an ordeal, because of their emphasis on two of my more difficult subjects: family and food.

I have nothing to complain about; there was no big family drama this year. Things were quite low-key, and if there was tension it was simply the normal tension of things unsaid, or a pretense that pain was not present. But the holiday has left me with some odd echoes, and thoughts about the whole concept of our “families of origin,” as some refer to them.

There’s a scene in the Marvel film Thor: The Dark World that keeps playing in my head. (Spoilers for both Thor movies ahead.)

Loki, during the first movie, has been seeking the throne of Asgard by various underhanded means. At some point he finds out that he is not the natural son of his father King Odin: Loki is actually a Frost Giant, found and adopted as an infant by Odin. This revelation disturbs and embitters him, especially since he comes to believe it’s why Odin will always favor Thor over him. Later he tries to conquer Earth, and fails.

Near the beginning of the Dark World movie, he is brought before Odin in chains. Odin sentences him to life imprisonment, chiding him for lusting after the throne. “It is my birthright!” Loki says angrily.

“Your birthright was to DIE!” thunders a wrathful Odin, referring to Loki’s origin as a helpless infant abandoned after a battle.

And, behind Loki’s defiantly prideful stare, something deep in his eyes shatters.

Maybe it’s only me who sees it, but I don’t think so. I think others know that moment too–that moment of knowing our quest will never be fulfilled; the well is truly dry; that certain someone whose acceptance and love we have desperately sought is never going to meet our need.

Yes, that look in Loki’s eyes stayed with me. But the words stayed with me even more.

Your birthright was to die.

What is our birthright? What is mine? Looking at the families we sprang from, it can be a sobering thing to contemplate. Many of us came from families very different from the ideas touted by the media.

Should I conclude, from the circumstances of my birth, that my birthright is addiction? Mental illness? Domestic violence? Trauma? Prison? Bitterness, isolation, chronic pain?

Not trying to bad-mouth my family here, really. I’m just thinking about whether, and how much, it’s possible to decline our inheritance. I’ve already manifested several aspects of mine, whether through them being passed on or through my own mistakes. Is it possible to skip the rest?

Once, in a class about psychology and culture, we were told to stand in a line through the center of a large room. The teacher called out various circumstances and told us to take a step forward or backward if this circumstance was true for us.

If one or more of your parents went to college, take one step forward.
If your parents divorced, take one step back.
If either of your parents had substance abuse issues, take one step back.
If anyone in your family had mental health issues, take one step back.
If your family was ever homeless, take one step back.
If there was violence in your family, take one step back.

It went on and on; some questions seemed arbitrary while others brought an intense feeling of vulnerability as I took that step backward. When the exercise was done, we were spread out all over the room. Some of us ended up close to the line, some were well ahead, and a few, like me, stood well behind the pack.

The teacher framed this as an analogy for where a person’s “starting point” in life was. I don’t know if she was right to do so, or not. I do know that people can turn their handicaps into strengths, and some do. But do those strengths ever bring a person to where they might have been if they’d been dealt a different hand?

No. They don’t. We create a different life, perhaps even a deeper and more joyous life, from what we inherit. But the ship of what-could-have-been has sailed.

So, to what degree do I truly shape my own life? I’ve changed some things, I know–my daughter is growing up in a nonviolent household, for instance, and that’s huge. I’ve had the privilege of much more education than anyone in my extended family, and that’s huge too. I’m in recovery today, trying to live differently, and my spiritual work stands a chance of making me someone who uses her remaining years more wisely.

But when I feel overwhelmed or depressed, or I watch a relative go downhill with some of their issues, I seem to hear Odin’s voice from that scene, telling Loki that his only birthright was abandonment and death.

I need to fight that voice. It’s true that, as a human being, my birthright is death. But I believe that, as a human being, my birthright is also life. And where there is life, there is hope.