Category Archives: Personal Stories

Moving

After feeling very stuck for a while, I’ve made a decision.

I have two web pages, Not This Song and Not My Last Words. Lately, whenever I want to write, I am getting paralyzed because I can’t choose which site draws my focus more.

Life and art are blending. I can’t write about the conditions I live with without writing about how they affect my writing or how my writing affects them.

So here’s the deal…this page is migrating. Soon, Not My Last Words will be my only site. Over the next month or two, I will cross-post what I see as the most important works from here so that they will continue to be available in the Not My Last Words archives.

I request any loyal followers to follow notmylastwords.com and let the journey continue!

Not My Story

images

I have so much I could be writing about lately, but I haven’t been writing about any of it. I haven’t been writing about any of it because it feels as if it’s not my story to tell. It feels disrespectful to be making personal essays out of events that, while they affected me, affect others so much more.

The last two weeks have seen the end of my relative’s journey on this plane; he died the morning of June 14. I was there during his last hours, and saw him only minutes after he died. Other family members and I sat with his body until the funeral home workers came to transport him, and we watched him be wrapped up and taken away.

I was there, and I had thoughts, and I had feelings…but it’s not really my story. It’s his story, and his wife’s, and his children’s. I know that the feelings I have are nothing compared with how they feel.

It’s not my story…yet, inevitably, it is. It may be the ultimate self-absorption, but my lens is the only one I have. I’m incapable of an omniscient perspective; anything I write about is really about my experience of the thing. Even if I write from the perspective of another character, it’s still my projection being fueled by my attitudes.

So I’m aware of my own self-absorption right now. I’m aware of the part of my brain responsible for interpreting everything happening in terms of “What does this mean to me? How does this change the structure of my inner world? How do these truths apply to my journey?”

I’m judging myself for this. I feel ashamed of spending any mental energy on philosophizing while people I love are in need of comfort. I’m ashamed of the fact that, even while I carry out actions that reflect my desire to comfort them, a part of my mind is off crafting metaphors.

This judgment, however justified it might be, is dangerous. Blocking my personal writing is dangerous. Turning my metaphor factory into a moral issue is dangerous. Yesterday, I found myself tearing pictures out of magazines with a very diagnostic type of focus…my symptoms are rising, and I cannot afford to reject the best and least harmful coping mechanisms I have.

I need to allow myself to feel, and write, and make existential gold out of straw. I need to let myself think about what witnessing a death has made me feel about life, and recovery, and meaning.

Nine For Mortal Men

“Three rings for the elven kings under the sky.
Seven for the dwarf lords in their halls of stone.
Nine for mortal men doomed to die…”

I have been thinking about death quite a bit lately. I don’t mean the dwelling on death and related subjects that can come with a depressive phase, although I certainly experience that. What’s going on right now is something else.

On the day I turned ten, my younger brother died in a car accident. He was not yet two. Such a tragedy is hard on any family, and it tore mine apart–especially because we were unable to mourn. There was an unspoken rule, after the funeral, that he or any feelings or memories about him were not to be mentioned. My sisters and I became what therapists call “forgotten mourners.”

I don’t blame my mother or stepfather for that…how can I, imagining what pain they felt? But it did continue the lessons I had been learning about keeping my harshest feelings inside, not acknowledging loss, and not letting go.

As part of my recovery work recently, I did a ritual about honoring the dead in my life. My little brother, my father, and my stepfather were the main people I had in mind. Many people write a letter and read it out loud, but I wanted something more. A friend encouraged me to consider using something from the person’s heritage as a way to speak to them.

I thought about it, and settled on looking at my father’s heritage. I never knew him well, but I knew he grew up working-class in the Midwest and his ancestry included Catholics from Poland and Germany. When I thought about this, the rosary came to mind. I imagined women in dark houses centuries ago, murmuring the repetitive prayers over their dead.

I’d studied the Catholic rosary briefly in a course on world religions–the symbolism of it and how it parallels other rituals. Catholics pray the rosary regularly; there is nothing death-specific about it. But there’s a ritual, called a novena, that is used when someone wants to make a special effort of prayer for a person or a cause.

Novena comes from the Latin word for “nine.” When a Catholic makes a novena, they pray the entire rosary (not just the parts customary for a given night) for nine nights in a row.

I, in my naive enthusiasm and my desire to get this work done, decided that in honor of my dead I was going to make a novena. I got some beads and strung a primitive rosary; I looked up the prayer order and quantity online. I knew I would almost certainly do it wrong, but that was okay.

Before I was half done with the first night, I regretted my decision. The full rosary takes only a little over an hour for me to say once I get into the rhythm, but I had no idea how time would dilate while repeating the endless phrases. I’d feel ahead in the strand of beads I was using for counting, praying to encounter the knot telling me that this was the last or the second to last set of ten.

I did it, though. All nine nights. I did not often feel very spiritual about it, and it began to feel much more like a punishment than a healing ritual. I tried to see it as an exercise in following through and get past the part of me that felt stupid.

I learned a few things about prayer, though. I learned that repetitive prayers like this do, sometimes, get me into a useful meditative state (although it seems fifteen or twenty minutes would work better than an hour.) I learned that my mind wanders everywhere as I repeat the prayers, and I can track my biggest worries as they come and go. I learned that it feels really weird to find myself thinking about sex while I’m saying Ave Marias.

Now it’s finished. I have had no epiphany; I don’t feel lighter or freer except in the sense of being glad I’m now free to do as I please in the late evening. But I did it, and I did try to think of the people I was honoring.

I thought about a man who early lost a fight with unfavorable genes, toxic environment, addiction, and rage. A man who hurt others and never grew past a very narrow range of the spirit.

I thought about another man, similar though less abusive and dark, who also lost the fight, living and dying in our disease of addiction.

And, of course, I thought about a toddler who got taken from this plane of existence too early to know if he would have to fight against the same monster. Were you the lucky one, Johnny? I don’t know, but I remember you.

Fruit Inspection

Recently, I reached out to a few people from my past…college friends and other people who haven’t seen me in years. In several cases, I noted diffidently that if they wanted to know more about what I had been doing they could check out the things I have written here.

What I did not always say was that reading these things might help them make a decision about whether, or to what degree, they wanted any renewed contact with me.

Offering Not This Song as a source of information makes me feel…well, vulnerable is a mild word for what it makes me feel. At the same time, though, I’m proud of having something–anything–to offer.

It has been bringing an old quotation to mind, one from Christian writings:
“By their fruits ye shall know them.
Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?”

It’s been pointed out that many would-be creators spend a lot of time talking about what our fruit will look like, instead of creating it and letting it speak for itself. Sometimes it feels safer to explain a creation than to make it, especially if we really want people to get it. It feels safer to keep it unmade until we can make the perfect version of it.

At any rate, I am having the experience of inviting people to judge me by my fruit. It’s not a new experience for published writers, but it’s a new one for me. It’s one thing to share some of my writing with friends when I think they will find it interesting for reasons of their own, but it’s another to say: If you want to understand where I’m coming from, go read that stuff. The fruit is over there. Watch out for wasps.

How arrogant it might seem, even though I feel the opposite way.

But how effective!

Really, can you imagine? If someone is going to be turned off by some of my quirks, the collection of essays on this site should accomplish it nicely. By the same token, if an old friend or acquaintance sees something in me they identify with or want more of, they are certain to find it represented somewhere in these stories.

But…What if they think it’s all stupid?
What if they write me off as a recovery nut and nothing else?
What if they think I’m too crazy to trust with any place in their life?
What if it makes no impression on them at all, positive or negative?

Then that’s what it is. It’s no different from what we all face every time we interact with another person. With every word and action, we place our head upon the metaphorical block and risk the falling of the ax.

Why You Are Beautiful

Have you ever looked into a mirror and seen yourself as beautiful? Beautiful in a way that makes any real or perceived imperfections fade into the construct that they are?

I’d been invited to dinner with friends from out of town, followed by a reading at a bookstore. Dinner went well; I enjoyed the conversation very much and felt present. The voice running in my head, the one telling me I don’t belong in this group of talented people, was pretty silent. I dressed casually and didn’t use makeup. Okay, that part’s not lack of vanity; I just suck at putting on makeup.

After the dinner, we went to the San Francisco bookstore where the reading was being held. It was a reading by a mix of authors from the BDSM community, and a couple of my friends were going to be reading pieces there. I hadn’t been to an event like this in quite a while, and I felt both the pleasant and the bittersweet types of nostalgia.

Listening to the erotic fiction and nonfiction being read, I surreptitiously watched the small audience as I tend to do. People at a reading of erotic literature have a tendency to try to keep a neutral face. Perhaps they want to conceal reactions that feel too personal to share, or perhaps there’s an etiquette about concealing reactions that may distract other listeners.

However, not all can be concealed. The secret is to watch the eyes. In a still face, the eyes shine with fire when the listener is being affected. I can gauge the level of engagement this way, and I love it. Watching the people around me, I reveled in their beauty and their diversity. An enchanting mix of ages, genders and physical traits, they seemed to be broadcasting stories of their own.

My own thoughts about the pieces ranged freely, as well. I was reminded of how deep and psychically rich sexuality can be. How sex is only the beginning. The pieces evoked connection, shadow, love and deepest authenticity. My own feelings about all of these whirled inside me; not only the common longing and regret but an intense and living desire that pulsed with an unapologetic feeling of I want.

Between two of the pieces, I had to take a restroom break. Washing my hands, I glanced up at the mirror above the sink–and drew in my breath, shocked. The face in the mirror pierced me with its beauty.

Yes, the secret is in the eyes all right. Those eyes blazed into me, burning with the same fire I saw on other faces. They shone with mystery, and time, and a wholeness of complex thought. For a moment, I saw the woman in the mirror as a separate person. I saw her as if I were another guest, watching her from across the room and catching the first glimpse of those blazing eyes, and I thought: I want that woman.

I wonder about her story; I want to know what she’s thinking. I want to see what she looks like when she smiles, or growls with anger, or screams with lust or pain.

The other-ness of the moment faded quickly, but a ghost of it lingered. For the rest of the reading, I watched people with fascination–but with the awareness that I was one of them. A carrier of the story; a bearer of the hidden fire.

So you see, you are beautiful. You may not have had an experience like this yet, or you may have had many, but a gut-wrenchingly beautiful version of you exists behind the mirror and waits to come and be seen.

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

And all I can do is keep on telling you
I want you, I need you
But-there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you
Now don’t be sad
‘Cause two out of three ain’t bad.
                                        —-Meat Loaf

When I heard this song many years ago, I thought the singer was a real asshole. I thought he was saying what he said to keep his girlfriend on a string while permanently lowering her self-esteem. I didn’t know what a kindness truth could be.

Now I respect the guy, because he didn’t lie–not even to himself–to keep the woman around. He didn’t try to convince himself that he might learn to love her if she changed, or that he hadn’t given the relationship a fair chance.

How many people in our lives have really been that honest with us? And what if we believed it when they were; really heard it and acted accordingly?

People use the metaphor of a “dry well” when talking about how we go on seeking love or approval in places where we have repeatedly failed to find it. For many of us, the first examples came from our childhood–and we find ourselves adults who are still trying, consciously or unconsciously, to win. Win love, approval, or even just closure where it is never, ever going to be found.

Then we re-enact this pattern in relationships, and keep digging in one spot instead of moving to more promising locations. Our determination is fed by countless movies and books in which someone “wins” another person’s love or commitment through heroic efforts.

It’s a human condition–I’m not really writing about addicts or those dealing with mental illness right now, except in the sense that such issues might make us a tad more needy and vulnerable.

Part of surrendering to reality is seeing and believing in the existence of those dry wells in our lives. We let go of the hope and obsessive pursuit, and are free to spend our efforts on other things. But damn, it hurts. We feel lonely, sad, or angry, and we go around with the brick-living-in-our-chest feeling that goes with a grief process.

The wounds of my childhood, like those we all bear, are not going to be healed by anyone but me.
My loved ones are not going to change and magically begin to meet all of my needs.
The world is never going to make me feel accepted and loved; it’s up to me to create that love in myself and actively seek it in others.
Nothing out there is going to fix me, release me from my demons, or save me from aging and the human inevitability of death.

If I expect these things from people, relationships or anything in my life, I deprive myself of the chance to appreciate what I can get from them. I miss the moments of joy or the opportunity to be of service. I’ll miss the “two out of three” others might have to offer me.

You’ll never find your gold on a sandy beach
You’ll never drill for oil on a city street
I know you’re looking for a ruby in a mountain of rocks
But there ain’t no Coup de Ville hiding at the bottom
Of a Cracker Jack box…

Damn right there isn’t. I’ve looked long enough.

The Cruellest Month

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land…
“The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot

I’m no literature scholar. I don’t know what Eliot meant by these lines, or the long and complex poem they begin. But that first phrase clings to me on days like this, and I have my projections about what he may have meant by it.

April is the cruellest month, he said. But he didn’t live in northern California…if he had, might he have written that March is the cruellest month instead?

March (even the second half of February, but definitely March) is when spring explodes around here. The hills are carpeted with soft green grasses; the fruit trees are flowering, and the roadsides are dotted with mustard flowers and the first golden poppies.

What’s cruel about that? Shouldn’t this be a time of happiness? Don’t many people suffer depression in the darker times of winter and feel it lifting with spring?

I don’t have a good answer, but I know that, for me, spring hurts when my depression is heavy. Everything beautiful I see makes me aware of how little I have done to savor past springs; how I’m not doing enough to savor this one before it passes. Roses make me miss my old back yard and writhe with regret about losing it. Green hills taunt me with the hikes I’m not taking and the years I barely spent time outside at all.

The world is draped with a colorful mosaic of new life, but the darkness in me perverts it into Roses of Regret, Snowdrops of Shame and Forsythia of Failure scattered upon the Green Hills of Guilt.

Apologizing to Roses does a good job of explaining part of this; the part about regretting my inability to appreciate beauty fully.

I would like to become much better at living in the present…I want to revel in the spring. I want to spin in circles like Maria in The Sound of Music and sing about the beauty of nature around me. Why do I think I’m not allowed to unless I can do it all of the time?

Why does beauty hurt? Why does feeling good, or happy, or fully engaged with the world, hurt?

Every spring, multitudes of people journey to certain temples in Japan to view a breathtaking array of cherry blossoms. In some places, these flowers exist on the trees for a mere three days per spring. Some people come on the first day, when the blooms are fresh and newly budded. Many come on the second day, when the flowers are mature and at the height of their coloration. But the largest amount of travelers, by far, come on the third day. Come to watch the wilting blossoms falling from the trees and filling the breeze with their tiny petals.

To these watchers, the third day is the most beautiful. They relish the combination of beauty and transience. They know how to say hello and goodbye to something wonderful at the same time.