Tag Archives: Creativity

Selfishness

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How far am I willing to go to save my life?

Last week, I stood in front of a small group of poets and read a selection of my work for 25 minutes. It was the Monday after the inauguration, and many of the listeners had spent the weekend marching. I knew that later, at the open mic, many of the poems would reflect current events. I worried that my work, particularly at this time, would be judged self-absorbed and turned too far inward when external things are so urgent.

Here is what I said to the audience at the beginning of my reading:

“I cannot do justice to these times. Part of me wanted to attempt to assemble a body of work about what is happening to our country and society. But trying to do that would have been dishonest. I was invited to feature here, and that means I was invited to share who I am as a poet.

The truth is, one might say that I am a selfish poet. While many of you are trying to save us all with poetry, I am often only trying to save myself–and, perhaps, someone else who doesn’t think they deserve to be saved. 

The truth is, I mostly write about the things that keep some of us bound and silenced on the sidelines. I write about what I know. I know about being a drug addict. I know about being a mental patient. I know about being a woman, and a mother. I know what it is to want to die. I know what it’s like to decide to fight to live.”

When I am thinking clearly–when I am not drowning in a miasma of depression and shame–I believe that writing, reaching, fighting for those who share these experiences is important. I believe it is a contribution. I believe that helping someone wake, even for a moment, from the nightmares inside their skull helps the world.

Do not think I don’t feel anger and outrage. Do not think, ever, that I don’t care. But I can’t afford to keep worrying about what you think of me. It’s going to kill me.

So I must accept the truth. This–this writing, this poetry, this exploration and celebration of our inner worlds–this is my playing field. This is my way of fighting the oppression and sick culture that wants us bound, silenced and unconscious. This is what I have to give.

If this is what I have to give, I want to give it wholeheartedly. This means learning to let go of hoping for approval. This means not fearing the labels of selfish, self-absorbed, and all of the others I want so desperately to refute.

I want to help. Perhaps if I manage to improve my health I will find small ways of helping in the external world. But what I want most is to support others in their fight against despair. If you are out there, as an activist and a warrior, I want to offer illogical hope when you are burned out. If you are in bed, paralyzed with depression or pain, I want to help you hang on until a slightly better day. By sharing my inner world, I want to help others explore theirs. I want people to have an inner world that sustains and strengthens them through anything.

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.

Don’t Take This From Me

All right, bipolar disorder. You try to take a lot of things from me. Sometimes you succeed, and sink your claws into your prize until I wrench it back. Fine. Keep trying to take my sleep. Or my energy, or my sex drive, or my consistency, or any optimism about the future…go on, I’ll keep fighting the good fight against you.

But not my ability to think. Not my intelligence. Hands off.

I want to believe that this creative slump I’ve been in is just that: writer’s block, or a dry spell. Perhaps the natural result of some life stresses, or mental fatigue from some recovery work. A normal, natural ebb tide in the rhythms of my mind.

I don’t want to see that a lack of creativity can also be the result of impaired ability to think…and I’m terrified of seeing that kind of impairment in myself. I know it’s a fact of life when living with bipolar disorder: depression can make it hard to concentrate, hypomania can make it hard to focus, and meds can have side effects that blunt our sharp mental edges. Intrusive thoughts, feelings of unreality and any number of mental hijinks mean our processing speed can go way down when responding to input.

“But what if it’s not just that?” a terrified voice whispers in my head. “What if in the last decade you’ve actually lost something? Forever?”

Am I getting dumber?

It doesn’t help to know that there are multiple ways to answer such a question. It doesn’t help to know that for everything I may have lost, there has certainly been growth in other parts of my psyche. It doesn’t even help to remind myself that all humans face mental as well as physical declines that come with age.

The terror I feel is illogical; it’s the terror that comes from a threat to my sense of self.

It’s the terror of the question: “If I’m not smart, what am I?”

My brain is the only thing I ever learned how to trust: not my body, and certainly not other people. My brain was what let me escape into books. It was the only thing that let me build some self-esteem with test scores and teachers’ approval; it helped me win a chance for more education and a different life. It let me build an internal world strong enough to keep me alive, a world ready to integrate the spirit when I finally began to discover it.

My brain runs the metaphor factory of my psyche. What would I do if its edge got too blunted? How could I live? It’s not a question of self-esteem, although it is a good idea for me to keep examining the idea that I have no worth if I lose a few IQ points.

It’s a question of survival.

Is my fear realistic? I feel anxious even asking. Okay, let’s look at some facts. Line up my current self and my…oh, let’s say 30 year old self. Before the painkillers, before childbirth, before any psych meds but the occasional antidepressant. Give both selves a battery of cognitive tests; throw in an SAT and GRE just for fun.

Results? Yes, there are some real phenomena here. I fall short of the 30 year old in data retrieval speed, working memory, manual dexterity, ability to multitask…ugh. I would imagine the gap is at least slightly wider than a gap created by only the passage of time, too.

Here’s one snippet I found on the subject:

“Mood typically receives the bulk of our attention when it comes to descriptions and discussion of bipolar disorder; however, in my sessions with individuals living with the disorder, it’s common to hear concerns about their lessened cognitive capacities. To be more specific, I’m referring to the experience of decreased cognitive capacity relative to the period of time before any sustained bipolar mood symptoms arrived on the scene.

Examples of the kinds of deficits reported are difficulties with linguistic working memory (word retrieval), difficulties with planning, prioritizing and organizing of behavior (executive functioning), problems with retention of what’s been read or listened to, as well as the experience of mildly dulled or slowed thought processes. For some with bipolar disorder, it’s like they’ve experienced a gradual decline of brain power from their previous baseline level of function.” —Russ Federman, Ph.D. in Psychology Today

This resonates with me; I believe I have lost something. Since I started out with a lot, I’m still very sharp on my good days–but I’ll never be the gleaming tack my younger self was.

Ironically, thinking about this in clinical terms helps me with the fear. By replacing a vague description with specific terms, it reins in my tendency to expand into dark scenarios. It also gives me hope by letting me see that the aspects of my brain function that have taken the hardest hits are not threatening the core of the metaphor factory.

For now.

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.

School Days

The new school year has begun.

My schedule will be similar to last year’s: my daughter, now in tenth grade, will have two classes on the high school campus and I will be teaching the other four at home. It worked very well for her last year, and I hope this year will go well for her too.

For me, it can be a rollercoaster of doubt: when should I push her to work during a bad headache day and when should I encourage her to relax? What do I do when I feel we are not accomplishing enough in the home subjects? How do I squelch my defensiveness and stress when dealing with the district, as she continues to fall through the cracks at times?

I’ve written before about how it feels to be a parent who is identified as a dually diagnosed person. In a society where mothers are already blamed for many things, I often feel that I have a target painted on my chest: anything imperfect in her life, her performance or her well-being means I have done something wrong. At best, it means that I’m on the right track but just not working hard enough.

As I write this, I’m in the library while she’s in class. These gaps in my day, absent during summer, will be a welcome opportunity to write more. It’s important that I do this; I need to remember who I am and what my duty is.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the school stuff and forget that my deepest duty is to remain present in my life, and therefore in hers. Everything else follows from this. Keeping my recovery strong–and keeping my creativity exercised so the dark stuff doesn’t build up and seep out in a destructive way.

Instead of running from stress, resentment and fear, I need to seek their opposites in an active way. Fighting them only exhausts me more; I have learned this by now. Fighting them and trying to force myself to be “good” will back me into a corner eventually, from which the addict I am will lash out with sick behavior.

Instead of fighting, I need to seek the opposites of whatever resentment, fear, or stress I feel. Doing whatever I must do to give myself exposure to faith, acceptance, and love makes the difference between seeing my daily life as a sentence of exhausting stress and deprivation and seeing it as–well, life.

Acceptance also means trying to stay clear about what’s within my power and what is not. My daughter is fifteen now, and in the past year alone her consciousness is expanding in a way that awes me. She is beginning to go where I cannot follow, as children do when they grow up. I can’t forget this.

As usual, I need balance. A balance that lets me do what she needs, in a spirit of love and willing service, but keep in close touch with my own inner world. My inner world of darkness, and light, and words that form my true home. During the summer my creativity fell to the siren call of what-does-it-matter; everything I wanted to write seemed trite to me. I can’t tell you how many poem scraps and essays in the making I have sitting around.

If I’m going to make this school year a good one, I (weirdly enough) need regular access to a version of myself very different from the good school mom. I need the writer who, laughing with abandon, slashes open her skin and lets a poem bleed out. Who paints designs on her face with the blood and dances around the fire as the debris of not-good-enough burns.

I will remember: I am myself. I am a woman, a mother, a poet, an addict, a human. I am a consciousness, existing because I exist. I am enough, my daughter is enough, and anyone who thinks we’re not is cordially invited to go fuck themselves.

Ghost Town

In most stories, when the main character becomes a ghost, they try very hard to send messages to the living. They get frustrated when they can’t, and they work on finding ways to affect the world despite their new state of being.

Some episodes of depression make me feel like this. I’m not on the same plane of existence as those around me, and it’s lonely. I want to communicate, but there’s a thick veil between me and the rest of the universe. Faintly, under the weight of the symptoms, this longing flickers and reminds me that there’s still something I want.

This isn’t how I feel now.
I feel like a ghost, but not that kind of ghost.
I feel like a ghost who’s been a ghost for a long, long time and is used to it.

Even as I write this, there’s a generous dose of unreality attached to the motion of my fingers…I observe rather than act. I am not really here.

I have not written. I have not cared much that I’m not writing, unlike other times when feeling blocked brings frustration or guilt. The essays I haven’t written flit around the streets of this ghost town, each with their title and premise. I see them, but they are no more real than I am.

I do and experience some “normal” things. I manifest anxiety and irritation in response to stressors, but a part of me is not present.

My knowledge and my observing ego still exist. I know that what professionals call “flat affect” can be a bad sign, and I know my current state might be this. My appointment with my psychiatrist is in a few days, and I will show up.

It is not obvious to most people around me that they are dealing with a ghost. I went to a meeting this morning, and carried on conversations, and even talked a little about the fact that my depression has been rising lately. I can talk to you, and move my face (usually) into appropriate expressions, and even (I think) care. But as soon as I’m not under direct observation, I fade again.

I even laugh if someone tells a joke. I play games with my family. But I’m really just another game piece–the “me” they think they are playing with is just an avatar, being moved around by the languid hand of the ghost.

Why am I writing this, then? Why would this kind of ghost try to form thoughts and record them this way? It’s taken me many days, and I am doing it in response to the part of me that knows being a ghost is most likely temporary. That part wants this description to exist for the same reasons I want my other writing to exist.

That part also insists on looking for evidence that I am not as much of a ghost as I feel myself to be. Its favorite clues are found in the library, where I sit and read while my daughter is in class. Though not writing, I read to kill the time…aha, says the inner detective; if you are a ghost why are you raiding the poetry section?

Why wouldn’t a ghost read poetry, I counter; ghosts observe humanity. And what is more human than poetry?

Reading, maybe, replies the detective. But three times I saw you hand-copy a poem from an anthology, onto the paper you use for your special storage. Why would a ghost bother to do that?

And so it goes, until I must acknowledge that this ghost is not totally cut away from our plane.

When the time, and the brain chemistry, are more suitable, I will look more deeply at what this state of consciousness means and what I can learn from it. Perhaps, later, I will be pleased with the new poets I discovered.

The Lorites

The idea for this piece comes from Anathem by Neal Stephenson. If you want a book that’s a bit of a dense read but well worth it–if you want a book that will draw you into a different and compelling world–if you want a book that will fuck your mind slowly and exquisitely–read it. There aren’t any spoilers here.

All you need to know about the Lorites is that they’re mentioned here and there in the book as an philosophical order. The guiding principle of their philosophy is simple: that there is no such thing as a new idea. Every idea that anyone in this present can conceive has been thought of before.

The Lorites are a minor sect and not given much thought by most. They have some practical use, since they have been around a long time and collected huge repositories of knowledge. If you are developing a “new” idea and want to know how badly you’re reinventing the wheel, consult the Lorites.

I am susceptible to Lorite philosophy, and not only because Lori is my first name. Having the human desire to be special, one of my negative voices is the one telling me that whatever I’m doing, writing, thinking is nothing new. Not only is it not new, but whoever’s done it before has doubtless done it better.

Writing a poem? Surely one of the thousands of past poets has captured the same essence of thought and feeling, and even though they didn’t repeat my exact sequence of words the difference isn’t big enough to make mine worth anything. Writing a speech? Someone’s done it more persuasively. Writing personal essays? I’m just reiterating basic human experiences, after all.

Dreaming of workshops, groups, work that helps others? There are so many out there more qualified and more functional–and since what I have to offer can’t be new, there’s no way my work can ever compensate for my limitations.

I imagine that the era I live in is more conducive to Lorite thought with the Internet linking the ideas of more people, present and past, than ever before. How easy it is to believe that our gifts are duplicated or surpassed by the billions out there!

Embraced in a balanced way, the Lorites can give me perspective and a healthful dose of humility. After all, to believe we’ve come up with something totally new would be to believe ourselves prophets–and a world full of nothing but prophets would be chaotic indeed.

But, of course, I don’t stop there. It becomes one of the weapons used by my addiction, or by my depression, or by my self-destructive impulses in general. It gets used to paralyze me, sap my creative energy and promote procrastination and apathy.

I’m not alone, nor does someone need to share my issues to be with me in this. For humans in general, it targets one of the deepest questions in our hearts:
“Is there really any fucking point to all this? ”
And since there are countless ways to answer this question, or to admit that we don’t know how to answer it, it’s easy to get stuck.

I certainly don’t know how. And I don’t know how to reconcile it with my growing need to create. As I sit here, right at this moment, I’m aware of stories I’m making up to comfort myself.

I tell myself that apples aren’t new–yet people enjoy the different taste of all the ways they can be prepared. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed nourishment.

I tell myself that quilts aren’t new–yet people enjoy the myriad ways of assembling them. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed warmth.

I tell myself that spiritual principles aren’t new, yet people enjoy different ways of framing and presenting them. I tell myself that emotions aren’t new, yet each of us responds more or less to the way they are expressed by artists of all kinds.

Love isn’t new.
Beauty isn’t new.
Death isn’t new.
Sex isn’t new.

I’m not new. And yet I am.