Tag Archives: Spirituality

Self-Delighting, Self-Affrighting

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“…Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
–from “A Prayer for My Daughter” by W.B. Yeats

These are the type of words to which I cling: words that remind me that my soul is capable of light and growth regardless of external circumstances. With the latest political catastrophes, though, I feel that such things are one of my dirty little secrets. How dare I believe that joy and peace are possible while things are turning to shit around me? How dare my soul remember anything but impending doom?

I can’t help it, though. During my life I’ve met so many people who were happier and more at peace in their lives than I can imagine being. They came from all walks of life, dealt with poverty or illness or injustice, and carried what seemed to be an independent joy about them. They cried and fought and grieved like anyone else, yet they were also able to rejoice and rest and laugh.

That’s what I want, and it doesn’t mean I want to retreat from the problems of the world and huddle beside some inner fire. It means I want that feeling of wholeness to accompany me where I need to go.

Writing this–confessing that I feel guilty for thinking about an inspiring and comforting passage of poetry–makes me aware of what a dangerous place I’m in. I already struggle to feel worthy of any space on this planet. If I let this guilt control me, I’ll fall farther and farther into the kind of place I described in On The Advice Of My Solicitor:

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.

…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.

The disabled are going to suffer under the new regime, whether the disabilities are physical or mental. We don’t need to be inflicting extra suffering on ourselves. How do I stop it? How do I really act upon my belief that if I harm myself, I give the enemies of love a victory?

It’s not a matter of trying to believe in the “self-delighting” part of my soul, or of understanding that the truest poison of many fears comes from the “self-affrighting” part. I know these things; they stand immutable in my psyche. It’s about giving myself permission to use the power of this truth.

We Interrupt This Depression…

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My dark phases, hellish as they might be, are not uninterrupted darkness. The grim or lackluster parts are almost always interrupted by moments of grace. Much grace comes from my family, for I am blessed not to live in isolation.

Beyond these everyday blessings, sometimes I get moments. The kind I’ll remember years later. They pierce through the fog and join their neighbors in the innermost vaults of my consciousness, there to be defended to the death.

About ten days ago, I drove about an hour and a half north to go to a poetry reading in Napa County. The reading was held at the town’s library, which like many buildings in the town basically backed up to a vineyard. Lines of comfortable chairs were arranged facing the windows of the main room, and the reading poet was silhouetted against one side of the bright span of windows. While listening, we gazed at the green vines under the slanting sun of a late summer afternoon.

The beauty was so surreal that I began to feel as if I were on another world. I found myself thinking of recent tragedies in the news, and about how much privilege is involved with this tranquil setting, but even the familiar sadness and guilt faded into just being present.

The Moment with a capital M wasn’t only this beauty, though. It wasn’t just the careful packing away and stowing of a lovely memory. No, the magic part came next, in equal parts spirituality and science fiction.

I was struck, suddenly, with a feeling of being apart from the time stream. The concept of parallel timelines exists in many sci-fi universes, and I have been exposed to it long enough for it to be a part of my thinking at times. Right there and then, at that moment, I felt my current timeline brushing against another one. The other timeline was one, probably one of many, in which I was not in that beautiful room because I was not alive.

In that timeline I didn’t live to write any poetry, or read any, or drive to Napa to share some. I died sometime between 2009 and 2011, you see, from a drug overdose or some other self-destructive act. My chair was empty.

It sounds a bit trite as I attempt to describe it: I had a moment of being grateful to be alive, blah blah…but there was something about that empty chair, almost superimposed against the one I was occupying, that made my worries and shames lose power for a moment. The words, the window, the sun were my reality, mine, there as opposed to not there.

There I was, in the middle of this period of depression and poor health, feeling so powerfully alive that all else faded. And when it came my turn to read something of my own, what need was there to fear? The words were mine, my reality, coalesced in this fortunate timeline from ghosts of might-have-beens.

Not My Story

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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.

Across the Chasm

Making some kind of authentic contact with you (and you can be anyone) is hard for me these days. Not that it’s ever been easy, but in the past I’ve sometimes been in settings that help to break the ice.

Right now, I’m aware of a visual metaphor for what happens when I try to meet you. I picture our place of meeting–the place where there is some real, non-bullshit exchange between us–as a small plateau on a rock spire in the middle of a vast chasm.

That’s where the magic happens, but first I have to get there.

In my metaphor, I start out in the swamp. Call it the swamp of shame. Why not? The very first challenge involves shame, because it’s what taking any action requires me to face. To wake up, to pull myself from inertia, means facing shame. The shame of seeing where I really am; the shame of what have I done and how could I have gotten here and why didn’t I do something sooner.

The squelchy ground tries to hold on to my feet with every step, but if I persevere I get to firmer ground at last…Wait. Why can’t I see where I’m going?

Right. I’m out of the swamp, but onto the plain of mental fog.

The mental fog of sleep deprivation. Of a screwed-up metabolism or poor self-care or the damn psych meds so necessary to keep doing my best. Trying to block my path, trick and exhaust me into turning back, or just remind me of how pathetically slow and uncertain my steps are.

But, if I persevere, I reach a place of clearer air and fuck, that’s a big mountain.

Even though experience has taught me that its height and steepness is partially illusory, it’s hard not to be intimidated. The mountain represents the amount of effort needed to take an action in the face of depression, not to mention more mundane resistances such as laziness or procrastination. It takes juice to tackle it, and humility to accept the necessity of one uncertain or scrabbling step at a time.

But, if I persevere, I ascend far enough up the slope to see the entrance of where I need to go and oh god, I do not want to go in there.

Did you ever see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? My condolences. Anyway, picture the bug-filled tunnel from that. Bugs squishing under my feet, my ears filled with the clacking of millions of tiny mandibles, and my skin crawling under the brush of millions of legs.

I’m making my way through the tunnel of resentment. Resentment, envy, jealousy, self-pity…all trying to keep me separate from you. Trying to make you other, or keep me other, or just cause me enough pain and frustration to make me think it’s not worth the trouble. Trying to click and squelch and slime away the love I feel for you and the truth of our human connection.

But, if I persevere, I reach the other side of the tunnel. I’ve left the bugs and enclosing tunnel behind. The ground is firm rock beneath my feet, and the air is clear. I can see the spire ahead of me, and the small plateau where we will meet–and the bottomless, black chasm between here and there.

You probably guessed it. What’s the most primal, deepest barrier to experience? It’s fear. It’s the chasm of fear, and it yawns between me and you.

Fear of rejection. Fear of judgment. Fear of things we don’t have names for, fear that makes no fucking sense in the face of a logical weighing of risks and benefits. Fear ingrained, to a greater to lesser degree, into the most primitive structures of our brains.

I must weave a bridge from gossamer-thin filaments, made from the only materials and power I have. The same materials that made up the rocks my feet found in the swamp, or the handholds on the side of the mountain. The same power that guided me through the fog and illuminated the tunnel.

The materials and power of my self, my stories, the things I believe and the grace that animates them. As thin (but strong) as spidersilk, the bridge they create will make the terrifying journey possible.

Here is the story I tell myself about our meeting. I tell myself that even though I don’t see it, you have gone through a journey of your own to get to that plateau. I tell myself that you’ve got a swamp and a foggy plain and a tunnel and a chasm too. I tell myself that we are kindred, and that we must be pretty important to each other if we go through all of this to meet.

Yet I know I could be wrong–maybe, for you, it really is just going out for a cup of coffee.

Monster Prayers

I realized something lately about why I am so resistant to making prayer a regular part of my life. I thought it was just that I feel awkward or stupid doing it, or that I fear being judged by people in my life and constantly having to explain why my non-religious forms of prayer are necessary for me.  No, I’m hesitant to embrace prayer because the way I pray is limiting myself and my view of the future.

I pray to get through the day without doing the self-destructive things I must avoid–but I don’t always ask for the grace of not even wanting to do them. I pray for the strength to get essential things done, but I don’t pray for them to flow smoothly or go well. I pray for the grace not to fall to self-pity, or fear, or envy– but I’m not asking for their joyous opposites.

Actually, I don’t ask for much good stuff at all. When I do ask for any, it’s usually for someone else. I’ve taken lessons of humility so much to heart that I’ve forgotten about love. I’ve forgotten that, within the confines of my God’s unknowable will, there’s room for me to ask for mercy and joy and healing. The answer might have to be no–but I’m allowed to want it, ask for it, reach for it.

I’m short-changing myself. And I’m short-changing my conception of God.

A man I once knew, who had recently taken up a religion and was experiencing the zeal of a convert, used the phrase “monster prayers” one day. He said it was his practice to try asking his God for everything he wanted, no matter how far-fetched it might seem. He, as well, knew that the answer can be no; that prayer isn’t some kind of bargain of “I’ll keep believing in you or being good if you give me what I want.” But he asked for miracles, and childish desires, and wonderful things.

I loved that phrase “monster prayers.” I pictured the clumsy, endearing, brightly colored monsters from kid’s shows next to fierce dragons and Cthulhu-esque tentacled things. I loved the idea of sending out the monsters of my wishes and desires to dance in front of my deity, entertaining it and teaching it more about me.

So what would I ask for, understanding that just asking is part of the magic?

A night of deep, refreshing sleep?
A day without any thoughts of death?
An upturn in my health?
Some windfall to ease financial problems?
Finding a psychiatrist who takes insurance?
A burst of creativity and productivity, getting more writing done?

No, not enough. Those aren’t monsters, they’re no more than small dogs on the scale we are trying for. Think impossible. Think ridiculous. Think baby crying for the moon.

Having a book published.
Solving the mystery of my daughter’s chronic pain.
Being healthy and active, without needing to sabotage myself.
Great friends among whom I actually feel comfortable.
Being free of fear, really free.
The best sex of my life.
Seeing the Louvre.
The best sex of my life, in the Louvre.

Better. Still, all of those are technically possible…how about world peace, an intact ozone layer, the ability to teleport, and a love affair with the telepathic leader of a friendly alien species?

Now we’re talking. Let the monsters go…so I’ll be less intimidated by the smaller creatures of my longings.

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.

Still In Recovery?

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a special women’s recovery event. Part of me didn’t want to show up–what else is new? I always want to wait until I can present the best version of myself. I want to wait until some magical moment of good health and behavior arrives and appear then, proclaiming “Look, I’m here, this is me! None of those other things are me!”

But I’d been invited, specifically, by a friend who knew I had no money for a ticket and offered me a place at her table anyway. It meant a lot to me, and I was determined not to flake out. So I showed up as I am, carrying the extra weight from my latest bout of self-destruction and the extra weepiness from my latest bout of depression. I did a load of laundry, and washed my hair. I couldn’t wear my jeans comfortably, but at least the yoga pants I did wear were clean.

Hearing women chat about their lives and the people they know, I felt the usual welcome shifts in perspective. My own problems felt a bit less overwhelming as I listened to those of others, and I had the usual–yet somehow always surprising–revelations about how little these women care about my own standards for myself.

Yes, I’d been struggling with food and money and depression. I wasn’t the only one. Others had been struggling with relationships, or battling cigarettes, or had new and serious health problems. There was just one battle we were all still winning at the moment: being drug addicts who were not using drugs.

On my keychain, I carry the medallion I got on my four-year anniversary of getting clean from drugs. If I stay the course, I’ll get a five-year one next May. Lately, it’s been harder and harder to take any joy in these things because I am so aware of the insanity I’m experiencing around food.

I’m well aware that in a different fellowship I’d just be considered in relapse, period. Periodically failing with the food would mean I’m no longer clean and shouldn’t be counting any anniversaries. I don’t choose to go by these rules for a few reasons, the most important one being that it’s nearly killed me in the past by creating a “might as well” attitude and encouraging me to use drugs again. Now, I choose to keep my anniversary, despite the eating-related insanity I have experienced off and on in the last four years. I choose to believe that staying off of drugs matters enough to be acknowledged.

That being said, it’s important for me to admit to myself when I’m in relapse mode. Insane behavior with food is diagnostic for me, and it’s not very compatible with the values of recovery. If I’m binge eating to punish myself or drown my anxiety, I’m probably not using a lot of spiritual tools at the moment. So even as I hold on to my accomplishment of staying clean, I need the humility of admitting that my life is in relapse mode lately. That I need help, need to put my program first more often, need to admit I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s said that abstinence does not equal recovery. I, like any addict, can be free of my best-known demon but making myself insane with another behavior. Looking around that room at the tables of women, I knew that each of us fell somewhere in the gray zone between living in our disease and living fully in recovery.

Am I still in recovery? Are you? Where is the line?

I can’t tell you the answer, but I can tell you about the moment I let go of the question for the rest of the day.

“Have you seen ******** lately?” a woman asked.
“She went out,” another woman answered sadly.

Out. It’s what we call it when a person disappears. Stops answering their phone. Eventually, maybe, someone hears something. Friends might try to track them down, but there’s often not much that can be done until the time is right. We wait, and pray we will see them again.

I felt the usual wave of sadness, the woman’s face vivid in my mind. I looked around the room and wished she were here with us instead of where she was.