"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Monday, December 30, 2013

Wonder Woman and the Novel, Useful Power of Creativity

When I was young I wanted special powers.  I watched shows like Wonder Woman and I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, and The Bionic Woman.  Jaime Sommers was so down-to-earth, unpretentious, just a regular gal; she made special powers seem attainable.  Whenever I ran at recess, I would hear that t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t-t sound that implied my make-believe bionics at work.  I would smooth a strand of hair behind my ear to hear far away sounds.  Once an older girl caught me doing this.  "What, are you bionic or something?" she snapped.  Oh how I wished.  How I wished to hear what no one else could hear, or jump to the top of a building, or have remarkable strength in my right arm.  I watched the 1984 gymnastic team and Mary Lou Retton with bated breath; they were girls who could fly.  I watched Katherina Witt, the elegant figure skater known for her flawless routines.  These women were my aspirations; I wanted to transcend the banal, the normal and predictable.

I had watched my mother, a woman of tremendous potential, struggle with the vacuousness of suburbia and being a stay-at-home mom.  She instilled in my sister and me a strong sense of independence: find out what you want to do and do it, for yourself.  When I was twelve years old, a friend wrote me a poem and I was enchanted by it, this small thing of rhyme and imagery; I aspired to emulate, make up my own creations.

When I completed a first draft for a novel in my twenties, I felt the rise of my powers.  Creativity was a way to leave the surface of the earth.  The feeling I got after capturing a poetic image or complex emotion was extra-ordinary.  I learned how the minutia of life could dissolve in the presence of creativity; I discovered how a woman with a room of her own could alter her world.

The problem is we learn to believe that creativity is not enough.  You are not really wonder woman until other, qualified people tell you you are.  In dire times of rejection, you may replace your creativity with a pint of ice cream or perhaps reruns of Desperate Housewives, or both.  The mind, now corralled to the demands of domesticity, as well as the numbing passiveness of technology, is like a tethered stallion.  It snorts and kicks.  It stands on its hind legs.  It overheats.  That creative energy is channeled straight into anxiety or worse.  Alice Walker reflects upon this in her essay “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens," where she writes about her Black ancestors, female slaves who, due to their stifled creativity “were not Saints but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness."

Why is the power of creativity so fulfilling?  The answer lies in purpose according to Rex Jung, a neuropsychologist, who studies intelligence and creativity with respect to the neuroscience of the brain.  His specialty is helping people with brain injuries find meaning in their lives again.  Many of these people have lost their intellectual capacity and yet their creativity remained intact.  This is because intelligence relies on brain mass and conductivity between the lobes; conductivity is efficient with respect to intelligence, that is, minimizing point A to point B, while creativity depends on the many different, novel pathways a bio-electrical signal can take.  It is a sort of meandering.  Jung talks about Alonzo Clemons, an exceptionally detailed artist who creates exquisite sculptures of animals, horses, cattle, elephants, sheep in wood and bronze.  Clemons suffered a traumatic brain injury early in his life that rendered him mentally and socially challenged.  It is his artistry, however, that gives him a strong sense of purpose, a niche in the world.

Jung defines creativity as something that is "novel and useful".  Why was Picasso a great artist?  Because his style is novel- unique, interesting, enticing; his work is useful because it excites the senses and adds emotion and complexity to a viewing space. Why is Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse a work of art?  Its novel aspect is rooted in the stream of conscious writing that mirrors the internal workings of the human mind; we revel at the power of poetic rawness, at the spark and capture of insight before the ego and the editor overly refine it with propriety.  The useful aspect is showcasing these internal workings; we don't read To the Lighthouse for its plot twists; we don't read it to be entertained; we read it to experience empathy.

I spend most of my time taking care of my 17 month old twins and the days can be very long, especially during the winter months.  I am sure I am not alone when I say I am often pummeled by the gravity of drudgery, by the pile up at the kitchen sink after every meal, by the onslaught of diaper changing and laundry, by domesticity in general.  This past spring, holed up with the babes and waiting for the weather to change, I experienced the ennui that comes with disillusionment.  I have felt this ennui before; often times it has been a portal to depression, a place where I hold a continuous debate with myself on whether life is inherently meaningless.  Once, during one of these periods, I enrolled in a philosophy course to find out what the big wigs said about the issue, but I didn't find the answer there.  I found it in the short stories I was writing.  This is what I must remember: while writing and in the zone, time seems to stop; I enter the world of fluidity and purpose.  My mood changes from a worried, depressive state to one engaged and curious, even playful.  This is why I make time to write, because creativity can eradicate existential angst.

Now that's true power.

The Melancholic World of the Subconscious

There it was again, the white house on Horace Road, the house I used to visit nearly everyday as a girl.  The house in the dream was similar to the actual house with concrete steps leading to the front door, a mirror over the piano in the living room, but this house had a multitude of hidden doors.  I went inside with a heavy heart; I was looking for those lost to me, but once again, they weren't home. 
Aside from my visiting the white house in my dreams, I had gone back there a few years ago after my childhood friend, N, had contacted me through facebook.  We went to see N's parents; her father was alive back then.  My own father had been gone some eight years; this seemed ironic because my father was nearly 2 decades younger than hers.  I thought the visit would bring closure for me and I would no longer dream about the house, execute fruitless searches, because I had found my friend and her parents, the people who were a prominent part of my childhood.  But that wasn't the case.

I go about my business in my conscious life.  I take care of my twin babies, keep the house clean, take the dog for a walk, teach my classes.  I do one task then another then another.  Each task is a rung on the ladder that extends from morning to night.  But while I'm climbing the ladder during the day, I'm also living somewhere else- in the amorphous, melancholic world of my subconscious where I am still grieving.  The part of me that dwells there- perhaps it is the girl, or maybe the soul- is conveniently compartmentalized. My meager attempts at meditation and prayer do not satisfy her.  Perhaps this is why she is so prominent in my dreams.

In this last dream regarding the white house, a former student attempted to break in.  His name is Bobby D.  I had his sister as a senior back when I taught high school; she was respectful and diligent as Bobby was when I had him as a freshman.  By junior year, Bobby started having behavioral problems; it was this Bobby who was at the door trying to get in.

Just as Bobby D was sneaking in, I slammed the door on his knee and fingers.  I succeeded in bolting it, but there were others that needed locking.  At one point, the hidden doors multiplied infinitely in both directions, like an image does when you place it between two mirrors.  Bobby was out there, looming, readying himself to break in and take things.  On a shelf in the garage, there were remotes, about ten of them, each with ducktape over the buttons; I freaked when I saw all of the overhead doors needing to be locked.  Then my father appeared.  Together we worked at closing all of the overhead doors and locking them to keep Bobby D out.

Once, in meditation, and guided by a teacher, the presence of my father was potent; it was as if he was sitting in my lap.  Tears burst through the lashes of my closed eyes.  It had been awhile since I thought of him; I had been busy.  And yet, I could feel his eagerness to come through, as if he had been waiting for a while behind some locked door.

I have learned this: the friend I thought was lost to me, still exists.  She lives her life much as I do, taking care of children, maintaining a house, keeping a job.  I have also learned that my father still exists, albeit subtly.  It is uncanny sometimes, the way he flashes across a face, be it my sister's or my son's or my brother's.  There he is, I say to myself, as I observe my son and the way he watches cartoons with his lips in a semi-smile, his eyes alighted and depicting casual amusement, or as I observe my sister and the crinkle in her brow that shows up when she is perplexed, or the way my brother regards his car, meticulously, as my father did his.  And then, of course, there are the dreams where he shows up, suddenly and I am once again, whole.

At the end of this particular dream, after the doors were locked and my father had gone, I waited inside to tell my friend that her father had died.  In truth, I was eager to tell her, not to make her sad, but to have a confidant.  Because in that amorphous, melancholic world of the subconscious where the girl resides and grief resides, it's best to not be alone.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Compassion Project: An Anthology, Call for Submissions

The Compassion Project: An Anthology

The Compassion Project’s main goal is to bring awareness to the simple, yet often marginalized concept of compassion. As it is now, antidepressant use by Americans ages 18-44 has increased nearly 400 percent in the last twenty years.  Almost weekly we hear about mass shootings, gang murders, and cyber space bullying.  It’s the diatribe of negativity in our minds, compelled by a success-obsessed society that enforces our sufferings, our singularity.  True compassion eradicates singularity.

To cultivate compassion, we must first define it for ourselves.  We must start with what the mind clings to- images.  We are bombarded with hundreds of useless or disturbing images everyday through media and advertising.  They reel in our minds, even when we turn off the screen.  What if we can replace these images?  What if we can focus on this thing compassion through positive images, images that unify us instead of alienate us, images of the spirit and not the ego; would this be a starting point in cultivating the light that lies within all of us? Will we then begin to know compassion?  Will we then recognize the seeds of the dark before they sprout and take root?

The Compassion Project: An Anthology is a call for images of original artworks depicting compassion, be they photographs, or photos of paintings, collages, mixed media, drawings, or sculptures.  Poetry, short personal essays and short stories are also welcome.  Selections from this collection of work will be published and used in presentations on compassion.

The Compassion Project: An Anthology
Guidelines for Submissions

All entries should include:
    • a word document containing an imbedded image (jpg with maximum size of 2000 x 2000 pixels and minimum of 500 x 500 pixels) of the artwork along with a statement (one to three paragraphs) on why the image included represents compassion or a poem, short essay, or short story on compassion
    • name, address and email included in the heading.
    • Poetry must be 30 lines or less, single-spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font.
    • Prose must be 1500 words or less, double-spaced in 12 point Times New Roman font.
    • If an image is accepted for the anthology, the artist must be able to send it with high resolution.
    • Images, essays and stories should be sent between December 1, 2013 and September 1, 2014 to Laurette Folk at lfolk@northshore.edu; all poetry should be sent to Jennifer Jean at thisruach@gmail.com.

Artists and writers of all ages and abilities are welcome. Please visit us on facebook: www.facebook.com/compassionanthology .

Sunday, November 24, 2013

What the World Needs Now: Compassion

Pain is physical, suffering is mental.  Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting.  It is a sign of our unwillingness to move, to flow with life.  Although all life has pain, a wise life is free of suffering.  A wise person is friendly with the inevitable and does not suffer.  Pain they know but it does not break them.  If they can, they do what is possible to restore balance.  If not, they let things take their course.

I don't know anything about Nisargadatta save what Google tells me, that he is an Indian guru, a spiritual teacher, and a wise man who has sold many books.  But when I came upon this quote, in my bones I knew it to be true.  My father, another wise man, used to say of certain things- illnesses, injuries, emotional phases- "let it run its course".  The saying comforted me because it implied a secret working to life, but I tend to lose faith in this secret working.  This lack of faith has been the portal to dark places, and yet I know I am not alone in going there.  I hear about the insidious effects of depression and its cohort anxiety in the news, in phone calls with family; I read about them in my students' essays, in texts I receive from friends.  One article from Salon online magazine went so far as to call the prevalence of depression/anxiety an epidemic.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antidepressant use by Americans ages 18-44 has increased nearly 400 percent in the last twenty years.  We can debate all we want if the dehumanizing aspects of technological advances, the troubled economy, and daily stress are the culprits, but the truth is these things are an inherent part of our lives and are not going to go away.  One formidable adversary to this type of mental suffering is often overlooked and discounted; I am speaking here of compassion.  I have been doing research on compassion, listening to TED talks, reading articles, cutting out quotes because I think it is one of the antidotes to this epidemic that afflicts us.

But what exactly is compassion?

What are its attributes?  Do we recognize it when we see it?  Is it a part of our everyday lives?  The first step to knowing compassion is to define it.  According to Dictionary.com, compassion is "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."  Often compassion is associated with tenderness: a mother soothing a crying baby (notably, the word for womb in the Hebrew Bible is rehem and this same word is often translated to mean compassion, in general).  Mother Teresa is a prominent figure of compassion for many people; the images of her with the sick and destitute are iconic.  We interpret such behavior as saintly, impossible for the regular person.  Compassion here, seems out of reach; we get a sense that it requires a certain strength and it does.  Mark Meusse, Professor of Religious Studes at Rhodes College, says compassion is "more than just a sentiment" and that it is "born of a brave consciousness and a strong will".  Compassion is often mistaken for pity, but pity keeps its distance from suffering; there is an element of disdain, aversion in it.  Joan Halifax, a Buddhist teacher and Zen priest, says having compassion is "to see clearly into the nature of suffering and stand firm and say, 'I am not separate'".

It's that separateness that causes us to suffer.  It's the diatribe of negativity in our minds, compelled by our success-obsessed society, that enforces our singularity.  True compassion eradicates singularity.

The problem with our culture is that we are selectively compassionate.  We show it when it is convenient for us to do so.  Around the holidays, we give because it is fashionable, because it makes us feel good.  Also, our selective compassion may be a mask for fear.  Barbara Lazear Ascher contemplates this in her essay "On Compassion" when she describes the anecdote of a homeless man being fed by a bakery owner in New York City.  The offering is a backdoor deal; the man accepts the hot coffee and the brown bag and "as silently as he came, is gone".  Ascher speculates why the woman would feed the homeless man: is it an act of compassion?  Pity?  Or is it a preemptive act to remove the man from her shop?  She unearths an ugly truth:

Raw humanity offends our sensibilities.  We want to protect ourselves from an awareness of rags with voices that make no sense and scream forth in inarticulate rage.  We do not wish to be reminded of the tentative state of our own well-being and sanity.  And so the troublesome presence is removed from the awareness of the electorate.

It could be us at the door of the bakery.  It could be us with the gun in our hands shooting at bystanders.  It could be us poking at our veins with a heroine needle.  Even reading these sentences makes us uncomfortable, but as the peace activist and Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn preaches, we are all vulnerable to the dark and the light within each of us and it's up to us which to cultivate. 

In the past, compassion has fallen under the umbrella of religion, but today this is not exclusively true.  I have listened to several interviews with doctors citing particular studies on how compassion strengthens the immune system.  Medical practitioners are becoming attuned in Reiki and other hands-on healing arts because touch in the name of compassion helps to heal.  I've been attuned as well and can vouch for the power of human touch.  I was on a skiing trip with the Appalachian Mountain Club and a woman in our group was having stomach pains; she had had surgery and the pain kept recurring.  She asked me if I could use Reiki on her.  It was a snowy night in Vermont and it was dark and cold; a trip to the hospital had to be a last resort.  Although I was somewhat nervous, I wanted to help her.  Also, I was curious to see if this Reiki thing would actually work.  Ultimately the space we cultivated that night- the space of compassion- brought peace.  I laid my hands on her belly as it rose and fell and the pain had ultimately subsided.

But compassion and science is not a novel idea; Einstein, knew full well, that in the hands of the technologically advanced, compassion would be imperative:  

A human being is a part of the whole universe, a part limited in time and space.  He experiences himself and his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness- that separation.  This delusion is a kind of prison for us.  Our task is to free ourselves from this prison by exercising compassion and embracing all of nature and her creatures.

Einstein said that science for his generation, the generation that created the atomic bomb, was like a razor blade in the hand of a three year old.  What might be the one thing that prevents a war?  Seeing the "enemy" as human, non-separate, as people like Greg Mortenson do.  By building schools for the region where the Taliban has sunk its claws, Mortenson is choosing compassion over fear.  David Oliver Relin who co-wrote the book Three Cups of Tea with Mortenson says it best: "Mortenson goes to war with the root causes of terror every time he offers a student a chance to receive a balanced education, rather than attend an extremist madrassa."

And yet we must not leave compassion to the Mother Teresas and Greg Mortensons of the world.  Compassion begins on the individual level, with the self.  It begins with the worry we have for ourselves and our lives; it begins with our personal sufferings and darknesses.  To cultivate compassion, we must first define it for ourselves.  We must start with what the mind clings to- images.  We are bombarded with hundreds of useless or disturbing images everyday through media and advertising.  They reel in our minds, even when we turn off the screen.  What if we can replace these images?  What if we can focus on this thing compassion through positive images, images that unify us instead of alienate us, images of the spirit and not the ego; would this be a starting point in cultivating the light that lies within all of us? Will we then begin to know compassion?  And once we know compassion and act on it, thereby deepening our knowledge, will we then recognize an individual like Adam Lanza before the seeds of the dark sprout and take root and tragedies like Newtown take place?

I found this image in a book on meditation.  I used pastels to regenerate it on a larger paper, framed it, and put it in the living room.  This is my image of compassion for several reasons: one, it is white, a color depicting purity and nobility; compassion stems from the purist and noblest parts of ourselves.  Also, it is a magnolia flower, a flower that grows on a tree that blooms only once a year in the spring.  Spring is nature’s compassion for the earth after a hard, bitter winter.  It is a balm, a celebration, a departure from suffering and a leap toward life.  Also, the magnolia tree has been around for about 95 million years.  On the evolutionary timeline, it appeared before bees and is believed that the flowers evolved to encourage pollination by beetles; this is why the carpels (seed producing center) are extremely tough, to sustain the beetles walking all over them.  Compassion involves resiliency as well; a compassionate person must move into the nature of suffering but hold firm.

Unbeknownst to many, there is a compassion movement happening now (I hope to jump on the bandwagon myself, stay tuned for The Compassion Project Call for Submissions post).  I have found curriculums devoted to compassion, A Charter for Compassion, even the Compassion Games.  There is a Huffington Post interview with Jon Ramer, founder of the Compassion Action Network that documents all of these things.  This is all incredibly good news to me, someone who knows full well the power of compassion from seemingly small acts - a stranger opening the door for my oversized stroller - to greater acts - a wise teacher inspiring a long-awaited shift in my belief system.  But I wonder if such a movement will be a prominent and profound one like the Peace Movement of the 1960's or a short-lived, ambiguous one like Occupy Wall Street.  One can only hope we have evolved enough for the former to be true and our children reap the benefits.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Remembering My Father: His Half of Me

It would take a book or a lifetime to write about how a father can influence a daughter.  I've started that writing awhile ago, beginning with a poem I wrote when my father was alive.   The last few lines I find especially pertinent now and probably will always:

he, protector made me a safety circle
wrapped it tightly around me
me, a young girl, lived, played, hid inside it
as time passed, life dissolved it,
but i now woman, competent and like him
have realized his half of me,
his strength within me.

Without him here, I am left with the him that is part of me and part of my brother and sister, and now my son and daughter.  It is uncanny sometimes, the way he flashes across a face, be it my sister's or my son's or my brother's.  There he is, I say to myself, as I regard my son and the way he watches cartoons with his lips in a semi-smile, his eyes alighted and depicting casual amusement, or as I regard my sister and the crinkle in her brow that shows up when she is perplexed, or the way my brother regards his car, meticulously, as my father did his.  There is the Viteritti part, I say, the part that is my father.

There have been many journal entries, essays, poems, novel excerpts, already; these are my attempts at understanding his influence, like this one from the novel A Portal to Vibrancy :

I am not just like my father when I study Engineering, I am him.  He slips into my body and moves it around, mumbles to himself over the equations, moves my arms so my hands clasp behind my head.  I stare into the wall, thinking with his brain.  When I am him, I feel certain about my life; I move from one equation to the next, like stepping on rocks to cross a river.

Recently I've taken up tennis.  I am impressed by how much I think of the sport, how it is becoming an obsession.  And there it is again, the Viteritti part, the Dad part, the part that wants to excel, to make the body move with finesse to master a swing and hit a ball; there it is the competitive part that wants to win and impress.  I imagine my forehand, the position of the racket when it contacts the ball, how to follow through and I remember how my father did his wrist exercises during a long car ride, readying himself for a base hit.  "Think wrists" he once wrote on the concrete wall in the basement where he practiced his swings.

My father was a model provider for his three kids.  He not only put a roof over our heads and food in our mouths, he supported us in our studies, spending hours tutoring us in math and science.  Being a teacher now, I realize he was actually a pretty good one himself, exercising patience and diligence and orderliness.  He went to our games, taught us to love the woods and the outdoors, to respect and honor our elders (did you kiss your grandmother?  That "she" is your mother, don't forget that, he would say).  My father was not only meticulous with his car, he was that way with pretty much everything, especially his tools.  Every tool had a specific function, had a place to be hung on the peg board by the work bench, next to his collection of weights and the bullworker he bought back in the seventies to shape his muscles.  My father knew just the right cereal to milk ratio to not leave residual milk in his bowl. 

Most importantly, my father had a playful sense of humor and was a formidable tease, as my mother, who took the brunt of his teasing, could attest.  She spent years being pinched, splashed and caught off guard by his antics.  Once he went so far as to lay a ladder across the back lawn and himself beside it so my mother would think he had just fallen off the roof.  Just when he heard real concern in my mother's voice, he started cackling.  His laugh was infectious. 

He called people by silly nicknames, Butter Mella for my mother, Dud for his mother-in-law, Ditizy for his own mother.  This was his way of being cute and loveable.  Confident.  Close.  I wrote about this in an essay titled "Balanced Rock":

Butter Mella was a name my mother's family called her because she looked like a butterball when she was a baby, cute and fat.  My father did not start calling my mother Butter Mella until after they were married and he was fully integrated into her family, enough so to learn all the childhood stories.  He called her "Hon," sometimes, a full "Honey" when they were having a disagreement and he wanted to persuade her to come around to his side of seeing things.  Rarely did he call her by her real name.  When they first started dating he asked her if could call her "Kitten" and she sneered at him for being so oblivious.  Before her he dated girls, little women with mousy faces and voices.  My mother, he soon realized, was no kitten; she was a lioness who liked to lounge, sleep late, and go for the jugular when she believed someone was taking advantage of her.  My father knew full well the meaning of "once bitten twice shy" and he respected her.  He learned to voice his appreciation, to communicate, because this is what it took.

I can speak for the three of us, my sister, brother, and myself, when I say we are grateful to have my parents' marriage as a model marriage to follow.  I am not saying it was perfect, but it had longevity; they knew how to consider one another.  In fact, I can honestly say, it was a marriage based on consideration.  Here's another excerpt from "Balanced Rock"":

My mother had to put up with my father's family's eccentricities.  My grandmother and grandfather used to fight and grumble at each other overtly like bulldogs and this created numerous uncomfortable situations.  Having learned to respect family no matter who they are, she called my grandparents "Mom" and "Dad" and reminded my father of his duties as a son, to call them on their birthdays.  They had been known to call him on their birthdays and my mother knew this made him feel bad, so she saved him the guilt by reminding him.  These are the sorts of things you do in a marriage.

At times, I have a bad attitude about my father's death and I take on an almost existentialist perspective: he's dead, I'm alive and I feel nothing.  Time has buried him.  What I have realized is it's up to me to keep him alive by recognizing him in myself and others, by writing, by reminiscing, by meditating.

Once, while guided by a teacher through a meditation, the presence of my father was so strong, it was as if he was inside me orbiting my heart.  Tears streamed through the lashes of my closed eyes.  It had been awhile since I acknowledged him; I had been busy, but more so, self-involved, dejected.  What amazed me about that meditation was that I could feel his eagerness to come through, as if he had been waiting awhile for me to get with it and pay attention.  And this is what a daughter must do: pay attention, no matter how old she is.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Tasmanian Tennis and the Search for Poise

I have recently taken up tennis to stay fit and try something new.  It's not easy to be a beginner when you're in your early forties; you have preconceived ideas about how things should be based on experience and perceptions.  During my first few lessons I literally attacked the ball.  I had Wimbledon on my mind, Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters; I felt like I had to be larger than life, hit the ball hard, slam a serve into the box.  But I had it all wrong; I had no poise.  I went at that ball like I go at my life sometimes, afraid and driven by adrenaline to overcome my fears of not getting it right.  You don't make for a good tennis player when you are a Tasmanian devil whirring across the court.

What I have learned to seek is poise.  Equanimity.  Self-possession.  I seek to possess myself and not be possessed by fear or anger or stress or angst.  Perhaps if I find poise in tennis, I can find it in other areas of my life as well.  But what is poise exactly; what are its components?  Sure poise stems from ability, and ability implies confidence and experience, but also some luck, as well.  It takes time to develop poise; it takes conviction and patience and perseverance.  It's a practice, just as meditation is a practice.  In meditation, you learn to sit through things and breathe.  You learn that the things that possess you have a time limit.  You learn patience.  You learn to see the subtle progressions that imply change coming.  So you stick with it, in hopes that change materializes.

I have started to see those subtle improvements and I've started to believe that you really can teach an old dog new tricks, that the mind has a certain plasticity, an ability to stretch beyond its usual states of functioning.

There's substantial evidence of this plasticity or neuroplasticity, as it is called, in the individuals who have suffered traumas and injuries to the brain.  In these extreme cases, brains have recreated neural pathways to rebuild lives.  Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the neuroanatomist who had a blood clot the size of a golf ball in the left hemisphere of her brain was "just an infant in a woman's body"; she couldn't talk, walk, read, write.  It took her eight years to regain her functioning after experts deemed it impossible; her TED talk has become an internet sensation for its hopefulness in documenting the expanse of the human mind.

So if a brain can rebuild a life, just imagine what it can do for your serve.

There are other neuroscientists jumping on the band wagon.  Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist who studies the brains of meditating monks exclaims that "change is really the rule rather than the exception"and it is up to us to choose the influences that will rewire our consciousness.  In the meditating monks, Davidson measured brain rhythms as indicated by gamma oscillations; the more gamma oscillations, the better the clarity of perception.  This allows for "a richer, more encompassing sense of what it is to be human." 

Davidson emphasizes that the key to changing the brain is practice.

Marie Pasinski, Harvard neurologist and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You says it best:

Regardless of age, your brain has the ability to make new neurons and construct new neural pathways throughout your life. When you engage in new experiences or think in novel ways, new pathways are forged. Every time you think a specific thought, a specific pathway of neurons fires up, neurotransmitters are released and synapses are subtly altered. With repetition this pathway is strengthened. 

In our overstimulated society, it only seems natural that an antidote present itself.  Even famous role models out there are doing it - turning inward, searching for poise using meditation and the like.  In the trailers for the new season of Sesame Street, Cookie Monster is studying the martial arts, discovering that "a little self control can go a long way."

Well, if a blue furry puppet can find poise, then surely it is attainable.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Benefits of Being Gifted: Transcending the Broken-Winged Bird

When I was in grade school I was tested for being "gifted".  I apparently failed the test because I was not eligible for the program.  My father believed they got it wrong.  But doesn't every father believe his kid is gifted?

Mrs. Osborne, a middle-aged Asian woman who lived down the street from us was the teacher of the gifted students.  I remember the spruce trees on her front lawn and her white Lincoln parked in the driveway.  Always I would pass that sprawling ranch house with its big picture window and the sprawling white car and the spruces and feel the dregs of my ineptitude.

I had befriended Eve Smarz; our mothers met at Lake Morskioko watching our younger sisters play in the sand.  Eve was in the gifted program and I regarded her as a special friend.  I don't mean that in any derogatory, sarcastic sense; I truly believed there was something exceptional about her and I longed to be near this thing.  Eve was imaginative and her imagination suited mine; we created boyfriends for ourselves, BJ from BJ and the Bear for me and Ponch from Chips for her.  We dreamed up romantic scenarios where BJ and Ponch rescued us from kidnappers.  We wrote detailed scripts of who would say what to whom and when to execute the much anticipated kiss.  Eve had long blond hair and a flat, round face.  When she ran, she was the mythical Atalanta, her head kept neatly to one plane, as if her strides were impeccably smooth.  Once I asked her what they did in the gifted class and she said they sat under their desks and pretended they were in space.  "Well that's dumb," I said.

I recently did some research on depression and creativity and ultimately found the article "Existential Depression in Gifted Individuals".  I read it and quickly recognized the symptoms.  The article had put a name to the vague, disconcerting thoughts and feelings I have felt more than once in my life.  The essay, written by someone by the name of James T. Webb, pinpointed existential concerns, specifically death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness, how death is "an inevitable occurrence", freedom brings insecurity due to "a lack of external structuring", isolation is experienced by everyone because "no matter how close we become to another person, a gap always remains and we are nonetheless alone".  Contemplation of the first three by an intuitive, pensive individual, especially one grappling with profound disappointment, ultimately results in the belief that life is meaningless and it's all downhill from there.

Most of us feel this way at some point in our lives, but the gifted feel it early on, in childhood and young adulthood and they feel it acutely.  Because they are astute, they see what life could be; because they are perceptive, they perceive how the world falls short.  The blend of idealism and a keen awareness of the deficiencies of life brings about frustration and disappointment.  Their anger is "directed at fate" and is therefore powerless.  This powerlessness brings upon depression, a less-than-concrete depression that is especially alienating.  Webb explains that gifted individuals quickly "discover that others, particularly of their age, do not share <existential> concerns, but instead are focused on more concrete issues and on fitting in with others' expectations."

Webb talks about the use of touch to establish a "physical connection"; this brings a thoughtful person out of her head and into the realm of physicality.  Often a gifted individual is prescribed "hugs" from friends and family.  In my early twenties I figured this out on my own.  I used sensuality as a drug for angst; it's an immediate fix but it can lead to heartache.  Eventually, with the right partner, you learn how to use it wisely.

Webb cites "bibliotherapy", or the research of other talented individuals and how they found success and meaning by creating structure in their lives.  Bibliotherapy is a means to understand "that choices are merely forks in the road of life, each of which can lead <the gifted> to their own sense of fulfillment and accomplishment".  Most recently I watched the movie Eat, Pray, Love, based on Elizabeth Gilbert's best selling memoir on her transcendence from depression and anxiety to spiritual enlightenment.  I had seen the movie before, but this time it made a deeper impression.  I recognized my anxious, adventurous, epicurean and spiritual sides in Ms. Gilbert and I took heart.  To me it said, "Keep tasting life; keep meditating; keep writing and you will be well."

Who exactly are "the gifted"?  They are not only the people with aptitude; they are the intuitive, the perceptive; their hallmark is one of sensibility rather than sense.  They are vulnerable.  They are creative. And it is imperative that these individuals "adopt the message of hope" and trust their creative powers to transcend existential depression and bring meaning to their lives.  Webb includes Langston Hughes poem on dreams:

Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die,
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams.
For if dreams go,
Life is a barren field
Covered in snow.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prajna and Shenpa

I recently read an article by Pema Chodrin titled "How We Get Hooked".  In it she talks about shenpa, that unease and insecurity related to living in an unpredictable world.  We get hooked on shenpa, obsess about it, try to dissect it, control it, or we attempt to alleviate it by distracting ourselves with alcohol, drugs, food, sex.  Chodrin says "it helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa - ego clinging.  We experience it as tightening and self absorption."

Being a mother means engaging in a completely selfless act; the ego is virtually ignored.  It doesn't like to be ignored, so it will make itself known through shenpa.  This shenpa comes in two parts,  fear of losing oneself and fear of being a failure as a parent.  It's important to acknowledge when the mind, high on shenpa, indulges in exaggeration, because it is precisely this exaggeration that causes depression and anxiety. 

I've looked at depression though a literary/artistic lens and now I am looking at it through a mindful/psychoanalytic lens.

In meditation, we learn to sit with shenpa, be with it and breathe.  Sometimes this isn't easy, especially if the shenpa is relatively new and intense.  But with time, it will soften enough so that one can deal with it.  When this happens, prajna kicks in.  Chodrin says, "Prajna isn't ego-involved.  It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity - which cuts through self absorption."  I have witnessed this prajna; it is a deeper voice than the haggard ramblings of shenpa, almost like an underground spring.  It is honest and soothing, as if a grandmother were whispering wisdom in your ear.  At one point during this depression when I was feeling especially anxious about socializing and preoccupied by uncomfortable feelings, crediting them with being insurmountable, my prajna-grandmother whispered "you're just out of practice, that's all."  That made a lot of sense to me; I'm home with the kids most of the time and I am definitely out of practice.  "So practice," prajna-grandmother said, and I did.

In meditation we learn that striving will bring on expectation, which is another type of shenpa.  In the article, Chodrin talks about how we think we have a good meditation practice when we are open and thoughts come and go, shift and transform like clouds; we compliment ourselves on remaining unattached and open and feel that we "did it right".  Afterwards, we compare every meditation practice to this one, judging if it is wrong or right and expecting it to be right and comfortable.  This is shenpa, as well, being attached to an outcome.  Prajna says, "it is good enough" no matter what the experience is.  This takes the pressure off. 

When I was a child, I felt as if I moved through shenpas a bit more swiftly and easily than I do now.  Perhaps there was less drama surrounding them.  Perhaps my mind was more malleable back then because it was less jaded.  If someone were to ask me what I want most in this life, for myself, it would be to get back to that mindset.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Creativity Perverse

To continue this discussion on depression, I feel altered, as if someone re-coded the software of my thoughts, or no, gave them a virus that inserts distortion, angst, and fear into perfectly good thinking.  I literally try joyous thoughts on for size; they perch a moment like a sparrow on a pine branch, then they scamper away.  I try and take the Buddhist approach, to be curious.  Why this state of mind?  What is the impetus?  Boredom?  Failure?  Insecurity?  Lack of independence?  I am curled up in the corner of my own mind, as a person would be if a snake slithered into the room.  When people talk to me, the viral software of my thoughts spits and churns and I am distracted.  I unscramble, uncurl from my corner, take a broom, wave it at the snake.  I am myself for a moment.  I choose me.  I say something relevant, not brilliant, but relevant.  I manage.  I cheer myself on. 

You know it's depression when you can't wave the snake out of the house and into the garden.  You wave at it, but it only slithers under the table or the couch.  It's still there.  You make love to your husband, you can follow through with sensation and orgasm, but afterward, you lie in bed and the snake is wrapped around your ankle. 

But what if the snake is a garter snake, my therapist says.  Indeed.  The snake, in reality, is a garter snake, benign and trite to everyone else.  But in my mind, the mind of the oppressed novelist, the snake is a cobra.

Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.

 The gift, in this case, is creativity.  When a creative person is put in a situation hostile to creativity, the creativity becomes perverse.  This perverse creativity is depression.

I chastise myself for this depression.  Now, I tell myself, is not the time to write.  But the mind knows nothing about time, when it is time for this and when it is time for that.  The mind is and the mind will be whatever it wants.  You can't file it away under a label marked "Years devoted to child rearing", or "time devoted to making money".  It wants out, to be free, to think, be inspired and imagine constructively and if it can't do that, it will be destructive.  I remember what my dog Ralphie did to his paws when I was away all day at work; he licked the fur off of them.  He was a high energy dog who needed to run and my being away all day forced him to turn on himself.  I feel the same way now; the energy of my mind previously used to imagine plot and character and scene has turned on me; I spiral in somber moods.  I am fatalistic.  Obsessive.  I hide my internal life, covet it as I would a malicious sin.

This is utterly taboo to write such things.  But I believe it is better to write them than not to write them, for obvious reasons.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Thoughts on Depression

I have been reading Stoner by John Williams.  The book is written with such heart, such honesty, I find myself gasping at times.  I found this one paragraph that seemed to reach me, especially now, as I deal with a bout of depression:

During that year, and especially in the winter months, he found himself returning more and more frequently to such a state of unreality; at will, he seemed able to remove his consciousness from the body that contained it, and he observed himself as if he were an oddly familiar stranger doing the oddly familiar things that he had to do.  It was a dissociation that he had never felt before; he knew that he ought to be troubled by it, but he was numb, and he could not convince himself that it mattered.  He was forty-two years old, and he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.

I have felt this sort of dissociation and it has terrified me.  I wrote about it in one of my novels:

 -->An eye a few inches above my head monitors my existence, the large white blocks of the classroom wall, small patches of writing, names, phone numbers, craggy hearts and penises, the blemish in the scalp of Patrick Nealy's too short hair.  The eye spies white underwear against the metal lockers, and the fluorescent light flickering above the bodies.  There was once a curiosity of who's got what, big boobs, birthmarks, a patch of unruly pubic hair but even this has become ordinary.  The eye follows the dirtied snow on the side of the road, flecks of sand caught in ice and spots the dead squirrel curled in the debris of candy bar wrappers, Coke can tabs, chrome shards.  Decay marks time passed; a once fleshy thing becomes a mass of fur and white bone picked clean.   

Where does this dissociation come from?  I think when you are depressed, you are exceptionally inward.  You send out a periscope from inside yourself to check out the world.  You can view yourself from this periscope, this eye, and it is a surreal experience. 

I'm not particularly sure I should be writing about depression.  I don't want to delve into it if that's going to put me in deeper; it's weird and scary enough.  But writing has always been a way of exploring and exploring is a way to learn.  If you can debunk something by writing about it, you are less afraid of it.  Knowledge is power.

One night, in that half way house between sleep and consciousness, I wrote this:

This is what boredom and depression do to the mind; it ostracizes itself.  Thoughts are irrational and negative; they are feverish exaggerations to keep oneself occupied during the day.  I want to be a part of the human race, not an anomaly, as my mind tells me I am.  I take care of the babies, I float, I spin in high anxiety.  I listen to other people talk about their lives and become jealous.  I knock myself, feel pangs of ineptitude.  I am overly self conscious.  The garbage of the mind, irrational fears, has a putrid stench.  It sours my gut.  Do something for others, says a voice.  Distract that inner child from her fears.  You could go back to school.  You could study for a PhD and become an important person.  School has always given you a focus and has eradicated some of the anxiety and existential angst.  Here little kiddie, kiddie, go get a degree.  Amuse yourself with that for awhile.  I pick through my negative thoughts, reprimand myself for having them, hold them closely to the light and berate myself for doing this as well.

And I contained that irrational, negative thought in my mind in a small cage as if it were a viper I had to protect myself from and had to watch intently for fear of its escape.  And the thought was of fear and I how I feared the fear and this put a tightness in my throat that I could not rid myself of.  And this tightness was terrifying and titillating because at any moment I could panic, but I didn't.  I told myself before I went to my therapy session, if she tells me this is no big deal, that this is the greatest complaint of people with anxiety- fear of the fear of the fear of the- , how fear and thought bring about sensation and it is normal, then I would not be the anomaly that I am.  I would be just as other humans are, vulnerable to their minds.  And this is just what she did and I felt better.  Now I must find a way to continue to believe her.

The problem is, I don't think that a depression can be debunked.  You can't think it away.  You can't reason with it; most of it is unfounded and irrational.  You just have to live it away, if that makes any sense.  Yes, take medication, talk therapy, blah, blah, but I think to truly do away with it, you must want to be engaged, wholly engaged in your life.  I can't say that I am right now.  There is a lot of busy work in taking care of babies; there are moments of pure tenderness, but there is a lot of space for the mind to play with while the rest of me caters to their every need.  This gets me into trouble.

I told my therapist I saw the depression inside me, when I was out for a run.  It was a fat, Buddha-like demon that was laughing at me.  Laughing, because everything it says is a trick and I fall for it all, take it all so seriously.

When I should be laughing too.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Tidbit from Mother T

I used to listen to NPR in the mornings, to all the people doing great things and I thought to myself, "They're safe.  They're keeping themselves busy and existential angst is no bee in their bonnet." I came to know existential angst in my twenties; a doctor literally diagnosed me with it.  I had no idea what was happening to me then; I knew I only felt dread 24-7.  I have since realized that my poor career choice coupled with a slew of failed relationships had made a breeding ground for EA.  It was a long, shaky road to find what was meaningful in my life, but I eventually did.

EA started creeping back in recently and this old veteran didn't know what to do with it.  I questioned myself, why am I not thrilled with taking care of twin babies everyday morning to night?  Where the hell am I going with my career?  Why haven't I been on NPR yet?  Why does everything seem so tiresome and meaningless?  Am I having a midlife crisis?

Well, a brain that's been writing and writing and writing for the past ten years or more is used to stimulating itself.  You would think that taking care of twin babies would kill off a few thousand brain cells and EA wouldn't be an issue, but that, sadly, has not been the case.  I now spend the days researching different illnesses I might have or torturing myself with anxiety about anxiety.

There's humor in that somewhere.

The one thing that stopped EA in its tracks was a quote I read by Mother Teresa.  It says, "In this life, we cannot do great things.  We can only do small things with great love."

I don't know what Sartre would make of this and I don't care because it rang true for me.  As a mother, that's what I do, a myriad of small things, but I do them with a great love.  And it may not make the day go any easier, but it's something.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Debating Hawking's Rational Eye


I sat down and meditated the other day and saw an Egyptian's eye, perfectly almond and outlined in ebony.  Other eyes came up.  One particular eye I remember is the one trapped behind an angled brow, frigid and piercing. It was Stephen Hawking's eye, when he declared there was no God.

My husband and I watched the documentary on the Science channel one evening a while ago. In one scene, Hawking is in a wheelchair in a hall where there are elegant paintings and wooden floors.  There is a narrator who expounds upon Hawking's thoughts and there are graphics of space stuff and black holes shooting toward us on the television. Stephen Hawking's reasoning proceeds as thus: A black hole distorts time; a black hole can stop time. Inside a black hole, time does not exist.  Before the universe existed, there was only the black hole. If time does not exist in the black hole, than there is no creator, because a creator would need time to exist and create.


He continues, "There is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.  This leads me to a profound realization; there is probably no heaven and no afterlife either.  We have this one life to appreciate the Grand Design of the Universe and for that I am extremely grateful."

OK, hold on a minute here.  Doesn't Grand Design imply a Grand Designer? I don't want to get into semantics or the Evolution/Creation debate. If you ask me, one of God's grand designs was to set evolution in motion; it's creationism on automatic, but that's another essay entirely.  What I want to debate is not only using reason to find God, but attitude. The ego, through science and technology, tempts us into thinking we can build Towers of Babel, but the humbler, more reverent approach to God--which can be found in science and the arts, poetry in particular--is more appropriate for our finite minds.

Hawking uses if-then reasoning in his theory on the non-existence of God, and there's a boatload of established science on black holes, space, and time to back it up. But the tenet overall seems a bit hasty and oversimplified, and I wonder what Einstein would have said of the theory. Einstein claimed that he himself comprehended a tiny portion "of the reason that manifests itself in nature" and he had great reverence for it: "A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestation of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty--it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense and this alone, I am a deeply religious man."

Reverence is the hub around which Mary Oliver's poems revolve: "Of Course! the path to heaven/ doesn't lie down in flat miles./ It's in the imagination/ with which you perceive/ this world,/ and the gestures/ with which you honor it."

So perhaps if reason, for most of us, would fall short in our approach to God, we might try a different route. The imagination that Oliver speaks of in her poem is a separate entity, one that embraces irrationality and emotion--love. God is love is what we are told in nearly every religion. Love! an irrational entity, one that science does not condone, but love and its irrationality is a viable means, an alternative approach. Here is a beautifully irrational poem by Rainer Maria Rilke from The Book of Hours:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I've been circling for thousands of years
and I still don't know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

We can't reach out across the world, nor can we live a thousand years.  But something in us leaps up when reading mystical poetry like this and shouts yes. Yes, that's soul, the rationale-defying part of self. And soul yearns for God, always circling and circling. That act of yearning is sacred and beautiful, like a song, and sometimes massive and overwhelming, like a storm.

Yearning is a prominent theme in The Book of Hours. According to the book's introduction, Rilke wrote the poems in the "persona of a Russian monk living in a cloister, summoned by the bell to the task of seeing and meeting what was most real to him in the world."  Rilke had set out to find "the authentic ground to the superstructures of his culture's faith" and in this way established his own belief system and "loved God into being."

Here is another poem that addresses yearning from The Book of Hours:

Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
When I paint your portrait, God,
nothing happens.

But I can choose to feel you.

At my senses' horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.

Yet standing here, peering out,
I'm all the time seen by you.

The choruses of angels use up all of heaven.
There's no more room for you
in all that glory.  You're living
in your very last house.

All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.

I love the lines "at my senses' horizon/ you appear hesitantly/ like scattered islands." Did Rilke recognize a timidity in God?  It would make sense that God would respect our finite minds, our limitations, our fearfulness. In the poem "Jesus on the Lean Donkey," Rumi writes that "God's silence is necessary, because of humankind's faintheartedness." Annie Dillard touches upon this as well in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book where she stalks the divine in the natural world. She quotes the Old Testament and how Moses asked to see the face of God and God tells him "shall no man see me and live." But God allowed Moses to see his back parts and Moses returned to his people with his face aglow and they feared him. "Just a glimpse, Moses," Dillard writes, "A clift in the rock here, a mountaintop there, and the rest is denial and longing." Part of the reverence and respect for God is admitting that he is elusive and that we long for him. I wrote my own poem on this topic most recently:

There may be openings,
though I spend my life
banging at the door
there may be openings
at my head perhaps
or in the floor.
You subtle good rising
tucked away in some bud
some stone, some afterthought
you dangle, you plunge
you live your life
underneath my tongue;

a thirsted, distant entity
yet intimate
lies within me
a hatchling crying out
to sustenance
to embrace and dance,
to chance, chance, chance.

Flip a coin of mood and
I am staring at you darkly
and you don't move an inch
I cup your riddle
in my hands and sit, investigate
for a petal to release
for a scent, some sound

but what I don't know
unfolds behind me,
around me, blossoming,
in petals and sounds abound.

We search, we research, we pray, we feel nowhere with God. We are trapped within the fabrications, limitations of our own minds, as Rilke tells us. Then one morning a dove sits on the sideview mirror of your car when you are frazzled, confused, and wracked with anxiety. It's a very strange place for a dove to be. And so is the railing outside of your therapist's office when you are feeling so torn up inside, over something you can't quite define, and the dove seems to say, "Peace to you." You ask the therapist, "Does a dove normally come to sit on the railing?" And she replies no. A soft, cream colored mourning dove that embodies calm and wildness and freedom. And there it is, a small, simple offering. This is our glimpse.

In this last poem, Rilke talks of finding God in darkness.  This is most ironic because we have always associated God with "the light":

You, darkness, of whom I am born-

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything:
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations - just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me.

I believe in the night.

It is a subtle, subtle slip into consciousness, that hunch of " a great presence stirring."  But it counts.  It's not something you can calculate but that doesn't mean it isn't true. We yearn for God like we hunger for food, and we know food exists. We yearn for God like we yearn for touch, and we know touching is possible. Our yearnings do mean something; they count, but that doesn't mean they can be written as equations. The only formula that comes close to this is the Universal Law of Gravitation or "Every mass in the universe attracts every other mass." We could easily replace the word "attracts" with the phrase "seeks." One could correlate this to love and togetherness, or to seeking in general. To seek is the action part of yearning."You have to stalk everything," Dillard says. "Everything scatters and gathers; everything comes and goes like fish under a bridge...I am both waiting becalmed in a clift of the rock and banging with all my will, calling like a child beating on a door: come out!...I know you're there."

I champion Stephen Hawking's brilliant mind, but I think he's on the wrong track with pigeon-holing God to a theory.  God is an offering, a supreme rationality and irrationality; God is the poem, the hunch, the dove, the primordial tower. The black hole our minds must learn to accept.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Compartmentalizing Richard Parker

It's 6:30 am.  I woke up at exactly 1 am and 4 am, just as I do every night.  The comforter is tumbled to my side of the bed because of all my fumbling.  Outside is a golden haze.  I was just dreaming of walking a friend to Salem.  She was pushing a baby doll in a carriage.  My mother was ahead of us, pushing her own baby doll.  We were headed to the ocean where there were large rocks and teal colored waves.  It was a beautiful inlet, but there was rumor of a storm coming.

When I wake up at exactly 1 am, I am stricken with panic.  I go downstairs and make myself a warm cup of milk, take a half of pill and head back upstairs to bed.  I fall asleep, only to wake up at 4 am.  This time I eat a piece of bread and take another half of pill.  I obsess about my blood sugar at this point, because I am convinced that it is somehow wired to my anxiety and when it is low, I shoot awake.  This half-insomnia is causing me a great deal of stress and is virtually usurping my waking life too.  I am have no appetite and get pleasure from nothing.

I feel as if my anxiety is Richard Parker, the tiger in The Life of Pi hogging the life boat and I am the Indian boy hanging on to the flimsy make-shift raft.  I feed Richard Parker because I know the relationship between blood sugar and anxiety.  But its become a chore, always making sure he's fed.

The doctor says stress is causing this madness.  I suppose that is true.  But something chemical feels involved, as if, perhaps I am going through some sort of postpartum depression (albeit a little late).  Or it could be that I have let go of the dream, my dream of being a published, well-respected writer and I am, well, adrift.  Or it could be that I am so freakin' bored, I am making up my own dramas.

When I decided to write this blog, I opted for honesty.  I know there have been quite a few posts on fear and well, that's what's real for me now.  (I am slightly embarrassed by it, as if I should have it more together).  I am hoping others will share their stories of anxiety so that I will feel less alone.  Because I tell you one thing, in the middle of the night, when I've got Richard Parker breathing down my neck and I'm looking into his mesmerizing eyes, I feel very alone.

I suppose one must practice having balls in a situation like this.  So here it goes:  Listen Richard Parker, move the fuck over.  I'm the captain of this boat.  You need to get below deck, descend to the depths of my subconscious and romp around with the rest of the animals down there.  This place of consciousness is my domain, goddamnit. 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Waves, Bears, and the Tar-like Man-eating Ooze

My father sits in a room inside me, quietly.  He is there with his head slightly bowed and he is waiting patiently; I know not what for.  His presence is soothing to me and sometimes, in meditation, I press myself up against the door of his room and hear him breathing.

Sometimes the sun sends a white light through the trees and hits me right between the eyes.  I feel holy then, and found.

Last night I dreamed of waves, forty footers, curling over and welling up.  I saw them through a picture window of a living room in a house I did not own.  Also, there was a bear at the front door.  When I opened the door to secure the lock, the bear had left his skin.  The waves soaked the fur, sloshed it from side to side.  I shut the door.

In my imagination, there is God, there is my father, there are books and poems and there is also the Great Fear.  The Great Fear is formless.  The Great Fear reminds me of the tar-like man-eating black ooze from a horror movie I watched when I was about nine years old.  My grandparents had it on while they were babysitting my brother, sister and me.  (Not exactly a movie children should be watching before bed).  That night, we slept in the basement, of all places, and I remember staring anxiously at plastic flowers in a vase on a shelf but seeing the tar-like man-eating black ooze seep like magma into an island hut; it filled a bird cage and engulfed a parrot, ate the flesh and spit out the bones.  This is how the Great Fear can affect me- it can eat through every hopeful thought I have and spit out its bones.

The Great Fear is the first cousin of existential angst.  It is the second cousin of stress, and the third cousin of ego.  It is the waves crashing outside the window and the bear knocking at the door.  If I say the Great Fear is a part of my imagination, then where does that leave my father and his room?  Is he only my imagination as well?  I can't seem to let go of one without letting go of the other.  And what about God, did I invent him too? 

Or could it be that the imagination is a medium, just as water or air are mediums for sound and light.  My imagination could be a medium for the other worldly.  It's wired to the soul part of me. 

But fear, who drives that?  I drive fear and I know it.  It is my imagination on overdrive, a creative response to stress; it is also the byproduct of sensitivity.  I need to demote the Great Fear to just fear.  Little ol' everyday fear that is a very human thing and not something that is going to one day hunt me down and kill me, or force me to become an agoraphobic. 

Ha!  Easier said than done.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leaping into the Irrational, Part I: Living Rightly, Thinking Wrongly

When I am tired and my mind has been beaten down by skull-crushing drudgery, faith feels impossible.  I back myself into mental corners and I do this by using reason.  But reason isn't necessarily the vehicle to peace of mind, nor is it a vehicle of faith.

I have just finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a feat indeed while caring for twin babies.  I started reading it when they were infants, at night between feedings.  So nearly a year later, I have completed my journey with Tolstoy and his troop and it has been as satisfying as literature can be, when it is written by a master.  Years ago, I would have identified with the passionate, impetuous heroine, but now, my sympathy lies chiefly with Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin (a character based on Tolstoy himself).  Here's why: Levin struggles with his faith.

At the end of the novel, Levin is immersed in spiritual warfare and is "miserably divided against himself".  He experiences "fearful moments of horror".  Doubt is consistent, "growing weaker or stronger from time to time, but never leaving".  Levin was so near suicide, at times, that he "was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself".

Now, Levin is an intelligent man, a landowner, a thinker.  He is compassionate and values the lives of the peasants living on his estate (the political goings-on between Russian gentry and peasant folk is a subplot in the novel).  As a thinker, he knows philosophy and science, "the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution".  He knows theory's place and these are "very well for intellectual purposes".  It is daily life that has him stumped; how to live is the question.

Levin realizes that "reasoning had brought him to doubt".  When he acted, when he held himself to task and kept himself busy whether with the peasants or managing his household or keeping his bees, he was content.  It was the thinking that caused him to suffer.

Levin remembers how once, when he prayed, he felt holy.  He, an unbeliever.  This happened during his son's tumultuous birth.  At that moment he prostrated himself and prayed, he believed.  And yet, he could not extend that moment to "fit into the rest of his life".

He comes to a point when he can no longer tolerate his state of mind:

And he briefly went through, mentally, the whole course of his ideas during the last two years, the beginning of which was the clear confronting of death at the sight of his dear brother hopelessly ill.  

Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, and forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must either interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.

It is not until a conversation with a peasant by the name of Fyodor that he has his ah -ha moment.  They converse about two landowners, one "only thinks of filling his belly" but the other "lives for his soul".  And Levin, desperate for spiritual advice, latches onto the idea of living for the soul, but he doesn't know how to do it.

And then he realizes that he was "living rightly, but thinking wrongly".  He had been, by his belief system and moral character, already living for his soul by loving.  And loving thy neighbor is not a rational thing.  Reason tends to support survival of the fittest and the satisfaction of desires; it is the antithesis of love.  So Levin learned that you couldn't reach love by reason, you must reach it by action, which he was already doing.

I was captivated by the statement "living rightly, but thinking wrongly" because that is exactly what I do.  I do the arduous soulwork of mothering while thinking that I am useless because I do not bring in enough money, or have not yet reached a reputable status, or am too old to be a mother of such young children.  Thinking wrongly is using reasoning to squash one's spirit.  Here are some other more prominent examples:

  • Science tells us the Big Bang and Evolution may very well be the reasons for existence.  There is no God, therefore ultimately I am uncared for and left to my own meager devices.  I will suffer, die and be nothing.

  • Life is an intricate network of processes that can be shut down like a computer; once it is over, it is over.  The afterlife is the invention of fear and religion is the opium of the masses.

  • I am lonely, unloved, and uncared for because of <insert anecdotal evidence>. 

These are examples of reasoning, a process by which statements are made and then backed up by either fact, theory, statistical or anecdotal evidence.  Reasoning is ordinarily a useful skill when it comes to certain scenarios, like choosing a car, for instance.  In other more philosophical, existential matters, it can sour pretty quickly.

Levin erupts into tears when he admits his belief in God.  He declares himself a changed man.  He supposes that the reality he knew before would now be different; that he would not feel hostile to or irritated by people.  But this isn't true.  Life continues to be life for Levin with all of its conflicts, disappointments, and hostilities.  He then reasons that his spiritual transformation was only a "mood".  But Levin knows intuitively that this is not the case.  Tolstoy compares life's vicissitudes and irritations to the bees that Levin cares for, how they "lasted only so long as he was among them" and "his spiritual peace was untouched within him".

I don't think I have yet experienced the profound realization regarding the existence of God that Levin experienced; I think these are reserved for non-believers and although I've had my moments of doubt and darkness, I don't believe I have ever fit the label of non-believer.  What I have realized, however, is that leaping into the irrational, be it through poetry, or prayer, or practicing loving kindness,  or just "loving thy neighbor" helps control or realign thinking wrongfully.  

The problem now is to remember this.