The Green Study is taking a break until November 15, 2017.
Last year, I went to a lecture where journalist and novelist Anna Quindlen spoke about her writing practices and career. One of the things she said was that while she was working on a project, she limited how much time she spent answering emails and engaging others. “I only have so many words.” I’ve thought a lot about that phrase, wondering if there really is a limit to my creative reservoir.
I’ve made a habit over the last five years of posting personal essays. Most of the time I was circumspect, able to write them at a distance and not when they were raw. Lately, though, I’ve been feeling tapped out personally, too enraged politically, and unable to rein in my emotions. It’s probably time to stop doing that for a bit. Maybe I was just scraping away the layers until I hit the gooey core, but the gooey core is here and it’s messy, disorienting, and raw.
I’ve written frequently about depression over the years, but there are so many different kinds. It might have been turning 50, or watching my child become who she is supposed to be – in contrast to my own paralysis, or just the flip of a neural/hormonal switch, but this year I’ve felt a drag on my daily life, this weight pressing slightly more each day. I’ve become habituated to repressing emotions, repackaging them in a logical manner, presenting them as if I have my shit together. All the while, I feel a sense of grief and rage and disorientation just burbling beneath the surface.
We do this – we rearrange and rationalize and give 45 degree corners to those emotions that make us uncomfortable. We turn them inward and that rage, sadness, bitterness morphs into a low-level depression, until a phase becomes a lifestyle. Creative people put rawness into their art and maybe that shores them up, makes it tolerable.
I used to believe that I was a creative person, but I’ve spent too much energy trying to look put together. I’ve spent a lot of time being responsible, keeping myself controlled, and rational. I’m living in a world where I’m not allowing room for my own messiness, surrounded by a culture that will look at sheer lunacy and say well, that’s different.
It has hit me that art requires messiness and rawness and vulnerability, because art requires an elemental sort of truth and you can’t land on it by keeping your shit together all the time. As I said to a friend yesterday, I feel like a complete and utter fraud. She’d read somewhere that feeling like a fraud means you’re getting somewhere, because you are operating outside of your comfort zone. And that means growth.
It’s been a surprise in midlife to realize that those issues in the first decade or so of life follow a person. They have reverberations through the following decades of your story. Many of us spend our entire lives trying to resist, change, or rewrite that story, but it’s our core story. Messages for better or for ill burrow inside our brains and many of them are just plain wrong. But they’ve left their mark and they influence our behavior and perceptions. Until we are deliberate in challenging those messages that do us harm, they will rear their ugly heads over and over. And we’re stuck.
I’ve been stuck for a long time, but things are uncoiling. My emotions have told my mind that it can just fuck right off. It’s “Feeling Time”. If you’re relatively smart, your rationalizing skills are likely top-notch. You can intellectualize the hell out of any morass of emotion, produce a white paper and a TED talk, and not feel a damned thing. It’s the feeling part that’s messy, that makes you feel like an unhinged nutter. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.
I see it as analogous to what is happening in our country right now. It’s messy. It’s extremely uncomfortable for many of us. There’s fear and anger and anxiety. My optimistic self says that it’s evolution – all the cultural and social shifts are happening in a relatively short period of time. Resistance to those changes is normal and natural, but temporary for all but a diminishing minority. This is the ebb and flow of growth.
People are in a hurry to make nice. To smooth out the wrinkles, repress dissent, legislate away the angry voices rising up, to make it look like our patchwork quilt of a country isn’t coming apart at the seams. It is and it isn’t. Some things are holding strong. Some people are emerging as real heroes and some of us are more enlightened than we have ever been before. I believe there is hope to be found, but it does mean turning away from the headlines and looking below the fold.
Personally, I am dissolving into a bit of a mess. I’ve begun to disintegrate mid-conversation with friends and feelings are rising in me that no amount of editing can rearrange. I know it’s a good thing in theory, but for now, it feels like absolute shit. It’s not “normal” for me when normal was keeping things squared away. It’s not normal for me to keep manically humming Moby songs like some deranged hipster. I don’t want to talk out loud about it. I don’t want to repackage it for the consumption of others.
Sometimes in a world where everyone is saying everything for the benefit of an audience, there’s no time to tend to our inner lives. If we’re lucky and I think that I am, our inner voice becomes so loud and rancorous as to demand our attention. My inner voice has hopped up on a table, stripped off its clothes, and insisted on dancing Gangnam Style. It feels damned embarrassing and uncensored and not intended for public viewing.
I like to wrap up a post with some rationale, some message that says to a reader Hey, she’s not a headcase. She has her shit together. But why lie? I don’t have it together. I might, but I don’t right now. See you in November.
I was listening to Tom Petty this morning, sad that he has passed away at a relatively young age. His music immediately pulls me back into the past, growing up as a teenager in Iowa. It reminds me of parties out in machine sheds in the middle of nowhere, of awful first dates, and coming of age when getting booze and pot and avoiding pregnancies were all that we worried about.
It wasn’t a great age of innocence. We were still in the Cold War. Someone tried to assassinate the president. Terrorist attacks were happening around the world. In 1983, 299 American and French service members were killed when their barracks in Beirut were bombed by Islamic militants. HIV was finally in the mainstream conversation.
Life at my house was disastrous and tense. And everyone in town knew about it.
But I could find refuge in the middle of a cornfield, where life didn’t seem so scary. There were some irrigation ponds several miles outside of town. My best friend and I would drive out there, sit on the hood of my car, smoking and watching the orange reflections on the water as the sun went down. We’d have philosophical discussions about anything and everything. She had a mentally ill parent, mine were drunk and/or dysfunctional. Home was never where we wanted to be.
She introduced me to cigarettes and booze and pot. And I listen raptly to her stories about boys. She was one of those girls who attracted them like flies. More so when she started putting out. Her parents thought, as parents often do, that their child was a good kid. They thought I was a bad influence. It wasn’t the first time in my life I took the hit because I was a poor kid from a messed-up family, so it didn’t bother me.
My friends and I would drive to the closest university town on weekends to hit the frat parties. My car was a jacked-up 1972 turquoise Monte Carlo that I bought for $500. It had shiny wire rims and no car stereo. I had a boom box and a need to tear away at stoplights, as if I were always in a drag race. We’d load up, stocked with cassette tapes, cigarettes, hash brownies, and a mixed gallon jug of Everclear, orange juice and 7-Up.
A gaggle of teenage girls were always welcome at parties. No invitation needed. Over the course of the evening, my friends would gradually disappear with one polo-shirted guy or another. I ended up sitting next to a giant bong talking about the nature of the universe with some kid in a War Games t-shirt. I never did know how to flirt, but I could talk Cold War politics until everyone around me had passed out.
My junior year, while others were diligently working on college applications, I was running and doing push ups and counting down the days. I had decided to join the Army. I made decisions like this very quickly. My instinct about what I needed to do always preceded long thought processes. I knew I needed to leave and I knew I wanted to go to college.
I decided that way about a lot of things, including my virginity. It wasn’t valuable to me – it was just this thing that meant I lacked life experience. I found a boy older than me and got the deed done. It was not as interesting as I had hoped. And there was no point in pretending that it was love.
My true love was a popular, acne-covered boy who I’d loved since 8th grade. I wrote him anonymous love letters, blushed whenever I passed him in the hallway, imagined glances and smiles meant for me. Our sophomore year, his girlfriend was killed in a car wreck. It gave him a tragic air that was like catnip to a teenage girl. I loved him from afar all through high school. Many an excruciating poem was written on the basis of that love.
It was a small school, so his girlfriend had been a friend of mine as well. It was the first time anyone I’d known had died. These days, I can never attend a funeral, without that sickly floral smell of too many sympathy arrangements, and not think of her, lying there, porcelain and pretty in her casket, her manicured hands folded around a rose.
I spent most of high school working at a small cafe in town owned by a married couple. The man was a chainsmoker and coffee addict with glasses that made his eyes look Pokemon enormous. His wife was a tolerant woman and kind. While the police and social services were becoming more frequent visitors to my house, I found sanctuary at the cafe. We’d close up at two on Sundays, after the church rush and the four or five of us working that day would sit down for lunch.
While his wife would tally the day’s receipts, the boss would challenge me to Ms. Pac-Man, a giant video game in the front corner of the cafe. He’d grab quarters from the till, refill his coffee, light his next cigarette off the last and we’d play for an hour before I went home. If I needed money or a ride or a place to stay, they were always there, offering.
It was these strange, unexpected kindnesses that saved me. And they are sometimes the easiest to forget. So often my intense need to burn bridges, to put the past far behind me, makes me forget the people, the music, the memories that provided solace and refuge and helped me grow to be a better person than my experiences might have allowed.
We learn to see ourselves a certain way, to remember our pasts and define our character in the same way for years. Psychologists talk about re-framing our experience which I always understood as being something different. I was repulsed by the idea of revision, of rewriting the painful chapters.
Remembering only the bad served a need in the story I told myself. For me, it was how I could get away, break a cycle, leave behind a life that would not serve me well. But that was thirty years ago and that story no longer serves my needs.
It is why I am stuck as a writer. I keep telling the same story over and over, in one form or another. But it’s not the whole story. I am not the sum of miserable parts, but of parts equally happy and funny and poignant – those girlfriends from long ago, the kindnesses randomly offered, the gangly boys, the music that reminds of me of long, humid summer nights leaning back against the windshield, watching the sun go down.
Over five years of blogging, and at least 50% of it has been whinging on about writing – doing it, not doing it, determined to do it, failing to do it. I’ve pitched to agents at a conference and not followed through. I’ve been given the time, opportunity, and space to do it. I’ve set and promptly passed deadlines. I’ve made note cards, scribbled on white boards, discussed it ad nauseam with friends. I have skeletal novels and unfinished stories and poetry done badly. I have made myself feel physically ill, have anxiety attacks, and on occasion had a good blubber about it. Writing doesn’t make me miserable. Failing to do it does.
So why would anyone NOT do what they love to do? What kind of messed-up psychological bullshit is that?
When faced with an intractable problem, I have a process. It involves contemplation and research. I am now surrounded by books on perfectionism, human nature, time management, and failure. I’ve been reading through them, one by one, taking notes, thinking about what applies to my situation and what doesn’t. Every once in a while, I run across something that startles me.
Faint-heartedness is a characteristic of those who feel that every task which faces them is especially difficult; of people who have no confidence in their powers to accomplish anything.
Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature, 1927
I first heard about Adlerian philosophy in parenting classes many years ago, but had never read through his explanations. The distance between my exposure to knowledge and my implementation of it is quite great. Like Grand Canyon great.
As a rule this trait is evinced in the form of slowed movements. Thus the distance between the individual and his approaching test or task, not only does not quickly become smaller, but may even remain unchanged.
Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature, 1927
If my life timeline is any indicator, I move at a glacial pace. I learn everything the hard way. I don’t listen to others, choosing instead to learn by falling on my own face, tripping over my own feet, and living in my own convoluted knot of a brain. If I read something that resonates, it doesn’t sink in for another 2-5 years. If I fail at something, I have to fail 25 more times before a lesson emerges.
People who are always to be found elsewhere when they should be applying themselves to some particular problem of life, belong to this group. Such individuals suddenly discover that they are not at all fit for the profession which they have chosen, or they find all manner of objections which serve so to annihilate their sense of logic, that the assumption of this profession actually becomes impossible.
Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature, 1927
This dude really gets me and it’s embarrassing. He saves the absolute best/worst for last:
Besides slowed movements, the expression of faint-heartedness is to be found in a certain preoccupation with over-safety and over-preparation, activities which have for their sole purpose the evasion of all responsibility.
Alfred Adler, Understanding Human Nature, 1927
Okay, I get it Alfred – I’m a big fat coward. I’ll research that a bit and get back to you – in a few years, after many more anxiety attacks, a few more faint-hearted attempts to be a writer, and another stack of note cards. You too-right bastard.
I haven’t written much about politics lately, because inevitably any post ends in a stream of invectives. So, so blue.
It’s become quite clear that horrible people get more attention than decent people. Liars get more press than truth-tellers. Diatribes and conspiracy-laden memes get more likes than reasoned arguments. It’s clear that short blurts and bumper sticker sentiments resonate more with people than logical and balanced discussions.
And I’m no better. I can’t read the news without feeling the hostility rising. I’ve found myself streaming too much television for escape from the fears and anxieties and the desolation of feeling out of step and place. It’s made me less intelligent, less rational, less active, less thoughtful.
I hadn’t been writing much lately, because everything was coming out raw and angry and emotional. This is not the person I wish to move towards. If all the world is dying, I still get to make some choices about who I am. It’s really the only power we have. With or without money, under duress or at the height of luxury, it’s the only real power we have – to choose what kind of person we are going to be.
There are some humans who are dirty bombs. Dirty bombs are weapons of mass disruption. While many people think the reality television celebrity who is our president has done a good deed in disrupting the political routine, disruption in and of itself is not a positive or negative thing. It’s just disruption. Only the fallout matters. And thus far, the fallout has not been positive, regardless of your political ideology.
Dirty bombs are valuable in that the effects are not immediately known. Long term health issues and cleanup of the affected area have great economic consequences, but the immediate result of a dirty bomb is the fear it inspires. Psychologically, it can keep a population in the thrall of fear and anxiety, leading them to support measures that are politically expedient, but which also carry long term and ill-predicted outcomes.
How does one counter a dirty bomb? For starters, detection of materials needed to make the bomb – conspiracy theories, false statistics and statements, emotional appeals, simplified memes from complex issues, repeating information without verification, choosing partisanship over rationalism, and not verifying sources. It means improving critical thinking skills and using a bullshit detector.
The next step is to maintain protective gear. Protective gear involves learning about issues in-depth, filtering out misinformation, listening more than talking, learning how to parse and construct rational arguments, and weighing the source of information. Protective gear must also have a palliative affect – it must provide comfort. It means taking a break from the news, finding the beauty in art, music, and literature. It means being quiet to keep the inner life rich and productive.
Lastly, and the step I often forget to do, actively recognize those humans around you who are not dirty bombs – who leave the world, wherever they are, a better place. Raise their profile, send thank you notes, shake their hands, call out their good deeds. Look for people who set examples worth following and emulate the hell out of them. It puts attention where it should be and reminds you that love and kindness are truly radioactive and a little goes a long, long way.
I am finding my way back in writing this and have decided that my action to follow is that I will take back my time from some distractions. I’m giving up any television, streaming, videos, etc. for the next 30 days. Breaking the habit of distraction is a tough one, but this might be a good first step.
If you would like to join me in this experiment, send me a note via my contact page. We can check in with each other periodically and at the end of the thirty days, you’ll be invited to write a guest post about your experience and what you learned (or didn’t).
What I’ve Been Reading Lately:
Proof: A Play by David Auburn
Reading play scripts is a fantastic way to help with writing dialogue.
Coming Back to Life: The Updated Guide to The Work that Reconnects by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown
Not always on board with New Age-y concepts, but there are a lot of useful approaches to dealing with the feeling of powerlessness that I’ve been experiencing lately.
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
Still struggling to get through this work of fiction. The writing is so wondrously dense and well-done that I have to keep taking breaks just to take it in.
Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
After following George Lakoff’s blog and enjoying his linguistic take on issues, I bought this book. Admittedly, it’s a little above my pay grade in terms of intellect, but I’d rather read up, than down.
What are you reading?
I took an unintended hiatus when I realized that I had nothing to say. I go through periods like this, where writing words fail to comfort and when I’m so tired of my own story, my own patter, that I go dark. It becomes a time of frenetic activity, physical labor, compulsive reading, long walks where all I hear is my breathing and the sounds of furtive nature. It is a time to refill the reservoir, to get out of my own brain, to seek solace in the words of others, to feel my muscles contract and expand, to roll up my sleeves, and wipe away the sweat.
I’ve spent a lot of time just standing in my garden, watching butterflies and frantic bees. We’re experiencing the largest migration of Painted Lady butterflies in 30 years. It’s the time of year to start cutting and clearing and preparing for the winter, but warm temperatures have offered a reprieve to all those creatures with long to-do lists: gathering stores of food, laying eggs for the spring, building overwinter shelters, making the long trip south.
Humans have their own to-do lists: cleaning gutters, clearing gardens, trimming trees. In addition to all of that, I think about what will get me through the long six months of winter. These days, the Twin Cities hasn’t really had a severe winter in a few years. And the upcoming one is predicted to be mild. This bodes well for getting outside more, but there is still a sense that keeping the mind a fertile garden might require a little effort.
So, I’ve signed up to get re-certified in Adult and Pediatric CPR/ First Aid and for a weekly Spanish conversational class. My book piles are high and at the ready. My Y gym membership in good standing and my list of indoor house projects long and unwieldy. It’s not enough to say I’ll get some writing done. I need to feed my brain, grow my skills, move my body, and let in other voices besides those repetitive ones in my head.
In my dreams last night, I was once again a vigilante, interrupting a knife attack. I knew the first step: control the knife hand, but was frozen on the next step. Eye gouge? Kidney punch? Cross sweep? Foot stomp? I woke up thinking I need to train. It’s a funny thing, being a middle-aged unpublished suburban housewife and having a brain wired with longings to be a superhero (while knowing the reality would be awful and violent and demoralizing).
I’ve been having vigilante dreams off-and-on since my early teens. As a child, poverty and domestic violence made me feel powerless. I daydreamed a lot about taking that power back. Those conquering daydreams fed my subconscious and my imagination and eventually, my sleeping hours.
As an adult, I’ve tried to honor those impulses. I joined the Army, I did martial arts training and took self-defense courses. My husband gently mocks me about the fact that I’ve never had a physical confrontation except in generally safe sparring scenarios. Despite this, I’ve heard him brag on occasion that in the case of danger, we would defend him (my daughter also has martial arts training).
Perhaps it’s the fight-or-flight instinct, so lost and beleaguered in modern society, that leads some of us to workout intensely or put ourselves through rigorous physical testing. Part of me has an apocalyptic bent – everything is done in preparation. And perhaps it is worth questioning if all this preparation adds to or detracts from one’s quality of life. Until I figure it out, I keep returning to training.
I’ve been reading erratically, surrounded by piles of books and magazines. At least six books have bookmarks in them. I had to give up reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. Good writing, a little heavy on metaphors, but the subject was a tough read – a combination of family and natural disaster, dog-fighting, and cringe-worthy sexuality. I recognize that sometimes my need to be comforted outweighs reading for the art of it.
So I return to those voices that resonate with me: James Baldwin, Arundhati Roy, Bertrand Russell, Alfred Adler, Anne Lamott. I read a rather funny piece by Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish Writer, late 1700s) called “An Essay on the Noble Science of Self-Justification”, inspiring me to write a modern version. I also have started to read C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings. It’s a work of fiction on a topic I have no interest in (horse racing), but the writing is pure bliss.
I find sometimes, that when I’m in a reading streak, talking seems like a waste of time. I can remember being a child and not wanting to put my book down, only engaging with people because I had to, and returning to the pages as quickly as I could. It’s a joy when you rediscover that feeling as an adult. With so many things that demand one’s attention, it’s a delightful luxury to think Not now, I’m reading.
I had a conversation with someone the other day who only gets their news from the television. When we started talking about a political situation, they spent a lot of time saying, oh, I didn’t know that or that or that. Was I any better off for having read The Economist or only getting my news from online curated sources? In the scheme of things, what was the difference between knowing a little or knowing a lot?
Then I thought of a new Suzanne Collins series called The Brain Games. To-the-death trivia games. I’d make it up the bracket a ways, only to be killed off by the photographic memory guy. Information is power, photographic memory guy would say, reminding me that he was paraphrasing Francis Bacon from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae, shortly before skewering me.
I hope that I can stop flittering about soon and settle down to write coherently. But the sun is out, my garden is full of butterflies, and I have some reading to do.
I’ve been living a summer in quiet desperation. Fall is creeping in around the mornings. I smell it in the air and see the frantic scurry of squirrels hiding their winter stores of food. Usually, it brings with it a sweet melancholy that makes me more creative and introspective. This year seems different.
I turn 50 shortly and it’s clouded my mind in all the expected ways. Ways that seem like stages of grief. I’m in the bargaining/rationalization phase. Initially, I mourned that there was less ahead of me than behind me. Then I tut-tut-tutted myself. At least I’m alive. It seems a banal reassurance, because if I weren’t alive, I’d hardly be agonizing over the fact.
This could be the beginning of a long diatribe about the visceral signs of aging now creeping up on me. It’s all been said before – gravitational pull on body parts, the decrepitude of the mind, the regrets of a life half-lived. But I stop myself mid-wail. That is not my story, because that could be anybody’s story.
My story, my peculiar little piece of navel-gazing, is my disappointment that nothing has changed. No grand epiphany about grabbing life by its nether regions and hauling off to Nepal. No reawakened sexuality turning me into a feral alley cat. No heartwarming reunions with high school chums or estranged relatives. No grand realization that turns my nonexistent career into a lecture tour, Times book review, or even a paycheck. It’s still just me.
That’s a little disappointing.
Everyone has a life narrative that they tell themselves. Mine was always that I was a late bloomer. It was an easy pattern to see – everything always happened with my friends first – college, marriages, babies, careers. I started college late after a stint in the Army, married in my early 30s and had a child when I was 37. And I never had a career, just jobs. I could joke about how my whole narrative was one long procrastination.
At 50, the late-bloomer story is starting to wear a little thin. And I have to ask myself, if 50 years of action (and inaction) didn’t lead me to where I want to be, is it time to change the destination? And shouldn’t the journey be a little more enjoyable?
It’s funny when you’re younger. You assume by 50 that things will have been settled, that where you end up is where you intended to be or at the very least, where you’re okay being. But just as society has begun to write me off, I’ve started feeling my oats.
Hatred and empty noise! Old, faithful companions of the strong, the essential.
Hatred is the murderer.
Empty noise is the gravedigger.
But there is always resurrection.
Vasily Kandinsky, On Understanding Art, 1912
Over the last few months, wallowing in a micro/macro depression (woe is me and doesn’t the world just suck?), I’ve realized what a coward I’ve been. It’s a harsh, but necessary realization. I’ve been so distracted by the empty noise. And I’ve wanted to be distracted, because if I weren’t paying full attention, I wouldn’t have to take full responsibility.
If I were to describe the perfect me of my intentions, it would be a physically fit polymath with strong, loving relationships, charitable works, and a steely sense of integrity. If I were to describe the real me, the one I live with everyday, the picture is quite a bit lopsided, inconsistent, and always, irritatingly, a struggle. That damned human element.
One would imagine I have grandiose plans moving forward. My opening gambit on turning 50 is a real gob smacker. I’m going to stop taking vitamins.
Now hear me out. People say that taking vitamins is like insurance for nutritional deficiencies in our diet. The science doesn’t support that, yet even knowing those facts, I have still been taking a multivitamin and flax oil supplement for years. Does taking those pills make me less diligent about eating a nutritionally dense, well-balanced diet? I would say yes. The backup plan has become the plan.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea – all the insurances we put in place. I’ve been so set on being safe, carrying all the right insurances, having backup plans to the backup plans, that I’ve filled my life with safeguards for a life I really am not living. Because while I fearlessly fail on a daily basis, I’ve not allowed myself to fail spectacularly. I’ve not put anything on the table worth losing.
So today, I take no vitamins. Tomorrow I submit a short story to a lit mag. Or at least I eat some leafy greens.
Lately, I’ve been reading Kandinsky: Complete Writings on Art. Vasily Kandinsky began his professional career in law and economics. He chucked it all at 30 to begin painting studies. All art in this post is his – a testament to his openness and intellect in exploring art. I bet he didn’t take vitamins, either.
This post will be moderated per The Green Study comment policy.
There is a moment in each day now when I imagine the decimation of my country. I grew up with the idea that America represented ethics and values that I could get behind. I didn’t always agree with politicians or administrations, but I respected that it was an honorable thing to serve this country. My eyes watered hearing The Star-Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful. I put my hand on my heart and believed that there was something of which we could be proud.
When I was in high school, I went to state speech contest with a fiery “The Loss of American Patriotism: Where Are the Voters?” I spent hours listening to the comedian, Rich Little, do presidential impressions. I loved learning about government and American history, reading the biographies of the men and women who shaped this country.
I joined the US Army near the end of the Cold War, became a Russian linguist and served four years of active duty and another four on reserve duty, retraining as a Combat Radio Operator in preparation for the first Gulf War. I love my country. I feel fortunate for having been born here. I love that there are so many opportunities to learn and that our diversity brings a richness of culture.
My patriotism matured, though. I read about slavery and bigotry and the resistance to equal rights. I read about My Lai and the Tuskegee experiment. I read about Watergate and watched the Iran Contra and Thomas-Hill hearings. I payed attention to the corruption, the sexual scandals, the misappropriation of funding, and the misjudgments that cost military men and women their lives.
Maturity required that I pay attention, that I vote, that I believe the foundations of government to be well-reasoned and guided by the rule of law. It required a degree of cynicism while maintaining the belief that no misdeed would go unpunished. It required me to support my community, follow the laws, and contribute where I could.
These days, my patriotism falters. I don’t know where we’re going to end up. I view my fellow citizens with suspicion, appalled that so many have willingly embraced incivility as the norm. Disgusted that so many have the I got mine, you can just suffer mentality. I’m astonished at the number of people who are comfortable deriding education and science. And so incredibly saddened by how quickly hate rises when beckoned by someone who has never served anyone but himself.
Common good is no longer part of the conversation. Who is our military fighting for? Defense contractors and antiquities thieves and soon, it will be minerals. Maybe it was always like that and I was too immature to see how easily people in power waste the lives of those who aren’t. Our system is awash in tainted lucre, crusty old men, and greedy shareholders.
The conservative class is polluted by religious fundamentalism, photogenic faces with acidic, twisted morals. Lying has become de rigeur and shamelessness, a casual smirk worn with defiance. Winning at the expense of fellow Americans. Trading in an empathetic sense of right and wrong for showmanship.
Liberals are being bogged down by the attention-seeking behavior of the deliberately ignorant. Unfortunately, they’ve been thrown so far off balance and are spending so much time compensating, that the message is lost. They don’t need new bumper stickers. They need to step outside a cycle of reactivity. They need imagination and originality.
I don’t feel at home here, a country I was born in and raised to love. Now there’s this rise of white nationalism, a soupy crockpot of crackpots and conspiracy theorists, all blaming someone else for their lot in life. All the religiosity is scary and the anti-intellectualism reminds me of other regimes that went after intellectuals, scientists, journalists, readers. Me, with my secular humanism and library card – I’ll end up on a list. My inability to be attractive enough to seduce or wealthy enough to bribe anyone – unable to get in the right line, check the right boxes.
Apocalyptic views are often roundly mocked. But we’re watching bedrock institutions having the legs knocked out from under them, while being undermined, and ridiculed by a man who is wily, but not intelligent. We’re watching our President begin to strip away the rights of our fellow citizens in order to cater to his minority of supporters and to distract us from his other nefarious undertakings. Our leaders used to be people who recognized that the higher duty was to country and not themselves. We used to want people who were smarter, more talented, better read, better educated, and more well-rounded in their American experience than we ourselves were.
Now we have a bully who has been pampered and flattered from cradle to grave, who has turned national discourse into a manipulated reality show dialogue. The Ugly American in all its stomach-turning glory. Meanwhile, every dictator on the planet has bellied up to the bar to have a missile measuring contest. It’s good times for them. The rogue’s gallery of murderers – Putin, Duterte, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un, all happy to see that America is now completely unmoored from even a pretense of moral leadership.
And what can I do? I vote, I follow the rules, I donate to causes I support, I volunteer, I call my representatives. I work to understand the issues. I try to see different perspectives. All from my little house in a midwestern working class suburb where life, at the moment, appears unchanged.
A Muslim family moved in across from our neighbors, who are religious home schoolers. Down the street, one neighbor finally took down their Trump/Pence sign. We still keep up our “We Choose Love” sign, a faint reminder of idealism in the recent past. Will this diverse neighborhood survive or will we come to blows? Will we need hidden rooms and underground railroads and forged identity papers?
There are too many dominoes coming down all at once, too many lies to keep track of, and too many morally-destitute people with the power to be destructive at the helm. Threats from without are being matched by threats from within. We can only protest and resist our captors for so long. Without money or power, we’re just left to negotiate for bathroom breaks – after our gender is checked. This is what a small percentage of our fellow citizens wish for us and there is simply no denying the sheer malevolence of it.
This is about as pessimistic as I get about things and it’s not a place where I plan to stay. Lest you think I’m giving up, giving in, or content to sit in apathy, the events of the last weekend and the national dialogue surrounding them have given me pause. It all requires more thoughtfulness and wisdom than I am capable of at the moment.
It’s hard to write when you don’t even want to talk. I was surprised that it had been nearly three weeks since I’d written a blog post, despite the fact that they have seemed interminably long weeks. I’m here, because I’ve been inside my own head for too long and at some point, it makes it hard to be in the world.
Instead of connecting with people, I’ve been reading, gardening, and walking. It’s made me more intolerant of small talk than I already was and I know that is not a good thing. I’m in the middle of reading The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It by Shawn Otto and The Age of Anxiety by W.H. Auden. At breakfast, I pour through the tiny print of the most recent issue of The Economist. At night, I’ve been reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
I decided a few weeks ago to concentrate on reading and fitness and to let everything else fall by the wayside. On the heels of a lengthy depression, movement has become the antidote. I’ve been walking, biking, and running every day. I’ve dropped some weight, which is a nice gift to my knees. But all the focus and grim determination means that I feel a bit brittle on the inside.
In suburbia, even in the older neighborhoods, walking is one of the most solitary activities there is – no one is outdoors except in transition from house to car and vice versa. On the rare occasion when I pass a walker or biker on the sidewalk, my smile feels strange, the muscles unused for too long. I wonder if it looks as creepy as I imagine it does.
Walking serves as meditation. Thoughts are allowed to come and go as they please. No attachment to outcomes or items to be added to a list. It occurred to me that I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know what I need. That maybe this moment, this padding along the pavement is it for now.
At first all is dark and each walks alone. What they share is only the feeling of remoteness and desertion, of having marched for miles and miles, of having lost their bearings, of a restless urge to find water. Gradually for each in turn darkness begins to dissolve and their vision to take shape.
W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Each time I return from a walk, I do not return the same as when I left. I remembered someone from long ago. I realized a feeling that I’d been ignoring. I saw where I’d been, like peeking into a series of rooms in a large building, to see if I was in the right place. Been there, never want to go there again, that was a nice visit, maybe the next one.
If I were to look for something specific, I would be thorough and systematic. I am the finder of things in our household. But walking means that I am the discoverer of things and that I have no control over what they might be.
“…it is a room that a person can only enter when they have real need of it. Sometimes it is there, and sometimes it is not, but when it appears, it is always equipped for the seeker’s needs.”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
No great epiphany has hit me. I’m in a time of life of unknowing – who I am becoming, who I will be, what will happen. There are no plans, no driving forces working their will upon me. I’ve done it all before, sometimes repeatedly. Enough to know that letting go is the last frontier, that everything that has weighed me down, made me hold my breath, kept me on the sidelines, no longer carries weight.
I’ve realized that I can maintain my awareness in the world without getting caught in the cycling of outrage and lies. I can positively contribute without lying awake nights wondering how so much hatefulness can exist. I can look into the dark heart of humanity and still choose to embrace joy and love and kindness. I must keep walking until the shadows recede and the light warms my face.
In these hours and days of dual solitude on the river we hope to discover something quite different, to renew our affection for ourselves and the human kind in general by a temporary, legal separation from the mass. And in what other way is it possible for those not saints?
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
It’s hard to write from a place of depression. Whatever anyone thinks they know about depression, they can really only know their own. Mine comes in many shades. This particular one is a verdant green. The gray dullness I feel is made more pallid by the contrast of a lush Minnesota summer, when the rain has come at all the right times.
Already I – have become tired of such a deep-colored summer.
In the grove the masses of royal fern – have grown up to
their full height and
I suppose such things as beetles, frogs, and blue-green
dwarves are walking.
This greenness like a sea
must have totally dyed the expression of my eyes.
Sei Itō, Anthology of Modern Japanese Poetry
It’s like being in the middle of a really great party, but no one can hear or see you. I feel untouched by happiness, retreating further into the recesses of my mind. Life becomes this out-of-body experience and I used to fear that if I didn’t hold on, force myself back out, I’d just drift away. But my energy is low, even while my brain generates worst case scenarios by the second.
I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that I should feel this way or that. This is emotional freedom. My life is now constructed in such a way that my depression isn’t a spectator sport. I can pull weeds without expression, fold laundry mindlessly, make a meal in silence. I can think my dark thoughts and not have to apologize or try to ameliorate the worry of someone else. I can go dark and quiet and unnoticed.
My experience gives me the edge when it comes to the regular dead space that overtakes me. I know it will end. I’ve been through this so many times, that I know I will likely wake up tomorrow in an entirely different place. This keeps my depression from becoming something more dangerous. It makes it less dramatic or interesting, which is something I don’t take for granted.
Some depressions I slide into, requiring days of numbness to finally force my acknowledgement. Some, like where I’m at now, happen snap-quick when an incident knocks away my self-assurance, uncorking tumble-down thoughts that I was filled with at a young age. I am not good enough and making mistakes just proves that.
In this case, I said something that I thought was funny, but I hurt the person’s feelings. I apologized and maybe in a differently-wired brain that would be the end of it. We moved on from it, but I stayed with the thought that I am mean-spirited and that I can’t trust myself to be around other people. That I can’t trust other people.
It triggered an anxiety attack. I would not be loved unless I made myself more worthy. How do I make myself worthy? Strive for perfection. Strive to be better. I put myself through a punishing workout. I worked harder getting the house in order. I tried not to speak unless necessary. Intellectually I know I’ve gone off my nut, but intellect is only one part of the human operating system. In less than 24 hours after an innocuous exchange, I am in the murky waters of depression.
Sometimes a depression is already brewing, in search of a trigger. I never know if I’m in the beginning or at the end, until the fog lifts.
I have a family history of depressive and personality disorders. Some of us have chosen medication and some, like me, have willingly allowed ourselves to live with it. And in some cases, embrace it. Not being a hugger, I’m willing to give it a pat on the arm and think, get on with it.
It may be my superstition that if I give up the fog, I may not have the sharp clarity and energy that follows. It’s a common rationale for manic-depressives, unwilling to treat the depression because the treatment dulls the mania. With a milder version of it (cyclothymia), I am less willing to give up those moments when intricate thoughts wend themselves through my brain and words hurl themselves onto the page.
To an outsider, it might seem an untenable life and in the early years, when my life was less stable and circumstances more dire, it was. I would desperately try to medicate myself – booze, smoking, men, food, shopping, gambling. But at some point I made different choices and one of those choices was figuring out how to make room for my brain chemistry. I found people who didn’t press when I wanted to be alone. I sought help when I couldn’t help myself.
I learned to give myself permission to just be and observe. It has become a meditation unto itself. I unwind the monologues that run through my head, acknowledging with gentleness each twisted perspective, diatribe, miscue, mistake, and loads of dubious self-pity. I’ve learned to tease myself “Yes, yes, you are a horrible person. Yes, that trip to Greece with the drunken boyfriend was a huge mistake. Yes, you really are quite the lumpy hausfrau. Yes, the world is an awful, awful place.” Yes, dear, lay it all out on the table.
And all these things that have been tucked away, the failures and the embarrassments, lay there, inert and powerless. And I see them for what they are – old stories. It reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock short story collections: Stories to Stay Awake By, Stories to be Read with the Lights On, Stories to be Read with the Door Locked. These are my depression stories and I know them by heart.
And soon, they will shuffle back to their shelves, the fog will evaporate and I will remember the other stories where I do the best I can and that is enough.