From the Bottom of a Well

digital illustrationThere are wells whose bottommost dark can hardly be imagined, let alone reached, abysses hidden in all of us that emit no light and rarely give up answers. There are parts of each of us that we can scarcely understand ourselves. Places in which no one else seems able to make sense of us. It does not diminish us, singly or as a species, but it makes living life a greater and more delicately convoluted adventure at every turn.

For me, this means that I need to find the positive in an assortment of inner oddities and personal distinctions that most often remind me of their presence in random, unpredictable and even annoying ways. The unusual synaptical dances that cause me to read upside down, backwards and sideways instead of the particular direction in which my peers and comrades read make me a very slow reader since texts around here are designed with the literate majority in mind. But I think that reading things four times through just to make sense of them does sometimes immerse me more thoroughly in the text if I let it, and it can help turn a mere reading requirement into a commitment. Drawing, when my hand tremors are being pesky, demands that I become more than ordinarily focused and deliberate as well. There are lots of frustrating nuisances that can be turned into usable stuff with enough thought and effort and patience and, well, acceptance.

I still have a mighty tough time scraping up that attitude, though, when it comes to getting a handle on anxiety. That, my friends, is my bête noire. Most of the time I work around it fairly well. My medication and years of learning coping skills and the support of family, friends and health professionals have made much of my anxiety mostly manageable, especially the social anxiety that long made it a near impossibility to meet new people or have conversations with any. But there’s this lousy aspect that keeps on lounging around in my psyche and popping out like a jack-in-the-box at the most inopportune times without so much as a how-d’ye-do, and I have yet to discover a single upbeat way to dress it up and take control of this fiendish pop-up and its ghoulish torments.

The particularly loathsome aspect, to me, is how utterly ridiculous and tiny my personal bane appears to my rational mind, yet how entirely paralyzing its power remains over me whenever it rears its nasty clownish head. It’s not especially complicated to explain, just seems impossible to me to solve; the parts of social anxiety that I’ve never been able to undo or conquer thus far have to do with any kind of business or personal transaction that seems to me to have any chance of including a need for me to request or require help of any sort. Add to that my continuing pointless yet persistent horror of using a telephone or communication forum of any kind for those needy purposes, and it’s a peculiarly potent combination of fears that can keep me from getting the littlest and quickest things done for days or weeks on end while I try to summon the nerve to move forward with them.

Sometimes I can persuade myself over a long enough period to make the call or write the email or knock on the door to ask for information, make a transaction, or schedule an event, and sometimes I just remain stuck in the grip of that inertia that neither solves the problem nor lets me forget that I am in its power. And believe me, I know how abysmally foolish any attempt to explain my terrified reluctance to any sane person sounds: it sounds beyond childish and outlandish to me. But that rational part of me has very little sway over my phobias, so only once in a wildly long while do I get up the courage to do that unbelievably little thing that others can, and I should be able to, do without batting an eye.

The good news, and yes there is plenty of it to get me through the day, is that I have lived a good long time visiting the bottom of this particular and soggy well without losing my ability to see the light up at the top end of it or even to experience a truly happy life by keeping my trips down there as separate from the rest of my existence as I know how to do. And strangely, I have found that the same rain of frustrations, frights and fears that occasionally pelt down the well around me can also lie at my feet like a watery mirror, reflecting enough of my better self to remind me to come back up into the brighter world and leave my fears behind. Even if I have to wait for the rising tide of it to carry me back up and out of there for respite.digital illustrationMeanwhile, I can remember that having Spasmodic Dysphonia tends to make me not merely a prisoner of my halting speech but also more conscientious about conserving, preserving and rehabilitating my voice. More importantly, it gives me yet greater admiration for those who use their voices in extraordinary ways, both those with SD or other speech anomalies (i.e., Diane Rehm and James Earl Jones) and those without (Angela Meade, Colin Balzer, Morgan Freeman). And while I may not have perfect pitch or infallible hearing, there’s nothing notably wrong with my ears. Sometimes I even suspect that being at the bottom of a well gives me a better appreciation for good acoustics!

Rainmakers

Now that super storm Sandy is mostly past, those in the wake of the destruction are left to dig out from under all of the mayhem. As all natural disasters do, Sandy left behind not only massive damage brought on by the high winds, flooding, snow, fire and explosions that were part of the storm and its immediate effects but a whole swath of financial, social, political, logistical and definitely not least of all, emotional and personal damages that will take years to be mitigated, let alone resolved. Besides the losses of life and health that are such obvious costs of a massive storm ripping through, we all know–those who have been through this grinder before, anywhere in the world most especially–that there are innumerable other things once held dear that have been slashed away in a few hours’ time and many of them will never be recovered.digital painting from a photo

The homes blown down, stripped away by violent waters, or burned were filled with people and lives and the Stuff of those lives–in many cases, all gone. The businesses closed for a few days, often in crucial periods of their peak season, are eclipsed by those whose doors, if they still physically exist, will close forever and by the many owners and employees and customers who will have to find other resources for making a living or acquiring the services and goods they count on to shape their ordinary lives. They will all find, as my spouse said very quietly to me when I came down the stairs to find him waiting palely on the 11th of September in 2001, that ‘the world as we know it has changed.’digital painting from a photo

But we also know from long experience that disasters, whether natural or human-made, can bring unexpected goodness trailing in their wake. The immediate selflessness and generosity and heroism shown by those who rush into the maelstrom to save others and who pull the stricken into their waiting arms of safety and warmth and shelter and healing are, when we others take a lesson from their shining examples, only the first wave of light and hope to follow the darkness and despair. If we all, whether by the nebulous but potent means of offering support in our hearts, minds, prayers, and invention or by the more concrete ways of donating, digging, driving; of building stronger buildings to replace those lost, remembering those who have died with forward-looking perpetuation of their virtues, and taking up whatever tools we have to recreate a more closely knit community that can expand exponentially to bring in every person with every need and every gift that can fill that need–then every storm is not an irremediable horror and every battle is not the one that will end safety and sanity forever. We are bigger than the storms. We can be the rainmakers who rise up out of ordinariness and even destruction to build something real and new and extraordinary.

Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . *

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. . . Think I’m Gonna Go Eat Worms! [Note: no actual worms were harmed in the making of this photograph.]

Yes, it may be true that no man is an island–we all depend on others far more than we even recognize or comprehend–but conversely, every one of us is his or her own unique and seemingly isolated version of Three Mile Island at times when it comes to having personal meltdowns. It starts right at birth, when most of us scream and complain at having been removed from that ever-so-pleasant resort and spa, Mom’s innards, and ejected unwittingly and unwillingly into the cold, cruel world, and it continues, however sporadically, throughout our lives. We are such fragile creatures.

The majority of humans, happily, are not subject to this dark reality for too large a percentage of our lives, but it’s more common than is commonly discussed that we have trials, tribulations and the varying degrees of inability to cope with them that make us question, if not our sanity, then certainly our ability to rise above what’s bad, get a grasp on the good, and move forward regardless of feeling worthy or curable. Depression truly sucks–not just in the vernacular, but in the sense of pulling one down into a bottomless abyss like an evil and irresistible vortex.

I’m not referring, of course, to ordinary grief or sadness. We all get hit by those monsters at times. We flounder, we suffer, we recover. It may be deep and painful and take a long time to rebound from sorrows of even the most normal sort, but we do, eventually, learn how to go on living and being and take part in the doings of the world. Generally, that sort of difficulty or tragedy even tends to gradually heighten the sense and appreciation of what is good and joyful once we’ve experienced and survived the dark and can see the shining contrast of even a modest pleasure with what appeared insurmountably grim from its midst. True clinical, chemical, physiological depression, well, that’s a different thing.

It resists the most persuasive and intelligent logic. It batters self-worth and love in the most brilliant, gifted and accomplished sufferers. It tears at relationships of any sort with other people or with action, with one’s wit and will to survive. If it doesn’t make one outright, actively suicidal, it can simply kill through atrophy and attrition: sufferers have described the state of longing intensely to kill themselves but having no strength or energy to do so.

Why would I talk of such dire and dreary and horrid stuff, even think of it at all? Because I am reminded sometimes of when I used to be there. My worst bout of depression was perhaps aided and abetted by various situational and temporal aggravations, including the typical catalysts and intensifiers of real-world health and happiness threats: the onset of my spasmodic dysphonia, job problems, the murder of our good friend. These were of course widely different in intensity and timing, but to someone like me, their interaction with my evidently wonky endocrine system or whatever combined forces of chemical and biological imbalance were building in me meant that when I hit bottom, no amount of thoughtful and heartfelt reasoning with myself could ‘fix’ me or my situation.

I am one of the true Lucky Ones. I finally felt so brain-fogged, so unable to resist the pull of that deadly sucking, enervating, soul-destroying feeling of pointlessness and ugliness and being unlovable and incapable of doing anything meaningful or good–well, I got so needy that I actually let others help me. That was it. The only way out of the hole was to grip the hands reaching in toward me and let them do all of the work of pulling me out. Part of it was accepting these helpers’ assurances that they did indeed believe in me and in how I felt, that they loved me and knew that I had worth and potential. Part was letting others lead me around and taking their advice and simply letting go of what little shreds of ego I had left enough to say that I would do better in following an educated and experienced prescription for improvement than I’d been doing on my ever-weakening own two feet. And a part that was essential for me was loosening my grip on my insistence that taking prescribed treatment–both psychological and chemical–without trying to create or control it myself was a sign of weakness or failure. It took, in fact, all of my strength and intelligence to recognize that any strength and intelligence I had couldn’t save me.

The luck involved is clearly that together we (my caregivers–medical and personal–and I) did find the combination of therapeutic treatments, behavioral changes and chemical re-balancing medication that not only unlocked my present emergency state of depressive existence but ultimately proved to let me feel fully, wholly myself for the first time in my life. I know that this is not a cure but an ongoing process for as long as I live. And, having lived both ways, I am more than happy to take on that responsibility. It’s a privilege.

What’s most beautiful of all, for me, is that when it happens (as it has in this last couple of weeks) that several occurrences and situations conspire to remind me of this my past and how it shaped my present life and self, it also reawakens in me the profound gratitude for all of those complex minutiae that converged so miraculously well as to make this life possible. To make my continued existence at all possible, perhaps, but particularly such a happy me. What seemed like the most disastrous and irreparable of confluences instead conspired to make just the right blend at the right moment that finally offered me a rescue.

Turns out that eating worms is the very nourishment that makes some birds healthy enough to sing their hearts out with the pure delight of existing. Last week I was out walking and saw a ditch full of drowned worms, lured into and killed by stormy waters. This week I was walking the same route and the sky was filled with the most spectacular warbling, chirruping, musical bird songs I could hope to hear. Coincidence? Very possibly not.digital illustration from a photo

(* from the old campfire song Nobody Loves Me, Everybody Hates Me . . . )

 

All I Can Do

photoMy Dearest,

I know that your day is dark. Your illness is proving incurable and your pain is chronic. Financial ruin is staring you and your family in the face. The season has turned harsh, your lover has betrayed your faithfulness, your longtime animal companion has died, and your heart grows heavy and your eyes dim with weary tears. War rages just outside your door and grips you by the soul as well.

I know all of this and yet I am thousands of miles from where you are. I can’t step over the threshold and take you in my arms and silently cry with you until the bitterness ebbs. It’s so far that I can’t just bring a basket of hot food and a bottle of wine to sustain you and slake your thirst. My words, even when I try to shape the letter that will ease your suffering one moment’s worth, are too small and sere and frail to make an inroad–and the letter will undoubtedly arrive too late. There is a faint echo in that digital delay when we speak on the phone, and all I can hear in it is our own choked breathing, no sounds of the deep solace really required.photo

All I can do is leave the gash in my own heart open and ask you to take up your residence in it. Know that my thoughts are reaching across the miles to you at every moment, awake and asleep. Let me shift some of the terrible burden from your shoulders to mine; I know it isn’t real, and doesn’t solve your troubles one small bit. But I hope that you can find some comfort and hope in my desire to carry you while you are too weak to carry yourself one small step further. All I can do is love you.

And so I do.photo

Calling All Saints and Superheroes

What’s that sound? Is’t the alarum-bells? A cry for aid? Say what, you texted me??? Sorry, wrong number!digital image from a BW paintingIf you came here looking for heroism, you are decidedly on the wrong front porch, knocking on the wrong-est door ever. For saintliness, try someplace down the block or around the globe. Any superhero cape I’ve ever owned was made for Halloween out of an old bedsheet (and the accompanying tights are, ahem, waaaay too tight now), and my halo’s batteries ran out when I was about four seconds old and discovered how to scream. Not out of rottenness, mind you, just out of excessive sheer humanity. If there is such thing as having feet of clay, why then I’m a virtual Swamp Thing. Believe me, I’m not proud of this; I’m certainly not bragging about such lowliness. Just stating the facts.

What I see in my mirror is a craven coward and a self-centered dilettante, one who delights in not taking responsibility for others’ well being and who has not the skills, the innate gifts, nor the desire to be a caregiver. Even when those whom I adore most are ill or suffering, I have such tiny reserves of kindness and such a short attention span that even the people who know me are likely to be surprised to be reminded of the depth of my depravity in this regard. I come from a good and kindly stock of nurses and teachers and home caregivers and pastoral and community leaders, and all sorts of people who have taught me by their shining examples how to show compassion and patience, and yet it didn’t really ‘take’.acrylic on paperBut if I’m truly forthright, I must also say that I am very reluctant to change. There is a part of me that does participate in the festival of guilt that is so liberally sprinkled over much of humankind, those who have even the most modest codes of ethics or morals or simple consideration for the existence of others. But I do not enjoy the company of that humble and self-effacing part of me, not at all. I stare at it until I feel sufficiently gloomy to assure myself I’ve not yet lost all contact with my fellow beings–and then I hasten to hide from it as quickly as I can. My better self reviles the mean Me that, while it worries about the well-being of my family who are so very far away, especially when as now, they are dealing with genuinely traumatic things like Mom’s surgeries and recovery, is still not-so-secretly relieved that there is no easy way for me to be called upon from 2000 miles away to be physically present in a sickroom or assist with things-medical and daily caregiving tasks that intimidate and frankly, discomfit me. I am squeamish. I’m impatient. I’m afraid of all things I don’t understand and incredibly resistant to being called upon to attempt to understand them, let alone perform any helpful deeds based upon them. I am desperately fearful of seeing anyone I even like, let alone love, in pain or unhappy.

Sometimes I can suck it up and pretend to be better than I am. I embrace as best I can the skills and tricks that have been taught me over the years to overcome many of my lifelong social fears and inhibitions. Even the remove of a telephone call is sufficient to get some people through at least the emotional demands of others’ needs, but since I’ve told you I have a sizable and lifelong phobia and dread of telephones (yet another inexplicable, and not very helpful, character trait), that’s not a really big boost for me. In writing, I can pull off the disguise of a better person very slightly more convincingly.

This all leaves me with the rather bitter knowledge that I am no better than I absolutely have to be to get by in any situation. I have to direct you elsewhere if you come looking for an example of How to Do Things when it comes to generosity, selflessness or compassion in action. It’s all hard, hard work that, if anyone is genuinely predisposed or programmed to do it, failed to take root in my DNA, and has to be forced on me. Here I am, smudged face and all, and as dependent as a baby on the goodness of others to make the world a better place. Can I get around my own resistance to open-handedness and gracefulness enough to be a decent person? Only the rest of my life will tell. I’m an optimist, so I hope that I’ll turn out better in the long run. I’ll keep you posted. Meantime, if you’re looking for a Rock you can depend upon, I must send you elsewhere–but if you want to join with this paltry grain of sand to build a beachhead, I’ll gladly welcome the inspiration and the good company. As you can see, I can really use the reinforcements.oil pastel on paper, digitally painted

A Bit of Illumination

photoAll it should take is a small glimpse of the undesirable alternatives to remind me, if I’m ever so forgetful, of how fortunate I am.

This morning I had many such reminders on the Sunday commute. It’s been very rainy, a generally fine thing given its kindly relief of and recovery from last year’s drought, but of course never quite so gentle to travelers on the road. As we leave fairly early Sunday mornings to head south, and last night was the semi-annual celebration of tiresome Spring clock-changing, it was utterly dark when we got underway. Unfortunately, and quite predictably really, the first substantial appearance of light before us was not dawn (a grey and undifferentiated one, to be sure) but a veritable wall of red taillights as we came upon the first roadblock. It turned out to be a literal one: a five-car smashup that closed the entire freeway for nearly twenty minutes yet after our arrival on the scene until we were all able to squeeze past it and all of its companion emergency vehicles on the shoulder of the road and restart our journey.

But as much as I dislike sitting still in traffic on the road, I spent the time not just watching the taillights ahead–at least, when engines were turned back on–for any sign of movement but also contemplating how much I appreciated not being just those few minutes earlier when we’d likely have been caught in the midst of the pileup, and all the more so when we saw those crumpled cars and trucks, the flashing emergency lights, the officials in their uniforms scurrying to aid and comfort those still on the scene, and the debris strewn across three lanes and more. It was no surprise to see remnants of at least two more accidents, these not blocking traffic on our side of the freeway but also evidently serious enough to require tow trucks, aid cars and police, before we got to our destination. At every point, a good chance to send up silent wishes for the welfare of all who suffered or served at those points of departure from the planned sojourn of the day.

My little forays for annual medical updates in the last couple of weeks were another fine mnemonic, if I needed one, for how blessed my life is. There I sit, potentially fidgety as I wait for an appointment that, like many, is delayed by overbooking and under-staffing, no matter how well the good folk at my doctor’s office generally try to plan, and look around at people who are obviously less well and far more needy than I am and think, my life is so easy. And I came out of all of it with pretty cheering news.

I was most acutely aware of this, as I said the other day, because while I was just getting a pretty basic exam and gentle inquisition updating my physician’s information about my habits, health and happiness, my mother was lying on an operating table with her spine sliced open for nearly seven hours while her surgeons worked to correct and stabilize her spine. I am incredibly glad to tell you that the preliminary reports following her surgery are good: her doctors are satisfied that they did all of the good things they could do for her (including returning yet a bit more of the five or so inches of height she’d lost over the last several years of her back’s deterioration), and despite the inevitably terrible post-surgical pain, she actually stood upright a mere twenty-four hours after the operation. At that, the second surgery in two weeks, which in my estimation is the equivalent of her being run over by the same freight train twice in a row. The road ahead to full recovery, whatever that will be, is bound to be long and arduous–but it appears to be an open road, and one she is alive and able to take, after some years of wondering whether anything good lay ahead.

Mom is a much tougher character than most people would ever guess.

And once more, I am humbled to look at all that she’s been through and think how glad I am that I have never suffered like that, and that I have a doctor who, when I told him that Mama was ‘under the knife’ for spine repairs at the moment of my simple wellness exam with him, had no hesitation in saying that yes, maybe at 51 and with a mother in that situation, I should get his referral for a bone density check now. To know that my own struggles, whatever they seem to be in the moment, are tiny and petty in the relative scheme of things and that I am very happy to live in such a brightly illuminated place of grace and good hope.photo

Thank you all for your kind thoughts and words about Mom’s health progress. I know she will appreciate it immensely when she’s well enough to sit up comfortably surfing a blog–or doing pretty much anything besides just working on healing. For now, it’s a comfort to the rest of us, and a perfect reminder that I have a great life.

The Library for People Who Don’t Read and Other Miracles

Perspective. Point of view. Scientific experimentation. Verifiable, empirical knowledge. Assumptions. Imagination. Proof.

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The School for Skeptics always has room for more . . . but should we be listening?

Who gets to define these? How, why, and for how long? How many centuries did it take for the earth to “become” round? I learned a wonderful thing about Truth and reality from my grandma when Alzheimer’s disease changed her from an ordinary human into a particular and new to me kind of visionary. I suppose I’d been around plenty of people before who, whether through illness or anomaly, through some life episode or misadventure or merely through the self-guided development of ingenious discovery or delusional ideation, saw the world and its verities quite differently from the majority of us others. But I don’t think I’d paid very close attention to what that might mean, before ‘meeting’ the new and different version of Grandma.

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Grandma grew blurry . . . or was it only that the borderlands between our reality and another began to thin perceptibly?

She had already been moved into a lovely and much safer residence than her solo apartment, a place where she was fed properly, kept safe from rambling until lost, and tended like a well-loved family member, and she had begun very tenuously to adopt it as her home when I went along with my parents to visit her. Since she had acquired a roommate now and their quarters were modestly scaled, the other four of us strolled down to a pleasant sitting room nicely made for visiting. That is to say, Mom and Dad and I strolled, and Grandma rolled, now that she had completely forgotten she knew how to walk–except for rare occasions when, the staff informed us, she would simply get up and do whatever it was she wanted to do, then go back to her wheelchair and promptly forget again that she was quite fully ambulatory.

In the sitting room, which was comfortable and softly lit, there were several wing chairs and a small table with side chairs where guests could set cups of coffee or tea while socializing or perhaps play a game of cards if they wished; there were old-fashioned painting reproductions on the walls and dated but sweet wallpaper and there was a little arrangement of eternal, artificial flowers. There was also a bookcase, a fairly small one but basically empty, possibly because the residents in the dementia ward of the home didn’t quite know how to handle books gently enough any more or simply wandered off with them. We were curious and a little nonplussed by the place’s bothering to keep an empty bookcase around, but my grandmother wasn’t the least bit disconcerted. It was a quiet room and had an empty bookshelf because it was a Library for People Who Don’t Read. And that was that. It was funny, yes, but in addition it seemed, well, a little bit childish and decidedly more discombobulated than anything my former grandma, my actual grandma, would ever have said and I felt slightly embarrassed and more than a little sad.

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There are innumerable soft places for landing, but dare we visit them? Dare we stay?

She chattered a little, mostly in a nonsensical stream of short non-sequiturs, and eventually, grew a bit tired and weary and disappeared from the effort of conversation more and more until we thought she might just be falling asleep. So it was time for us to toddle off down the hallway to her own room again and make her cozy there. Her identification of the family photos on the wall was tenuous at best, and wholly disconnected from anyone in the room who happened to be represented in the photos. She told short stories that were part memory of long-ago times, part yesterday’s lunch, and part spontaneous fiction. She was quite taken with the tall evergreen outside her second story window. It turned out, she was mostly attracted to the man she saw sitting up in its branches there.

By then I was very tired too. It was mighty hard to follow these oddly disjointed and intermingled sentences and thoughts enough to attempt interaction with her anymore, and I was already sure that any comments I made or efforts to connect with what she was saying or thinking were pointless and soon forgotten anyway. I was very unhappy with myself for being so impatient and distracted and unable to just love this new and strange person living in Grandma’s shell. When the man outside her window was clearly more interesting to her than to me, I also became glumly frustrated with her lack of presence in reality.

It was then that I realized that Mom and Dad carried on the conversation with Grandma pretty much as though they could see the man up there too. They didn’t necessarily bait her or make things up willy-nilly, but they gently followed where she led and made no move to contradict her anywhere along the way.

I’m no genius. I think I’ve made that abundantly clear many and many a time. But it did finally occur to me that there was a perfectly reasonable reason to treat this whole interaction as though it were the most logical and natural thing in the whole wide world. Gently, my parents confirmed this bit of cosmic brilliance that had accidentally leaked into my small and putty-like brain. Which is, very simply, that we have no proof that there wasn’t a fella up in that cedar tree that Grandma could see, maybe even converse with somehow. Our failure to see him or understand what he was working to make known to us may very well have been purely a symptom of our being limited to our dimension or aspect of reality or interpretation of the universe, whereas my changed grandmother was now free to traverse the tesseract, leap the boundaries and see through the veil of human limitation at will.

Are all of the people who see, hear and believe things that others cannot see, hear or believe by definition wrong or damaged? Or is it just possible that there are realities and truths that we ordinary mortals of the majority haven’t the proper senses necessary for apprehending, that we can’t yet comprehend those particular particles? Something tells me it’s about time we come to our senses and allow that there may be a whole lot more going on than meets the human eye.

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What do you see, now that you are so far away?