What Wounds can Teach Us

Cut

Skin, though as taut as rawhide, and as strong,

Still splits under a jagged, cruel knife,

Opens its jaws to scream a gout of life

As blood that would atone and end the wrong—

But wounds, no matter what the cause or source,

Cannot withhold their sorrows or their rage;

Injustice must be shouted off the stage,

So bleed they without pity or remorse—

Break, then, both skin and soul, and sear the heart

Of any who is cognizant of pain;

Who cries for justice and can’t sleep again

‘Til order is restored as at the start—

What’s done cannot be undone should a scar

Reveal the fragile creatures that we are.Digital illustration from a photo: What Wounds can Teach Us

Uncertainty and Hope

Beloved, let us sit down together in the shadow of the oaks; let us take deep draughts of fresh water from the clear, swift stream. In the scorching heat of the middle of day, let us take refreshment like the dragonflies that skim the water’s edge, and be restored by the caroling of birds in the distant shade.Digital illustration from a photo: By the Cooling Stream

The days are long and our work makes wearying and seemingly infinite demands, and we know that this will not soon change. There is change of many sorts ahead, this we know too, but what it will be is yet beyond our imagining. Thus it has been, and so shall it ever be: we travel our paths, seldom knowing quite where they lead, and we labor in darkness the while. Some days, the destination is sparkling joy, and on others it is marred by sorrow and strife; at times, the mists of uncertainty part and the way ahead becomes clear, and at others it remains quite fully obscure.

Photo montage: Beloved, Let Us Sit

What I know, Beloved, is this—that no matter how hard or easeful is the road and no matter what the destination holds for us, we walk our way together, you and I. We may long for clarity and even for the strength to wait for it, but in the meantime we will take our stops for breath along the way, sitting in shade when we may and drinking deeply from the icy stream, traveling always hand in hand no matter what the journey brings.

Stars Everywhere

Photo montage: Stars in the DarknessThis world is a dark place. War and strife, fear, hunger, hatred, greed, self-righteousness, and poverty gnaw the bones of suffering people on every continent at every hour. And all of these menaces are, in accordance with early expressions of the idea of Tragedy, nearly entirely the making of our own species.

Little hope, at least in my mind, of that sorrowful truth changing as long as our species continues to dominate the planet. We are deeply flawed. Even the finest among us tend to forget themselves and their mortal limits at time; regardless of how educated, high-minded and genuinely well-meant their attitudes and actions may be, it’s sadly true that underlying those attitudes and actions is a firm belief in their rightness. Only natural that it’s hard, from that perspective, to allow that others might have an equal possibility of being right, or at least as wise and well-meaning, as they themselves are, and to show them the full respect of that acceptance.

What, then, of accepting life among my fellow flawed beings in this imperfect world? No comfort is found in denial or in persistently, aggressively resisting what may not have the possibility of ever changing. But to accept this grimness as an eternal truth and let it lie like lead on my soul is no help, either.

I look to the stars.

Physical stars exist in a surprising number of places, many lower and commoner than the depths of the sky, and I look to them and rally as I realize that they stand, every one, as beacons reminding me of what is good not only in the nature in which we imperfect beings live, but what is good within us as well. Small as our fineness may seem, individually and corporately, at times, it does exist, and if there is to be any hope of overcoming the dark, it must come from the nurturing of every little glint seen starring that darkness.

I look to the stars in the indigo distance of the sky, sparkling like promises of better things as they look back at me. I look to the lesser stars of reflected light that dazzle on earth, the  diamond dashes on every body of water and glimmering in every eye, never mind among real gems and the many things made expressly to be beautiful and good and positive. I look, more than anywhere else, at the multitude of stars that shine from the hearts of good and true people, people who are thoughtful and generous, merciful and hardworking, and kind and loving, sometimes despite and against the dark things of this world, and often, wonderfully, for the sole reason that they were made to be such earthly stars.

In a Very Hot Place

digital illustration

Not to shed crocodile tears, but don’t you feel sorry for my pain?

In the humid human jungle, there is a rapacious beast that cheerily attacks and devours the happiness of many a poor body.

Menopause. Yessiree, I’m sufficiently past the mid-century mark to be personally acquainted with the joys of middle- and slightly past middle-age. I managed, thanks to magical genes or good luck or some jolly combination of the two, to enter into the mysterious temple of Menopause well ahead of the dull-normal average age of 51. I guess my body just couldn’t wait for the fun. Forty years old? Yay! Sure, I can go right ahead and get on that crazy train.

My doctor thought I might just be a fanciful young’un, imagining I was wandering into menopausal territory at the tender age of forty. Until I described my hot flashes. She already knew about my newly accomplished slide to the bottom of a depressive slope, a thing that (while it is seldom developed in complete isolation from other qualities or characteristics of health issues) can sometimes also be a symptom of menopause. She was not one of those dismissive, demeaning doctors who would’ve opted to imply that I was some kind of hysteric or stupid person. So she did a little checking into my state of being in other ways and lo, what I was experiencing was indeed early onset menopause. Or perimenopause, to be more medically precise.

Anyway, I’m now well past a dozen years of this fun and am still here to tell the tale. What’s particularly interesting to me is that it’s not wildly improbable that I’m, well, okay. I think I might’ve bought, at least a little, into the popular mythology that makes menopause universally into a horror of monstrous proportions. I will never minimize the true suffering that some women experience during menopause, a very real horror. But me, I’ve spent over a decade in the strange land of menopause, and I’m still ticking along.

One thing that I have working in my favor, besides that I have relatively few symptoms and lots of blessed good luck, is that I have great support. I have always existed in the midst of a family, friends and acquaintances where topics of real and everyday importance are generally discussed in real and everyday ways. No big deal. Imperfections, illness, death, human failings, and yeah, menopause. These are all realities and unavoidable. Sometimes painful, sometimes inexpressibly difficult, ugly, terrifying, awful. But in all of that, normal. So why would we be so foolish as to pretend otherwise, to let them loom, magnified, as the sort of thing we can never name, let alone discuss, with others who are statistically likely to have shared the experience and might even have wisdom to share in how to survive?

I’m trying to be smart about protecting myself from the bone density loss that is typical of many women in menopause, taking supplements and keeping active as my doctors have recommended. As an exercise hater, this one isn’t easy for me. I do keep current with monitoring and treating my depression so that I am sad only what seems to me a pretty normal amount and about pretty average things, not depressed in extreme and unhealthy and perniciously persistent ways as I was before I began finding the right health regimen of counseling and medication to keep me on a better path. I use extra skin moisturizer and the occasional application of hair creme rinse because despite having been an almost magically oily youth (and having had to battle high-grade acne as a result) I do find that in my advancing years I now have fairly dry skin and hair.

The big annoyance that remains for me is that my internal thermostat broke when I turned 40. My body forgot how to regulate its own temperature, so now I can go in a matter of seconds from the freezing Undead-body temp I was so long accustomed to experiencing in pre-menopausal years to the miracle of my torso becoming a microwave oven and right back again in a few minutes. Sometimes many times a day. This fun, for thirteen years and counting. And yet I am not a wreck.

The best defense I’ve found thus far is a simple little device that is a hybrid of that grand old invention, the hot water bottle, and the slightly newer iteration of the athlete’s curative bag of ice, a flat water-filled-sponge-containing rectangular envelope thingy that goes by the euphonious rapper-appropriate name of Chillow (trademark registered) and can be laid across my overheated midriff when I can’t seem to get my inner temperature moderated. It’s no cure, but it helps, and help is far better than misery. Even a good old fashioned accordion-folded fan fluttered southern belle-style beats undue discomfort.

I would never be so self-indulgent or ridiculous to call my sufferings massive or anything nearly as important as those of women who endure the real pain possible with menopause and its related conditions. That would be both silly and hypocritical. I’m average, plain and simple and normal, in this experience, even when I’m not exactly on the middle line of the statistical charts. But I can assure you that if you are heading into menopausal territory or someone you know is on her way, there is a path through this particular jungle and you need not be devoured by the beasts met along the way.

See you on the other side of the [very sweaty] swamp.

digital illustration

If the jungle is ruled by a hippo, is it a hippocracy?

I Find Respite in the Woods

We all find our places of escape where we can. Having grown up in the Evergreen State and not far from both the vast forests of Mt. Rainier and the green refuge of the Olympic Peninsula’s rain forest, I have always found trees and wooded places a comfort and a place of safety and reassurance. No matter how deep the sorrow and pain, I have found strength returning to me and a gentling of the spirit poured on my woundedness in those times spent in the protective forest greenery. When I can spend time among the trees and relish their distinctive and individual beauties, I find myself rescued and my hope renewed.digital illustration

To the Woodland

Cedar, bless me with your resinous breath,

And oak, stretch down those knotted arms to me

And close me in, so others cannot see

My sorrow as I stand so near to death—

I come here to the woodland for relief

Among the leafy shadows of the glade,

Hoping to leave my sadness where I’ve laid

It here, a monument in shade to grief—

Sweet birches, bend your green to veil my tears

And weep with all the willows, as I do;

Great trees, for graces have I come to you

Each time that I grew mournful through the years—

I come here to the woodland for relief

And leave a monument, in shade, to grief.

This mottled darkness will give way to sun

Anon, as time flows on, and so shall I;

The dead still sleep, no matter how I cry,

And I must live, or my own death’s begun—

And I’ve much yet to live, and purpose find

In bringing others light who, too, repine

That have no pine-groves filled with peace like mine

As balm and rescue for a troubled mind—

Who know not aspens’ kindly whispered care—

Should all seek peace and comfort in the wood,

These mercies surely better us, their good

And healing gifts send us renewed from there—

So we’ll go to the woodland for relief

And leave in shade, as we emerge, our grief.digital illustration

Another Totentanz

digital illustrationTo Rest in Peace

Alas! for shadows carve my collarbones

and misery is lapping at my heels;

Death’s machinations turn, wheels within wheels,

and grind me for its grist between cold stones–

And yet, as dust-dry as I turn, breath blooms

persistently, a torture to my soul

when I had rather be devoured whole

and go on into Peace’s empty rooms–

Still, here I stay, lie atomized, forlorn,

forgotten on the fringes of what life

and loves I knew once, when my days were rife

with possibility as a new morn–

Let me die now, not live without a chance

of altering this endless Totentanz.

Lest you think me suffering myself, or pessimistic, I assure you I am alive and well. It’s just that I have seen many others struggle with prolonged and pitiful end-of-life dramas and was reminded this June when I saw the beautiful antique gravestones in Boston of how different things are now, when we have such nearly unbelievable powers to keep ourselves alive for tremendously long lives but have lost touch with when it’s acceptable or even desirable not to do so. If our skills for ensuring or encouraging genuine quality of life are far outstripped by our skills for lengthening it, what does that say about us? Generations removed from our forebears, whether in Boston or elsewhere, who knew much more primitive medicine, greater physical dangers, irreparable injuries and the concomitant shorter lifespans we have apparently long since forgotten, do we know how to accept death as a natural end to life and treat dying as a passage to be eased to the fullest extent instead of forbidden?

Back from the Brink

photoBurnout. Tension. Stress. Exhaustion. Doesn’t matter what I call it, the unfriendly truth of that state of being is the same. Distraction. Aching and malaise. Irritability, withdrawal, collapse. The dramatic drops in life participation and wholeness all come together in equally unpleasant responses.

What are the causes, catalysts and triggers? As many and varied as the moments of any lifetime, of a million lifetimes, can allow. How is it that I–or anyone else on this madly spinning globe–can survive such stuff assailing us, let alone prevail against it and win?

Why, in a number of ways, we all do it pretty much all of the time. That’s how our species can even continue to exist; if we didn’t have a whole arsenal of defenses and strategies for the cosmic battle, it would’ve taken little more than a moment’s stray breeze to blow us all to oblivion. But vulnerable and weak as we are, we do have our ways, and we survive.

Faith. Whether it’s the belief in something as grand and benevolent as a Supreme Being that will rescue me or in something as small and ephemeral as the offer of a stranger’s hand to grasp mine and pull me up, faith can overcome many an obstacle.

Hope, too. If not utterly confident of it, as long as I can summon a sense that there’s some probability or even possibility of better things ahead, I have a chance of mustering just enough strength, patience and will to wait for the good to come to me. I may not be able to reach for it myself any longer, but I can hang on, however thinly, to a promise of change and renewal. For the return of the light.

And love. When all other resources are at their lowest ebb, even faith and hope having withdrawn in the impenetrable distance, love can carry me through. I have a greater store than most, being surrounded as I am by not only the encouraging affection and support of spouse, family and friends but also the remarkably kind uplift I’ve received at the hands and words of a wide array of acquaintances and strangers buoying me in my life over every would-be catastrophic wave. Beyond even this, there is another love that serves me well, when I can remember it: the love inside me that, however pale and faint it’s grown in my weakened state, recognizes a need to care for and comfort others in their time of need. The moment I can step outside of my own need, my hunger, despair, anger, longing or sorrow, just enough to recollect the existence of anyone else, I tend to draw back, however slowly, from the brink myself.

I can look around again with eyes less inward-focused and with a heart more willing to keep living, hard as it may seem at the time, and crawl back toward more gracious and sanguine days. My fellow survivors show me how to do it all the time. In this, I am once again truly at peace.digitally enhanced photo

Hijacking Happiness

digital artwork from a drawingTrouble, as we all know, is highly contagious. I was reminded of this recently both by a television character and by a couple of real-life incidents involving real live people (who shall here remain nameless), and all of them, real and fictional, have a number of similarities, the chief one being their apparent unshakable belief that their suffering is greater than anyone else’s, is incurable, and is probably the fault of everyone else too.

My life is pretty fantastically good, when you get right down to it, so to people who don’t know me very well it might appear that I have no business criticizing anyone else’s way of handling sorrow and pain. But that’s just it: even the most wonderful of lives is touched by trials now and then, and struggle or strife isn’t fairly measurable in the moment. My paper cut seems as dire as your childbirth pangs when I’ve just gotten paint thinner on my hand. I know this to be logically ridiculous in the extreme, but don’t tell me the paper cut doesn’t hurt like boy-howdy at that moment. That would be tantamount to me telling you that since your labor pains will probably be over in short shrift, they don’t compare in any way to another’s battle-for-life with esophageal cancer, so you should just get over yourself. Whatever agony each of us is undergoing is more than enough and not to be belittled. And frankly, since each of us has a history that is tinged here and there with darkness, we do all have a sense, however small, of what it means to accept our griefs and cope with, live with, and go forward with them still present. Real sorrows never truly go away.

And for all of us who can feel empathy, or even more than that, can feel sympathy without having experienced the fulness of another’s troubles, life after infancy (when memory, like the lifespan thus far, is short) can be a perpetual bombardment of such troubles even when they’re not entirely our own.

I, of all people, will readily grant you that some people are far better equipped than others to find ways to survive pain and suffering and to continue living a full life without resorting to out-and-out acting. But that’s just it, isn’t it: barring full mental incapacity, don’t we owe it to ourselves, anyway, to try every possible avenue of becoming whole and happy (and of course I don’t mean that superficial kind of happiness that is either fully false or simply stupid); don’t we? When my personal apocalyptic horsemen appeared at the intersection of a group of the classic stressors (job-related problems, health challenges and the sudden death of a close friend converging on me at the same time) and plunged me into clinical depression, I was fortunate to not only have some of the significant tools (support from family and friends, a great doctor and a good therapist, and ultimately, medication that worked for me) for doing battle with those monsters but also the sense that there was no other acceptable option but to try to do that battle.

I won’t lie; there were times–and will probably be more of them over the years–when I did have to take the tack of that ‘fake it till you make it’ mode, when I simply wanted to quit and lie down and just hope it would all miraculously fix itself, or when I was as sulky and whiny and crotchety and pessimistic and tedious as unhappy people can be. We humans are good at all of that stuff, better than at being sunny and charming. But finally, even in my worst state I knew that was no way to live, and that the important people around me would suffer at least as much as I did, if not more. Thanks to the aforementioned helpers, I am here to tell the tale. More importantly, I don’t dwell in that darkness, even though there’s not much I could prevent or even fix about the troubles that led to such a state of existence. Things just happen. It’s how I deal with them that’ll likely make or break me.

That television character–and the many real-life imitators I referenced–stays so focused on how traumatized and maltreated she feels (albeit by genuinely distressing events and problems) that they become her one-note existence. She has a hard heart because it seems less trouble to close it to others than to be vulnerable to further hurt, but of course the actual effect is that she treats everyone around her like dirt, riding roughshod over their feelings and regarding any trauma or maltreatment they may suffer, often at her hands, as inferior or nonexistent. In turn, after being stomped on repeatedly by her seeming egotism, narrow-mindedness and refusal to set her hurt aside, the people around her disperse as speedily as that unlucky drop of water hitting a sizzling skillet explodes into mist. Those who tolerate her constant vituperation, impatience with their perceived stupidity or lack of sympathy, and her seeming wish to continue forever wallowing in her fury and self-pity, those characters ultimately become uninteresting or even unsympathetic themselves to me; after the ninety-ninth offense anyone sits back and takes without a fight, they tend to my eye to look like either enablers or equally fixed in victim mode.

I think we all have the power to steal others’ health and happiness, at least as much as the reasonably healthy among us should make every effort to take charge of our own. Doesn’t mean perfection is expected, but c’mon, people, if there’s really no going forward with life, perhaps a retreat to a very quiet hermitage would be more apropos than imposing our worst on the rest of the world. Yeah, I said it: get over yourself, Kathryn. Even if it might occasionally require brief periods of kindly deceit, times of returning to fighting off the dark singlehandedly, and the ordinary moments of being a jerk. It’ll mean equal demand on me for repentance, amends-making, and getting back on the wagon. There’s too much life left ahead, I hope, to spend it mired in a grim and terrible past, let alone impose it on others.

The upside of all this is that there is a possibility of turning this kind of thievery to good. Very simply, if I have to I can borrow my equilibrium and contentment from others. Put myself in proximity to saner, happier people than me until I can manufacture my own, and quietly absorb what I can of their good graces. I, at least, don’t want to be the one who steals the joy of anyone else; that only becomes the reason for new sorrows all ’round. Happiness and health can be contagious, too, if we let them. And so we all should, my friends. So we should.

Under the Shawl

digital artworkShrouded

What is the measure of sorrow’s depth? A mile, a fathom? Soullessness?

Is it a silent suffering or screaming agony? Or less

Than nothing? Is true sorrow deep as midnight? Is it fiery? Cold?

Is’t a return to youthful helplessness, or falling instant-old?

Who knows the grief in its extreme that tells how deep sorrow can grow?

Only the ghosts of doubt can guess at this: I hope I never know.

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