Seeing Strength

I spend a lot of time making sure I am aware of my weaknesses and limitations. Not (most of the time) in a self-critical or self-defeating way, but out of the necessity for managing my conditions responsibly. No one is helped if I take on too much and end up unable to do anything. So, through the years since the last time I needed hospitalization, I have worked hard on this.

Last weekend, though, I got reminded that it’s okay for me to take a moment to see strength. For the first time in nearly ten years, I attended my local Unitarian Universalist church. I used to sing in the choir there, and met some wonderful people…and, eventually, slunk away because of my insecurity and my worsening mental health issues. Already near-suicidal, I came away from every sermon more ashamed and more depressed, the calls to action and social justice reminding me how little I was doing for the world as I struggled just to stay here in it. 

I had considered trying again for a while, and on Sunday I got to see that things have, indeed, changed in the last ten years. The old tapes did play, often, but they did not rule me. I felt plenty of social insecurity, but not enough to make me flee. As I sat and listened to the sermons, I realized that the process in my head was different. Alongside the old tapes, a different track played…ideas for poems, ideas for other ways I might be able to help, a consciousness that, even though I am not doing as much as I might wish, I am doing something.

I came away more at peace with what I am and what I do these days. More at peace with the fact that my battlefield is the psyche, that my focus is on helping others like me escape from prisons inside their skulls–so that, one day, they can be more present in the world and help fight the battles that need fighting.

The Fear of Sentimentality

Recently, I finished a first draft of a poem called “Ladders.” I liked it a lot when I finished it, but now realize that I am hesitant to read it at an open mic or send it anywhere because I’m afraid that it will be heard as sentimental, schmaltzy, cheesy, overly inspirational, or other adjectives that might relegate it to a realm better suited for Hallmark cards than serious poetry.

Why am I afraid of letting some of my poetry reflect the unabashedly inspirational parts of my writing psyche? My prose essays drip with it; I have no hesitation about expressing fierce compassion towards others, trying to spread illogical hope, or digging for beauty in dark places. Why am I afraid to let more of it into my poetry; that a poem speaking inspiration directly to others will be dismissed as too sentimental?

I have spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m a person who has tasted a tiny bit of nonlinearity in this universe, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m passionate about giving others a feeling of acceptance, wholeness, being valued, or just being seen, and I’m not ashamed of that. My poetry should not be ashamed of that either.

It’s appropriate for me to look at a draft and ask if the tone is what I want the tone to be. It’s appropriate for me to ask myself if the poem needs revision to change the tone to one I think will be more effective. But these questions should not be asked out of fear.

Everyday Resurrections

How have you come back from the dead lately?

Today is Easter Sunday, and some people are celebrating the event of their savior returning to life after being crucified. Easter is also, according to some, an evolution of far older spring holidays celebrating other resurrections as well as the general truth of nature’s resurgence into new life after the sleep of winter.

Celebrating resurrection in any form appeals to me. What greater cause for joy can there be than to see something dead now living; something asleep now awake. For me, one day a year to celebrate resurrection is not enough.

How many times a year do I come back to life? How many times in a year do I emerge from the metaphorical tomb and feel the sweet air on my skin? Each time I come back from a dark phase, I step into a new life with new hope. Never mind that my enjoyment of it might be temporary–I am here now; the darkness did not kill me this time. Once again I see beauty; once again I feel gratitude.

The passing of a dark phase isn’t the only kind of resurrection I experience. I awaken from a small death when I devote myself to learning something new or succeed in putting down a behavior that’s sucking the life out of me. I awaken from one when I reconnect in any way with the part of me that can’t die and remember that it exists. I awaken when that spark of knowledge reignites a flame in the dark.

What Do I Want?

Do I know? Do I really know?

I’ve been watching a show called Lucifer, in which the Devil owns a nightclub in LA and has a psychic power to draw out a person’s deepest desires. He only has to look into their eyes and ask. They look mesmerized and blurt out their ambition, or secret love, or person they want to kill.

It makes me think about what I would say, if put on the spot and somehow uncensored. What resemblance, if any, would it have to anything I might predict myself saying? It seems like splitting hairs, I know. If I think I want something, supposedly I do. Whether it is a good idea, or whether I’d be happy if I had it, is beside the point. The wanting is in the thought.

Or is it?

What exists on the surface of my thoughts can be very different from my truth. A lifetime of conditioning, fear-based filters, and cognitive fallacies interfere with a clear vision. We think we want to be happy, but we may have little to no idea what happiness would really look like for us.

What is my real ambition? My real desire? What would I cough up under Lucifer’s gaze?

Sure, I want the basic things most people want. Ego gratification, love, security, good things for others I care about. But there is something else.

It’s hard for me to describe, but I’ve experienced it and I want more. I want to carry it around like a rare jewel and give bits of it to others as talismans. Hell, I want to carry it in myself like a virus and transmit it to others just by being with them. I want people to come away from an encounter with a vague sensation that something is different.

Is it hope? Is it joy, wholeness, love? No words are adequate for the thing I have found somewhere on my journey. The thing that drives me to read poetry, or write it, to catch glimpses of what I desire. It’s illogical and capricious. It’s immortal, indestructible, nonlinear. In the coming era of my life, I am not sure what role I am meant to play. I just know I want to serve the thing.

Maybe Lucifer could draw a better description out of me.

Item One: Not on Fire

This is taken from a 2013 post on my old site Not This Song–and yes, thinking about those affected by the Northern California wildfires is what reminded me of it.

We hear plenty about the importance of practicing gratitude. There’s a big emphasis on it in most spiritual traditions, and addiction recovery philosophy reflects this. It’s not uncommon for a mentor or friend to suggest making a “gratitude list” at regular intervals or whenever troubled. And don’t try to tell them there isn’t anything to put on it, because that won’t fly. If you lost your right arm today, they’ll tell you to be grateful you still have your left one.

Some people start with the basics if they’re having trouble coming up with things: their senses, the food they ate today, being in recovery. Others use methods such as the alphabet list. That one can be fun, especially when you have to give details: A, I’m grateful for apples because they crunch so nicely. B, I’m grateful for bunnies because they are so soft. It can get ridiculous, but hey, at least you’re thinking of something else for a few minutes! My favorite phrase I’ve heard when I find it hard to begin, though, is “Start with the fact that you’re not on fire and work down from there.”

I have to admit that I still feel a little defensive squirming sometimes when a person is recommending any type of gratitude practice to me. A part of me takes it to mean that they think I’m being ungrateful and spoiled; that they are judging me. It’s something I am working on, because it’s really not fair to others when I take what is usually a kind gesture and mentally translate it to them saying “Suck it up, whiner!”

Defensiveness aside, gratitude has come to mean a great deal to me. Where I used to think of it as a sort of Pollyanna self-improvement thing, I now see it as a vital part of my recovery as well as a vital part of living with my mental illness. I don’t practice gratitude to become a better person, or to live more fully. Those are bonuses. I practice gratitude these days because I have no fucking choice if I want to live. 

For me, gratitude is the opposite of self-pity; it’s my best weapon against self-pity and what goes with it. Self-pity and all of the excuses it created nearly killed me, and it can still kill me as surely as a bullet if I let it run unchecked. I’ve written before about the magic of learning to feel true and tender compassion for myself in a way that still honors the need to avoid dangerous self-pity. This process clears enough room in my spirit for gratitude and its close cousin, acceptance.

Gratitude flows more organically for me lately, although I’m sure I could benefit from making lists frequently. It tends to be accessed as a natural result of playing Whack-a-mole with my self-pity whenever it tries to crop up. I have to find other things to dwell on, different things to talk about with others, and in doing so I become someone who notices and acknowledges good things more often.

Philosophers call this idea the via negativa: defining something by saying what it is not. We don’t always know where we want to go in life, or what the best path to take is. Sometimes the best we can do is have a clear vision of what we don’t want. This vision can be one of the gifts of addiction or our other demons. The vision can take us to new attitudes, goals and ways of living that we could not have imagined for ourselves, because we never had the tools or experiences to do so.

This is why I’m willing to do certain things, even if they feel awkward or silly.  Why I’ll continue to work the different aspects of my program and try to get better at practicing all of the spiritual principles involved. I don’t know exactly where they will take me; I just know what they’ll help me avoid. Today, that truly is enough.

I’d Rather Kill An Antelope

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2013)

For a long time, I tried to pass for normal. By normal I mean my idea of what my normal should be, which many would call overachieving. I was gifted with some abilities and I had certain expectations about how they should be used. When I failed, or had a breakdown, or acted out with food or drugs to drown my symptoms or stifle the disconnect I felt from myself, I told myself that I would straighten out my problems and then I’d be able to succeed.

Eventually, over a period of years, I came to know and even to accept that there were some things about me that meant I needed to change my expectations. Part of it was accepting my mental health issues; part of it was just understanding my personality better. I tried to set new goals more tailored to my real self.

I’ll do or think just about anything to have a shot at feeling good about myself. On a very deep level, I believe I have to do or be something in particular to have earned a spot in this universe, and I try to convince myself that this is indeed happening. So, when I began to accept my differences, I tried to convince myself that those differences made me special. When I felt envy toward other mothers with clean houses and more organized lives, I dealt with my feelings of shame by embracing a sort of eccentric genius identity; someone above or beyond such mundane concerns. When I felt envy toward my former classmates who had great careers, I told myself that their lives must not be as psychically or spiritually rich as mine.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that I have something to offer because of and not just despite my differences. But it’s not right for me to use that idea to gloss over my responsibility to try to learn to cope with “normal” life as well as I can. It’s also not right for me to use this “weird equals special” idea to cover up the very real pain I have about the things I will always struggle with.

The truth is that there’s a part of me that will always long to be a relatively normal, functional person. The psychologist Marie-Louise Von Franz, one of Jung’s early students, wrote that in ancient tribes the boys who ended up being shamans were usually unsuited to be hunters. Many of them would have rather been a hunter; would rather have been the hero who brought down the biggest antelope at the hunt. The young man who stood proudly at the initiation rite, being welcomed into the ranks of adults and feeling the satisfaction of having provided a meal for the hungry. The guy who married the prettiest girl in the tribe, had eight children and became a respected elder. They’d rather have been that guy than the guy living in the isolated cave, playing with bones and having his entrails metaphysically scattered by jackals.

Even if I join the writers and poets and the other shamans of our time, there will always be a part of me that is sad not to be a hunter. That envies my husband’s ability to function at a corporate job without having to take anxiety attack restroom breaks every hour; that cringes in shame when I read about friends who are working for social justice. I am learning to function better, and I have hopes about being able to help and serve others better, especially the dual diagnosis community. But I feel like a shaman on a hunt: I might learn to hit a squirrel with my slingshot, but the antelopes are for the real hunters.

I know that being the shaman had many compensations, and I’ve tasted some of the wonders and beauties that may enter my life more and more. I might become a good shaman. I might serve the minds and souls of others. I even hope to become a voice that will help bridge the gaps in understanding between groups of people. But it’s important to admit that I wish I could also be a hunter; that I cry when I think about the problems in the world and all the work that needs to be done. My people are hungry; the shaman cries: they don’t care where my soul is traveling tonight. They just want to eat, and neither my passion nor my tears can feed them.

Strolling With Sewage

(Originally posted on my old site Not This Song, 2015)

Sometimes, out in nature, the lovely spiritual metaphor we encounter is a graceful bird soaring through the air. Or it’s a flower, blooming in response to its inborn clock. Perhaps a river, shining silver in the distance and promising change.

Sometimes not.

I was making a pilgrimage. I’d dropped my daughter off at her classes and driven my longing-to-be-virtuous self to a regional park that has a paved, hilly trail around a reservoir. I was going to walk that trail, a trail difficult enough to make me sweat and ache a bit, and I was going to be purified. I’d purge away the recent days of little exercise; scour away the depressive miasma and drop bits of my recent bout of anxieties here and there on the trail, leaving them behind me when I was done. I’d have a nice conversation with my personal God, too, and come away feeling better and clearer.

Yes, that was my agenda–but, as often happens, my agenda did not control. First of all, my body did not appear to be on board with the plan at all. Far sooner than usual, I began to ache and be winded. So what, I told myself. The trail’s less than three miles. You can do it. Look around at the trees; smell that fresh air. Isn’t this nice?

I drew in a deep, intentional breath, and stopped abruptly as I detected a decidedly un-fresh smell. Surmounting the next rise, I heard a loud motor and discovered a sewage truck just ahead of me on the paved trail. Two men in vests were monitoring the pumping of the trail bathroom’s contents through a large hose into the truck. Waving politely, I breathed shallowly as I walked by and inhaled in relief when I got upwind. Soon I’d gained enough distance for the quiet and freshness to be restored.

I tried again to get into the groove of feeling peaceful in nature, and my mind wandered. But my anxiety wouldn’t leave me, and my mind wouldn’t stop skittering around planning the rest of the day, week and year. I asked my God, out loud, to help me open up and enjoy being out here.

As if in answer, a loud rumble approached from behind me. The sewage truck was back, and I hastily retreated from the trail to let it pass. I had a sinking feeling about where it was going, and sure enough, five minutes later the smell greeted me again as I approached the next restroom being emptied. Is this how the whole walk is going to be, I grumbled, and then reproved myself for my lack of gratitude. Think about these two workers, I told myself. This is what they do all day while you get to walk in the fresh air!

Still, it was distracting, and I really wanted to achieve a certain state of mind. I got a bright idea: I’ll stop and rest for a while, and that will give them time to get far enough ahead that I won’t catch up with them. So I found a bench and settled down. Look now, look at the living gray sky and the brown brush. See the rippling water and hear the chaotic bird cries. Get out of your head. But I didn’t get out of my head. I sank deeper and deeper, burrowing into extreme detail of one of my darker genres of phantasy.

There, on that bench in the fresh air, I (as I tend to do) lost and was abandoned by those I love, became an outcast, and moved beyond the will to live. Birds called me, and I couldn’t answer, trapped in my own mental theater. At last I managed to shake myself out of it enough to talk to my God. Why do I think about these things, God? Why do I do this? I got up and started walking again. If you want me to think about these things this way, that’s okay, but if you don’t want me in that place, please help me think about what you want me to think about.

I kept walking, and kept on talking, and began to feel a creeping sense of virtue (at least I’m trying, I’m saying something, I’m making an effort to ask for divine will and that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it?) when I heard the engines roaring up ahead and detected the familiar scent. I’d caught up.

Inspiration came to me. I was almost halfway around the circular trail now; why not just turn around and walk back the way I came? The sewage truck could complete its loop in peace, and I’d be able to do the contemplative walk thing. So I turned around and began. I continued my dialogue, mostly in my head now, and thought about the stress and depression I’ve been struggling with lately.

Then I heard the sound behind me. The truck was back. For some reason, it had turned around too.

That was the last straw. I started laughing. So, God, getting archetypal on me, I see. Fine. Let us contemplate the spiritual meaning of this portable vat of shit following me around.

Are you trying to tell me that I can’t outrun the shit of my life; that I must coexist/walk with it?

Are you showing me that cleansing myself is going to be less simple and more messy than I would like it to be?

Or are you in an alchemical mood, and just shoving a huge lump of prima materia at me? What do you want me to make of it?

I left with questions, but no answers. I wondered if the real message and lesson had to do with the inadvisability of having a spiritual agenda. I’m not sorry for any of it, though–it was an act of intention. Despite what they say about good intentions, I believe an act of conscious positive intention is one of the most powerful things I can do.