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.

Sometimes You Just Need to Ask

You mean that’s it?

I just needed to ask some poetry to come and crawl into my head?

I knew that; I really did, but I had forgotten. I have had the experience of asking for a poem to get past the fragment stage and having it happen within a day or two. It seems counterintuitive that creativity, that most capricious of things, should be at my beck and call.

But it’s true. To a degree, it is responsive to my requests when they are made humbly and honestly.

Prayer, in its most primal form, is a formal statement of desire and intention. It takes an inchoate longing and frames it into a concrete wish (or states for the record that one needs help figuring out what the wish is.)

Any time I ask for something in a way that draws aside the curtain of pride and shows my truest need, I am praying.  By praying, I make room for something numinous to answer.

Ink Runs From My Mouth

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry…
–Mark Strand

 

That’s what it’s like for me when things are going well.

When the veil between me and the fire of my self is thin.

Poetry, then, is more satisfying than food; more life-giving than rain.

The boundaries of my skull contain all that I require.

I need not fear boredom, or loneliness, or abandonment.

And when the veil is very, very thin–I need not even fear dying.

I want more days like that.

I want to remember the truth about how much I want that.

Reeling It In

Now that feels better. After a week of incubating a certain key line that wanted to be a hook for my latest poem, it finally progressed and took shape into a revisable draft. I know a week’s not much for poets that are skilled in long-term creative process, but it felt like a long time while that key line was annoying the hell out of me. Six little words. Not even long words. Six words that I knew would tie up the poem when it came together; that encompassed the message of the poem for me. There wasn’t even a title yet, and the drifting fragments of other lines came and went without that punch of conviction.

Why did I persevere on this one? Poets who share thoughts on revision advise that some “great lines” be tossed into a bank and left for later revisiting if there isn’t a coherent flow appearing around them. I hope I would have had enough humility to do that with my six-word mascot if things kept not working. But something in me wasn’t ready to let it go. The line wasn’t alone; it had an image around it; it was the image, and I wanted to see it.

Today, when I planned to spend time writing, I knew I wanted it. I also knew that it can’t be forced. But I confess that while I was saying my dual-diagnosis prayers (hey, you, whatever you are, please continue giving me the strength not to take drugs or harm myself in another way today) I threw in a request. Something like “and if you’re feeling generous and whimsical, it would really lift my spirits to birth that draft.”

Coincidence, or testament to the power of asking? Don’t really care–I’ll take it.

Poet Mode

(Originally posted on my other site, Not This Song.)

Bad Poet still makes me smile when I read it. More than that, the feelings behind it have really marked a change in my relationship to writing poetry. I’ve written several more serious poems since then, and not worried much about good or bad. They please me, and that’s enough.

What I didn’t expect is that writing poems is really different from writing prose. Now that I am doing it, I seem to have unlocked a need to do it. When I go a while without creating one, things just feel wrong. Often, I’m not consciously aware of the feeling until the next poem happens and I feel relief. It’s kind of like when you haven’t masturbated for a while–you get started and your body informs you that hey, this isn’t going to take long and by the way, where have you been?

Writing prose can have these qualities, of course, and I’m hardly the first writer to compare writing to masturbation. Heinlein said it best in the words of Lazarus Long: “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of–just do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.” The connotation being that writing is personal, self-involved, and potentially not something anyone else cares to see.

After meditating on what’s special about writing in “poet mode” for me, I’ve concluded the following: Poet mode turns down the dial on my intellect and lets more of my emotions through. Poet mode allows me to write things without trying to explain them too much. Poet mode pleases the artist in me because I get to play with lines and structure. But for me, the most powerful thing about writing poetry is that poetry feels useless.

Now, you know I don’t mean that. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without poetry, and I agree with the poet Hafiz, who said “religions are the ships; poets the lifeboats.” What I mean by saying that poetry feels useless is that I can’t weasel my way into thinking that I am writing a poem to serve any immediate, practical purpose. With prose I can do that: I needed to do that in order to start Not This Song. As personal as some of the stories get, I convince myself that they are helping someone.

I’m not saying that a poem I write won’t ever inspire anyone or help anyone feel less alone. I see that there’s no real reason to assume my poetry is any more useless than my prose. I see that my psyche isn’t making a logical distinction here, but it exists. Perhaps it’s because of the emotions vs. the intellect; I’ve spent a good part of my life thinking that my only, or main, value lay in being smart.

I think this illogical feeling about uselessness or impracticality is part of what makes writing a poem so satisfying for me. You see, every word I write is already a rebellion against the critical, shaming voices trying to convince me not to write. Writing a poem is a sharper rebellion, a rebellion more overt because it’s not trying to explain or justify itself. If I dig deep, I see that part of my satisfaction of finishing a poem comes from the gleeful relief of being able to yell “Fuck you” at that inner judge (and all those who taught it to be that way.)

You see this? I wrote this. Why? Because I fucking felt like it, that’s why. No, nobody’s paying for it. Do people think it’s good? I have no idea. What am I going to do with it? None of your damn business. Don’t like it? Nobody asked you. Fuck off.

Don’t flee in terror, poetry community–I promise I would never speak to an external, human critic that way. This is only about my internal process, and once a draft of a poem exists I have no problem with constructive criticism. I hope to learn more about polishing and revising my work, and I find myself salivating at descriptions of poetry classes and workshops. I’m making an effort to read more new, modern poetry and not just my old favorites. Whatever continues to come out of this poetic Pandora’s box, I hope to keep the spirit of Bad Poet firmly in mind. Permission to be a neophyte, to be imperfect. Having the humor–and the humility–to see and accept the immature but endearing antics of my developing self.