Monday, June 22, 2015

Intersect: Hope and Despair

Every day a theme arises. Words appear on pages of the books I've got piled and shelved around my home; sometimes I choose a book at random, open it, and a passage will leap out, leading to other passages. Today my meander began with Gail Caldwell, then moved on to David Whyte, then to Dylan Thomas and on to a poem I composed yesterday.

Thomas' "force that through the green fuse drives the flower" surges up through each of us. Caldwell, in her book New Life, No Instructions, writes that "we are engineered to rise up, in every developmental sense."

We are made to aspire, like flowers and other green lives. As babies, we raise our heads, our necks, our torsos ... and then, one miraculous day, we fumble to our feet and stand. We toddle, walk, and run. A day will come when we can cradle buttercups in our hands during an amble though a wood, as I did in this photo.

Buttercups ... hope in tiny yellow bowls. Hope for spring arising through us, no matter what. Hope is a pivotal power, entwined with our vital force. Who cannot be attracted to buttercups, to the little suns that they are? To their brief perfection, to their proof of Life insisting on expression?

I write of hope today because for so long, I've felt so close to being bereft of it. Every day for about the last seven months, I have vowed to stay alive despite poverty, loneliness, and long illness and injury. The last straw seemed to be the death of my most beloved cat, Vida, who died just over six weeks ago. She was my mainstay, my closest bond, my cuddler, my bedmate. I used to joke with friends, "You know that VISA ad? -- 'VISA. It's everywhere you want to be.' My take: 'VIDA. She's everywhere you don't want her to be -- on the kitchen counter, the keyboard, the top of the fridge, the edge of the balcony!" The truth: she was everywhere I wanted her to be: in my lap, on my chest and belly, my shoulder, under the covers with me. She was my primary reason for being after I was divorced five years ago. She and I kept each other alive. After three years of deepening, unrelenting illness, her time to be freed of pain and suffering arrived. I had to make the agonizing decision to reqlinquish her, and I howled at Life: "How will I go on?"

I write to stay alive. I vow to stay alive because of how David Whyte understands despair. His book, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, arrived by surprise in my mailbox last week, gifted to me by a dear friend who understands the sustaining power of the written word, and how it tethers me to life.

Whyte's thoughts on despair are unique; he uses the word "beautiful" three times in his meditation on despair. Beautiful?

He begins: "Despair takes us in when we have nowhere else to go; when we feel the heart cannot break anymore, when our world or our loved ones disappear, when we feel we cannot be loved or do not deserve to be loved ... Despair is a last protection ... a necessary and seasonal state of repair." A state of repair?

We experience despair as the musty, cob-webbed cellar of our soul, a dead zone of psychic winter, a winter that we perpetuate when we refuse to admit any warmth to our lives, when we refuse to recognize that spring, like winter, is inevitable. Despair, writes Whyte, stagnates in us when we decide "that the seaons have stopped and can never turn again." We can chain ourselves in that existential cellar with a single thought, by abstracting reality into morbid fantasy, by freezing our bodies and breath, by refusing relation. Yet we are webbed and wedded into relation, even as we deny its truth. Even in despair we bond, even as we believe we cannot, when our eyes are cast only into the unlit distances of cellar-thinking, unable to see beyond the cage we have latched ourselves into.

"Despair is a difficult, a beautiful necessary, a binding understanding between human beings caught in a fierce and difficult world where half of our experience is mediated by loss, but it is a season, a waveform passing through the body, not a prison surrounding us."

Where's the key to the cage? It's in awareness ... and in one breath. Another breath. Every breath admits spring to the soul. Oxygen: the force that drives the pulsing fuse of the brain. One breath at a time allows us to pay "a profound and courageous attention ... independent of our imprisoning thoughts and stories, even strangely, in paying attention to despair itself, and the way we hold it ..."

Can we hold our despair like we might cradle a buttercup?

The best is yet to come? How about "The rest is yet to come?" -- The rest being one of two possibilities: rest as in succor, retreat, quiet. David Whyte writes that "Despair needs a certain tending ... the body left to itself will breathe, the ears will hear the first birdsong of morning or catch the leaves being touched by the wind in the trees ..."

The rest is also simply the next. What will the next moment, the next instant, bring? We cannot know ... but we can guide ourselves into possibiities. What will they be?

Every morning, I tune my ears to birdsong, and one of my favourite sensations is a breeze meeting my skin ... the breath of the world greeting the gift of sensation. At dusk, I tune in again to the birds' nesting songs, their lullabies ...

Despair has a lifespan, as White says: "A season left to itself will always move, however slowly, under its own patience, power and volition."

Volition! Momentum. One breath, one word, one aspirational thought at a time. This is where Gail Caldwell's words arrive as more sustenance:

"I wanted to say something about hope and the absence of it, and how we keep going anyway. About second chances, and how they're sometimes buried amid the dross, even when you're poised for the downhill grade. The narrative can always turn out to be a different story from what you expected."

Always. It's a word we often nag at, telling ourselves and others not to generalize, globalize, concoct catastrophe. But here ... always is a word of hope, of possibility.

"... if momentum is a physical version of hope, well, I've got that ... my body heaves in an absolute sense of going forward, with a kind of determination that feels like rushing water; it is the way that one throws off despair ... sometimes force is all you have, and that has to be enough. Because with just that force, according to Newton, eventually you get to someplace else. A calculus of hope and motion."

That green fuse again ...

A person whose brain and being have been mired in depression and trauma's aftermath often experiences what I call volitional paralysis. Frozen by terror, quicksanded by despair, how are we to inch our way back to vitality?

Poetry helps me. C.S. Lewis wrote that "When we read, we know we are not alone." I know that I am not alone when I read this passage from James Wright:

Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

Break into blossom ... like a buttercup.

A buttercup among buttercups. 

You who read these words: dear buttercup, you are not alone. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Charleston: my confession

In memoriam

Three days ago: nine shades of human, wiped forever off the palette.

Around the rest of the globe: how many others?

Nine people singled out in a church ... Nine people, among others, who welcomed a young man into their midst, who sat with him in a circle for a Bible study. I wonder what verse they were pondering and discussing when he drew his gun.

He spared one woman, apparently, telling her to remember what he had done.

We will all remember. We are all saturated with memories of people who have drawn guns, knives, and other weapons against other people. We're all overloaded with the images, the sounds, the bloodshed. We all wonder who is next.

Around the world, we wonder.

Meanwhile, the voices rise. "He's mentally ill," say some. "He's a racist thug, a terrorist," say others. "He's a gun nut like his father, who gave him a gun for his birthday," say more. He's barely out of boyhood and he's come to hate his fellow human beings who have varying shades of cocoa-coloured skin.

He was immersed through his life in a culture of hate. Who taught him to hate? I can't name any one person in his case ... but I can in my own. In the wake of this killing, I recall my own immersion.

I'm white. More a pinky-beige, but my ancestry is known as white. Mostly WASP, with some Western European and Pennsylvania Dutch thrown in. I'm a mutt. Right there, my skin tone sets me against what we perceive as its opposite: black. Right there, we drive a wall into the ground of being by calling one person "white" and another "black."

The truth is, there's one theme: skin tone. Its variations number in the billions. Skin tone is as unique as a fingerprint. Whose skin truly is white; whose truly is black? There are a few of us, relative to the billions, whose albino skin comes close to the white of this page. There are a few whose skin tinge is authentic black. All of us ... variations on the theme of human.

We tend to stick with our kind. Our familiars. One could say that we are pack animals in our way. The question is, Do we become communal pack animals, or contrary pack animals? Are the circles of our relations permeable -- will we open our arms to others, or will we close ranks and tighten our grip on who and what we know, refusing to admit others as potential kin?

I learned early in life to tighten my grip, even as my essential nature was attracted to kinship outside my family. I was contrary in that respect. A familial belief that I heard again and again was, "You can't trust anyone outside the family!" My parents had money enough to hire other people to tend their home and children; these people came from all kinds of backgrounds foreign to mine. Women and men from Finland, England, Ireland, the Caribbean, Yugoslavia, and other countries cleaned our home, cooked for us, sometimes tucked me and my siblings into bed. Most of them radiated kindness and care; one of them has adopted me, in her heart, as her other daughter. She is the mother of my soul, and was my father's most faithful friend for the last ten years of his life.

I heard the "n" word spoken when our Caribbean helpers weren't around. I heard other words that insulted people whose racial origins were different from mine. Every such word came from my father's mouth. From whom did he learn those words? I don't know.

Until I was about ten, when I'd been thoroughly immersed in my father's imperative of racism, I was baffled: How could my father love me and our family, but appear to hate so many other people? How could he call our domestic helpers by name, sometimes with affection and what I sensed as respect, but refer to some of them with epithets when they weren't around? I came to believe without comprehension what I'd been told I was, even as I often felt like an alien in my own home. Somehow, I was deemed superior because of my skin tone. Somehow, my pale skin made me more human.

When I was eleven, I was invited for a sleepover at my best friend's house. My friend -- I'll call her Olive, after the tone of her skin -- and I formed a club whose members numbered two: us. We called it "Pick-a-Pants." We drew cartoon faces on an easel draped with big white sheets of paper. The faces were classmates we didn't like. If I recall correctly, we shot spitballs from thick straws at those faces. The girls in question we judged as stupid, fat, ugly. We spit-balled and thought ourselves superior. We doubled over laughing at our classmates' faults. Then we went to bed. Olive's bed was draped with a duvet of down; it was big enough for two, and there we lay, nattering away with secrets and schemes.

A moment arrived of argument. I don't recall what we clashed about; I only know that as my ire arose, a word shot out of my mouth, right into Olive's ear.


Olive turned to ice; she rolled away from me. Her stony back became a wall. Her ice became my tar. Shame. Panic. Death in a bed. I'd shot her with a word, and the shrapnel deflected off her back and sheared me through and through.

The next morning: stone in a bowl for breakfast. I could barely choke down the cereal that her mother laid before me. Olive's eyes refused to meet my own. She tore ahead of me down the driveway to the bus, and sat herself down with the first familiar face she found. I sat alone. Later, in gym class, she sat beside another girl; I was again alone. She did look at me then, once. Hatred; purest hate. She would not speak with me again.

I never learned of her ancestry. I did learn what one word could do to a bond, to a soul. To two souls.

I never used that word again ... out loud. Beneath the shame that curtailed my mouth for life, nigger and its vile cousins spun about through my adolescence, lashing at my throat, taunting for release. Those words can still rebel against my native curiosity and fascination with other cultures, other peoples. They still pop up, in rare moments, to the front of my mind when I meet someone whose heritage bespeaks profound, seeming difference. There's even a pair of words that erupt against other "whites" from whom my background differs: "White trash!"

That phrase made a brief appearance yesterday when I saw the image of the young man who shot those nine people in Charleston. I shook my head against it, as I always do when one of those despicable words erupts. Human, human, human, I decree. I also tell myself, as Viktor Frankl believed, that there are only two human races: the decent, and the indecent. I sometimes think that another pairing of similar contrast is human ... and humane.

We're all human. Do we choose to be humane? -- Already, several relatives of the nine people killled in Charleston have expressed forgiveness towards the young man who shot them. Here is decency and humanity of the highest order: what I call humane-ity.

One loathsome word, spat at a friend when I was a child, stopped me cold from ever spewing  such a one again. I admit the immersion, and my lifelong vigilance against allowing a racial slur to move from old habituated thought to speech. I was infected, early in life, as was my father ... and I apply the medicines of awareness, silence, and humane seeing if the old insults bait my throat, wanting out. I want to know my fellow humans by name, by story, by culture ... by music, dance, cuisine. Curiosity cures the caustic, mutes the fiend in me, the fiend who was just a child immersed. (Unlearning can take a lifetime.) I want to be a friend; I want to learn. The world is full of wonders ... and countless colours, costumes, cultures.

Never again a spittled word of hate. Never will I draw a word, or a gun, against another being. I've never even held a gun, and I pray I never will. Instead, I hold my hands against my heart and murmur, Mercy.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

In response to fear: A Prayer for the Taking (along the road to Emmaus)

take me
by the scruff
of my tremulous neck,
by the stuff
of this flawless soul
I am blind to,
and lay my withering feet
on the road.
Give me the bread
to break; make of me
the bread. Break me
of fear.
Lay me open
to the sight
of my own astonishment.
Give me my wings.
My power.
Unbind my eyes
to the living,
here in the lens
of all the death
that I see; the death
I believe my life
has become.
Shed me; rid me
of fear. It shatters
my bones; crumples
my spine. Raise me
up to my true height.
Pivot my eyes
to the glory
of May bursting
open with green.
Here, you say,
is Life.
Here, you say,
is Me.
Here, you say
as you settle my stance
on the Emmaus road,
is you. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sometimes I wonder ...

... if what we call "depression" is a lifelong coagulation of grief, of losses and their effects, traumas and their aftermaths ... and a deprivation of loving touch.

I wonder if we're mistaken in our culture's emphasis on the tip of the iceberg -- the tip of the brainberg -- in our insistence on treating, primarily, the cortical and cognitive expressions of depression and trauma. Are we missing something? I think so. The label "mental illness" -- at least insofar as depression and trauma are concerned -- will get us nowhere because "mental" is nowhere. What we call "mind" or refer to as "mental" is a process, not a product. We can't lay our hand on the mind or its movements like we can lay a hand on a table, a cat, or our own skin ...

And it's there, on our skin, where the magic can happen. The magic? Yes. 

Touch is our touchstone, our built-in miracle, our best medicine, and the one we're least likely to use.

A few days ago, one of my dear friends came to visit. We've known one another for over 26 years; we've witnessed one another's deepest shadows. She's gentle and kind and she insists on my goodness, as I do hers. I trust her enough to ask her to touch me.

During our visit, I asked her to lay down in my bed with me to share a "spoon." She lay down beside me and rounded her body to mine. We were quiet ... and eventually both of us dozed off.  We lay for maybe an hour, and when I awoke, I felt it: the warming, the full-body sense that everything in me was touched. Boundered. Contained and present. Expanded within. Softened. I felt whole. The all-through-me warmth lasted throughout the rest of the evening, and I curled around myself at bedtime, remembering. I thought, "I slept with my friend." What a gift.

"I slept with someone." -- What error usually lies in those words! "I slept with somone" usually means, "I had sex with someone." That's about as sleepless as it gets! How'd we come to equate the acrobatics of sex with sleeping?

There are people in the world who are practicing what's known as "cuddle therapy." They're on to something. We are immersed in touch during our gestation ... and we scream for that heat, that pulse, that purest of presence as soon as we're born.

Freud, too, was on to something when he mused that we all want to return to our mother's womb. We can't, of course ... but we yearn for that containment for the rest of our lives ... for that feeling of being completely embraced, warmed, rhythmed in sync with a beloved pulse.

A popular saying goes like this: "We need four hugs per day for survival; eight hugs for maintenance, and twelve to thrive."

Popular science points us to what occurs when we are deprived of touch. I'll never forget learning about Harry Harlow's rhesus monkeys: infants taken from their mothers and caged in metal wire with only a tower of more wire to cling to. The luckier monkeys got a tower encased by a towel ... and they fared a little better than the ones who only had wire. Cold metal, harsh edges. The babies with only metal to touch became utterly lost, despondent, broken in being. We could call them psychotic -- out of touch with reality.

Out of touch with reality. Our first, our most formative reality, is touch. We know that we exist, that we matter -- that we are matter -- when we touch and are touched in safe sanctuary. the word matter actually derives from mater, which is Latin for mother. There's no bonding agent like our own skin moulded to another's. No other medicine, no other intervention, can calm our autonomic nervous system like this. Our presence rebounds ... our brains become quiet ... our jittering slows, then comes to rest.

No pill can calm us like this; no cognitive practices; no talk. We don't need to talk when we touch. We need only to breathe and receive ... the reciprocation is natural. The brain signals safe ... and we melt.

I have a friend whose primary devotional path is Tibetan Buddhism. He once told me, during a meal we were sharing, that "we have all been one another's mothers." I froze. What he said struck me to the marrow as right. My first thought in response was, "...then we have all been one another's children." Imagine what our world, our societies, our relations might be like if we all understood this. We are all one another's mothers and children. How might our attitude about touch shift if this were so? Might we be more open to hugs, to soothing hands laid across our shoulders, to sitting close enough to one another so that the outsides of our thighs nestled together? How many more twosomes of all kinds might we see holding hands or linking arms as they walk along? How easy might it be for us to ask someone we love, someone we feel viscerally safe with, for a cuddle? How might our practices of medicine and psychotherapy change if practitioners could initiate more than only diagnostic touches? Bessel van der Kolk, one of our world's great trauma sages, wrote in his recent book, The Body Keeps the Score, that "the most natural way that we humans calm down our distress is by being touched, hugged, and rocked. This helps with excessive arousal and makes us feel intact, safe, protected, and in charge. Touch [is] the most elementary tool that we have to calm down..."

I mention mothers and children ... and I include men in the mix. Men can be mothering. It's all in the approach, the intention, the heart that wants to nourish another.

I had a friend who lived out of town. He'd come to stay with me for a weekend, and he'd wear my pink flannel jammies to bed. We'd tuck in together and spoon. We'd giggle; we'd wiggle. We both felt utterly safe. Kids on a sleepover.

He's gone now ... been dead for over seven years. As I mourned him, I'd lean over myself and curl into the memory of his lean little body moulded with mine. I'd keen for him. There are days now when I keen for the ones I love who are still in the world, for my cuddle-companions. Three  come to mind ... all women who are single, as I am. I've bedded down with each of them -- for cuddles. We've held on, belly to backside, under duvets and blankets; we've melted into deep rest, our breaths and pulses slowing and merging. We hold one another sometimes, like mothers hold their children.

I admit that I could pass much of each day in this sanctuary. I was born two months premature in the late 1950s, when mothers and preemies were not allowed to touch, to bond. There were no "kangaroo holds" back then. I was gravely distressed at birth, not breathing, and went into cardiac arrest three times in my first three days. I was incubated in isolation for three months. Every hand that touched me was paradoxically both invasive and life-saving. Tubes, needles, procedures, interventions. No cuddles; no breast to smoosh into; no skin to meld with. I've hungered my whole life for deep, quiet touch. I trained as a somatic psychotherapist; I touched the people who came to me for care. My dearest mentors touched me, contained me, molded my body to theirs and held on. Two held me through storms of rage; one would press her palms to my temples when I felt myself dissociating from presence. Another wrapped her body around mine when I cried like that bereft infant I once was.

I once had a mate -- a husband. We touched constantly, with deep affection. We cuddled; we spooned. We'd lay in a tangle of limbs and blankets, often with a cat (or two or three) mushed into the mix. Sometimes one of us woud say to the other, "Let's go to bed" ... and we meant simply that. Let's go to bed and nestle in. Let's snooze; let's warm one another to the core. We'd fall into sleep ... all boundaries softened into purest ease and trust. We once held each other while showering, belly to belly, in quietude under the warm water, utterly still and simply breathing ... and the sense of cherishment I felt nearly buckled my knees.

It's so easy to reach out and touch another ... and it's what we tend to fear the most. What might it mean if I lay a hand on your arm, your back, your leg, your face? What might I want? What might you? Our bodies respond in totality to touch ... Sometimes, erotic and sexual feelings arise. They're simply part of the whole. It's what we do with those feelings that matters. We can breathe into those sensations, and disperse them into an expanded warmth. We don't have to do anything with them, or about them.

I sustain myself on the alone-days with memories of those I've melded with, melted into, held and been held by. Sometimes I lie down in my bed and lay a hand over my heart, and I reach deep for the solace of skin-to-skin recall. If I'm in bed, one of my cats crawls under the covers with me, and the other likes to lie on my chest, kneading my neck, gazing into my eyes and purring up a storm right into my heart. I read somewhere that humans, in contact with beloved animals, release twice the amount of oxytocin, "the love chemical," throughout the body than we do if we're in touch with a beloved human. I know this for sure: my cats keep me alive.

I admit to this bone-deep loneliness because I sense that we all share it to some degree. If you live with beloved humans, and especially someone you can cuddle with, you are blessed beyond measure. On every night that you can bed down with someone you are deeply bonded with, you are given Life's supreme gift.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to STAY when you desperately want to leave.

January can be one bloody ugly month in northern climes. Christmas has come and gone; your New Year's resolutions are probably dead in the slush; the skies and everything else in your corner of the world are grey, grey, grey.

So is your soul, and you find yourself waking up one morning, wanting only to go back to sleep ... permanently.

Today's been such a day for me.

I've felt compelled to die since I was a child. In the last eleven days or so, I've felt the chokehold of the old suicidal imperative in a way I've not experienced in over 30 years. The trigger? Being with my family for four days over Christmas -- being in a home full of loved ones, lights, dogs, food, warmth ... then coming back to being alone in an apartment that used to be the home I shared with the husband who left me over four years ago, the man whom I can't stop loving.

Coming back to face, as I have faced for exactly seven years now, a spate of illness, injury, and loss that has not relented. Seven years ago today, I fell ill with a flu that lasted three weeks. I was working full-time then, and I managed to return to work for 1.5 days at the end of January. That was it. I won't detail here what had occurred to throw me out of my life as a competent, healthy, social, viable person; I only know that exactly seven years have passed, and that a quadruple  whammy of major depression, complex PTSD, various autoimmune diseases, and a brain injury have just about totalled me.

Today I awoke to another day alone, another day with no structure, no company, no goals, no work. I made myself some lemon water for breakfast; I ate two bananas, fed my two cats, and did it all through a rageful haze -- a ferocious urge to die on this harrowing anniversary. Seven years. Seven fucking years.

I pulled on every layer of winter clothing that I have, and made myself go out for a walk. The temperature was in the -15C range, with a wind chill in the minus-mid-twenties. I noticed the buds on a magnolia bush down the street. They were intact. So was I, dammit. Upright, walking, moving against the black tide.

(Photo: Leora Wenger)

I started to think about writing this post. Started to think of how I've written other posts that urge people to STAY when all they want to do is check out for once and for all. Thought about the responsibility I carry, now that I've put that order out into the world. Thought about the people who responded to those posts, people who thanked me, people who took the idea and ran with it. One of my friends told me that a support group she's involved with -- and then another support group -- decided to use the STAY imperative as a practice.

I thought about impermanence. Thought of a line I read in a book by Pema Chodron one day while nosing through a bookstore; how I opened a certain book and read: "Impermanence protects us." Three words that blew my mind. Three words that told me, Everything is changing all the time. 

Even the suicidal imperative changes. Even the suicidal imperative is impermanent, if I choose to pull myself through and beyond it. I am typing now to save my life, and possibly yours.

While I was walking, I started to think of a list of STAYS. I'm going to list them here, and invite you to add to the list.

Far too many good souls have checked out -- have given up -- have thrown themselves over the edge between life and death. Robin Williams, one of the sweetest, most generous souls ever to have graced this planet, took his life last August. His death was a catalyst -- a tidal change agent that has galvanized people around the world to dig into why -- why -- we give in to the urge to kill ourselves.

I remember Robin and my previous STAY posts in this blog ... and I pound the keys in order to survive this day. Here's my list. Here's why I, and you, should STAY in the world for one more day, and then for one more day after today.

Give yourself permission to not do that thing you've been resolving to do for weeks, months, years. Allow yourself to have blown your New Year's resolutions, just for today. Let yourself feel as shitty as you need to feel ... without going over the edge. Let yourself feel, period. Emotion is the ventilator that will release the pressure of the thunderheads in your brain.

Run yourself a hot bath and climb into it. Cry your eyes out into the water. Tears heal. Tears release the pain. Tears are an opened valve on a pressure cooker.

MOVE. Even if it's only to take one deep breath, MOVE.

Tell someone how close to the brink you are. If you think that no one in your world wants to listen to you, tell yourself, Bullshit. Someone does want to hear you. Phone a friend. Phone your therapist if you have one. Phone your pastor. Phone a crisis line. Pray. Tell your dog or your cat. Tell someone. Ask that someone to take your hand -- literally or in imagination -- and walk you, step by step, back from the brink.

Play a certain song, and keep playing it. I've created a "Stay Alive" playlist on my computer. It includes (so far) "Have No Fear" (Bird York), "Hold On" (Tom Waits), "Love" and "Love & Hard Times" (Paul Simon), "My Declaration" (Tom Baxter), "Blackbird" (Kenny Rankin), "You Are Not Alone" (Curtis Stigers), "The Gift" (Annie Lennox), and "This Is To Mother You" (Sinead O'Connor). Create your own STAY ALIVE! playlist and play it over and over.

Find one thing to be grateful for. One. You can do it. I am grateful today that I still have a roof over my head, and heat to warm me against the winter cold. I am grateful that I have a computer, and that I can type these words. I am grateful for tea, chocolate, my cats, my friends, my grit. I am grateful that I've made it this far today. I'm grateful in advance for anyone who reads this post and  decides to stay alive.

Notice the surprises, the miracles. Those magnolia buds down the street from my apartment are miracles. They're withstanding a killing cold. After my walk, I logged on to a forum that I participate in for people who live with major depression and other disorders of mood. Somehow, a banner had been inserted above my name. The banner says, "Inside all of us is hope." One tiny leaf extends from the stem of the "p." I have no idea who did that, or how it got there. All I know is that it's there, and that it surprised me. Another surprise: an envelope I pulled from my mailbox from a literary journal I'd love to subscribe to if I had any money to do it with. On the envelope was a quote from poet Sharon Olds: "Between love and language I choose / love and language."

Remember how you've pulled your soul back from the brink before today. Think explicitly about what you did to STAY. Make a list of your STAYS. Use them. Now. 

Acknowledge that you're at rock bottom right now. Better that than at the brink of the existential abyss. At least if you tip yourself over at rock bottom, you won't fall far enough to die.

Eat. Drink water. Your brain will ease if you nourish and hydrate it.

Nestle yourself into bed with lots of blankets and pillows. If you have a teddy bear, grab it and hold on for dear life. If you have a dog or a cat, snuggle in. I have a cat who lets me kiss his belly and sweet-talk into his fur. If you have a little creature who lives with you and depends on you, think about what that creature will be left with if you die today. Then think about what that creature will be left with if you choose to live.

Choose to believe that you're not alone in this. All over the world, other people are teetering on a similar brink. Tell them to STAY. Sit right where you are and make STAY your mantra, your message to the world.

Read something beautiful. Grab a book you love and find your favourite lines in it. Commit them to memory right now. Read and repeat. My lines for this moment, from Rainer Maria Rilke: Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. / Just keep going. No feeling is final. 


I'm pulling for you. I'm pulling for me, determined to be a phoenix who will arise from this seven-year cycle, fire from the ashes. I'm pulling for us. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love." ~ A realization

Mother Teresa originally spoke these words, and today I thought of them ... with a tweak.

I went to church this morning, and was washed with music. "O Holy Night" performed by our worship band -- singers, a cellist, a vibraphonist, and a guitarist. Gorgeous. I stuttered to sing through the tears that were arising after our pastor's sermon -- he spoke of the 'Holy Night,' in part, as the dark night of the soul ... as the longing we can feel, especially during the Christmas season, for presence, love, mercy.

After the service, my bestie asked me if I'd like to share lunch with her. I had to say no. Brain-injury wham-o. Sideswiped by all the stimulation; a nasty surprise. Dizziness, nausea, slurred speech, inability to participate in conversation and to think of responses when people spoke to me; stammering utterances and staggering balance ... and a need for sleep.

Mother Teresa's words struck me after I got home ... and could begin to discern what was happening in my brain. The last word of her quote -- love -- began to change to other words: Mindfulness. Awareness. Kindness. Mercy for our human condition. 

I've pretty much accepted that I can do only small things now. Sometimes I can do no things for a while. I need to sleep in quietude at these times; need to not read, write, be with other people, engage in any stimulating activity ... even when I want to. I need to say Yes only to rest.

I've calmed myself with the wordplay; reminded myself that in this moment, for this while, the saying is true that I can do no great things, only small things with great ... rest.

I can do no great things, only small things with great mercy for my present human condition. 

For right now. For the next while. Until the staggering nausea and dizziness pass; until I've laid down with my cats and allowed myself some rest.

For now.

This, I realize, is an act of great love.

I've done this one small thing ... and so to bed. With love.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Stay steps ... one step at a time.

"Step aside from it," I thought this morning. "Step aside, just a little. One step; just one step."

One step away from whatever ails and hounds you. One step towards LIFE. One step is a stay. One breath is a stay.

One step is a choice. So often, if we have been ill or injured for a long time, we feel stuck ... like an inverted November sky that refuses to move. But above that mass of grey is the sun; beyond the mass is clarity. Beneath the mass, inside your own body, is an open atmosphere: your breath. One breath is a step. One breath is a stay. One...breath. One...breath...and another. One breath at a time. Sometimes I lie down on my bed, laying one hand over my heart and another over my solar plexus. I breathe. Inbreath: "One..." Outbreath: "...breath." My body begins to warm, to pulse. Sometimes I do this to remind myself to stay; sometimes I do it because my body forgets to breathe. My autonomic nervous system has been kiboshed since I was born, and many of the most basic regulatory functions and systems are out of whack -- one being breathing. I have to remind myself to breathe several times a day. Breathe ... Stay ... Breathe ... Stay.

My dear physician, a few years ago, referred to the form my depression takes as "brainstem depression" (also known as anaclitic depression). It's been with me since infancy ... and I have to tend to the absolute basics: body temperature, breath, appetite, movement. "One step at a time" keeps me alive. "One stay at a time" reminds -- re-minds -- me to stay alive ... one step at a time away from shutdown, from paralysis, from the terrible force within my own brain that compels me to leave.

One step is a shift. One step is an act. One step is volition -- will -- moving you in another direction.

A single step. Sometimes a single step for me means that I wash one dish. It can mean that I run a hand along my cat's silken back, or smush my face into his belly, murmuring his name. It can mean grabbing one of my holy books and reading, for dear life, a poem whose beauty latches me to Life. Sometimes it means allowing myself to weep. It can be prayer -- simply a Help ... Are you there? Touch me; move me ... please. Give me a reason to stay. Often, the response from life is so simple: Eat. Nuzzle your cats. Give yourself music. Pick up the phone. Skype someone. Weep. Count your blessings, one at a time, slowly. Count them again. Know you are loved! Know it ... know it. You are still here because you have been loved. You are still here because you have loved. Tuck yourself into bed and turn on the warming blanket that your cousin gave you last Christmas. Grab a pillow; grab the teddy bear you've had forever whose nose and one eye have been repaired and replaced by someone who's loved you. Grab on. 

We are not asked to take big steps or small steps, but we are asked
to make every step a step of faith.
(The Bible, Romans 4:12)

One step ... one song. Here is one of my stay-songs:

One step ... one poem:

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

(Rainer Maria Rilke)

Give Life your hand. 

Stay, dear heart.