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.