I’m listening to my iTunes library, at less volume than I would prefer in deference to the cats’ sensitive eardrums and complete lack of music appreciation. These are the last few songs I’ve heard (a là shuffle):
|Bloodbuzz Ohio||Oh Land|
|Some Other Time||X|
|You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome||Miley Cyrus|
|Map of the World||Mariachi El Bronx|
|Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool||Connie Francis|
|Most of the Time||Bettye LaVette|
|One of a Kind||The Spinners|
|Chain of Fools||Aretha Franklin|
|Mother Mother||Tracy Bonham|
|Viva Sequin / Do Re Mi||Ry Cooder|
|Please Please Me||Mary Wells|
|Mind Eraser||The Black Keys|
|Time Is Tight||The Clash|
I’m arbitrarily stopping this list at 15, though I would love to fill up the next 10 pages with song titles and artists as they come up on iTunes. But I’ll spare you.
The best part of October for me was my old friend P’s visit. She took 3 airplane flights to get to me from Oregon to celebrate my birthday. We had a good time, very low key. The main goal was to find ways to imbibe the World Series games, because the Giants were in it. After they handily won it in 4 games, the next goal became ingesting the Packers game on Sunday and the 49ers game on Monday night. I did not mind this, because she in turn allowed me to nap whenever I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. “I’ll just go read,” she’d say. She read 4 or 5 books in the week she was here. Of course we ate out a lot (The Landing, Schussler’s, Mickey-Lu’s, Jozwiak’s, Brothers Three, El Sarape), and twice she made dinner for us: tacos one night and a vodka-and-sausage pasta dish another. She, my sisters, and my niece spoiled me rotten with cool birthday gifts. (As did Terry from afar.)
One pleasure that I seldom get anymore is telling P something about my life that she doesn’t already know. This time I came up with two things: (a) I had one red bedroom wall when I was a teenager. (b) My dream was to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a small private liberal arts school where you got to do independent study, study abroad, etc. It was so out of the question financially that I didn’t even apply.
OK, I have to tell you this. A few weeks ago I found a guy blogging online who is not only from Menominee and went to MHS but went to Antioch! The synchronicity was just too much to ignore, so I wrote him an excited e-mail, thinking he was, you know, just some guy named David. He knew the Mars family who lived in the cove (on the bay) at the end of our street when I was a kid, so I told him about that and gave him a brief synopsis of my life and times. I also sent him a friend request on Facebook. The next day I realized what I had done. I hadn’t taken his last name into consideration: This was no regular guy, this was someone from Menominee’s upper crust; yes, we have one of those. (Even the smallest pie can have a crust.) I was amused, and bemused, to think that I expected him to giddily “friend” me back and read my blog too so we could compare notes. Well, I might have lived close to the rich people in the cove, and I might have walked the same hallways and had some of the same teachers he had, and I might have had a classmate with his surname, but that would be the extent of our “connection.” When he didn’t write back immediately, I thought, “I knew it!”
And then… he did write back. I was pleased, but also embarrassed that I had succumbed to my prejudices. He was very nice; told me the highlights of his life, where he had lived in Menominee, news of his younger sister whom I knew, etc. He then said he had read several of my ‘zines… and subscribed!! And here I was ready to wage class warfare—or was already waging it in my head, as I have done my whole life.
I had another—more bizarre—“reach out and touch someone” experience. I was at the Motor Co. waiting for my Jeep to get an oil change, and another woman who was also waiting sat with me and we started talking. I’ll call her “D.” I liked her immediately. Amazingly, we spent the next hour and a half (Jeepie also needed a new air filter, so it took longer than usual) telling each other all the major beats of our lives. When we discovered that we both know someone who works at Waupaca Foundry, we figured out from the family name that D used to work with my niece’s mother-in-law and that my niece’s younger son attended her grandson’s recent birthday party at her house. So it was a “small world” moment. It might not seem that surprising, since we do both live in the [Green] “Bay Area.” But there are still thousands of other people here, and even my sister Barb, a long-time teacher in Menominee, rarely runs into people she knows.
So anyway, one of the things D told me was that she had had a gambling addiction, which she overcame 2 years ago. She quit with the help of “the good Lord” and is very happy these days. When my car was ready, we exchanged names and phone numbers and agreed to get together for coffee sometime.
When I got home, still feeling the glow from our encounter, I decided to see if she was on Facebook. Her page came right up, and I was shocked. Her entire page consists of online gambling sites—games she has played, points she has won… and she had played very recently. It seemed to me that you can’t be “over” your gambling addiction and still gamble, even if it’s not for money. Also, I was troubled that she had lied to her husband a lot when she was gambling, and that she considers herself a “good liar.” Hmmm, I thought. Maybe I should rethink this potential friendship. I have a tendency to either freeze people out from the get-go or fall right into an enmeshed relationship with them. I’ve had many great experiences doing that but also some unwanted dramas. I wrote her a message on Facebook, telling her of my unease, but I wasn’t sure if she went there often, or at all, because the gambling sites post automatically. By the way, she’s not rich, far from it. I find that, despite my glorified “cow college” education (ha!), I’m really most comfortable with working class people. When I left Menominee at age 17, I wanted nothing more than to become a bigger, better person and hang out with bigger, better people. Now that I have reconnected with my “roots” [rhymes with “foots”] I’ve realized that I have a bond with these people that doesn’t always exist with those who grew up with lawyers or doctors as parents. (And yet, some of my best friends….)
But here’s where it gets weird. I e-mailed Barb about our encounter, and the next day she wrote me the following: She had been in line to check out at her local mini-mart, and she was carrying one of the chicken feed bags (with handles) that her daughter’s mother-in-law makes from, well, chicken feed bags. The cashier and the woman in line behind her were exclaiming over it and asking how they could buy some for Christmas gifts. Barb and the other customer walked out to their cars so Barb could give her the information. I think you see where this is going. When Barb told her who made the bags, D said, “I used to work with her! And you know, I was just talking to someone about her, who was that?” and Barb, who knew the whole story, said, “That was Mary, my sister.” “Oh yes! Oh my!,” D exclaimed. (They had a lot of ‘sclaiming to do.) Now I ask you, isn’t that weird?… To meet my sister the day after she meets me, and the same information gets passed back and forth because Barb’s connections are even more direct than mine? Barb even asked her if she got my Facebook message, and D said yes, she had, and she was still thinking about how to respond. She said she only plays online for free, but she could see why I would be concerned. Then she wondered about my “status.” “She’s never been married?” “No.” “But she had a partner?” “Yes.” “Why didn’t they get married?” “It was the ‘60s, people didn’t believe in marriage back then.” I strongly doubt that she’s a homophobe, but that may be the next chapter in our new friendship, if that’s what it’s going to be.
So back to P’s visit. We talked a lot and laughed a lot, as is our wont, and it was very relaxing and comfortable. Then, toward the end of the week, I began to feel the deep inner rumblings of an old, old feeling, one I thought I had escaped forever. To tell you about it, I first have to get in the wayback machine and give you some waybackground, some of which may be familiar to you, because I can’t seem to stop writing about it.
The least reassuring words I’ve ever heard are FDR’s “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” As if fearing “fear” is small potatoes, practically impossible, a simple matter of semantics. Believe me, I’ve had a lot to fear in my life, both from external sources—attackers (both boy and man)—and from “God”—dead brother, invalid father, intrusive mother—but the worst of my fears have been those that I’ve created out of my own brain and body.
I’m not sure when it started, but by the age of 13 I was afraid of my own thoughts, afraid of confiding in a parent or teacher, afraid that they would send me away. That’s how little trust I had in adults. Having been driven to school on the first day of eighth grade by my molester, I felt like I was going to throw up, and that’s when I realized I was trapped. One of the tragedies of adolescence is that you may have a small piece of information about a large problem but not the piece that would solve it. You don’t know what you don’t know, as one D. Rumsfeld so disingenuously remarked. Now that I am much older and wiser, I suspect I was right to hide what was happening: I don’t think anyone would have understood. I read I Never Promised You a Rose Garden with the stark and terrifying realization (for fear creates its own reality) that it was my fate to end up a patient in the Newberry State Hospital–Michigan State Asylum for the Insane. (Just think about that name.) One of my cousins did end up there, but not until he was an adult; so I was not so far off in my fearful imaginings, assuming a genetic link: His father, my mother’s brother, was clinically depressed and/or bipolar his entire life. One of my favorite movies is Ordinary People, partly for Mary Tyler Moore’s performance, and partly for the therapy sessions that illustrate my point exactly: The boy whose brother died had only a partial understanding of the event. (If Judd Hirsch had been available to me as a counselor, instead of Mr. D., who was widely rumored to be a letch, I might have gone.)
My mother rarely took any complaint of sickness or injury seriously. If you thought you had cancer because your breasts were sore and John Foster Dulles had just died of cancer, better not bring that to her—she had much bigger fish to worry about. If you told her (which you didn’t) that your cousin was molesting you, or that you were afraid of throwing up in school, or that you had fallen on a bar on the backyard swing set and felt like you had seriously injured your vagina (you had shooting pains there for months), she would have had no sympathy. She often opined that it was hell to get old, but she had forgotten the hell of being young, as I think most adults do.
Once I believed that I could not control the fears engendered by my own brain and body, life became a landmine of horrible possibilities. Any situation where it would be difficult or embarrassing to get up and leave—a classroom or assembly, getting stuck in the middle of a row in a theatre—became an occasion for nausea and terror, followed by more nausea, more terror, and on and on. The very definition of a downward spiral. The meta explanation for my fear was that I didn’t trust what would come out of me, in all possible senses.
Sidebar: One of the most terrifying experiences I endured in high school was when I won an essay contest and a $500 scholarship (when $500 was a lot of money) from the Michigan Bankers Association. To accept the award, I had to attend a banquet at the Ludington Hotel in Escanaba. And I had to give a little thank-you speech. Someone told me that the hotel served steak that was bloody rare, and the chef would get mad if you didn’t eat it. (Or did I make that up?) I had never eaten steak in my life. There was so much to worry about beforehand that my worries had to stand in line. My mother drove me there, of course (Escanaba is 50 miles north of Menominee). As you can imagine, my worst fear was not a bloody steak but the idea that I might be seated in the front or middle of the room where I couldn’t get out if I thought I was going to be sick. A close second was that I had to give that little speech, which, if you think it was hard to come up with valid reasons for “preferring a full-service commercial bank” when I had never even written a check, it was even more difficult to figure out what to say besides “Uh, thanks.”
So we get there and we’re waiting outside the banquet room, and there’s a second-place winner from somewhere else in the U.P., a girl my age, and a chatty one at that. She and my mother carried on a sprightly conversation while I sat there near-paralyzed with fright. My mother didn’t recognize this demeanor for what it was, because I had been shut down (to her) for several years by then. We were finally escorted to our table, which I was relieved to see was near the exit, so that was a big help. I don’t remember the food, but I don’t think it was steak. After the MBA held their whatever-it-was, business meeting(?), I was introduced as the scholarship winner and got up and—considering I was deathly afraid of speaking in front of more than 2 people at a time—pulled a thank-you-I-appreciate-your-generosity-and-interest-in-education out of my ass, and then it was over. All the way home, though I was practically pissing myself with giddy relief, Mom never did know what I had gone through.
The fear=nausea problem, which was a little easier to deal with in college (no compulsory attendance or assigned seating), expanded into new territory when I began my first serious relationship, with P. Although I was thrilled to finally discover that someone could love me, I began to fear that I wouldn’t love her enough, or, more precisely, that my fear of not loving her would make me not love her and I would thus lose my only love, if you can follow that (psycho)logic.
I was very naïve about relationships anyway. The problem with being 25 is that you have no idea how young you really are, how inexperienced. Since I felt like an adult at age 15, I already felt quite old in my mid-twenties. As time went on, fear continued to rule my world and my relationship. I tried to explain it to P, but she was young, too (23 when we met) and I’m sure it wasn’t easy to see it as my problem that had little or nothing to do with her.
Although my issue was far from anything she herself had experienced, she’s the one who found me a self-help book that addressed and allayed my fears. It was Hope and Help for Your Nerves, and its sequel, Peace from Nervous Suffering, by Claire Weekes, an Australian doctor. It was like a gift from heaven, because I immediately knew that she was describing what I had—official name, agoraphobia—and exactly what I needed to do in order to get over (through) (past) it. I was ecstatic to discover that I had a common, easily remedied condition in which fear feeds on fear so that you literally fear “fear itself.” My relief was great, though it manifested at first as a band of pressure around my head. P was understandably not comforted when I told her that, but I knew it was a sign of something letting go. It took me quite a long time to learn to “go toward the fear” rather than cringe from it and become caught up in the vicious cycle I had become so familiar with. These books were so important to me that I felt like spending the rest of my life traveling the world telling people about this solution, because no one else seemed to understand it.
Sidebar #2: Years later I had the same impulse after I read the books that cured my severe lower back pain, Dr. John Sarno’s Mind Over Back Pain and Healing Back Pain. Sarno’s approach is basically identical to Weekes’, though the symptoms are different. But the cure is the same: Don’t react to it; face the fear; go through it. It’s almost impossible to convince someone with back pain that “stress” or “fear” could cause and sustain it, especially when there seems to have been a distinct physical cause for the pain. For me, it was lifting a stack of heavy books at the UCSF Medical Library. The fact that my mother was dying at the time didn’t seem to be related, and I went through a year and a half of mainstream and alternative treatments until I found the Sarno books and saved myself a lifetime of fear of sitting, walking, running (when I could still run), bending, you name it. (When I was first reading the books, I dreamed about a book called Mind Over Brain Pain. This book existed only in my dream, but it seemed apropos.) When my back “goes out” now, I don’t panic; I know it’s temporary. I used to drive down to Ojai to visit my Krishnamurti friends, and one time when I was still using a pillow for back support and taking 1,800 mg of Motrin every day, I found Sarno’s second book in a local bookstore. After reading it, I removed the pillow from my car seat, left without taking Motrin, and drove the 8 hours home to San Francisco without even a twinge of pain.
The power of the mind-body connection: It can fuck you up royally, but it can also bring you back to your senses and to a semblance of a normal life. I now see my fear response as a chronic condition that I have to be mindful of, probably forever. Even with the anxiety-lowering drugs I take, I’m still very sensitive to fear manifesting as a physical symptom. In the past few years, I’ve had pain in just about every part of my body, but I’m getting better at recognizing it for what it is and refusing to take it seriously.
So… I keep interrupting my story. Remember P? Her birthday visit, which we were both enjoying? Our relationship is as solid as it can possibly be, but again, fear does not answer to reason. When we were together-together, my birthday was also our anniversary. It’s been 41 years since we met at a small liberal arts college in Maryland. In those days I spent many an October 30 crying over my birthday dinner in a restaurant because of how fearful I was about our relationship and my seemingly hopeless mental problem. I knew I was pushing her away with my weird reactions, but I couldn’t help it.
This year, my birthday was the day before she was to return home, and as it approached, I became more and more aware of forces from the past gathering in me like a threatening storm. It was a feeling of unease that I couldn’t identify. My first impulse was to run from it, try to stuff it down, distract myself, just fake it till I dropped her off at the airport. But of course that’s exactly what you can’t do. And by this time in our relationship, there was no way I could pretend not to be having feelings.
P had already given me my birthday presents: a GPS for my car and several smaller gifts, such as four skull shot glasses. (Other people acquire a reputation for liking frogs, cats, or other animals; I am the Skull/Skeleton Person.) These gifts already exceeded my expectations. But on the morning of my birthday, I got an e-mail from Amazon informing me of a very generous gift card that she and her partner C had bought me. In that moment, something broke down, some defense I didn’t even know I had been mounting. My self-absorption was cut short when I “came to” and “remembered” that we love each other very much, that our relationship is no longer about the old dramas. Over the dining room table, eating breakfast later that morning, I said simply, “On a serious note…,” and proceeded to tell her of my epiphany… not in as great a detail as I have done here, but the basics. All residual or potential tension drained from the air between us and did not return. If you think of the unconscious as the below-water bulk of the iceberg that is your mind (and I do), this could be the way out of the dilemma of reacting to forces you don’t even know are in play. The vast iceberg of the self is accessible if you’re willing to face it, come what may. It feels like this has been my true life’s work: being an autodidact of my own psyche.
“Knowing that you are the person you were put on this earth to be—that’s much more important than just being happy.”—Bob Dylan
I’m not sure about this “person you were put on this earth to be” rhetoric. It implies that you were put here, first of all, and that you have a grand purpose. Maybe some people are, and do. I feel like I have lived the life I was “meant” to—if you take the word “meant” with several grains of salt. But I’m also aware that my little life, my little personality and collection of thoughts, beliefs, and memories, means nothing in the end. I have had a strong, mostly positive, effect on a few people, but in 100 years, as Anne Lamott says, “all new people,” none of whom will have heard of me. And that’s fine. I’m not looking to continue on and on, in the same or different form, incarnating my ass off, earning whatever it is you’re supposed to earn as you climb, lifetime after lifetime, up the hierarchy of beings, from bacteria to bodhisattva. I think we’re all temporary structures made of cells, organs, and a thought process that comprises memory, thought, fear, and a tendency to want to know “the future.” None of it is real, or if it is, it’s fleeting: We see the proof of that simple fact every day. As a culture, or a race, or a species, we protect and perfect our deniability, building and constantly adding to our fantastical theories of “life after death,” as if we’ve already solved the many-faceted dilemma of life before death. We’re trying to throw the ball back before we have it firmly grasped in our glove—to use a sports metaphor that is not my wont but quite timely, go Giants. In other words, instead of staying in the Now, which I believe is where Eternity resides, we’re trying to rush past the present to ensure our seat at the game, the table, the musical chair.
I may be completely wrong about all of this, but I accept the limitations of the human brain, especially mine. I’m just doing this for fun, you know. It’s not deadly serious to me. Let the boys with their mighty brains wax on before they wane, flow until they ebb. I don’t have a horse in this race, to go with the sports metaphor again. Life is bigger than me. It will (as if it hasn’t already) completely undo me—taste me and spit me out—because I don’t really exist in any meaningful way. I said something similar to a scientist friend whom I love to shock with my nonscientific hypotheses, and he exclaimed, “You mean you don’t have a life?” “That’s right!” I said. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.
And the words “mean”… “meaning”: What’s the meaning of life? That question was my mantra 24 hours a day when I was young. What does this poem mean, what does this painting mean? The search for meaning is the attempt to add an extra layer to what is already complete. Life is what it is. A poem means nothing other than itself. (See poem at the end of this screed.) A painting is what it is. What does bread mean when you’re hungry? We can make a meal of ideas, attitudes, beliefs, proofs, suppositions, but none of it means anything beyond the thing itself, life itself. Without this superfluous (or meaningless, if you want to be solipsistic about it) search for “meaning,” we are free. No need to translate, to put it into other words—no need, either, to make metaphors or argue points of philosophy or the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, except for fun.
So I can have my fears and my comforts, I can understand everything or nothing, I can make mistakes, make a fool of myself, say and do the wrong thing in any given situation. I just don’t have to defend, apologize, or collapse in a heap of tears, for fear of who does or doesn’t love me, or what I’ll be remembered or forgotten for. This is good news, sisters and brothers!
I asked Barbara (painting teacher) recently why she thinks I tend to cry voluminously on the last day of the intensive. I don’t see other people doing that. She thought about it and said, “It’s tenderness; you’ve been tenderized.” I don’t cry because I’m upset, or even that I don’t want to leave or that I’ll miss my friends, although of course I will. I’ve just been broken down—not in a bad way, but like I just got pounded from within like a piece of meat until I could no longer maintain my resistance. It’s embarrassing, but it’s also freeing. Now here’s that poem:
|“Ars Poetica” by Archibald MacLeish (1926)
A poem should be palpable and mute
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
A poem should be wordless
A poem should be motionless in time
Leaving, as the moon releases
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
A poem should be motionless in time
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
A poem should not mean
Next: Some things that are not dreamt of in our philosophy, Horatio. (I told you I was doing this for fun.)
“CatGod” by Delme Rosser
“The Final Blow” by Eric Joyner
Plague doctor (source unknown)
“Bird’s mother” by AnnMei