Posts Tagged ‘Zoloft’

mary’zine #58: October 2012

October 12, 2012


This photo was taken on October 11, 2012, a few hours north of Menominee. Winter! Bring it on!


Also, on 10-11-12, a child was born. She is the beautiful daughter of my dear godchild Kelly and her lovely husband Duncan. She has not yet been named. I’m rooting for Paloma Zapata, but I doubt it will make the cut.


long day’s journey into Neenah

                         Neenah, Wisconsin      


Once a year I have to drive down into the belly of the once-great state of Wisconsin (before Scott Walker et al.) to have a 15-minute session with my psychiatrist so he can determine if I’m still (in)sane enough to be taking two psychoactive drugs (sertraline and lorazepam). Mostly I tell him I’m doing great, he asks how my work is going (“It’s going going gone, doc”), and we make semi-small talk for the remaining minutes.

Last year I had borrowed Barb’s GPS to help me find his new office, but this year all I had was a primitive mapquest map showing an entirely different route that involved going farther down the highway, exiting, skirting 3 roundabouts, and then turning north again for what looked like several miles. I hadn’t thought to bring a real map with me, no, that would have been too easy.

I was deadly sleepy the whole way down there, 92 miles. I wanted to sleep so bad, it was all I could do not to give in to it. I sang along with a classic rock station, to the sort of music I haven’t listened to in decades: “Smoke on the Water,” “Rebel Yell,” “Hot Patootie/Bless My Soul,” “Riders on the Storm.” Actually, I still like a couple of those. I sang, I shouted, I made up nonsense lyrics—like to the tune of “The Rubberband Man” (The Spinners, 1976):

Hey, y’all prepare yourself
For lorazepam… man
You never heard a sound
Like lorazepam… man
You’re bound to lose control
When lorazepam man starts to jam

Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo
Doo doo doo doo doo doo….

I finally got off at exit 129, made it through 3 or 4 roundabouts (stopped counting at 2), and clearly missed the one where I was supposed to veer north again. So I’m driving, driving, and instead of turning around and searching for roundabout #3 and the road I was supposed to turn on, something with Breeze in the name, I decided just to randomly drive north for a while, then randomly drive west and, you know, maybe I would just run into the place. So I took a tour of Neenah, then found myself in Menasha, which was definitely not part of the plan. I had been looking for a cluster of president street names because I was pretty sure I needed to find Harrison St. (questmap had blown off console onto passenger side floor), but I only saw trees, Oak, Elm, then oh look, there’s Washington, and Lincoln, and… Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was never president, was he? I tried to put myself in the eager, intuitive state of a tourist who is lost but sees it as an opportunity to open up to the thrill of adventure. But I was not in Gay Paree…. Neenah was rapidly receding from me, or I from it, and I could end up in Appleton—or worse, Lake Nebagamon (hmm, sounds familiar)—if I didn’t look out. (Lake Nebagamon is a real place.)

Finally, I stopped a friendly mailman on the street, and he tried his darnedest to tell me how to get to Harrison. I was to “go up here and turn right”—then that street would turn into Commercial and I would see signs for 41 or maybe 117 and I should turn right again, then something about a viaduct (?) or an aqueduct (?)—do they still have those?—and then something-something Winneconne… and then he got confused and started over. “Go up here….” When he got to the Winneconne part, he forgot the name, and I, idiot savant, was actually able to come up with it, and he chuckled at the irony. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to follow his directions, but I thanked him anyway and started off. Amazingly, I did get to Harrison St. But then I wasn’t sure what came after that, and the time of my appointment was drawing near (fortunately, I got to town ‘round about 45 minutes early). By then I seemed to be in some godforsaken part of Neenah with a train yard and smokestacks. So I pulled off on a side street and called Dr. V’s office. Thank God for cell phones! The person who answered asked me where I was, and I said “Harrison and Jackson.” She said “Jackson?!” in a tone of voice that told me she had no idea where that was, but she quickly rallied and told me to go south on Harrison, and I would see “JJ’s” and then “Otto’s” and then some “trees and water” and then something-something, turn left or right, I was already at my limit of what I could remember. So then I start driving south on Harrison, and it occurs to me that if she wasn’t sure where Jackson St. was, maybe I was already south of her and I should be going north! There were lots more trains, a country road, what looked like a cement factory, not that I know what a cement factory looks like, and suddenly I see JJ’s! Then Otto’s! I was ecstatic. Then there were “trees and water”! Then I saw the sign for Jewelers Park Drive, drove right in like I knew where I was going all along, and arrived at #40, sweaty but triumphant, right on time for my appointment.

The two women in the office and I bantered a bit about my roundabout way of getting there, and they asked me where I was coming from. I said Menominee, Michigan, and one of them said, “We were just talking about Menominee, Michigan, at lunch.” Really? Yes, someone had recommended a Thai restaurant on 10th Avenue that was to die for. (I thought, “I bet.”) Then we had to do the insurance thing. I always just hand over what cards I have and expect people behind the counter to know what to do with them. But one of the women pointed out that there’s a phone number for “Behavioral Services” on the back of my Anthem card, but not the “Behavioral Health” that I apparently used to have. “Do you not have ‘Behavioral Health’ anymore?” she asked. “I don’t know, I guess not… whatever it says on the card.” She kept pointing at the name on the file sheet and asking the same question. I didn’t know how to say I don’t know any more clearly, I’ve had the same insurance for 16 years. But she says it again as she points to the name in a sort of clandestine way, as if the walls had ears or I was supposed to say the magic word and the duck would come down and I would win $50. So again I said “I … don’t … know.  I … guess … not” and threw in a “if … you … say … so” for good measure. She gave up on me and said they would figure something out. “Oh good,” I thought, “so I don’t have to go to insurance school and find out the difference between two names with “Behavioral” in them and then get back to you with my findings?”

(Now this is strange: Several days later, I happened to look at my insurance card again and it says right on there, “Behavioral Health Services.” Am I losing my ever-lovin’ mind?)

At that point Dr. V. came out to get me, which… saved by the psychiatrist. In his office, I asked about the roundabouts. Someone had told me they had removed one of them. No, he said, they’re making more and more, and the reason is that they apparently cut down on fatal accidents. As if no one minds if they get into a nonfatal but pain-in-the-ass accident.

I hadn’t decided whether I would bring up the Problem-in-law (in a very special episode of “CSI: U.P.”), but it popped right up when I told him that the lorazepam worked really well for restless leg syndrome but I was needing to take a lot more of it lately. Of course he asked if I’ve been under unusual stress, and I said YES, then told him the story of my fall-by-brother-in-law as succinctly as possible. I only had 15 minutes to set the stage, identify the relationships, and tell what happened and the range and intensity of the feelings I’d been having about it ever since. He said that I’m “doing all the right things,” that I have a form of PTSD, that it’s OK to take the lorazepam as needed. PTSD sounds rather dramatic for what I went through, but it doesn’t have to entail active traumas; it’s about reliving the disturbing feelings over and over… watching a dog get hit by a car, running over a cat myself after failing to rescue a friend’s dog from the pound because they had already killed it. And it doesn’t have to fit anyone else’s definition of trauma. Being betrayed is slower-acting, but it affects all the organs and nerve endings, makes us question our perceptions and shake our trust. I think this is reflected in the dream I had shortly after the incident, when I was standing in the entryway of my childhood home and the basement (foundation) was completely gone and I questioned the stability of the spot where I stood. When I let my mind wander and don’t try to be completely rational, I think what happened has even wider application than this relationship, which I don’t miss at all. My brother who died of leukemia when he was 2 years old had the same name as my Other-in-law, and during my best times with MP I thought of him as a brother without the hyphenated suffix, the closest I would ever get to having a grown male sibling. R.I.P. Michael William McKenney.

I’ve since realized that, 2-3 months later, I have fewer thoughts about the incident itself but often have a generalized feeling of dread and nervousness, and I can’t pin down what I’m afraid of. I think it was a bigger deal than I thought at first (and at first I thought it was a very big deal). So I have all these emotions, but at least my intellect is glad that it was a serious enough offense that I don’t have to justify staying away from the No-in-law forever. Can an intellect be glad?

After Dr. V and the office people explained in great detail how to get back on the highway, I achieved the task easily. Somewhat encouraged by the session and no longer sleepy, I drove to Green Bay, had lunch at El Sarape, then drove the rest of the way home. I love that feeling of being physically tired and all I have to do is sink into my big chair with my kitties, my Big Book of 500 New York Times crossword puzzles, and a bag of peanut M&Ms, which I’ve been craving lately though I hadn’t thought they were “worth the calories” for many years. Later, I looked up my psychiatrist on Facebook, found him, and messaged him that it was probably inappropriate to “friend” him but I wanted to thank him for his help. So I’m done being shrunk/evaluated/prescribed for another year. Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible for me, so I’m grateful to have a couple of good ones, and a nice guy with a fancy degree to keep an eye on me even though he’s so damn far away.

Oh, also. When I got home I took off my shirt to put on a fresh one, and there was a huge black BUG smashed on the back of it. I threw the disgusting thing down the toilet right away and didn’t get a really close look, but I thought it looked something like a combination wasp, fly, and June bug, super-sized. It freaked me out. I wondered when and where it had got on me, and why no one had noticed it and told me about it. I was reminded of Jung’s patient who was telling him about dreaming of a golden scarab when a scarab beetle rapped on the windowpane, and I thought, Is this gross giant bug a symbol of my inner self? I couldn’t get a nice ladybug? Oh well, I thought, as I settled in with my peanut M&Ms and other comforts and forgot all about the bug, and my day, and had many pleasant dreams.


the local nooz

(source: my niece)

Police called to high school again. My niece, L, came to clean my house the other morning, and she was upset. Two years ago, her then 15-year-old son had been caught up in a hostage crisis at his school. One of his best friends had brought in several guns and had kept the class from leaving for several hours. Eventually, the police burst in and the friend shot himself to death. This day was different, but still scary. There was an unknown “situation” in a house right across from the school, and 7 police cars were there, several of the officers outside with guns drawn. L couldn’t reach her son on his cell phone, and she couldn’t help thinking the worst. I went online and found a small news item about it on the website of a Green Bay TV station. The school had gone into lockdown, and finally all the students (just under 1,000) were bused to a college field house a couple miles down the road. Within an hour or so, the police had taken someone into custody, and all was well that ended well. L’s son sent her a text saying that they hadn’t been allowed to bring their cell phones with them to the field house and that he thought the whole thing was “no big deal.”

We are rising up! L also told me that her 21-year-old nephew had gone to Walmart the night before to buy a camouflage cap and gloves. The woman at the checkout counter asked him if he was buying them for hunting or just to keep warm. He said for hunting. Then she went into a diatribe about hunters and how could he kill those poor animals, did he need to prove he was a big strong man? She continued in this vein for awhile. This was a Walmart employee speaking to a customer. And of course Walmart sells hunting equipment. The boy was so taken aback (and probably not the most refined person in the world; I don’t know him) that he told her to “shut the fuck up.” Then the woman behind him in line lit into him about using “that kind of language” and joined in the employee’s attack on him for killing animals. She actually said this: “Why don’t you buy your meat at the store like everybody else?” (Does she think they grow it in the back room?) She said she was a member of PETA, that there was a PETA chapter here in town, and they were going to “rise up” and stop the hunters. L is married to a gentle man who comes from a long line of farmers and hunters. They raise chickens and turkeys, and in hunting season he takes the two boys (11 and 17) out with him; both boys have guns, know how to use them and how to care for them. They eat everything they kill. I’m not thrilled at the thought of Bambi or Bambi’s family members getting shot, but I have long since made peace with my hypocrisy. My meat comes from the store in a plastic-wrapped package, and I don’t want to think about what it is or where it came from. My niece actually “appreciates” this (that I own up to my hypocrisy). I have a visceral dislike of PETA, dating from their attempts to storm the labs at UCSF and release the laboratory animals. I think their “concern” for animals (with no thought of consequences, apparently) is a bit misplaced. Years ago I read a quote by a young man who thought that the world would be better off without his taking up oxygen and other scarce resources. This is extreme in a way that my cohorts in the ‘60s—at least those who didn’t blow themselves up accidentally—could never have matched.

Fowl play. And now for the lighter side of the news. L was bringing bread out to the chickens, whom she calls her “girls,” and one of the girls grabbed a loaf of French bread right out of her hand and took off with it. The girls are not an egalitarian society, it’s very much every hen for herself. The chicken was holding the loaf sideways in her mouth (the way a flamenco dancer holds a rose between her teeth), but one side was farther out than the other, so her head and body were tilted to that side trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain. Hence, she was slower moving than the other chickens, so they quickly caught up with her and started pecking at the bread from both ends. But this gal was out for bear and not inclined to share. In a last, desperate burst of speed, she outran the other hens, turned the corner around the barn, and was never seen again. She did leave a trail of bread crumbs, but that’s another story. The moral? Don’t count your chickens before they snatch.

(This story is true up to the part where the bread-wielding chicken got away.)


I paint, I am; do I dare say “therefore”?

Terry and I were talking about painting (as we are wont to do), and marveling at what our lives would have been like if we had never found it. Neither of us could imagine it. This intuitive, non-result-oriented way of painting used to be called “the painting experience,” but it occurred to me that it goes way beyond the experience and touches into our actual existence. It cannot be done half-heartedly, or from a false premise. It is common to try to avoid facing ourselves, but painting with even a partially opened heart takes us to all the necessary places. So in that way, painting is existential.

Another thing: There has been a painting diaspora, if that’s not too charged a term: the distribution of one’s paintings to friends and maybe even gallery owners. I’ve given away several and did not keep accurate records. But they’re out there somewhere: with Diane, Barb, Diane, Susan, Peggy, Terry, Alice, Kathy, Polly, and probably others I can’t remember. It’s sort of like putting a message in a bottle, to be retrieved perhaps at someone’s garage sale someday, when we all have passed on. The price will be minimal, but in this way our work will carry on in the world without us… very much the way it carries on in our own homes and in our hearts. It’s not about “the painting,” as we always say, but I’ve seen the reactions of some… how shall I say… regular people who encounter our “footprints” as it were, and I think there can be some value in that, maybe even inspiration. When I offered Barb her choice of paintings several years ago, she took all the photos I had lent her and enlarged them on a machine at Walmart. A woman in line behind her saw them and exclaimed at how wonderful they were. I’m not braggin’, just sayin’. I think everyone is capable of responding to honest expression, to true passion and creativity, and there seems to be little of that in the art world, and less in the department store art whose sole function is not to clash with one’s furniture.

Speaking of value and inspiration, or their opposite, somehow the now-famous painting of Jesus that was “repaired” by the woman in Italy is grotesque to me… not because of the loss of one more religious painting in the world, but the image itself, I don’t know what it is about it, but it’s an abomination. I’m not going to reproduce it here, you can look it up.


new doctor

Did I tell you that my wonderful doctor, Dr. T, up and left his practice? No one, not even his staff, seems to know the why and the wherefore. Soon after that happened, my wonderful dentist, Dr. A, was out for 6 weeks with some sort of shoulder injury. Could it be? Did both docs take off together like Thelma and Louise, and only one returned? No, probably not. But I thought, Are they all going to abandon me?? I’ve had 2 dentists (whom I’d been seeing for years) and at least 2 doctors retire on me while I was under their care—one went crazy, one had debilitating back pain, one was old, and one wanted to give up doctoring to grow roses and visit France. (She’s the one who went oui, oui, oui all the way home.)

So Barb found another doctor, a woman who’s bright and peppy. Before we met her, I saw her picture, she’s a little on the heavy side, and I insensitively asked Barb if she chose her because she wouldn’t come down so hard on her about her weight. But I was thinking about myself, really, because I’m definitely on a one-way train to don’t-bother-saving-those-old-jeans-ville. I signed up with Dr. P too and liked her. But it seems doctoring has changed in recent years. Dr. T. told me I didn’t have to listen to any advice he gave me, and Dr. P asked me if I “wanted” a hearing test and a pap smear. (I think there are few worse combinations of words than “pap” and “smear.”) No thanks, I shrugged, and I waltzed out of my physical without even taking my clothes off. Well, no, that’s not true. Dr. P walked me through a “Welcome to Medicare!” questionnaire and told me that I could get a one-time free (!) EKG, so one of the nurses hooked me up and cardiographed me on the spot. I went in the following week for blood work. Later I’ll have to get a mammygram and an ultrasound of my abdominal aorta because I have very high levels of C-reactive protein. I used to edit papers about C-reactive protein and never dreamed it would mean anything to me personally.


hard times

From  9-20-12

[Mitt Romney] was born to a wealthy and powerful family. While his father was governor of Michigan, the son attended an elite boarding school. His father also paid for his undergraduate education and his graduate study at Harvard Business School. His father then bought the younger Romneys a beautiful house in Massachusetts, lending them $42,000 in the 1970s. “We stayed there seven years and sold it for $90,000, so we not only stayed for free, we made money,” Ann Romney noted in 1994.

The Romneys have described their early years as ones of real hardship, hardship they overcame through hard work—and income from stocks.

“They were not easy years. … [W]e moved into a $62-a-month basement apartment with a cement floor and lived there two years as students with no income…. Neither one of us had a job, because Mitt had enough of an investment from stock that we could sell off a little at a time,” Ann Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994. “We had no income except the stock we were chipping away at. We were living on the edge….”
I love that humble-braggy admission: “no income except the stock we were chipping away at,” as if they were valiantly subsisting on a block of government cheese.

Most of us can look back and remember the hard times, the lean years. My family of 5 lived on $66/month in the 1950s. If it hadn’t been for the veterans disability benefits and a fake Santa who came by once a year with a sack full of toys and canned food, I don’t know what we would have done. I paid for my entire education through work-study jobs, loans, and scholarships. The loans (which I promptly paid off) came from the government, but the scholarships came from MSU and the Michigan Bankers Association (I won an essay contest). I think I can safely say that I earned every penny.

A few years ago, there was an article in the New York Times (2-17-08) about the former Plaza Hotel in New York City, which was being transformed into condominiums. Few of the buyers had moved in yet, and a woman who bought two apartments in the building—including a one-bedroom for $5.8 million and a two-bedroom (price not stated) “for themselves, their children and the grandchildren”—was bemoaning the fact that it’s hard to make new friends when there are so few people about.

Ms. Ruland said meeting people is hard simply because it’s hard to tell the residents from the help. One neighbor cast his eyes away from her one day when she walked through the lobby with a mop and bucket. [my emphasis] She said she felt like telling him her family owns two apartments in the Plaza.

Ms. Ruland and her mother hope their new neighbors at the Plaza will share their interests.

… And presumably their stock tips.

I sure hope that poor, I mean rich, woman was able to track down the neighbor who saw her in such a compromising position so she could regain her proper status in his eyes. Maybe she should henceforth transport her cleaning supplies through the common (haha) areas while wearing a ball gown and red ruby slippers.

Where I come from, working with a mop and bucket is nothing to be ashamed of. Though my family were not cleaners, they worked in a hospital cafeteria, a foundry, a furniture factory, the service department at Montgomery Ward, and similar low-paying jobs. Work was hard. When I was 16, my mother made me apply for a job as the society page writer at the Menominee Herald-Leader, for which I could not have been less suited. I didn’t get the job, to my great relief. She also drove me around to apply at all the factories in town, including Prescott’s foundry where my father had worked before he got sick. I was aiming a tad higher and hoped to get a summer job at Spies [pronounced Speez] Library, but they hired another girl from my class who was surely less qualified than me but not likely to leave town for a glamorous dorm room downstate. So my fate, if I hadn’t gotten the financial aid to cover my years at MSU, could have been far worse. Is there a parallel “me” out there who is getting all dolled up in her poodle skirt and fuzzy pink sweater and making the rounds of all the high society doin’s? Or another who is tending a hot furnace or inspecting machine parts on an assembly line, then stopping for a cold one at Dino’s Pine Knot after work and stumbling home half drunk to my put-upon wife and 3 kids… oh wait, I’m getting a little carried away here. I don’t think I would have survived the factory job, but you can see for yourself that I would have had a shot at hobnobbin’ with the upper Upper Peninsula classes by searching this site for my “society column.”

My mother was naïve about class. She joined the AAUW (American Association of University Women) because she loved to read (and she had, by then, graduated from college), and discovered that the women there were gossipy snobs. In a way, her naivety helped me, because I was raised to believe that I could do anything I wanted based on merit. I have since learned that there’s a lot of non-merit-based careering going around, but I stayed out of that pool by being proficient as an editor and working in academia and publishing. I did it my way, like Frank S. and Pookie M. And I’m proud of that.


(this is already dated material, but whatever)

I finally got to sit outside on my back porch…

…drink my coffee, and watch the birds. It was too hot all summer, and now it’s verging on too cold. But I got out my winter jacket and was able to enjoy the sunshine, the brisk breeze, and the comings and goings of birds, squirrels, and one brave chipmunk. I had bought safflower seeds for the first time, and darned if the cardinals didn’t figure it out and descend on my yard within a day. How did they know??

On the porch I sit tucked into the corner where no one can see me unless they come looking. I’m mainly looking at grass and trees, though I can see part of a neighbor’s garage across the way. I live in town, but the only sounds I hear are branches swishing, birdies chirping, and the tinkle of a large chime that hangs on my porch. I share the space with a wasp’s nest and its occupants. I keep thinking I should get some poison and spray them dead, but they don’t bother me so why go all commando on them.

There’s a common complaint, “Is this all there is?” But sitting here, I think instead, “How is it that there is even more than this?” If this were all there is, I could easily sit here for eternity. Just keep the birds coming and the coffee flowing. (Do they let you have caffeine in the afterlife?) Like the handmade sign on the way north from Green Bay that asks, “How will you spend eternity?” and the Japanese movie I told you about in the last ‘zine (After Life), it occurs to me that I could choose this moment—or all such moments condensed into one continually renewing one, like an endless seamless loop—for my eternal repeating experience. I’ve had more excitement in my life, more fun, more intensity, more feelings of love and connection, but there is something so completely fulfilling about the birds, the trees, the warmth, the coffee, the breeze…. I’m not rejecting the human element, I just feel most myself when I’m alone. And somehow it seems that all the more intense emotional depths I’ve experienced would inform that quiet reverie-cum-birdsong. So there wouldn’t be a lot of thought involved, just direct observation and pleasurable contemplation. Nothing would be required, no action, no memory, no words, no math or science, just simple existence through and through.


(Mary McKenney)


mary’zine #51: September 2011

September 17, 2011

ode to Michigan

Henes Park, Menominee (photo by P. DuPont)





by Bob Hicok

I remember Michigan fondly as the place I go

to be in Michigan. The right hand of America

waving from maps or the left

pressing into clay a mold to take home

from kindergarten to Mother. I lived in Michigan

forty-three years. The state bird

is a chained factory gate. The state flower

is Lake Superior, which sounds egotistical

though it is merely cold and deep as truth.

A Midwesterner can use the word “truth,”

can sincerely use the word “sincere.”

In truth the Midwest is not mid or west.

When I go back to Michigan I drive through Ohio.

There is off I-75 in Ohio a mosque, so life

goes corn corn corn mosque, I wave at Islam,

which we’re not getting along with

on account of the Towers as I pass.

Then Ohio goes corn corn corn

billboard, goodbye, Islam. You never forget

how to be from Michigan when you’re from Michigan.

It’s like riding a bike of ice and fly fishing.

The Upper Peninsula is a spare state

in case Michigan goes flat. I live now

in Virginia, which has no backup plan

but is named the same as my mother,

I live in my mother again, which is creepy

but so is what the skin under my chin is doing,

suddenly there’s a pouch like marsupials

are needed. The state joy is spring.

“Osiris, we beseech thee, rise and give us baseball”

is how we might sound were we Egyptian in April,

when February hasn’t ended. February

is thirteen months long in Michigan.

We are a people who by February

want to kill the sky for being so gray

and angry at us. “What did we do?”

is the state motto. There’s a day in May

when we’re all tumblers, gymnastics

is everywhere, and daffodils are asked

by young men to be their wives. When a man elopes

with a daffodil, you know where he’s from.

In this way I have given you a primer.

Let us all be from somewhere.

Let us tell each other everything we can.

(Reprinted with permission of the author)




Friday night light

I ended the #50 mary’zine by wondering if I was the “gorilla” in my family, the one everyone has to tiptoe around when s/he’s being moody or all judgmental and withdrawn. I am happy to report that the answer is “No”! (Or at least “Not that often!”) Turns out it was my brother-in-law MP all along. I know this because he’s come out of whatever funk he was in for several months, and he’s like a different person. Is it because he (a) retired from a job he hated? (b) is finally getting help from the VA? or (c) was released from the torment of a mandatory weekly visit from his sisters-in-law? Maybe (d) all of the above. For whatever reason, he’s been a joy to be around lately, and our Friday nights have a completely different feel. So far, there have been only 3 of these post-gorilla occasions, but I’m hopeful that it’s a permanent change.

Barb and I now wait for an invitation to join K&MP at their house, order takeout, and have television-cum-conversation in sometimes surreal combinations. MP still has control of the TV remote; some nights it stays off entirely while we chat and reminisce and make off-color references (me and MP) or converse like ladies (Barb and K), and K gets up repeatedly to fetch pop (“soda” to the rest a yooz) or bring a load of laundry down to or up from the basement. The rest of us sit on our asses until we have to use the bathroom. I more and more think that the content of the conversation is not the point, it’s the contact. So MP and I exchange “witticisms” while Barb and K and sometimes my nephew JP and his girlfriend have entirely other conversations that I only barely attend to. Or, JP and MP get talking about cars and trucks, while we “girls” try to make our voices heard on more domestic topics, the cats and so forth.

Sometimes, MP’s trigger finger gets itchy, and he randomly turns on or off the TV… just to see what’s on, I guess, and then to decide he’s bored. So all of a sudden, the news or a movie will come blaring on, to which we do or do not pay attention, depending. At one point we’re watching the news about a guy who spent 11 hours treading water while waiting to be rescued after his small plane went down in Lake Huron, and we see him in the water holding briefly to the tail of an airplane (which had to have been a reenactment—weird). He’s describing how he held on as long as he could, and then he says, “And then… she’s going down…,” and I pipe up, “Honey, this is neither the time nor the place,” and only K hears me, but she laughs harder than I’ve ever seen her laugh before, a kind of one-two punch as she registers the joke and then really gets it. MP and Barb have been talking about some problem with her car, and MP sees K laughing and wants to know why, and I’m like, you had to be there. Nothing worse than having to repeat a punch line. (And yet, that’s exactly what I’ve done here. Oh well.)

The next time we got together, I happened to have 2 Netflix DVDs, Source Code and The Adjustment Bureau, both sci-fi, not usually my cup of tea, but they were both a hit with the group.

One night, while K and Barb were picking up our burgers from Mickey-Lu’s, I asked my nephew if he was serious when he said he would have driven down to Chicago to get me when I was stranded at O’Hare Airport for 3 days last December. I was trying to think of a Plan B that would make me less terrified of flying to San Francisco the next time I go. He said he would do it (he used to be a long-haul trucker), but it would be nice if I chipped in for gas, and I assured him that I’d pay him whatever I would have paid for a night at the Hilton, and he was all for that. Then MP said he’d like to go along for the ride. The conversation got increasingly fantastical as one of them proposed that they could drive me to San Francisco, spend the 7 days of my painting intensive going up to Oregon to drop in on my friend P (whom they know), and then pick me up and drive me back home. MP figured out how much the gas would cost, while I silently considered the cost to my sanity of riding with those guys for several days. When K and Barb got back with our food, we told them what we had been talking about, and K grinned and said she could use a break. Barb thought she meant that she would come with us (whereas Barb would have to stay here to take care of all our cats), but I’m quite sure she was referring to a break from her dear husband.

So, recent Friday nights have been quite raucous, in a good way—though now and then the spice of contrarian politics rears its head. We’re watching a true-crime show when JP announces, “Criminals have more rights than I do!” I think he’s talking about rights in the courtroom, so I say that it’s not that “criminals” have rights, but “the accused” have rights, and any of us could be accused and would be glad for that. But he’s referring to the fact that the killer on the TV gets to keep filing appeals to have his sentence reduced. (It never was.) Then MP starts listing all the perks that prisoners get: “3 squares a day,” a bed, free education, free lawyering, etc. I point out that they can’t leave, and I suggest he go out and rob a bank and join them, if he thinks they have it so good. He gets frustrated and says I don’t understand. “I believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: If you steal, you get your hand cut off,” he says. I tell him he should go live in an Arab country then. For every point he makes, I’ve got a response—a glib one, true, but it’s something, and I’m kind of having fun with it. But finally K chimes in and threatens jokingly, “I’ll have to send you all to your rooms if you can’t get along.” She would let the 2 guys rant and rave all night, but if I express even the mildest objection to something they say, oh-oh, it’s time to call it off. This annoys me no end, but OK, that’s just the way she is, can’t stand any vocal disagreement (though I know she disagrees with plenty). She’d rather everyone keep their head down and keep their opinions to themselves. So our “argument” winds down with one last response to the TV show, in which the mother whose son was killed says she’ll never forgive the killer. (I wish I could make my family watch Dead Man Walking, one of the most profound movies ever made.) JP leans over to me and says quietly, “I have trouble forgiving,” and I say, “Everyone does.” With that, our “point/counterpoint” is over, and I don’t get the sense that either of the guys holds my liberal-wacko opinions against me. In fact, MP goes on to talk about his horrible upbringing, getting beaten by his dad, no money, no privacy or individual ownership in a family with 12 kids, etc. etc. I listen sympathetically to this story I’ve heard many times before, and I feel deep compassion for him. I ask him why he’s feeling better lately, and he says his migraines are mostly gone now that he’s away from that job. This makes me happy, and not only because our Friday nights are more pleasant. Now if only K could retire from her factory job.

JP takes me outside to show me the trailer MP bought for hauling their 4-wheelers around. He’ll use it when he comes over to Aunt Mary’s house to plow the snow away and denude my lawn. I feel like I’m making a difference in this small town and in the lives of my family. A big part of it is financial: I pay good money for the plowing, the house cleaning, the what-have-you. And I love them, whether or not they “deserve” it, and whether or not I deserve to have it reciprocated. It’s a big feeling in this small town, in this big house, in this sometimes constricted heart. We all have trouble forgiving, trouble loving, trouble being true. But the more I leave it alone, trust myself, and not beat myself up for my many lapses in compassion, the more true I feel. And that feels good.




inhabiting my life

I have a couple of friends who are going through some big changes, and it got me thinking about how I’ve probably made my last big change and I have nothing much to say when someone asks me “What’s new?” I dined out for years on my story of moving back to my Midwestern hometown from California, but I’m no longer special on that front. I had the same feeling of “This is it” when I was working at UCSF. Then, I had the “end of the line” feeling again when the Radiobiology lab got shut down and I was just old enough to retire from UC. My new “final” change (I thought) was starting my own editing business. No way was I prepared to even consider moving myself and Pookie lock-stock-and-barrel back to the formerly despised place of my birth. And now, after that miracle, for which “I changed my mind” is a woefully inadequate descriptor, here I am… rooted in my Michigan rootedness, not foreseeing any major changes coming up for me except, you know, death. (My deepest wish is that death will come before “human warehousing.” That was my mother’s deepest wish, too, but when her wish came true she resented it bitterly. Is there no pleasing some people?)

My friend T and I were talking about this, because she had had the same feeling of “OK, this is where I’ve ended up,” but now she had taken the huge step of leaving a long-term relationship and moving into a place by herself. I was feeling kind of envious of her new single life, because I remembered what a big, scary, exciting life-changer it was for me, back when I did the same. But she said something very wise, which was that, far from being confined and defined by my roots, I’m inhabiting my life. What I tend to think of as an absence of newness and potential is a genuine letting down and letting go of a lifetime of anxiety. I’m no longer searching for my self and my life’s work and meaning: I’m living it. Inhabiting one’s life may not have the gleam and glamour of being perpetually on the move (the famous rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic); it’s a different way of being. Long familiarity with depression and anxiety—and political and spiritual peer pressure at different times in my life—makes me suspicious of “being happy,” of enjoying my quotidian life “too much,” as if it’s a crime to just be. I’m following my interest wherever it takes me, the #1 lesson I learned from painting. Currently, it’s watching all the past seasons of Friday Night Lights, one of the best TV shows ever. And filling my head with ideas and my house with books. Enjoying my cats and my “yard birds” and other critters. Phone-talking and e-mailing with friends in faraway places. Getting together with sisters for trips to Green Bay or the movies. Watching Breaking Bad with Barb on Sunday nights. Writing this ‘zine. A life of quiet, which is essential to me.

So now I have a new way to view my life, not as an absence of Big Stories but as the reality of living: the gerund that trumps the abstract noun (grammar is life): the rootedness that is appropriate to my age and ideal to my space, my big house* and my beloved Henes Park, the memories that swim up from the depths as I drive past Bay de Noc Road and look down it toward the site of so many traumas and good things, too, the buttercups and violets, the freedom of woods and sand hills and no supervision as long as I stayed out of sight of the house. It all delights me now, the trees, the smokestacks, the beautiful bay and river, the working class feel of the place. The trust in myself to remain open to possibilities, to follow my (as it were) bliss. I’ve never been happier.

*Finally, for the first time ever, someone—my contractor’s brother-in-law—referred to my “big house” as a “nice big house.” And it is, but it was gratifying to be reminded that not everyone thinks I’m insane for occupying all this space.


I suppose I could have ended on this positive note, but now I’m going to explore a potential outcome with darker overtones: the aforementioned human warehousing, a.k.a. forced group living reminiscent of ye olde dormitory life, with or without dementia.




(illustration by Souther Salazar)




the scariest F word (Future)

The world is subdued today. Like I am behind a veil, looking out. The colors pastel and faded, my senses dulled. My vision slightly obscured by the veil. It’s not unpleasant. But it can be dangerous. You think that you are hidden from them, behind your veil, and suddenly you realize that you’ve been visible the whole time. Exposed. —Alice LaPlante, Turn of Mind

Turn of Mind is a novel about a 64-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s. Nothing to do with me, of course, though I am 64, soon to join the entitled ranks of the Medicare’d for. I’m glad I don’t have the A-word disease yet, because, between the University of California and the federal government, I can hardly follow the instructions for filling out the forms for Part A, Part B, Part C, Part D, the plans (the plan… the plan…), the requirements, sign here, group number there, Do you still work? (not if I can help it), the dire warnings if you sign up for the wrong plan. A thick book Medicare & You (which is even more intimidating than Menstruation & You was, in the day) arrives in the mail, along with a virtually incomprehensible “explanation” of my future benefits from the Social Security Administration. For months I’ve been getting eager letters of invitation from every insurance company in the Midwest, hoping to snag some Alphabetical Part of my geriatric lifestyle. Before I started throwing them out unopened, I read one that tried to play on my Boomer sense of entitlement by asking, “Did you ever think you would be so popular??” “Why no!,” I thought. “Tell me more!”

The quotation from the novel elicited both a queasy memory and a sense of foreboding. I remembered, as a kid, singing to myself while seated under a hairdryer at the beauty salon, unaware that the sound that drowned out my voice in my own head did not prevent the other women in the place from hearing me. When I realized this, I stopped singing, mortified. (But why?—a question for another day.) And the foreboding thought was, Will that be me someday, “coming to” from a period of unself-consciousness only to wonder what I did or said while dissociating?

(When I looked up to check the meaning of “foreboding,” I noticed an ad for Miracle Whip—a great name, you gotta admit. “We’re not for everyone,” it boasts. “Are you Miracle Whip?” This seemed an odd way to phrase a sandwich spread preference. Is it a new construction riding the coattails of “I am Mac” and “I am PC”? I’m not going to say “I am Mac” [though I am], and I’m certainly not going to say “I am Miracle Whip”—or maybe that’s one of the embarrassing-in-retrospect comments I will make while demented, especially since there’s bound to be some slippage: “I am Miracle!” “I am Whip!”)

Anyway, I’m of two minds about all this, because if you lose one mind it would be nice to have another one to fall back on, ha-ha {THEY’RE COMING TO TAKE ME AWAY}. In my present state, in which I am blessedly sane and composed {HAHAHAHA}, my desire for control of all aspects of my life is absolute. Never before have I had such freedom to indulge any whim… to sleep whenever, eat what- and whenever. And it kills me to think about having none of those freedoms anymore. Yet I have a concurrent fantasy of being so far beyond self-control that I would be relieved of responsibility or choice or filling out forms or paying my bills on time, or even having bills. Wouldn’t it be nice to wake up from that dissociative state and know you can’t be blamed for anything untoward that happened, leaving someone else, probably some poorly paid immigrant, to clean up the mess? As usual, I’m caught between extremes, and what will surely happen instead is that I will not be demented but will simultaneously have no control, like when I lived in a dorm at MSU. There, I quickly established myself as a rebel who sneered at mandatory group activities intended to socialize me into polite society. At least there was an alternative culture waiting to greet me in the late ‘60s, but who will I be forced to rub shoulders with if I end up in a nursing home? Will dementia be a preferable alternative to my lifelong social uneasiness, or will it make things worse? Will I be able to write about it? … because I think it would be quite interesting, if I could periodically regain lucidity long enough to turn on my laptop and send a few salient observations to my blog—they’ll let me bring my laptop, won’t they? or am I supposed to revert to the old-timey kind of old person who can’t see, hear, or walk and loves Lawrence Welk? I don’t live in the most modern-thinking area in the world, so I’m not sure how far I’ll be able to take my Web, Zine, and Painting lives. Speaking of which, what will happen to my paintings? And my painting process? Will I be allowed to paint naked women and eyes on trees during the Arts and Crafts hour, or will I have to go stealth and pretend deep satisfaction with outlining my hand to make a turkey for Thanksgiving? (The other side of the paper will hold my true imagery, the hearts, tubes, knives, blood, and “fabric of the universe.”)

I know I’m getting myself all in a dither over something that may never happen, but I am nearing the narrow end of the funnel, the last grains of sand in the hourglass (and no turning it over; Life does not work like Boggle), the final ride over the hump of the waterfall*, nothing known or (maybe worse) something known and horrible waiting at the bottom of the plunge, like reliving all my most embarrassing moments. The fact that I don’t think I’ve ever forgotten an embarrassing moment in my life may protect me from being blindsided, though blindsiding is exactly what happened to the woman in the novel I quoted, to my child self under the hair dryer, and to my adult self hobbling through SFO with a toilet seat cover hanging out the back of my pants. Is it too much to hope for to be conscious but not self-conscious, to be free and not care what anyone thinks? I’ve always felt unable to bend or blend, to go with the flow, skip over the rough parts. As a “psychic chiropractor” once told me, “You feel every bump in the road.” (Though I don’t think it took psychic abilities to discern that. I think it’s written all over my face, along with the map of Ireland.) I seem to be doomed to remain painfully aware of all my shortcomings: awkward, insensitive, judgmental yet lacking in judgment (“common sense”)—stop me if I’m being too hard on myself—and determined to be special if it kills me. In the plus column, I believe I have a good heart, but even that can turn on a dime and give a nickel change.

*Apropos of absolutely nothing, there are pictures circulating online of Niagara Falls without water. They had to dam the river in 1969 to do some sort of repairs (not sure how you repair a waterfall). I don’t know why it should affect me so, but there’s something about that big dirt-brown, naked-looking, scraggly cliff atop a giant collection of rubble, ugly without the flashy and powerful force of nature’s elixir tumbling down, stripped of its glory to reveal nothing but an ordinary sharp drop-off with the promise of a hard landing. It was like seeing the squat man behind the curtain, nature’s own Oz demystified…. as if all the great wonders of the world could be similarly deconstructed to expose the fact, finally and forevermore, that we live on a big, slowly-spinning-in-mid-air ball of dirt and rocks.

nude Niagara Falls, 1969





“Twenty, twenty, twenty-four hours a day…”

Once a year, I have to drive down to central Wisconsin for a 15-minute drug-monitoring session with my psychiatrist—I’m still taking sertraline, a generic Zoloft. (“Sertraline” sounds like a top-of-the-line mattress.) Recently, Dr. V.’s office moved from Oshkosh to Neenah, thus shaving 40 miles off my round trip—from 200 down to 160. No, I couldn’t find anyone closer. And I like the guy a lot. (I wonder, though, how much satisfaction there is in being a psychiatrist these days: You’re basically a glorified pharmacist.)

Because I hadn’t been to this office (or Neenah) before, Barb lent me her GPS device. All I had to do was drive straight down US 41 for most of the way, but I discovered that global positioning doesn’t always help when you’re trying to position yourself locally. Turns out I was not prepared to navigate the Neenah version of “roundabouts.” I thought I had conquered the concept of a roundabout: Car goes in, car drives in a semi-circle, car goes out. But these ones were devilish, because there was a lot of traffic and I didn’t know where I was going. At the first one I encountered, the GPS voice, which I will call Gloria, told me to “enter the roundabout,” but I got confused (quelle surprise!) by the myriad of lanes and made a right turn instead. So Gloria directed me to make a left down the street, another left, another left, and a right and back to the roundabout. I didn’t fare any better this time. I didn’t know what she meant by “take the second exit” and I wasn’t at all sure who was to yield to whom. While watching for cars, I was trying to get a glimpse of a street sign, plus count “exits.” Again, I didn’t get off at the right place and I ended up going back the way I had come. Gloria, with the patience of a saint, or a robot, told me where to turn, turn, turn, turn and get back. Unfortunately, down where I was turning, I had to go through another roundabout, where there was less traffic, but I still made at least one wrong turn there and had to try again. I headed back to the Mother of all roundabouts, and this time I again missed the correct “exit” and found myself on the street going off to the left. (Actually, I may have repeated the “back from whence I came” move. It’s almost as difficult to describe it as it was to do it.) Every time I made a mistake, Gloria hesitated for a suspenseful 2 seconds and then said, “Recalculating.” Which I found re-dispiriting. By the end of my ordeal, I was saying out loud, “Don’t say ‘recalculating’!” So I approached the roundabout again, and this time the only option left open to me was to go straight, if only I could figure out which “exit” would take me in that direction.

It’s a miracle that I whipped in and out of 2 roundabouts a total of 6 times without getting creamed, or creaming someone else. I suspect that the locals watch out for us out-of-town bozos who’ve never been to the big city before: More than one driver waved me on when I hesitated, not knowing who was to yield. Frankly, I’d rather wait for a red light. As I said, I get the concept of the roundabout, but not knowing where I was going did a number on my brain. Plus, my brain takes everything literally and returns to zero after every mental calculation. It takes me a while to integrate what I’m seeing with what I already know; therefore, I’m not burdened by “knowing too much.” Boy, am I not burdened by knowing too much. This has served me well in my work, believe it or not, because every manuscript is a new puzzle to solve and I’m delightfully unbiased—that’s it, unbiased—as if seeing the words and ideas for the first time.

Fortunately, I had left myself enough time to make any number of dumb mistakes, so I still had half an hour to wait once I found Dr. V.’s office. When I got in there, I told him that I’m having the dreaded “restless legs syndrome” several times a week. (I should call it RLS, because “restless” sounds so trivial. “You have an ‘urge’ to move your legs? Well, I have an ‘urge’ to eat a dozen doughnuts at a time, but I restrain myself.”) You may remember that I spent an excruciating 8+ hours flying to and from San Francisco last December because of that terrible sensation in my legs. I had read that SSRIs can exacerbate the problem, so I had wanted to ask Dr. V. about reducing the dosage of sertraline. But I’d recently been reminded of what happens when I’m left to my own emotional devices (story for another day), and no way was I going back to a life of constant anxiety relieved only by bouts of debilitating depression.

So anyway—is it too late to say “long story short”?—Dr. V told me about the various medications that can help with RLS. He cautioned me about the side-effects, though. One class of these drugs is highly addictive, and the other can make you psychotic. I pondered the dilemma for a moment, forefinger to my chin, and finally said, “I’ll take addiction.” He said he wasn’t worried about that in my case anyway, because I don’t have “an addictive personality.” I asked how he knew, and he said, “Because you don’t drink a case of beer every night.” I almost asked how he knew that (I’ve spent 15 minutes a year in his presence, for a total of about an hour and a half), but I didn’t, because time was almost up. I’m not going to tell you the name of the drug, because one or more of you would surely look it up and tell me all the horrible things it could do to me. Come to think of it, one or more of you will probably tell me I shouldn’t be taking drugs at all. Well, forget that noise! (as we say in this part of the world). I remember when I had a 9-pound (as it turned out) ovarian tumor growing inside me and I was about to go under the knife in 3 days, when a “holistic” friend of mine urged me to drink some sort of special organic tea instead. But now I’m older, wiser, and definitely more stubborn, so I appreciate your (hypothetical) concern, but no thanks. I can’t get on an airplane again until I deal with this problem. Which reminds me, also, of the time another well-meaning friend assured me that my air sickness was psychological, so the next time I flew I didn’t take Dramamine. I figured, the plane doesn’t really have that much motion, like a bus does, so what the heck? But as the plane started to rise into the air, my stomach rapidly descended to wherever it goes when it wants to throw up. I hurriedly popped a Dramamine and held on tight until the nausea subsided. Actually, it’s not really holistic solutions I object to… it’s advice.

After I left Dr. V.’s office, I entered the address of El Sarape in Green Bay into Gloria’s positioning system, made it through the Problem roundabout with no trouble, and went on to have a delightful Mexican lunch. Then another hour to get home, where I collapsed in my comfy chair with my comfy cats and slept the day away. I was whipped. It was a miracle.

And now I shall say adieu. Make of this hodgepodge what you will. And like me on Facebook! (just kidding)

gratuitous woodpecker image (so many pretty things on the webs)



Mary McKenney

mary’zine random redux #22: March-April-May-June 2002

January 2, 2010

“Such an intimate style, wavering between the incisive and the narcissistic….”

—said of CNN’s Aaron Brown, in the New York Times

Amazing, mysterious, bizarre, touching things always happen when you paint for several days in a row. By day 7 you’ve lost all sense of scale: the big and the small, the trivial and the life-changing, blend together like—

Barbara interrupts my intense scribbling. “No, no no! Go back to your painting!” With arm outstretched, she points to the painting room like Moses directing his people into the Red Sea.

I try to resist. “But the words are coming! This is the same process only in words!”

She cannot be moved. “The process is happening in the painting! The source is there! You’re trying to capture it! The words will wait!” Forget Moses, she has the force of authority of God Himself expelling Adam and Eve from the Garden. I tell her this, and she says she feels more like one of the ghosts in the Scrooge story. The Ghost of Painting Present, I guess.

I know the intensity has to be lived before it can be shared, but in this moment it wants to burst out of me in words, not images. She’s right, I want to capture it before it can escape.

Reluctantly, I return to my painting. “This is killing me!,” I cry, not overdramatizing one bit.

And then I go on to have an incredible afternoon painting my family as real and true as I have ever painted them. But the jury’s still out on whether the words have waited for me.


It’s been a long time, eh? When people ask what happened to the ‘zine, all I can say is, “It’s really quite interesting, but part of what happened is that I can’t write the ‘zine anymore, so I can’t tell people about it!” But I’m feeling stirrings in my writerly loins again, so here we go.

I was going to begin by saying “Long story short…,” but I doubt that very much. In the February issue (#21; not yet available online), I mentioned that I was so busy with work that I could only crank out a few ‘zine pages. But I still had the urge to do it, so it was fine. You can always find time to do what you really want. But when March came around and I thought about starting the next issue, I realized I was feeling kind of down, and had been for a while. The Zoloft didn’t seem to be working anymore. This was really disheartening, and I felt like an idiot for having had such high expectations. I thought, maybe it’s like a relationship—it starts out really great and then one day you wake up and realize the honeymoon’s over. Reality is always a downer, I should know that by now!

So the next time I saw my psychiatrist, I complained about how the Zoloft was no longer working. She had been trying for months to find the right combination of drugs so that I wouldn’t be so drowsy during the day. (Excessive napping—my cross to bear.) Now she thought we’d have to switch to a different SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor). She assured me that there were “lots of new drugs in the pipeline,” and I imagined the pipeline as a tube in her office, maybe set up on an IV pole right next to the couch, so I could keep sucking up mood-altering chemicals until I felt good again.

At the end of the session, as she was writing out a new prescription, I looked out the window as a new thought began dimly to form. I said, “But you know… I’m not as anxious as I used to be.” And that’s when I saw that what I’d labeled “depression” or “the Zoloft not working” was just the absence of anxiety. The feeling was so unfamiliar that I didn’t recognize it!

This made sense to Dr. P. too, so we decided I would stay on “Vitamin Z” for a while longer. Immediately, I felt the change in my veins, or wherever you feel things like that. I wasn’t doomed, I wouldn’t have to start over with a new drug and new side effects. The letdown I’d been feeling had been about missing something all right, but the something I was missing was anxiety.


My life seemed to change overnight. I started noticing all the ways that I wasn’t anxious anymore. The more I noticed, the better I felt. I was able to rest in the present moment, Be Here Now, instead of feeling two steps ahead of myself, as if there was somewhere I had to get (what my father would have called “going nowhere fast”). Subjectively, I had a lot more time.

One day in therapy with J, I was trying to explain the change, and she asked how I felt in my body. I focused my attention there, and all of a sudden I felt completely unself-conscious, as if my center was truly down in the center of my body instead of up in my chest, throat, and head. As much as I love and trust J, it’s always been hard for me to sit across from her for an hour and be the focus of attention, especially since she’s always watching for clues to my somatic state. I’ll make a gesture—a shrug, a wince, a tapping of my fingers—and she’ll say, “Do that again—but slow it down.” But on this day, I lost that sense of discomfort completely. I often worry about what I’ll talk about in therapy, but that day it didn’t matter. We were just there together. It was like being weightless, free of emotional gravity. J could feel the change in me and immediately went to that place in herself. We sat there grinning at each other, and I looked around the room in amazement as if I had discovered a new world (or as if I were stoned, if you really want to know). The phone rang, and she got up to turn it off. When she sat down again, she said, “Try walking around, it’s really something.” So I got up and took a few steps around the office. When I sat down, I felt the movement settling, like the “snow” in a snow globe that gets shaken and then falls gently back to earth. J said that’s exactly how it felt to her, too. It was amazing to me that she could “go there” with me, especially since she wasn’t feeling well that day. Actually, it reminded me of how I feel after painting sometimes, when it doesn’t matter what I say and I can just sit silently with other people.

Then I spotted some rubber balls in the corner and asked her if she wanted to play catch. So we tossed a ball back and forth, feeling the movement in our chests and shoulders, comparing bodily notes. I started throwing the ball up in the air and catching it, and then I stood up and bounced it on the floor and against the walls. Oops, almost knocked over that vase. I felt so free, it was so easy to move, to invent, to be spontaneous. I didn’t even have to talk! J said she’d never seen me like that, and I had to agree it was a first.

What struck me the most was seeing that “being free” isn’t about floating aimlessly, without anchor or boundary, it’s about being who you are. It’s easy to retort, “Who else could you be?,” but the truth is, a lot of us find it easier to play a role or to guard the Fort Knox of our true selves than to just be, for fear of being overwhelmed or overtaken—or of revealing ourselves to be as inadequate as we sometimes feel.


A few weeks before (when I thought I was depressed), J had urged me to “find a cause in the world,” and I had uttered the shameful truth, “I’m not really interested in the world.” But now I had spontaneous urges to follow up on things I would once have stuffed in the “someday” file. I subscribed to the international magazine Granta and to the Sunday New York Times. I stopped reading fiction. Spent $200 in 2 weeks at Cody’s, poring over the nonfiction shelves and coming up with books about psychobiology, Buddhism, mathematics (geometry morphing into particle physics—who knew?), the class system in America, and true stories from NPR’s National Story Project. Suddenly I was more fascinated by the real than by the made-up worlds in novels. This was not some self-improvement project—such projects are doomed because they come from the belief that you need to be a “better person,” whatever that is. It’s the same principle I learned years ago in painting, to go where your interest is.

Of course, some of my interest in “the world” was really interest in my own brain chemistry. I was sitting in my car outside Dr. P.’s office one day, with about 10 minutes till my appointment, and I picked up a book I had brought along to pass the time. It was Going on Being by Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist who uses Buddhist teachings in his practice. I was interested in his perspective, because for a spiritually semi-evolved (or is that self-involved) person like myself, one who shares the Buddha’s Enneagram number, no less, the drug-taking initially raised all sorts of questions about self-identity. Who’s the “real me”? If this is my brain on drugs, who am “I”? Where does the serotonin stop and I begin? Am I my depression, my anxiety? Who is it who suffers from these symptoms, and who is it who is relieved of the suffering by a pill?

So I started reading the Introduction, “How People Change,” and almost immediately I was plunged into a story about a woman, “searching for a spiritual life,” who was “suspicious of the role of psychiatric medications in today’s culture. It seemed like some kind of brave new world to have mood-altering drugs so readily available.” But this woman, Sally, “had been plagued with chronic feelings of anxiety and depression for much of her adult life, and despite a healthy investment in psychotherapy she still felt that there was something the matter with her.”

Sally had been taking a small dose of an antidepressant—Zoloft!—for several weeks and was

…finding that she felt calmer, less irritable, and dare she say, happier. She was planning on going to a two-week mediation retreat later that month and was wondering whether to stay on her medicine while she was there…. “Perhaps I should go more deeply into my problems while I’m away,” Sally questioned. She worried that the antidepressant would impede that process by making her problems less accessible to her.

[I’m trying not to quote the entire chapter, but it’s tempting.]

People who respond well to these antidepressants often… find… that they feel restored, healed of the depressive symptoms…. Less preoccupied with their internal states, they are freer to participate in their own lives, yet they often wonder if they are cheating. “This isn’t the real me,” they protest. “I’m the tired, cranky, no-good one you remember from a couple of weeks ago.” As a psychiatrist, I am often in the position to encourage people to question those identifications. Depressed people think they know themselves, but maybe they only know depression [my emphasis].

… The notion that we need to go more deeply into our problems in order to be healed is a prevalent one, and one that, as a therapist, I am sympathetic toward. Certainly ignoring the shadow side of our personalities can only lead to what Freud once called the return of the repressed. Yet it struck me that there was a remnant of American Puritanism implicit in Sally’s approach….

When people believe that they are their problems, there is often a desire to pick away at the self, as if by doing so they could expose how bad they really are. People think that if they could just admit the awful truth about themselves, they would start to feel better, almost as if they have to go to confession to be absolved of their sins. Going more deeply into our problems can be just another variant on trying to get rid of them altogether….

But to go more deeply into our problems is sometimes to go only into what we already know…. It can lead, at worst, to… a resigned negativity that verges on self-hatred…. I told [Sally] that at this point I felt she needed to come out of her problems, not go into them more deeply…. To be overwhelmed while on retreat would not be useful.

As a therapist influenced by the wisdom of the East, I am confident that there is another direction to move in such situations: away from the problems and into the unknown [my emphasis].

Reading this, I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I was especially struck by the parallels with painting. People who understand that painting-for-process isn’t about “making art” often see it as a way to “work on their issues.” Indeed, we don’t shrink from the disturbing images that come up, but instead of identifying ourselves with them, we allow the act of painting to take us to a meditative level where we experience (not just “understand intellectually,” an oxymoron) that we are not that, we are not our problems. I had been exactly like “Sally” in thinking that if I wasn’t suffering I was “avoiding” or “cheating.” It was wonderful to get this point of view from a medical doctor who also has respect for the spirit.


Another change I noticed is that I felt more like giving. I packed up a box of books to ship to China and another box for the San Rafael Public Library. I checked out the Habitat for Humanity website to see about signing up for some hardhat action when they start building in Marin. I checked the Marin volunteers website, but the only thing that appealed to me was driving police cars to the repair shop at 6 a.m.; of course, I rejected that, partly because it was so early in the morning and partly because I couldn’t imagine driving a police car down Miracle Mile and coming upon a robbery in progress or having bloody or disoriented citizens lurch into the street, waving at me to stop and help them. (Do they have police cars that say “Not in Service”?)

I liked the idea of giving scholarships to poor kids, having been one myself. So I thought about donating to the Marin Scholarship Fund (there are plenty of poor kids here, despite the media hype about how rich the county is). Then I read an article about kids way up in northern California who don’t have many opportunities, and I thought, yeah, rural poor kids, having been one of those. Then the Obvious reached up and smacked me, and I realized I wanted to give a scholarship to my old high school in the U.P.! (U.P. = Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a virtually forgotten region of the country, known only to Ernest Hemingway and a few vacationing Chicagoans who like trees.) Believe me, this was a major turnabout. I had sworn for the last 30-some years that I would never have anything to do with that place again, but here I was, waking up to the awareness that there must still be kids back there who are smart and poor (and who want to be beatnik editors?) who need a ticket out. So I made inquiries through my sister, who teaches in the middle school in my hometown, and next year some lucky girl will be awarded a $1,000 scholarship, thanks to me and my newly un-reuptaken serotonin. Now I have to decide what to call it. It would be nice to rehabilitate the McKenney name around there, because most of the men on my father’s side were ne’er-do-wells, and my sisters got married and took their husbands’ names. So it’s up to the lesbian daughter to carry on the family name, if not the genetic line. (The genetics are marching on without me, and there’s nothing I can do about that.)


I’ve discovered that being emotionally healthy(er) is like having a lot of money, as in “The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” When you have greater resources—whether emotional or material—you have a foundation, a safety net, room to make mistakes, and enough abundance to think beyond survival. You can take a few losses and not go under.


If it appears that I’m giving all the credit to a chemical rather than to 20 years of process painting and 10 years of therapy, it’s because I’m amazed (note to self: dig out the thesaurus, quick!) by what feels like instantaneous change. Maybe it’s like the “overnight sensations” in the entertainment world who’ve been performing in obscurity for years and are suddenly “discovered.” In reality, I know that Zoloft is just the icing on the cake. The cake is therapy—or no, therapy has got to be the meat and potatoes. That would make painting the cake, Zoloft the ice cream… oh, never mind. The point is, it’s not that the drug is magic, it’s just that it helps clear away some of the emotional debris so that the real self, excavated and examined through the inner work, can emerge. People think these drugs put you in a mental state that’s like my image of Hawaii—beautiful but bland, same temperature all the time—when actually they put you wherever you already live, but with a clearer head.


But despite (or because of) my newfound emotional stability, I was dreading the 7 days of painting, partly because I never know what’s going to happen and that’s so uncomfortable, and partly because I wasn’t sure I would still have the desire or “ability” to paint. Although feeling better made me want to explore more, not less, I was afraid the painting urge might have gone the way of the writing urge, which seemed to have gone far, far away.

I had written the following to a friend who wanted to know what was up with the ‘zine:

I went to a new level with the Zoloft and am enjoying my life without the need/desire to share it in writing. Not to mention the fact that I’m having fewer neurotic reactions, which made up a large part of what I used to write about…. It’s weird, I’ve never felt like this. Like: Life is enough; you don’t have to prove anything or do anything special.

All well and good, but creativity is about going to the edge, pushing the envelope. What if my edges had been smoothed away? What if my envelope had already been sealed and mailed and was now gathering dust in a corner of the Dead Letter office?

After trying and failing to give J a complete news report on all my insights from the week, I realized I’m not a journalist, and so I will just write whatever I feel like and see where it goes (the driving principle of the mary’zine).

7 days in May

Day 1

Having spent most of my time since the last intensive by myself, I felt slightly overwhelmed by being with so many people in such an intimate setting. Checking out the people in the group, I was sure that several of them wanted something from me. And if someone wanted something from me, I had to give it. If someone had a problem, I had to fix it. I made a mental list of the things I felt responsible for: K’s silence. S’s self-hatred. G’s male ego. The feelings of everyone I like. The feelings of everyone I don’t like. Everyone’s lunch. (In my grandiosity, I thought I would be inundated by requests to go to lunch, but only from those who wanted something from me.) I was seeing how my mind works, and it was both repellent and fascinating, like Animal Planet during Shark Week.

My first painting was of me and J. We had been talking about ending therapy, and the thought not only made me sad—I couldn’t imagine giving up such an important relationship—but also (see above) I felt responsible for her feelings about coming to the end. When I went on to paint my mother, it was clear that my perceived responsibility for J’s (and everyone else’s) feelings was linked to my belief that it was up to me to make my mother happy, an almost impossible task. (Me and Tony Soprano.)

Then I painted a “monster” that I thought was going to be your everyday, normal monster (scary, dark, trying to get me), but it came out looking fearful and anxious—not threatening me but clinging to me—and I realized that the monster was indeed “my” fear and anxiety, now projected out of me in monster form. Seeing the monster outside of me, I had the insight that everyone I encounter is a form of me outside of me, and that the same is true for everyone else. We’re projecting our own shortcomings or idealizations onto one another all the time, so (psychologically) there is very little reality, just a lot of projected illusions walking around thinking that everything they see is real.


Here I want to give Bonnie credit for inspiring two possible titles for the book I may someday write about painting: In the Company of Monsters (the monsters in the painting, in one another, and in ourselves) and Radiant with Anguish, an apparent oxymoron that goes to the heart of why we paint—not to be in a constant state of distress, God forbid, but to go deeply inside ourselves where even fools fear to tread, and discover whatever is true there.

Day 2

Painted the “fabric of the universe.” Just so you know, the strands that make up the universe are interwoven like the potholders my sisters and I used to make, but they’re multicolored, not just red and white, blue and white, or green and white. I loved painting the “fabric,” but I had the strong feeling there was something on the other side that I couldn’t get to. I was stuck. I then painted several black figures and realized they were “sentries of the unknown,” blocking my way. I felt better just painting them. As M. Cassou used to say, “When you paint the wall, the wall comes down.”

Day 3

The sense of scale is beginning to blur. After an intense day of painting, I’m driving home and I see a bumper sticker on the car in front of me. It appears to say “Everybody Loves Firm Potato Brushes.” I go, ha-ha, that’s one of those things that turn out to be comically misread, like when “Change is in charge” was revealed to be “Charles is in charge.” So I come up behind the car at the next stop sign, where I’m able to read the bumper sticker clearly. It reads, and I quote, “Everybody Loses From Potato Bruises.” I am nonplussed, and believe me, I have never written or spoken that word before. My initial interpretation would work if the driver were a door-to-door potato brush salesman. But what does the real message mean? And is it true? Does everybody lose from a potato bruise?

Looking at the notes I took during the 7 days, I see that I’m getting the days all mixed up, but c’est la vie. That afternoon (one afternoon), someone shared that she felt so in tune with her painting that she almost felt an electric shock if she tried to paint something in the “wrong place.” I said that sounded like a good idea. If you go to the “wrong place” you get a shock; if you go to the “right place,” you get a Milk Dud.

Oh, I forgot to say that one of the things I noticed post-Vitamin Z is that it’s not so important for me to be funny. As with the “not interested in the world” comment, I had said to J a few weeks back that “I’d rather be funny than anything.” This shocked J because she hadn’t known that about me. Granted, therapy is not the best situation for getting off a lot of zingers, but I thought it was written all over me like a graffitied wall! I felt like the proverbial funnyman who makes people laugh because it’s the only way to satisfy his craving for love. Since Zoloft, it doesn’t feel like such a strong drive. I just sit back and hear the words fly out of my mouth, and if they’re funny, so much the better. There’s less at stake now.

But here’s an interesting postscript to my telling J “I’d rather be funny than anything.” After that session, I went home to try to write about it for the ‘zine, and I looked up “funny” in a quotations book. And the very first quote was from Woody Allen: “I think being funny is not anyone’s first choice.” It was one of those bizarre synchronistic moments: I declare that being funny is my first choice and then find out that one of the funniest people in the world thinks it’s no big deal. Maybe he thinks it’s too easy. That’s what I like about it—minimum effort, maximum reward. I don’t want to be Woody Allen, though, I want to be James Thurber.

OK, I’m getting off track here, and you know how I love to stay on track.

Day 4

My painting has no meaning, but it doesn’t matter. That evening, on the way home, I have to stop at a few places: ATM, grocery store, Rite Aid. As I’m standing in the prescription pick-up line at Rite Aid—usually my idea of Hell on Earth—I realize that it doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. I’m still me, in the world. Waiting for the person at the head of the line to understand why her medications aren’t covered by insurance seems no different, really, from lying in bed watching TV. Imagine that.

Day 5

Diane and I have an idyllic lunch at Chloe’s on Church St. The food is good, the weather is perfect, and we both feel like we’re being held in the embrace of the universe. I tell her I’m looking for a new hat. (I’m trying to get used to wearing one—preparing myself for the day when I have two wisps of hair left on my head and can just switch to all hat all the time.) Diane tells me about one she’s seen in the gift shop at the Jewish Home, so we drive over there to check it out. It’s a baseball-style cap with the words “Gone Gefilte Fishing!” stitched across the front and “Jewish Home, San Francisco” on the side. Considering the corny “gone fishin’” reference, the cap is actually quite tasteful (canvas, neutral colors). If I had bought the equivalent “ethnic”-type hat in Michigan or Wisconsin—“Gone Lutefisk Fishing!,” for example—it would have been crocheted, with neon reflectors and a Budweiser can sewn into it. Actually, I don’t know that, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit, considering the “yooper” (U.P.’er) culture I grew up in—tasteless without a whiff of irony.

Day 6

In the morning sharing, Barbara asks what we could ask for in painting today, if we asked for what is pushing in us or what we most fear. I ask for antsiness because that’s where I’m at, and I don’t know the half of it. While painting, I get antsy, all right, but the feeling keeps going toward a full-fledged bodily scream that B encourages me to paint with a small brush. On the painting the stream emanates from my mouth, stomach, and genitals. Little holes appear in the “fabric of the universe” and then in the people (the triumvirate of me, Mom and Dad). Then the holes start to widen, and cracks form. The silent screams from my painted self don’t seem to go nearly deep enough, so I paint screams irradiating out of the holes in the fabric of the u. These screams feel like they’re coming from the deepest part of me, beyond the fabric, beyond the existence of everything, or perhaps just beyond the little that I know.

When I show J this painting later, she perceives the “holes” as “openings,” and I have to admit that feels right. It’s not that the fabric is being torn or that black holes are waiting to swallow me up, it’s just that openings are being created for me to pass through (or for something to pass through to me, I suppose). This was a typical turnabout in painting, as when I discovered that the “sentries of the unknown” that I thought were blocking me were actually guides, not guards. It’s fascinating to see that everything we think can be looked at in the opposite way.

Day 7

In the afternoon I call Barbara over, feeling stuck-stuck-stuck. I’ve painted my parents so many times over the years that it feels like all I have to do is paint a bare outline, fill it in with peach color, and add the requisite eyes, nose, mouth, and genitalia. But B says, “Look at the expressions on their faces—they really look like themselves!” It’s true. Mom looks pissed off and is reaching for me as if to strangle me. Dad looks shell-shocked, staring off into space, not even relating to me. When I complain that there is nothing else I can paint on or around them, B asks the fateful question, “What would you paint if they were you?” And we both feel the lightning strike of that question. She says she has never asked it of anyone before. But when I look at the figure of my mother and imagine she’s me, the brush explodes and she becomes fiery, black-hearted, riled up, bleeding from wounds. As I paint her, images from my childhood come to me, seemingly at random. I tell B I feel as if my life is passing before my eyes. I remember the summer I was 13 and had to babysit 6 days a week for the 5-year-old daughter of my cousin and how horribly trapped I felt, like the women in that dissatisfied-suburban-housewife fiction I would later read in the feminist ‘70s. I wonder if I’m tuning into the source of my mother’s anger at becoming the housewife/mother/breadwinner/caretaker instead of the quiet librarian/book reader/traveler she had always wanted to be. But this thought comes later. While painting, I just let my thoughts and feelings roam. I feel vividly the despair of spending the summer in my cousin’s old, grungy apartment, unable to stop the kid’s crying, praying she’d nap all afternoon, reading my cousin’s True Confessions magazines, soft-pornographic images that are still alive and repulsive to me—dirty old men with yellow teeth drooling over the naked breasts of unconscious young girls. There’s probably a whole lot under the surface of that particular memory, but that’s beyond the scope, as they say, of this discussion.

When I move on to the figure of my father and imagine him as me, I start painting his brain exploding, his heart pounding, his stomach roiling, and I have the half-coherent thought that the way I’ve painted his penis, it looks like a hand grenade. Suddenly I am him in World War II, being shot at by German soldiers, a flurry and fury of fear and pain all around me that are much like the feelings that surround my painted mother, but for different reasons. I have never identified so closely with him. That’s when I go out to the sharing room with my red notebook and try to capture some of the words that are finally wanting to come.

After being expelled back to my painting, I add my two sisters and my brother. Once again, when I’m stuck for what to do next, B asks me what I’d paint if they were me. And again I’m thrust into an intense reverie and feel I have become them somehow or at least can “read” them. I paint one sister being molested by our cousin, and she looks fiery and angry and tense, tolerating the invasion. (I tell B, “Everyone in my family was angry; it wasn’t just me!”) I paint my other sister helping my father pee in a bottle, her household chore at age 10 when my father could no longer control his arms. According to her, that’s when her “world stopped.” As I paint her swollen body, eyes drifting upward—the opposite of my other sister’s tight compression—I see there isn’t a lot of difference between my distress and the distress of everyone else in my family, except that we kids kept ours hidden—well, hidden like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, right out in plain sight, or maybe like the tell-tale heart beating under the floorboards.

Finally, I paint my baby brother in his coffin, paint the cross on it with his initials (instead of his name, Mike), and am inundated with sense memories of his funeral, when I thought the adults in the church were laughing at me. (My brother was 2; I was 6.) This is not a new memory—the experience was one of the turning points of my childhood, maybe the turning point—but painting it isn’t so much like remembering as reliving. I paint people all around the coffin laughing their heads off, heartlessly. It feels good to paint them, because they are clearly not me, so I can hate them freely. (I know the people at the funeral weren’t really laughing, but as I paint this projected image it’s as if I’m creating reality retroactively and taking my long-awaited revenge.) I tell B who the laughing people are, and she again asks her question, “What else could you paint on them if they were you?” I don’t want them to be me, but I obediently put myself in their place, and it turns out they do have hearts after all, along with sharp teeth in their midsections. Hearts are breaking in the air around them, and I know that “they” (that is, I) had very complicated feelings about the death of my brother, everything from pain and loss, to love, and probably guilt and repressed jealousy as well. (This last could be where the projected laughter came from.)

It feels so intense, so right, to paint everyone in the painting as me, or as me in them, or as them in me. B comes by again and asks, “Who else?” Who else could I paint more on as if they were me? I groan, because the only two people left are my molesting cousin and my peeing (probably humiliated) father. I paint lightning coming out of my father’s chest and a heart on my cousin, taking these projections, also, into the fold. But B is still there. She asks again, “Who else?” but there is no one else! I point to all the people in the painting, one by one—I did her and him and her and her and him and him—and then I see that I had forgotten about my brother. And that turns out to be the most poignant experience of all, as I paint him surrounded by hearts, feel the beauty of his baby soul (too young to have had all the complicated feelings of a 6-year-old), and notice that the initials I had painted on the cross earlier were M.M., the same as mine.


Being with 12 or 15 other people for 7 days, all of whom are facing themselves on the blank page and sharing their insights, fears, and joys in the group, seeing themselves in one another, taking reassurance that they’re “not the only one,” sometimes pushing one another’s buttons or getting their buttons pushed, is an intense experience. That kind of honesty (with ourselves first of all) and searching seem inevitably to lead to agape, the love for God and our fellow humans.

During that week, besides enjoying some of the friends I’ve made through painting, I made connections with two people I had seen at the studio for years but had never talked to before. It took so little to break that long-frozen ice. One person approached me, and after a brief conversation my judgments of her got turned on their head. It was like looking through one of those tiny holes/openings in the fabric of the universe that allow you to get a glimpse of the richness on the other side.

The other person was someone who stayed aloof from the group and seemed to make eye contact only with Barbara. I impulsively complimented her on her hat (my new life passion), and that tiniest of holes/openings widened to give us a special little hat-bond after that. (She was rather nonplussed—there’s that word again—by the gefilte fishin’ hat, but it was the first time I’d seen her smile.)

But love and honesty make strange bedfellows sometimes. I spontaneously proclaimed to a fellow painter I’ve known for years, “You are a complete mystery to me.” What I meant as an affectionate observation, she took as a huge insult. But that’s the price of taking this journey with one another. You can’t always get what you want, but I think you’ll find, sometimes, you get what you need. For a while I thought I had to make everything right with her, but I finally realized that giving up the responsibility to fix the whole world, one person at a time, allows me to be myself, which is, after all, the only thing I have to give.


And so I bid you adieu, not knowing what will happen with the ‘zine but fairly confident that I can have my proverbial cake and eat it too—live my life, extend myself in unexpected ways, learn more about the world and my place in it, see myself in others and them in me, and be able to write as the spirit moves.


p.s. Pookie is also enjoying life and showing less interest in adding his sarcastic commentary to the ‘zine. He spends as much time as possible outside, picking his way through the honeysuckle vines in search of the lizard who lives there, or lounging by the bird bath, trying to look like a harmless lawn ornament as the birdies flutter around. He’s lost his taste for tuna-flavored laxative and now begs for popcorn instead. We are becoming more like each other all the time—older, fatter, and grayer but with still a gleam in our eye and a spring in our step. When we aren’t napping.

[Mary McKenney]

mary’zine random redux #17 Sept./Oct. 2001

March 26, 2009

life goes on within us and without us

You can kill birds. But you can’t kill all birds.

dear friends,

I have started writing this issue many times, in many different moods, and with uniformly disappointing results. Whenever I reread what I’ve written, I see there is no way I can send such disjointed, inappropriate, maudlin, not maudlin enough, one-sided, too-many-sided musings out into the world. You are probably being overwhelmed by points of view just as I am. You are teetering between your own constantly changing states of mind. You are feeling connected and disconnected, close to your heart and far away, back and forth, on again, off again, just as I am. Why should I add to the deluge? I think the answer is simple: I want to take part.

My hopes and expectations for this issue can never be met. I want to strike just the right balance between horror and hope, sorrow and inspiration, with just the right tone—not too heavy, not too light, juuuust right. You’ll note that the word “right” keeps popping up. My way of dealing with most things is to figure out what’s “right” and then plant my flag, so to speak, there. That was a lot easier to do when I was younger, I’ll tell you. Or maybe it’s the nature of what happened, the complexity of an enemy without a face—or with one face that we’ve demonized so we can think there’s a clear target. Regardless of the terrorists’ extreme methods, they do reflect the feelings of a certain segment of the world’s population. “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.”

Sometimes it has felt as if there is just too much to take in—too much sorrow, too much suffering, even too much beauty. I can’t watch the crying firemen anymore, or hear the beautiful stories of sacrifice and love. The tireless rescue effort, the photos of loved ones. The two people who jumped from one of the towers hand in hand. The immense grief, the immense generosity, the immense compassion. My heart resists the workout it’s getting. My brain, too. Every time I turn on the TV or read the newspaper, there’s new input to consider, new tragedies, new strategies, new acts of heroism, new acts of scapegoating, new warnings that we have entered a new world in this new millennium. I am tired of the new.

I see us all creating narratives out of what happened, as if we’re little kids wanting a goodnight moon story before bed. And maybe, at heart, we are. Some people have fashioned a scenario of how Flight 93 went down; it’s just a story, but we have powerful incentives to believe it. In our minds, we’ve already cast the movie—Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, and Matt Damon, ordinary/extraordinary guys who heroically band together to bring the plane down to save the lives of their fellow Americans.

Other people are trying to “decode the message” sent by the hijackers—September 11 is 9/11, get it?, and two of the flight numbers are eerily close to the latitude of lower Manhattan. I told Peggy about this, and she said, “I think we got the message.”

Everything I read and see gives me a different perspective and wipes out the one I had five minutes ago. My spine unwillingly tingles when I hear “God Bless America.” Some part of me responds to the fist-shaking of G.W. Bush and despairs of the “give peace a chance” crowd who don’t seem to have both feet in reality. But another part of me—the legacy of the ‘60s—will probably never be able to fully embrace the American flag. Too much horror has been perpetrated in its name. Bush’s disingenuous use of the term “bully” to refer to the terrorists strikes me as ludicrously inaccurate. If the U.S. is Goliath, which by all accounts it is, then the stone that David throws at us is not the act of a bully, it is the act—no matter how misguided—of an underdog who sees no other way to bring the giant down. We Americans should understand this better than anyone, we the proud historians of our own revolutionary beginnings. But I suppose that is one of the lessons, that the underdog grows up to be the top dog and adopts the posture of top dogs everywhere: We’ll do what we want—because we can. And those of us who live in the top dog’s kennel (am I getting carried away with my dog metaphor?) have been so complacent, so entitled as “Americans—leaders of the free world.” Like we really deserve all our riches.

I wrote the following to Terry late in the first week:

My feelings and thoughts are all over the map. Mostly there’s just a disconnect and confusion, dotted with moments of anger—no fear, though, strangely. Alternately heart-open and heart-closed, for no apparent reason. Going grocery shopping, I’m half extra-kind and compassionate, and half irritated if anyone gets in my way…. It feels like the best of times and the worst of times. Yes, the best of times. It truly does feel as if good could come of this, though it’s often only temporarily that people realize the preciousness of life and have good will toward their fellow humans. I keep being surprised and not surprised and angry and not angry. I am not about to start flying the American flag. Is that a vestige of my misguided youth, or is it good to keep a level head and not dive right into rabid nationalism? Confused, confused, confused…. I read the widely circulated Canadian journalist’s defense of America (which was written in 1973, by the way, not this week) and I think, yeah, we always help out other countries, rah rah for us, and then I think about all the havoc we’ve wreaked in the world in the name of patriotic zeal and anticommunism—defending our oil interests, making alliances with dictators; we’ve been on the wrong side so often. And now I’m identifying with this “we”? Who are “we”? I’m impatient with both the left and the right, with any politics at all, though I know it must come down to that….

Intermittently, I stop thinking and just let myself watch and feel. Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” choking back tears as he describes the former view from his apartment—the World Trade Center—and the view he has now—the Statue of Liberty. Dan Rather crying on David Letterman’s show—not discreet, manly tears but a crumbling of his stern newsman face. I’ve never seen so many men cry.

And then my brain takes over again. Dan Rather asserts that this “war” is not a clash between cultures, between religions, or between wealth and poverty—it’s about good and evil. They hate us for no reason. They just want us dead. And so I lose my previous (five minutes ago) certainty and start questioning again.

My questions chase their own tails.

Dust settles, mind does not.
—headline over Joan Ryan’s column in the

It’s unreal. It’s scary. I can forget it; I can’t forget it.
—my friend E in Washington, D.C.

I thought about writing this issue as a series of journal entries so I could focus on what I was thinking and feeling on a given day. But I realized that the entries would have to be constantly updated:

9:05 a.m.—Heart touched by the plight of Afghani refugees fleeing their country in advance of war.
9:10—Anger at people who think they’re the only real Americans because they came here from lighter-skinned parts of the world.
9:15—Grateful for national leaders who emphasize that Arab Americans are—hello!—Americans. At least we’re getting a much-needed education in Islam.
9:30—Anger at headline, “Falwell says U.S. has lost God’s protection because of spiritual void.” Is he HIGH?
10:05—Heart touched by hug from my favorite grocery store clerk.
10:40—Irritated by “violence only leads to violence” argument.
11:15—Fearful of “violence is the only thing they understand” argument.
11:20—Feel I have to choose one argument over the other. Can’t.
11:30—Horrified by images I can’t get out of my head—scads of shoes on the ground from falling bodies. [2009 update: A TV ad (for shoes, I guess) has shoes falling all over a city street, and I gasp: Did the imagery not ring a bell for anyone at the ad agency?]
11:42—Moved by stories of firemen’s heroism and self-deprecation (“just doing our job”).
12:05 p.m.—Up to here with images of wistful beauty and elegiac sadness.
2:10—Sick that this happened after Bush became president.
2:15—Wondering if Bush could be the right man for the job after all—can’t see Al Gore doing much for the national morale.
2:20—Friend I say this to writes it off to shock.
2:21—Realize she’s right.

And so on.

Some of you know that I put the mary’zine on hold this summer because of an unintended side effect of taking Zoloft, the anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-obsessive-compulsive-disorder medication that I have come to know and love (and just in time). No one could have been more surprised than I that I lost the desire to sit on some literary observation deck above my life and describe its ins and outs, its ups and downs, in witty or soulful terms for the edification of dozens. My “new self” no longer felt it had to justify its existence by writing or publishing.

But that was one of the few down sides, and I was willing to give up the ‘zine if I had to, because Zoloft rocked my world. Or I should say, it steadied it. It was as if my brain, body, and soul—victim(s) of brain chemistry or life experience or unexplained personality defects—soaked up this neuron-connecting drug like a parched begonia, leaving me calmer, less self-conscious, less afraid of what other people think of me, less judgmental of others, content to do the little tasks that are required to maintain a household. I first noticed the drug was working when I realized, to my amazement, that I was perfectly happy to be sitting on a stool out on my patio in the morning sunshine washing and laying out on a blanket approximately 5,000 separate sand tray items that hadn’t been dusted in years, from skulls to plastic hearts to spiders and beyond. I had a sublime moment of realizing that there was nowhere to get, nothing to achieve—that doing this task mattered more than finishing it. At last, I knew what it meant to be “in my body” and to simply be without the usual internal litany of “I’d rather be [reading, sleeping, eating]” (not necessarily in that order).

And then the Events of September 11 happened (“Event” is my chosen euphemism, a good substitute, I think, for “first war of the new millennium”). It’s a cliché, but my foundation felt shaken, like after the 1989 earthquake. After a couple days of total shock and media overload, I e-mailed Diane, saying in part,

… by turns I’m a prickly pear and a dish of mush and an unconcerned Zoloftian and a selfish Bay Arean who doesn’t know anyone directly involved and was damn glad to know that you, my chick-a-dee-dee, were driving and not flying on the fateful day.

In her reply, Diane suggested that I had the beginnings of the next issue of the ‘zine. So she was the first to put the bug in my ear, the bee in my bonnet, the ants in my pants to get the ‘zine back on track. I began to hear the call of the blank computer screen, even as I wondered what I could possibly add that would be of value to a world already saturated with expressions of grief, loss, anger, and love.

All week, I kept hearing people in the media talk about how in times of tragedy, everyone instinctively reaches out to make contact with their loved ones. I sat here alone in my home office, editing yet another book about microbes, wondering why my loved ones weren’t reaching out to me. Of course, I wasn’t reaching out to them, either. But I did turn on the ringer on my phone, way up to 4 rings, which is huge for me—to dare to answer the phone without knowing who is there. Eventually, some of my loved ones did reach out, and I want to thank Kerry, Sissypuss, Diane, Terry, and Kate for calling or e-mailing during the freshness and rawness of that first awful week.

A week after the Events, Rob Morse wrote in the Chronicle,

Last week we were slammed over and over again with the most horrendous reality TV of all time. Then the electronic media decided to censor anything that could conceivably trigger memories of the violence they had broadcast.

Some radio stations were dropping any song that referred to airplanes, plus REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” But besides the contradiction Rob Morse pointed out, protecting us from reminders is a hopeless cause. Most popular songs are about love or loss, so there’s no way to avoid thinking about our own vulnerability. Just being alive is a reminder.

With predictable timing, the pundits began telling us to try to get back to normal. For once, they were right. I felt palpably relieved whenever I turned off the TV and stepped outside to breathe the fragrant, cool air, or when I listened to the blue jay splashing away in the bird bath on the patio. It was good to be reminded of the natural world. Laughing with a friend on the phone eased my heart and soothed my nerves. Going out to dinner at the Lark Creek Inn to celebrate a friend’s birthday felt alternately like a relief and a guilty pleasure. After we ordered dinner, the waitress informed us that there were candles out front in case we wanted to go outside for the national moment of silence at 7 p.m. We didn’t. We had had our fill—one friend had already sung two “Amazing Grace”s and had two moments of silence at the school where she works. It seemed more important right then to be sitting at a table together, waiting for our petrale sole and our heirloom tomato salad and our butterscotch pudding to arrive, talking of little things and big Events and laughing when we could.

My goddaughter Kelly, age 25, was having dinner with us. I told her I might not be writing the ‘zine anymore. She said I couldn’t stop now. Why? “Because you haven’t written about me yet!” So I teased her that I was going to dig up some embarrassing stories from her childhood. She mentioned the time she peed in my bed, which I don’t even remember. But Peggy said to her, “No, she’s going to write about your saying you want her to write about you.” The woman knows me, I must say.

This year I’ve been struck by the fact that Kelly is the same age I was when I met Peggy 30 years ago. Let’s have a moment of eerie silence to contemplate that horrific number. (“Eerie silence” and “horrific” were the terms we decided we were most tired of hearing in the wake of the Events.) Even though my political agenda back then was quite different from hers (she’s an ardent environmentalist, health-foodist, bike rider), I feel the connection of having been, like her, an idealistic young person with a desire to create change.

But what’s also fascinating to me, beyond seeing the similarities and differences between our life paths, is that contemplating her young life puts my middle-age-hood in perspective. It’s interesting to see some of the ancient truisms coming, in fact, true—such as the one that says the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know. That’s not as frightening as it may sound. It even makes life more interesting and less depressing—there is more to learn, more windows of opportunity, more ports in a storm, more facets of every diamond in the rough, more complexity and more grace. More ability to change, rather than less, which is what I used to think. So to all those who fear growing older—you won’t know the benefits until you get here.

In the newspaper the other day, there was a photograph of Ukrainian Americans in Golden Gate Park celebrating the 10th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. One of the women in the photograph leaped out at me. (Not literally—I have not completely lost touch with reality.) Sturdy and rather grim-(or determined-)looking, as if she’d seen it all and then some, she reminded me of my Danish peasant grandmother. Wrapped in a warm coat, her purse on her lap, she held a small American flag. And in that moment I got it about the flag. How it’s the immigrants from poor or war-torn countries who carry the American dream forward, who claim the flag as their own, who consecrate it rather than embarrass it. She wasn’t holding a symbol of world power or hegemony, she was holding a symbol of freedom and all the other American ideals that seem so false and fragile at times. I was humbled by this. In my youth, it was easy to disavow this symbol of America’s hypocrisy. But this woman wasn’t holding the same flag that’s waved by the patriotic jerks who want to bomb a country of innocents into the Stone Age. In her hands, it meant something good and true.

I cut out the picture of this woman and taped it to the side of my computer. At first, I thought I may have to take it down, because the wrenching of my heart every time I looked at it was hard to take. The picture gave me something important, something I valued, but the brain (enjoyer of certainty and habit) fights any attempt of the heart to be open, to let love and suffering coexist in a contradiction that will always be linked.

Soon the picture became part of my desktop landscape, and I had to strain to reexperience what had felt like “too much” only days before. This is the other part of the contradiction: the love, the suffering… and the ability to move on. Thomas Friedman, who has written extensively about the Middle East, said on NPR’s “Fresh Air” that people who live with terrorism every day are either survivors or thrivers. The survivors are consumed by fear; the thrivers are appropriately careful, but they don’t let fear rule their lives. He wished for us all to be thrivers.

One of my friends flew back East 5 days after the Events. Another friend doesn’t want to fly again until she knows what’s going to happen. I wonder if we will ever “know what’s going to happen.” One thing I have not felt much during this topsy-turvy time is fear. It could be the Zoloft working its magic, or it could be the enormity of the Events, the vagueness of the threat, and the pointlessness of being afraid. It seems likely that the terrorists who are still out there won’t target the airlines again—we’ve already rushed to close that barn door after the horse was gone. For all we know, having made their symbolic statement about American finance and military might, they will start planting bombs in random small towns and cities throughout the country—San Rafael, Boulder, Taos, Ashfield—but it’s all too amorphous. Why not just go ahead and worry about Death and be done with it? For me, at least, the Events have not so much struck terror in me (though I could still be in the shock stage) as they have made me realize it’s pointless to fear the unpredictable and the unexpected—which is to say, Life itself. I could die on a hijacked airplane or be hit by a bus or get crushed in the next earthquake. Speaking of which, to quote myself, “They say there’s a 60% chance of earthquake. Well, there’s a 100% chance of death.” Who are we trying to kid?

Overall, I’d have to say that during these last weeks, thanks to the Zoloft, I have been more forgiving of myself than I would have been in the past. I have mostly allowed myself to experience whatever life brings me: the sweetness of the only cartoon in this week’s New Yorker (a violinist with her head bowed, stopping the music, and her cat covering its eyes), the sadness even when it does not bring tears, the irritability when it does not achieve righteous anger, the hardening and softening of my heart in seemingly alternating pulses, the occasional fear, the love, the lack of fear, the lack of love, the political confusion, the selfishness, the compassion. I think I have never before felt so much a part of humanity. I don’t want to give up that feeling—that sane connection with reality—but I don’t know if I can stand it. Sometimes it is just too heartbreaking to be alive, and to feel so much.

Almost last, but certainly not least, Diane sent a group of us the following poem. My first thought when I saw it was, “I don’t want a goddamn poem.” I was already up to here with beautiful expressions of loss, love, and gratitude. But the poem is exceptional, and so I share it here.


with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridge to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with all the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

—W.S. Merwin

from The Rain in the Trees, copyright© 1998 by W.S. Merwin.

And now—I don’t know about you, but I need a freakin’ break. So here is a guest contributor to take our minds off our own species’ troubles.

my life with mare—a work in progress
by pookie (poet manqué)

so i live with this human… they call her mare like a horse haha…. ive been studyin her for about 14 years now… observin her closely takin copious mental notes. i do my surveillance with eyes half closed so she thinks im sleepin but im always on the job.

mary is remarkably unselfconscious in front of me which tells me she has no clue as to my true mental capacity. i play the dumb kitty cat pretty good if i do say so myself. she doesnt even check for my whereabouts when she gets out her magic wand. i have to say, thats kind of insultin, i mean what am i, chopped liver/she thinks i can sleep through that racket/well someone has to maintain the proper boundaries around here so i quietly leave the room and find somethin to do downstairs like visit the litter box… though i usually like to save that for mealtimes, just to get her goat….

i used to enjoy a little self-diddlin myself; she had this fuzzy lavender blanket that i just loved; but as soon as i got my paws on it and got my mojo workin, shed grab it away. but those days are long gone and not even kitty viagra would help me now.

its hell to get old.

i have to admit that not that much happens to me. its a big day if she lets me go out on the patio to lie on the sticker plants. i dont much care for the sticker removal process but its so nice to get a whiff of fresh air that isnt comin from a window three feet above my head. lots of interestin smells out there. i try to hide in the honeysuckle vines, hopin shell forget im there but she never does. ive been studyin the fence, which has a possible way out if i could dig deep enough… but im not gettin any younger….

ok heres the big confession. i was abused as a kitten. i know its very trendy to talk about those things now, but i had to get it off my chest. this horrible man used to throw things at me and even throw me when he could catch me. it was pretty brutal but it was the only life i knew. then mare took me in when no one else would have me and for that im grateful. but there was that time she almost let me die of a bladder infection. for once i wished i could speak cuz she sure wasnt gettin the first clue about how much pain i was in. i have to admit since then her attitude has changed for the better… she pets me a lot more and talks to me in that high, funny voice they all have when they like us, and i gotta admit it feels pretty good.

sorry i was so cranky last time i wrote. thats what happens when you dont get your tuna-flavored laxative when you want it. i gotta admit the spoken vocabulary of my species leaves much to be desired… meow… mew… erkk… there just isnt a lot of range when youre askin for somethin specific. she has this cartoon of a cat lyin on a shrinks couch and hes sayin to the shrink im startin to feel dependent and boy can i relate to that.

anyway i came into her life when i was a tough young tomcat with a chip on my shoulder and a few problems with anxiety and depression… from the kittenhood abuse of course. when i was just startin to get the hang of the new place and still had the strength to jump up on the dinin room table and the washin machine and actually look out the freakin window she brought in a little girl cat that she called tweeter and i called ms priss… oy gevalt… i think mare thought she was doin me a favor but what favor thats what i want to know. ms priss was a connivin little thing actin all sweet to mares face but talkin mighty catty behind her back… meow… she even played this stupid game fetchin little wadded up pieces of paper that mare would throw and then bringin em back and droppin em at her feet lookin up at her all cutesy gag me with a spoon. i tried to get on mares good side by runnin after corks but i was too proud to bring em back so little ms priss got all the best seats in the house like the bed and that damn lavender blanket. i used to pounce on her when she walked by… ms priss that is… what a brainless girly girl she was shed squeal and mare would come runnin.

since ms priss went away life has been pretty uneventful. i eat sleep beg for treats lie on cardboard sometimes walk back and forth between mares legs when shes workin on the computer which is pretty much all the time unless shes stretched out like a corpse on the bed. it’s not a bad life all in all.

well i guess id better skedaddle. til next time yrs truly

p.s. good luck people, god bless humanity and all creatures great and small

[Mary McKenney]

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