Why Not to Commit Suicide

 

About eight years ago in November, a man I valued very much as a friend and colleague stepped outside his car and shot himself on the asphalt of an emergency room parking lot.

His standards as a teacher had been high while his heart was large. When he became my boss, he advocated fearlessly for academic freedom. He regularly visited teachers’ offices to loan us the latest novel he felt passionately about.

When I could not understand the stunning loss of his vibe in my world, his wife gave me William Styron’s book Darkness Visible to read. She said she believed that if her husband had read it he might still be alive. The book chronicles Styron’s near fatal depression and how he saved himself by asking his wife to drive him to the hospital one night when he felt horribly close to killing himself and some part of him didn’t want to. Styron said it was a huge relief to admit how dark his depression was, to finally be “out” as someone in deep psychological pain. He could finally at least stop faking that he was having a good time.

A year or so after reading the book, I asked to be driven to the hospital for the same reason. I was thinking that what my friend had done made perfect sense, and I was ready to put an end to irresolvable grief and self-contempt. I was going to get in my car and buy a gun. I knew I was ready to do that, and I didn’t want to.

If you ever want to jump the line at the ER, just say you think you’re going to kill yourself. Apparently, there’s a well thought out policy not to tell potential suicides to have a seat and watch television for an unknown length of time amongst people in various stages of unattended to pain and trauma.

Once you’re whisked into the back, you’re trapped. Keys and any dangerous meds you have are taken away. And since you can’t very well off yourself on a gurney by the nurses’ station, the staff can take their sweet time getting to you.

After a couple of hours of lying in fetal position under a thin blanket, I felt someone’s hand on my shoulder. A sad-eyed nurse sat with me and told me that her only child had died, too. She gave me information for a support group for grieving parents and checked up on me until it was time for her to go home to a dim and empty house.

After about six hours in the main thoroughfare of the emergency department, I got transferred to the mental health unit.  A doctor there gave me some Trazodone and let me go home.

Trazodone is a nasty drug that I took a few times before deciding that I didn’t need to be in a nauseating stupor. But over the years I have circled back to suicidal feelings, which is one of several good reasons not to own a gun.

People who don’t fall that deeply into depression may not understand the mixture of profound discomfort and shame that traps you between not wanting to be alone and not wanting to impose your crazy dark self on others; sullenly slumping in the corner of a holiday party or announcing as you sob that you are incapable of coping with something supports your image of yourself as a fucked up individual — not worthy of comfort or joy.

My depressions are almost always attached to a physical ailment, some chronic pain that either triggers the downslide or is a manifestation of it. A malfunctioning body just seems like the proverbial last straw. Often, treating the physical problem relieves the depression, but as I age there are more ailments arising, more opportunities to lose faith in something as simple as being comfortable.

But I don’t want to do what my friend did. I don’t want to disappear forever and not be around to add to the voices that root for compassion and wisdom.

What helps me enormously are the people who give me affection — even a kind stranger á la Blanche DuBois. Even better are the people who gladly receive my affection, who help me to feel that I have something worthwhile to offer.

Buddhism is the core of my survival. It sets the bar beyond ego and its suffering. I haven’t reached that bar, but knowing it’s there is tremendously important to me. And yoga is a big help, too.

And then there are those who, for whatever misguided and delusional reasons, see me as a role model, the way I saw my friend and colleague as a man to follow for his great mind and listening heart.

My students, the kids next door whom I held right after they were born, my grand niece who at nine is already an amazing person — these are reasons to suck it up. I don’t want them to wonder for one second if the woman they looked up to had the right idea when she put a gun to her head.

The holidays are especially difficult for people who deal with depression. The worst, absolute worst, is feeling compelled to join in festivities that either have no meaning for you or seem like cruel shams. Some of us want to live through this season without bringing others down or without betraying ourselves with false joviality.

I wish my friend were still alive, and I hope all the good people in the world — the ones whose hearts and minds are open, sometimes too open — will stay with us for as long as humanly possible. We need more, not less of that.

WHY I MEDITATE

All kinds of crap happens. To all of us. I can’t think of an extended period of time in my life when crap didn’t happen.

In the past, when I wasn’t meditating and crap happened, I was a drama queen; I was a hysterical drama queen, and there are plenty of ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands who can attest to that. I’ve done such things as walking catatonically out into a winter night barefoot and in my nightgown, hitting myself in the head with a shoe while crouching behind a Christmas tree, fucking men I shouldn’t have even shaken hands with, and consuming copious amounts of Jack Daniels and valium.

I think I was influenced by old movies about insane women – women who grabbed their hair in their hands or got drunk and slutty or rocked back and forth in the corner of some insane asylum; (see “The Caretakers” and “The Snake Pit” for examples). The message was that these women were very, very unhappy; messed up things had happened to them that they couldn’t talk about. I wanted people to get that about me, but instead they legitimately saw my behavior as disturbing and self-centered, and anyway I really didn’t want to be put in an insane asylum.

I’d always dabbled in Zen Buddhism, but about fifteen years ago, I started doing zazen (sitting meditation) with some regularity. I actually did meditation retreats, getting up before dawn and meditating for at least six hours a day for seven days at a time. I thought about becoming a Buddhist nun. Okay – that was more drama, another extreme in my case, because I am honestly not cut out to be any kind of nun. But in that time I developed a daily practice, and every morning I do at least 25 minutes of zazen.

And that has made all the difference, to quote Robert Frost.

When real crap hit the fan eleven years ago and my son died, I immediately thought of a line from a Yeats poem: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” There was nothing to do. And that is all I could do – nothing.

The very morning after I learned that my son was dead, I went through the pre-dawn darkness to the zen center and sat. And every morning that week, I did the same, participating in the chanting rituals for grieving. The chanting was just something to do, but it was the zazen, the doing nothing, that seemed most appropriate, most honest.

Because zazen reminds me that ultimately, we can do nothing to stop crap from happening. We are not special; we are not picked out to be punished; we are – everybody is — subject to the pain of impermanence and loss.

I’ve done zazen when I was faced with cancer. A lot of my sitting practice has been taken up with paranoid attention to some part of my body that hurts or I’m afraid will have to be lopped off. And still I don’t think this is a waste of time, because at least I’m just there with the fear and the paranoia and not burying it to crop up later in some crazy acting out, like hitting myself in the head with a shoe or dragging the cat out from under the bed by the tail to comfort me.

Zazen is just facing reality. That’s all it is. Facing reality without distractions, without falling asleep, without slumping. I sit up straight and breathe and whatever is happening is happening.

Just the act of sitting alert and straight in the midst of whatever crap is at hand is a statement of faith in one’s ability to handle it, faith in reality. It’s not like rocking in the corner of an insane asylum, announcing with all your might that you are falling apart and consumed by weakness.

And after a few minutes of focusing on something as mundane as your breath going in and out, you get calmer. Calm enough to get up and grieve or play or eat a peanut butter sandwich or go in for surgery without causing more problems for yourself and others with some dysfunctional drama.

I can still put on the costume and become a lunatic; there are still things that hook me. But I don’t indulge in the craziness so much; I at least know how useless and self-defeating becoming a lunatic is.

Sometimes I pray – to the great mystery – to compassion and wisdom in whatever form it may take. Maybe I’m praying to myself or to whatever sparks the void into the dance of time and space and consciousness. I’m praying for grace: the strength and wisdom to be serene and clear in the midst of any crap that may come along.

And that’s what meditation is all about for me, the effort to have a clear experience of reality, of what is, a genuine connection to everything, from excruciating loss to a good cup of tea.

 

I “HEART” DRUNKS

I’ve started to go to al-anon meetings again. For those of you not in the know about the 12-step world, it’s like Alcoholics Anonymous, only for the family members or companions of addicts – the enablers and such.

My father was a functioning alcoholic – well, functioning in the sense that he made a good living as a doctor, played golf at the Country Club and was an upright member of the Episcopal Church. Oh, whoops – he also sexually molested his daughters and probably some of his patients, and treated his wife like crap. He couldn’t even stay in the room with her as she was dying. He was a big baby.

Getting high relieves people from the duty of thinking clearly and developing grown-up wisdom and compassion.

My father’s drinking was an acceptable part of the white middle class world of the 1950’s and 60’s. He had two, often three stiff drinks every day after five, and after noon on Sunday when he switched from Scotch to martinis.

That’s a lot of liquor.

Nowadays the drunks I know are more into fine wines and Belgian ales. Consuming a good French Cabernet or a few pints of micro-brewed pale ale seems civilized. Chic. Cool. Even when they start to talk a little too loudly or announce to their dinner party guests that their husband can’t get it up.

When I was a drunk, starting in high school and careening through college and into grad school, I drank whatever would get me high. I drank to get drunk. I’d finish a hard week of paper writing, report giving and test taking and take a well-deserved vacation in the local bar. Playing pinball, shooting pool, flirting with men who smelled bad, downing shots of this and pitchers of that, I’d often stumble outside when it was still daylight. I thought this was normal!! And I’ve been thinking this it is normal, fun behavior to get high on a regular basis for most of my life. So even if I wasn’t doing it, I thought it was uptight and unlovable of me to want other people to stop doing it.

Boring people stay sober. Weirdos. Bland weirdos who are not with it.

Two things saved me from becoming a full-tilt alcoholic: getting pregnant and not wanting to damage my baby, and developing a horrible physical reaction to alcohol consumption – ripping headaches that come along with even the slightest buzz. But when I was drinking, promiscuity, drunk driving and other behaviors I deeply regret went right along with the alcohol.

Drunks think they’re partying or relaxing – having a good time, being cool. But when you’re drunk you’re more likely to hurt people, physically or emotionally, than you would if you were sober. I mean , DUH!

And if you find yourself friends or lovers or partners with or parents of someone who drinks a lot you know how reliable those people are in terms of being there when you need them, showing up when they’re supposed to, remembering things, finishing what they start. You know how they can say devastating things that linger like a rancid fart.

You know how chronic drinkers often talk about not feeling well and blame it on the bacon they had for breakfast instead of the four beers they had the night before. “I think I have a flu or something.” Yeah, right.

As someone who abused the hell out of alcohol for a good swath of my life, I know the delusional realm in which drinkers live. The fuzzy fun-filled world of the buzz seems like good clean fun until you notice that your life has a few too many dysfunctional dramas in it.

As someone who seems to seek out drinkers and enmesh myself with them, I finally realized that despite my aversion to all the God talk at 12 step meetings, I was powerless over alcohol and what a mess it created in my life, and I needed help.

Functioning alcoholics, or, if you prefer, chronic drinkers who don’t seem to be causing any harm, inevitably behave in juvenile ways that hurt themselves and others.

And people like me who play a leading role in their dramas end up being a burden to loved ones who have to hear about those dramas, the same ones over and over and over again. I cry. I talk, talk, talk. I’m a pain in the ass.

I have noticed that the people I know who have fucked up royally in some way are more than likely drinkers. And I’ve often been the one they could come to for a good dose of enabling – even taking them out for a beer while we talked about their big messes and persistent lack of achievement or contentment.

As someone who practices Zen Buddhism, I see the 12-steps as a process of detachment from the ego-centered behavior of enablers like me. We toggle back and forth between wanting to change and control the drinkers and wanting to buy them a round to show how cool we are. We want to be needed, liked. And we often end up hating the drinkers and ourselves for being caught in such a tawdry cycle of self-focused fear and anger.

Yes, there are other evils out there besides alcohol. And yes, there are assholes who aren’t drunks. And yes, a glass of wine, a couple of drinks at a party, a pint of Guinness in a pub  – these are not the sure signs of addiction.

But hello my name is Kate, and I have been in the familiar world of chronic drinkers for too long. It’s a huge waste of time and energy, and whatever was comfortable and entertaining about it has expired like a carton of lumpy milk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

STRESSED OUT

I’m on vacation. I’ve been on vacation for almost three months. And I’m stressed out. Basically, I’m ruminating too much.

Most of the respectable people I know have home projects. They never have enough free time to do all those projects – remodeling, painting, gardening, putting things in color-coded plastic bins. My domestic ambitions are minimal. I make the bed every morning. I vacuum occasionally; I dust if guests are coming. I clean the bathroom. It’s a small house. Most of it has the same paint job it had when I moved in 14 years ago. I have planted one tree; the rest were either there when I moved in or popped up in my yard because they wanted to.

Cooking bores me – my own cooking. I love other people’s cooking. I don’t sew, knit – okay, enough of all that.

I suppose if I did any of those things I would have some worthwhile distractions from the stress that fills the vacation vacuum and from the inevitable suffering that is the result of being human.

Here’s how the external world could help me out.

First, my society could give up capitalism as a failed ideal that fosters greed, violence and gross inequity.

Capitalism creates a world in which health care is run by people who want to make money and suffered by patients who cannot pay for medical help. Capitalism is brutal; unregulated capitalism has given us a corrupt and bankrupt system run by corporations who somehow get protected by patriotic propaganda while taking jobs to others countries so they can exploit workers there and put more money in their own, not their country’s, coffers.

Second, my world would give up religion as a failed ideal that fosters stupidity and blind obedience to lunatics.

Religion – any religion – taken literally, whether it preaches about a paradise with horny virgins, an angel promoting polygamy, or a devil who causes a holy man to buy crack-cocaine from a gay prostitute, is popularized psychotic delusion. It creates a world in which people can be convinced to blow themselves and others up, mutilate their daughters’ genitals, write 1500 page manifestos before killing children at a summer camp, and on and on and on.

When put together – capitalism and religion – these failed ideals have created a stressful hell on earth. Capitalists sedate or whip up the masses with religious propaganda that miraculously supports the system in which they thrive and most of the world struggles. In order to do this, capitalists promote belief rather than thinking, temples and churches rather than schools. Education encourages logical thinking, which does not go with a literal belief in some holy book or a a belief that it’s okay for a few guys to make billions of dollars while there’s a growing category of people called the working poor.

There are pockets of peace and sanity – some of them personal, some of them global. My cat, for example, is amusing and neither a Democrat nor a Republican. Music – no need to explain. Friends and family when politics and religion aren’t discussed. That person — a doctor, a clerk at Walgreen’s – who helps you out and is both smart and kind and not thinking about how much money he or she can get out of you. And it’s comforting to imagine that even if human beings destroy their own species as a result of greed and ignorance, there will still be the Grand Canyon and the Himalayas and the Amazon River, and they’ll thrive without those names we’ve given them and without human pollution. We may take a few other species down with us, but the Earth will survive.

But how sad to think that all this – the cat, the friends, the clerk at Walgreen’s and the Amazon River =– have been here all along to be cherished by us, and instead we go for imaginary gods and a brutal continuation of primate lust for the most ass and the most bananas.

We can do better. I’m sure of it. And that’s why I keep writing and will be glad to get back in the classroom where I’ll ask my students not what they want out of the world, but what kind of world they want. I’ll just ask, because I am hopeful that one or two of them will look for an answer.

And I think that in a moment of wisdom, most people would say they want a world that is intelligent and compassionate, and logic dictates that religion and unregulated capitalism do not make such a world.

BE HERE NOW, ONLY BE SOMEONE ELSE

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Last night my band “The Deadbeets” had practice — coming off of a huge and dizzying world premier concert in front of 500 screaming and applauding fans – okay, they were elementary school kids. Our first gig – at the Lobo Theater six blocks away from my house, where Monte Vista Elementary School students march in for assembly. And there we were – the Deadbeets, old enough to be their grandparents. They were a generous audience.

Like something out of “Spinal Tap” we were rock stars for a day.  And last night, as my partner walked up the driveway, one of the neighborhood kids who was at the concert noted the six pack of beer he was carrying and said, with awe and adoration, “You guys are having a practice tonight, aren’t you?”

Since the slow and tender beginnings of this band of aging baby boomers, at my 57th birthday party when I asked that all the musicians I knew come and jam, our making music together has been a miraculous bit of fun and comradery. I have felt like I’m living in an old fantasy, at the same time that Stevie Nicks is returning to the stage at 62. Then at last night’s practice my rickety sense of well-being imploded.

I’d had those nasty band moments before – feeling slighted when my singing parts got whittled down. At the time, I admitted to my band mates that I felt like saying. “You fucking sing the whole fucking song, then”  — to a dear, longtime friend who has actually had a professional musician’s experience and was gently suggesting that she sing more of the song than I was singing. This cliche moment in the world of rock and roll was not in proportion to my star quality.

I sort of got over that. But it was on the books, to my chagrin.  And we went on to do the elementary school concert with that particular song put aside.

So we were all high on the fact that we actually didn’t suck on our first gig and practices were set for the next gig – the graduation party of one of the band mates.

Everyone was tired but  happy and ready for hard work and snacks.

But last night the crash came for me in two steps:

First, I saw the video and pictures of the concert. I am the fattest and most in need of a face lift chick on the stage. Okay, I’ve had years of experience being disgusted with pictures of myself, horrified that I could walk around in public with the drooping face and fat ass I inhabit. But zooming in on my image in those pictures was not an uplifting experience.

My response to that was to be a little fragile in the core. I ate none of the snacks that had been part of the joy of band practice – no pretzels, no popcorn, no chips. Water for me. Shallow water.

Second, the much thinner than I accordionist announced that her son had given her a keyboard very much like mine and the band erupted in elation over the prospect of her playing it. The already fragile core in me felt twisted, like someone was trying to wring the juice out of it. I’m the keyboardist, who already is clearly not a very good singer or much to look at, and now there’s a rallying cry for another keyboardist to play.

“Suck it up. Oh, please suck it up,” I’m saying to myself.

And I wonder what the dulcimer player would feel like if I said, “Hey, I just bought a great dulcimer and want to play it.” She’s another thin and hot looking woman, and of course a better person than I am, so she’d probably be okay with it. She’d probably be enthusiastic about sharing the dulcimer experience with me.

I’m a bad person in two distinct ways around this particular fall into a depressive abyss: I obviously am not a good enough keyboardist to stand on my own AND I’m so insecure and self-centered that I don’t want to share one note of my territory with someone else.

Someone get a gun and shoot me.

Here are my choices: get a gun and shoot myself; slink off and pout; smile and proceed as though it’s all good (when that’s not remotely how I really feel); quit the band because I obviously can’t handle normal human interaction around creative cooperation; or be such a fucking great goddam keyboardist that no beloved bitch will be able to touch me, AND lose 30 pounds and get a facelift before our gig in the nursing home.

Oh, I’m tired just thinking about it. The whole experience is a mirror held up to my least wise self.

I want the fun back. I want the feeling that we’re in it together and generous and respectful of each other’s efforts and shortcomings and passions. I want all the competitive insecurity in my head to transform into boddhisatva peace and love.

The only refuge for me is my other practice – my Buddhist practice. The only refuge from all this internal bullshit is to sit on the cushion and breathe, not to cure myself but to try to wake up more deeply to the obvious pain of relying on the ego for happiness and peace, to the need to accept it all.

You cannot have a frail ego and play in a band and keep it fun. Go ask Alice.

I’m grateful for the wonderful, awesome fun we had, but I’m no longer an innocent. I am an overweight 59 year old woman whose talents and attitude aren’t strong enough to keep the fun going for me or any of my awesome band mates.

We all hit the wrong notes and we all die; perfectionism and delusions that anything is permanent make everybody suffer. I need to really get that.

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INVISIBLE WOMEN

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When I was a teenager in the 60’s, I was hot. Yes, indeed. I went braless, wore halter tops and mini-skirts; I had long red hair and what my mother called “bedroom eyes.”

My mother in her day was a classic beauty, though she was embarrassed that she had large breasts. I had neither the big breasts nor the stunning face of my mother. But men looked at me, and when my mother and I went out together, to the grocery store for example, she’d walk behind me and watch how men would turn and look as I passed. “When you get to be my age,” she said when she was five years younger than I am today, “you’re invisible.” She was amused, not bitter.

I used to pity women over forty who seemed pathetically doomed to invisibility, uncool, unsexy and basically worthless. Even as a feminist, somewhere deep in my very shallow soul – the waters barely sloshing around my ankles at the time — I believed that to be sexy as a woman was more valuable than say, winning the Nobel Prize. But to be sexy AND win the Nobel Prize – that would most definitely be cool.

Now 58 years old, I stand up in front of five classrooms full of men and women. In that sense people are forced to look at me. And I’ve got a partner, whose soul’s waters aren’t so shallow as mine were,  who loves my aging self. So, I can’t complain about being invisible. But I am not remotely hot in any public way, and I don’t see any chance of winning the Nobel Prize unless there’s some apocalyptic occurrence and the only person left to receive the prize besides me is George W. Bush.

My mother prepared me to slip into oblivion as a hot chick, but she didn’t prepare me for the gritty details of menopause. So, if there’s anyone out there who would rather pierce their eyelids with a paperclip than read about hot flashes and dried up sexual organs, you’d better stop reading now.

Okay – what my mother didn’t tell me is that taking hormones to ward off  the discomforts of menaopause increases your chances of getting breast cancer. Learned that one. I had to go cold turkey on prescription hormones, which changed the décor of my bedroom. I now have a remote controlled fan near the bed. When I wake up, sometimes three or four times a night, with an overwhelming urge to pee, drink water and kill someone; and with the sense that invisible monkey men are plastering my upper body with heating pads, I throw off the covers and click on the roaring fan. I, like many women, have found myself standing in front of the refrigerator at 2:37am trying to put my head into the freezer, or flung open the front door and stood out on the porch when it was 2 degrees thinking, “Ahhh, now that’s refreshing.”

Many women have it worse than I do. My hot flashes are waning. During the day I hardly notice them. But when one does come on, it is often attended by a spike in irritation with anything – any damned thing; the cat, the computer, the sound of birds chirping, the fucking tea cup with the fucking green tea bag in it. For a few seconds I’m in the mood to rip up whatever student paper I’m grading or tell the cat that she is NOT particularly cute or worthy of being given her foodie-wooedies. Unlike the men who collect automatic weapons and regularly fantasize about shooting innocent people, menopausal women generally understand that if they wait a minute or so, they will return to an acceptance of the tedious and unjust world we inhabit.

Now as to sex. I’m going to, for the sake of my loved ones, generalize here. Many women who have been through menopause have this choice: watch their partners troll for women thirty years younger, watch them find that cute waitress who appreciates a man with a big mole growing on his face and a bank account,  and then proceed to be bitter crones; or pony up, so to speak, and grab the KY jelly. Pain occurs. Imagine, if you are a man or if you are still young and juicy, that someone wants to put a regular sized dinner table candle made of sandpaper up one of your nostrils and move it around for several minutes. Some adjustments need to be made, to the nostril, the candle and the length of time involved creating friction.

I’m glad that I’m a woman for a lot of reasons. For one thing, a lot of old men continue to have the same sex drive they had when they were twenty, but they are paunched out and balding with yellow teeth, small sagging breasts and hearing aids. That must be kinda frustrating. Women’s libido dwindles at about the same time they start preferring comfortable shoes. The horror occurs when such women still want the attention a sexy woman gets; they get cosmetic surgery or buy clothes at Urban Outfitters, showing cleavage that looks like its made out of crepe paper. There is no dignity to this.

Dignity has a sense of humor. Dignity finds it interesting that if you slouch just enough you can look like an aged chimpanzee with sagging breasts. Dignity goes to the gym to be healthy not to look  twenty years younger. Dignity continues to get naked and be intimate, with creative adjustments. Dignity revels in a good meal, good friends, good art, and the discipline not to be bitter about the most natural thing in the world – getting old. Dignity has added depth to the soul and swims in naked solitude in a large and shadowed lake rather than standing in a “My LIttle Pony” kiddie pool with a thong on.

I think it would be darn fun to walk around with my mother now, both of us invisible. We’d have a good conversation about literature, go to a movie in the afternoon and eat popcorn and Jordan Almonds, note the ridges on our fingernails, and nobody would bother us. Someone would be waiting for us to come home, but nobody would bother us.

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MAGICAL READING

reading_ma_000Diana and I shoplifted a lot in Atlanta, Georgia, in the summer of ’73.  We were bad girls, living in a house of students or quasi-students who did drugs, figured out how to rip off various companies by putting bills in the name of Herbert Marcuse, and slept with each other and with each other’s partners. We considered ourselves on the cutting edge of intellectual hedonism, profound freedom that in truth was unmemorable and stupid.

What I remember most about that summer is the book I was reading at the time: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

I was often reading it beside a pool at a nearby motel that Diana and I would sneak into – sneak really isn’t the right term since the manager liked having a couple of hippie chicks in shoplifted bikinis hanging out for the viewing pleasure of himself and his lodgers.

I can still see the shape and feel the texture of Heller’s book in my hand. I lived in it, through the hints that something deeply sad and horrific had happened. At the end you find out what a young soldier’s repeated complaints of being cold are all about. It’s a stunning revelation about war – any war.

Much earlier, in more innocent times, I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind in three days and nights, hardly sleeping. My mother thought I was making myself sick. The movie was also great, but a book is a door through which you enter into the world of the story; you don’t just watch it.

Going forward to the mid-nineties, my son, 14 at the time, was in his room with the light on at 4am. I was afraid of what he was doing – something bad, no doubt, like his mother used to do. But he was reading. In one night he read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It spoke to him. He also, like Holden Caulfield, was struggling in a world where adults seemed to be full of shit.

My spiritual life, the thing that has sustained me and strengthened me when I could easily have imploded, was started by books, the most memorable being Alan Watt’s The Meaning of Happiness. It pulled me back from the abyss of psycho drama and started a lifetime of zen Buddhist practice that has never let me down.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl still looms as profound proof that in the most horrid of circumstances, integrity can survive. I had already renounced shoplifting, but Frankl’s book challenges one to manifest the beauty of life no matter how victimized or in what sick system one exists.

I worry about a world in which people don’t read books. Living the emotions and pains of characters outside one’s self is what empathy is all about. Information doesn’t develop empathy. Blogs that take 15 minutes to read don’t allow someone to be in the shoes of someone else long enough to walk in them.

A privileged white girl, I had no access to the details of the lives of African Americans except through books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Where was I going to understand the life of Chinese peasants other than in The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck? And John Hersey’s Hiroshima left images in my mind that speak up whenever the issue of nuclear arsenals is raised.

Sometimes the magic of a book took me into a fantastical world, one so poignantly and thoroughly crafted that I cared deeply about something as foreign to my own life as a hobbit.

There are many ways to get out of one’s self-centered focus and care for others. One can do good works. One can care for others through actions and policy making. But good books shape the heart for such work.

There are young people who read. I know there are. Some are my students. They turn me on to books, such as the wonderful sci-fi work Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. So the stream hasn’t dried up. But it’s trickling.

The flow of books and reading has thinned in large part because of a profit-based foundation on which all kinds of arts now rest comfortably. I doubt Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake would be published today. Editors now consult the accounting and marketing departments before taking a risk with a manuscript. Bold marketers could sell whatever they devote themselves to, but they give their limited time to a sure thing.

I wonder what we’re missing, what’s not available to us that could rock our world.

As a writer, it’s my job never to give up, to keep writing about what compels me, not what I think can be easily marketed.  And I also have to be self-critical and sure that my work is worth the time I’m asking readers to give to it. I have to be willing to revise and deepen my writing and accept that no matter how much time I’ve put into a book, it just may not be worthy of publication. As I tell my students, serve your art, not your ego.

As a teacher, it’s my job to inspire students to expand their lives – to live a book. But I have to be realistic. I have to say that reading a book requires a radical slowing down of the typical lifestyle of surfing the net, texting and playing video games. We have become addicted to shallow stimulation and a pace that doesn’t fit the process of reading a novel.

At 58, I’ve been sucked into that fast lane. I can see its toll. I rarely carry a book with me anymore. And I can feel what I’ve lost.

Maybe the only conclusion to this is simply to say thank-you – to so many writers, living and dead, who gave me intense experiences, lasting reference points. And thank you to publishers and libraries whose dedication to books has made a place for readers and writers to abide freely.

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LSD versus Oxycodone

4032430931_706ae5796dMany of us baby boomers rebelled against the bullshit we detected in our racist, sexist society. We rebelled against a war we knew was a brutal lie. We advocated for civil rights. We demanded equal rights for women. Now we’re getting old. What will we demand for the elderly before we are too feeble, too sick to demand anything?

Were our outbursts in the sixties successful? Of course we didn’t produce the utopia or even the socialist system some of us envisioned. But we did make enough noise to inspire some progress in policies and lifestyle, including organic food choices and yoga classes.

We failed in many ways because we were up against a formidable opponent – our inner and outer capitalist. Corporations have succeeded in marketing a toxic lifestyle and we continue to buy it – from the two huge white trucks I see parked across the street in my neighbor’s driveway to the hormone replacement drugs that I took to alleviate hot flashes, drugs that undoubtedly contributed to the development of cancer in my breast.

If there’s fight left in us, we need to take on the healthcare system, not in terms of HOW we pay for it, but in terms of WHAT we pay for. Those of us who have made it to senior citizenship need to continue, or in some cases resurrect, our demand for honest and intelligent assessment of institutions and of our own complacency and collusion with corporate propaganda.

Consider pharmaceuticals. As I said already, I was poisoned by hormone replacement drugs because I gladly bought the assumption that menopause was a bad thing that my body shouldn’t be doing. I know that many women in my generation did let their bodies do what they were designed to do and adjust to the changes. I, unfortunately, had to be scared into stopping the toxic intake of phony hormones; and lo and behold, my body is adjusting. If only I’d had the fortitude to endure some discomfort – hard to do in a society that considers any discomfort a failure.

We need to beware of the tendency to pop pills. I truly believe that the LSD I did in the 60’s and 70’s was safer than many of the prescription drugs people are taking daily now. I’m glad I did psychedelics. I don’t recommend them to others, but I have no doubt that my mind was opened up to insights that remain powerful and that I otherwise might have missed.

The drugs that got people in big trouble then are the same drugs getting people into trouble now – addictive stuff. So, the first thing we need to be wary of is the prescriptions we are given for pain. Doctors and the so-called legal drugs they prescribe are more responsible for addiction than crack and heroin dealers.

Addictive drugs, such as morphine, are crucial for end of life care, when someone has a short time left and should be allowed to take whatever is needed to have more than pain to focus on.

But we need to be aware that pain medication, even non-addictive medicine like Advil or Tylenol, can cause harm, for example to kidneys and liver. Doctors may tell you to take them regularly for conditions such as  arthritis, but we need to be informed about the damage they can do.

Right after my lumpectomy, my surgeon insisted that I get a prescription for hydrocodone. I told her I didn’t want it, but she said I needed to at least have it available if I did have horrific, sickening, writhing, hellish pain. Okay. So I got a bottle of it and ended up not using it. Not because I’m stoic, but because I didn’t have a lot of pain.

Unfortunately I do sometimes get seeringly painful, horrific, hellish headaches. A couple of weeks after the surgery I got one. I thought, “Hey – I’ve got those hydrocodone pills.” I took HALF the dosage suggested and the rest of the day I was so sick I couldn’t eat a cracker without vomiting. What if I had taken the whole recommended dosage right after surgery when the general anesthetic was still kicking around?

Doctors, often lobbied by pharmaceutical companies, do NOT always know what’s best for us. We need information. We need to educate ourselves about drugs and make our own decisions. We need to take advantage of the progress that has been made, such as the willingness of insurance companies to pay for acupuncture treatments.

If you’ve done hospice work, if you’ve been to any nursing care facility, you know the enormous amount of drugs people take. No doubt some of them are necessary. But we need to understand that many of the drugs that are given to the elderly and sick are prescribed to treat the side effects of another drug. For example, pain meds often cause serious constipation, and thus stool softeners and laxatives are required. (When I was prescribed hydrocodone, I was also given a prescription for a stool softener; that wasn’t a good sign to me.)

End of care life should include all the palliative methods available, including pain meds. And an effective drug for chronic debilitating conditions is a blessing.  But we, the patients, need to be informed enough and respected enough to decide for ourselves what risks we are willing to take.

In many cases the elderly are not able to make clear decisions, because of dementia or some other condition affecting mental acuity. It is so disturbing for me to see old men and women sitting in wheel chairs in nursing homes, opening their mouths like baby birds to be fed pills whose names and purposes they don’t know.

Before we get to that point, those of us who demanded that women and minorities have rights need to insist on informed choices in treatment, not just financial coverage.

There are plenty of role models, like my 84 year old neighbor who spends much of her day in her stained glass workshop, invites people over to play pool with her, and rides an exercise bike while watching the news. For years she has refused to fill prescriptions for drugs she didn’t think she needed.

I know of another woman in her eighties who had leukemia. A woman who got a degree in chemistry in the 1930’s, one day she informed her family, with her wry humor, that realizing she wasn’t even enjoying Ben and Jerry’s ice cream any more, she was going to stop life support measures. She died peacefully with her daughter by her side.

And the Gray Panthers are still a thriving group, though they don’t get much press. Here’s the website: http://www.graypanthers.org/. Their vision statement: “Create a humane society that puts the needs of people over profits, responsibility over power, and democracy over institutions.”

I will do anything I can to not spend my last months in a nursing home or hospital. And I don’t want the focus of my life to be one of those big pink plastic boxes with compartments for the days of the week that each holds a pile of pills. I hope to die looking at the finches in my yard and listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” having just had a bite of chocolate cream pie.

I need to continue working on my own psyche so as not to be muddled by a fear of death or old age. I need to remember that it is my choice not to take a pill, to get a second opinion, to endure some disappointments and pain. And it is my responsibility to use whatever mind is left to me to understand such choices and to insist that they be respected.

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Focus on the Breast

AmazonvonStuckSmallOkay – here goes the ubiquitous cancer blog I said I wouldn’t write. I suppose it was inevitable.

Last November I had a breast tumor removed which turned out to be a rare kind of cancer that doesn’t respond to chemo or radiation. At least I could skip that routine. Though the margins were clean, the surgeon wanted to go in again and get more of the peripheral tissue, a somewhat complicated task as the tumor was close to both the chest wall and to the skin. With a second opinion in hand — thanks to the kindness of strangers whom my brother and nephew and his wife (all awesome doctors) got me in touch with, I opted not to do the second surgery and wait six months to check on the breast with ultra-sound.

At that point six months seemed long away. I had  beloved and annoying students to attend to with creative excuses for not handing in research papers; I had remarkable friends to play with and talk to; I had the troubles of others that needed help, including a dog that had to be put down.; I had the support of my family, the reliable ground I go to; and I got to go on a trip to Greece with my significant other.

Unfortunately, the gods at Delphi had split, the oracle having predicted tour buses and plastic water bottles.

Always, after everything else had dissolved into the past tense, I had my zen practice. But still, many of my meditations were what I call “focusing on the breast,” especially when the nerve damage from the lumpectomy was causing some pain. Looming always, the thought of the follow-up for a while wasn’t as loud as appreciation for having six months to continue my life with some normalcy and a greater appreciation for whatever health I had and for the people that make me laugh and let me cry.

Many good things resulted. I found a deeper commitment to my meditation practice and an old icon from the past whom I hadn’t yet dipped into, Krishnamurti, whose devotion to freedom from bullshit is as pure as it gets. The gifts others gave me were many; I’ll list a few with the names though many of you won’t know who these people are: Dianne and her hilarious and reliable affection who inspired me to watch Bullwinkle and Rocky re-runs and Marx Brothers films; the call from Ian which opened with his question, “So how are we going to deal with this?” – no avoidance,no pity, no platitudes; the birthday spent with Ian and Vanessa at the pool hall where I dared to have a shot of Bushmills; playing music with the “We Suck” motley band of aging comrades; and Carson, an ex-student, present knight in shining armor always willing to put an arm around my shoulder. (I just watched him play in the “Hoop it Up” fest, where I found myself yelling various helpful words such as “Focus!” having promised not to say any other “f” words.)

The “This happens to other people” cliche manifested as me having thought I was the one who took care of other people who had cancer. I think a lot of caregivers go into their work in part to define themselves as the non-sick. Despite my insistence that hospice caregivers stand before the people they’re helping with the clear knowledge of their own mortality, I sat before my doctor when she told me the tumor was malignant, staring dumbstruck into her eyes waiting for her to say, “Just kidding.”

Cancer is scary. It’s most scary to me not because it’s potentially fatal, but because it implies a need to surrender to a healthcare system that seems to me to be often heartless and even inept. It implies a period of dependence on others, some of whom say they will be there for you and then judge your behavior and critique your moods; there’s also the possibility of debilitating pain and a loss of one’s healthy and whole body; and worst of all is the pity of others. Unlike compassion, pity is a patronizing insult added to injury.

So now the thing I thought was way in the distance, the follow-up “look see” is days away. I cannot know the outcome. Even after the ultra-sound there’s a good chance that there will be no definitive insight without further tests, further waiting.

I am not alone. There’s plenty of cancer and other scary shit going on for people. I know all the zen approaches, and they are important to me: acceptance, freedom from focusing on the self, living now – not in some illusory future. I am very grateful for all that wisdom. But I’m still scared. Not enlightened yet except for in rare nano-seconds. Writing the next novel seems irrelevant and impossible right now. I’m wandering lost; I have wander-lost.

And pathetically, I’m glad that at least I’m losing weight. Some stupidity never ends.  But I have a new appreciation for my breasts.

images(Recently Virginia tried to change the state seal, covering up the exposed breast. Intelligence prevailed.)

P.S. The test results were very comforting — now to be used as a baseline to track future changes. I am relieved, grateful and unable to get annoyed about anything!

LOVING WALDO AND HIS TURDS

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I don’t think we need criminal behavior or sex scandals to ruin people’s reputation. All we have to do is tape them in their homes alone with their pets.

Just now I was talking to Waldo, my beloved Australian Shepherd, and I repeated this pithy question several times while rubbing his head: “Did you do-do outside, do-do head? Did you do-do outside, do-do head?”

Waldo has had over sixteen years of this kind of babble, which includes songs such as “He’s a Doggie Doodle Dandy…” and “Waldo’s got a doggie door, don’t have to wait for me no more, uh-huh.” This last one inspired the idea of writing an entire musical about dogs, aptly named “Dogs,” to complement the outrageously successful but clearly feline-centric “Cats.”

The “do-do” outside thing has a point to it. Really. Waldo, like many dogs his age, has bad arthritis. His back end has become a stranger to him. He has a hard time getting up and down and walks like he has a loaded diaper on. That’s the problem. He doesn’t have diapers, because cleaning up what they would mash around on his hairy butt would be worse than picking up the fairly solid and contained turds that he leaves around most mornings. He has no idea of this indiscretion, and I try to protect him from realizing just how far from his own hygiene standards he’s sunk. Why put shame on top of blindness, deafness and arthritis? So, when by chance he happens to stumble outside before the turds come out, I celebrate with him. (Because of the deafness, I have to chant the “do-do” and other phrases fairly loudly and close to his ear.)

Waldo still loves to eat; maybe he lives to eat. Hence the continued production of feces.He is motivated to struggle up by the scent of the hot dog pieces I put his pills in every morning. Sometimes I have to lift him up because he’s gotten away from the runners that are strategically placed all over my house to give him traction. When he slides down, he gets splayed out. He’ll give a couple of cockroach-on-its-back tries at getting up but soon realizes it’s futile and puts his snout on the floor and stares at whatever his eyes can still see. That’s when I lift his 52 pounds up and place him on the nearest rug, which is both troubling and fun to him, kind of like a kid being danced around by a drunk father – there’s something both scary and thrilling about the attention. If this happens in the morning, there will inevitably be a turd left behind, I suppose due to the pressure put on him when I lift him and the excitement of it all.

A lot of people don’t like to deal with shit, no matter how neatly and compactly it is delivered.  Such people should never have babies, pets or beloved old or sick people to care for. Shit doesn’t bother me. Throw up has no redeeming qualities, and piss, especially cat piss, deposits a rank and saturating stench that discourages one from entertaining guests from cleaner homes. But few could guess how much dog crap I’ve plucked from the floor. (Well, I guess those who read this will now know.)

A few months ago I was teaching my morning English class and smelled dog shit; for some reason, the stink increases when it gets on the bottom of your shoe, and then it’s definitely rank and distracts from discussions of, say, an essay by James Baldwin. I laughed and told my students that the smell in fact came from the bottom of my shoe, which I removed and placed gingerly in a distant corner. Then I taught the rest of the class before hobbling to the bathroom to clean off the ground-in crap in the treads of my shoe – always a challenge.

When I was a kid, getting into a car with other kids to go somewhere and having dog shit on your shoes was one of the most humiliating faux pas one could imagine. It inspired disgust and ridicule, which I was already fighting against due to various impediments such as crooked teeth and glasses. I’m glad that I’ve transcended at least the stepped in dog shit shame. And I have Waldo to thank for it.

I have a lot to thank Waldo for. And I’m going to tell him, saying something like, “You’re a good old man dog, yes you are. Mr. Wally is a good old man dog, yes he is. Ooooo, what a good old  man dog Mr. Waldo is.”