A Recovery Blog

This blog is about my continuing recovery from severe mental illness. I celebrate this recovery by continuing to write, by sharing my music and artwork and by exploring Buddhist ideas and concepts. I claim that the yin/yang symbol is representative of all of us because I have found that even in the midst of acute psychosis there is still sense, method and even a kind of balance. We are more resilient than we think. We can cross beyond the edge of the sane world and return to tell the tale. A deeper kind of balance takes hold when we get honest, when we reach out for help, when we tell our stories.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Preparing For A Northern Christmas

I've stayed home for Christmas several times before, mainly when I've had psychotic symptoms that I couldn't cope with when I travelled to visit my parents in Florida.  This is the first Christmas I will be staying home with my brother Rob.  He's been depressed lately and I'm pretty sure it has to do with not going to Florida.  He often stays for at least a month, whereas I only stay for a week because I have seven cats to look after.

Last week I got Rob an early Christmas present, a basic cell phone.  I upgraded to the family plan and got a new line for him.  He's been without long distance for a very long time now and this means he's out of touch with our parents.  Rob has always been  much better at staying in touch with them than I have been, but not this past year.  I also wanted him to have a cell phone because from time to time he walks home drunk from the local bars and has fallen several times.  I want him to be able to call for help if he needs it.  But Rob made it clear the other night that he does not like the phone I chose to give him.  He is the kind of person who does serious research before buying equipment whereas I am (I admit it) an impulse buyer.  He was pissed with me not doing the research.  Actually I did try, but there are so many cell phones out there that I got overwhelmed.  I'm hoping that he will get used to the phone and keep it.  He's got only about 10 days to decide, after that we can't return it.  There's also a $35 fee to return it.

Rob's response to my well-intentioned present has brought me down too.  I was tentatively supposed to go out to lunch with him today, but decided against it because neither of us feel good and I don't want to deal with him bitching at me.  He will come over to my house by the end of the week and stay for a few days till after Christmas.  He might cook something for Christmas day.  I've been making toll house cookies and plan to make cocoa banana nut bread, spinach lasagna and vegetable paella.  I got all the ingredients the other day.  I don't cook very often, but when I do cook, it usually comes out well.  It's easier to cook for others instead of just for myself.  That's one of the good things about the holiday so far.  That and not having to travel during the height of holiday season and not having to worry about my cats.  I'd like to try to make it a good time for Rob.  He'll have presents from me and my mother to open and the use of my high speed internet connection and my company.  I think it will be all right.

I talked with Sam tonight and invited her over to my house on Tuesday evening to have a meal and drink some wine and stay the night.  Luckily I have a guest bedroom downstairs which also acts as my computer room, so whoever sleeps in this room gets to also have access to a computer.  So anyway, she said yes.  Tomorrow she's having her truck worked on at the auto shop, but Tuesday night should be free for her.  I asked her to call me and let me know what happened with her truck and whether I should plan on picking her up or not.

I haven't had anyone but my brother stay the night in years, so this is a step forward for me.  I also don't      often get drunk.  I don't really want to get drunk.  I don't know if I want to go that far, so I'm going to make the spinach lasagna for us to eat first and try to drink slowly.  I'm debating about whether to bring the electric guitar and the amp out into the living room.  If I do get a buzz off the wine, I might be willing to sing a song or two and/or let Sam play for me.  I haven't heard her play yet.  All I know is she has practiced much more than I have on how to actually play the instrument.  So it will be a pleasure to hear her play.  I also might play a song on the piano.  It's a classical song by Bartok called Sorrow.  I loved it when I played it as a teenager.  I actually studied the piano all through high school and even got up to Bach's Two Part Inventions.  I was proud of that, but I never took it farther.  What  got me playing again was a film Sam lent me about a musical family.

I haven't asked Richard if he'd be willing to forgo his $500 yet to give to Sam.  I've decided that I'm going to offer her $250 regardless of whether Richard donates the money or not.  I got some extra money as a refund from my health insurance this fall and I still have some of it left, so I can afford to be a little generous.  I still don't know if Sam will accept it, but I hope she will.  I have to see Richard this week, before Christmas, in order to give him some cookies and gift cards for his children, maybe a little extra cash for them too.  I did get to see him and his son Aaron today, but they couldn't stay long.  Aaron, who is 20, seemed very grown up to me this time.  And Richard struck me as being particularly respectful towards his son.  It was good to see them together.

Not much else to say for now.  I'm wishing you all a safe and happy holiday!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Song: "The Insane"

The last few days I've been working on a song I've only just named "The Insane".  This song started out as another song and has gradually morphed into this one.  I wanted to write about psychosis.  That's what many of my unrecorded recent songs are about.  Reading the lyrics straight without the music can be problematical.  Songs are poetic, but not necessarily poetry.  The lyrics' success lies with the musical treatment of it, in the rhythm of the guitar and the voice and with the subtle tonal shifts, especially of the voice.  I can emphasize one word or a group of words all at once.  When I get into it, it can be a visceral experience.  Unfortunately because this song has been changing over time, I'm not ready to record it.  That might be an excuse.  I think I'm afraid to record it in case it doesn't come out, which is dumb.  How can I improve it unless I hear it?  I have a beautiful portable studio machine that I don't use.  I spend a lot of time just tinkering with the basic structure of the songs I write.  I just sit down with my electric guitar and my amplifier and fool around.  I've been noticing that I have been avoiding setting up the portastudio. Is it just that I'm afraid to sound like shit?  It's a dream of mine to make another CD with the songs I've been working on for the last five years, but first I've got to get over myself.  So here are the lyrics of "The Insane".

***********************************
The Insane


The pleasure and pain of the insane,
We walk on the line all of the time
Falling from side to side,
It's not like we haven't tried
To keep the balance in our heads,
To keep the sea from turning red
(Bloody red.)

Sometimes we look real normal,
Sometimes we don't.
Sometimes we're talking to thin air,
Sometimes we won't.

Meditation,
And take your medication.
Find a therapist
Who will make you care a bit
About you.

You've got to care about yourself now,
You've got to care about you.
If you don't care about yourself now
How are you gonna break on through
To the other side,
Where sanity is many miles wide
And you don't have to hide anymore.

**************************************

That's it.  I play around with the rhyme scheme.  As you can see it shifts a lot.  There are internal rhymes or rhymes that occur within one line and then alternating rhymes that occur at the end of a line.

I have a book of Joni Mitchell's lyrics and I was looking at a few songs last night.  She plays a lot with straight rhymes and unusual rhymes.  She's extremely skillful and talented.  Her rhymes are supremely intentional.  My rhymes often are accidental.  So it's long past due that I get more formal in my study of how to make a song.  I almost entirely create my lyrics while playing simple guitar, but I've been thinking lately that I should have a song workbook that I keep with me in the living room apart from my guitar.  I need to see what it's like to write first and then apply what I've written to music.

About the lyrics themselves, I'm hoping that they speak for themselves.  I did take the phrase from The Doors - "break on through to the other side". If you don't understand them, feel free to say so.  And thanks again Karen and my dear old friend for leaving comments.  I'm trying to make it a habit to print up my blog entries with the comments included so that I have a handy copy and can refer to it several times over the course of a week.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Wanting To Help

Richard is a good friend to me and my brother, but I have not been spending nearly any time with him for months now.   I gave him my heated garage space this year so that he can have a space to do his wood work.  Amongst many other things he is a carpenter.  Recently he made several bookcases and remodeled a room at my brother's house so that my brother Rob can use it as his office space.  Now the work on my brother's house is finished and Richard doesn't often stop by and when he does I don't like to disturb his work time.  Making things is how he unwinds after working as a nurse at the VA hospital.  He sees so much illness and dying each week, he needs to pull into himself and be creative without anyone hassling him.  I understand that from dealing with my own illness.  

The last time I saw Richard, after Thanksgiving, he told me he was taking these pills for some condition he has and that they made him feel ill.  He said that he had to take them for the next 6 months.  When I asked what was wrong with him physically, he wouldn't tell me.  I then asked him to please tell me if he ever did wind up being seriously ill because I would want to be there for him.  Later I thought that that was a silly statement; I should be there for him now before he falls into any serious condition.  Something stops me from getting close to him.  He had an affair for over four years until his lover called it quits.  While I know he had an affair because he was very miserable in his marriage, I still feel as if he may have done the wrong thing.  The affair is over now and he is back with his wife.  He stays with his wife because they have a grown daughter with something similar to Down's Syndrome.  She can't speak and  she isn't toilet trained and so she needs a lot of attention.  He loves his daughter so much and can't see not being around her in the mornings and evenings and on the week-ends.  

A year or two ago Richard had an operation done on one of his shoulders.  He asked me one evening if I would be willing to rub his back.  He was in pain and the massage seemed to really help him to feel better. I asked his why his wife wasn't massaging his back.  He had no easy answer to that.  His wife is not a physically demonstrative person...she's not affectionate and this has deeply bothered Richard from very early in their marriage.  This is why he went looking elsewhere for affection and fun.  I don't think the sex was the main focus for him.  The main  focus was companionship.  And this is what I felt with Richard too, a sense of companionship.  And so I started to rub his back from time to time.  

That lasted only several months; I haven't touched him, except for hugging, for over a year and in that  time his mistress left him and he returned to his wife and now he may have some serious illness.  So, once again, I have to get over my tendency to pull away from people.  I have to reach out to Richard. But I have a dilemma:  Each year at Christmas I give him $500 from my father to help out with his son's expenses.  His son is 20 years old, healthy, bright and "normal".  He's in college right now and it is very expensive.  Our contribution is mere pittance, but it must ease some of the financial pressure of the holiday season.  Well, I was thinking that Sam could use that $500 much more than Richard can use it.  Sam doesn't have running water, might not have enough wood for the winter season, her truck is on its last legs and she can't afford internet access.  Richard has all of that and much more.  Of course, he's also in a lot of debt, but for now he's holding his own.  My dilemma is should I ask Richard if he is willing to give this holiday money to Sam?  My feeling as of now is that I should at least give him the opportunity to be generous to Sam.  I would turn it over to Richard and if he decided to keep the money for himself and his family, I would abide by that.  

I'm thinking of inviting him over for a small meal and a little wine.  I rarely do this with Richard, which is a shame.  My thought is that I may not be able to help him financially, but I can certainly give him some of my time once every week or two.  Be a good friend that way.  My recent experience and success with Sam has given me some confidence that I can extend myself out ever further.  I can be responsible to others.  I can keep my focus for part of every week on my brother, Sam and Richard and their needs.  This makes me think of Tibetan Buddhism where the goal is increase compassionate thought and action towards others thereby reducing the effects of egotism.  It might be a good thing that we're going into the hardest season of the year.  Winter means struggle for most people around here, but where there's struggle there is also the opportunity to help others.  Maybe this winter I will be a lot less isolated than my previous winters.  Maybe this winter I'll take comfort in and give comfort to my friends and family.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

New Territory

I haven't been writing this past week or so, not even much in my journal.  I've been trying to figure out how to be of best help to Sam.  The brakes on her truck are almost out and she's overdue for an inspection; she also got a ticket for that and she just doesn't have the money.  Main thing, she needs to get to work and back three nights a week.  I realized pretty quickly that I don't use my car a whole lot and so I offered to lend my car to Sam on her work nights.  At first she refused, but then she got the ticket and accepted the use of my car at least for a couple of nights.  I want to help her out for the next three weeks because that's when she has the work, but when the schools here take a break for a month, she'll be out of work till they get back.  So basically, I get the car for half the week and she gets it for the other half.

Yesterday I brought my car in to have its pre-winter check-up and to be winterized.  The mechanic found  damage to my brakes.  It's going to cost a lot of money to repair them, but it has to be done.  I'm not ready to get a new car, though it looks as if that time will come within the next year or two.  I've had my car for ten years now, so I can't complain.  The car is in the shop right now and they'll keep it overnight and finish the work by tomorrow evening.  Thanks to my father I can still fix the car, but Sam doesn't have that safety net.  So she relies on her friends.  I don't know what she's going to do if her truck is not fixable.  She'll have to get another vehicle, but how?  And we're on the brink of going into the winter season.  Sam takes it day by day.  She has to.

I think part of why I'm not writing is because I'm still processing being around Sam more.  I need time to reorient myself, time to readjust.  I'm used to my connection with my brother, but it's going to take me more time with Sam because I don't know her well yet.  I will get there little by little.  So far, it is looking good.  My heart is not so numb anymore.  What a relief!  But I do have to pace myself and slow it down, not jump into the future.  Yes, I can be of some help to Sam and maybe others, but only after I take care of myself.  That's something that gets stressed in Al-Anon support groups.  It can be too easy to fall into a co-dependent pattern.  I've done that already and I don't want to ever go back to supporting an  unhealthy relationship.

Health in relationships is about setting good boundaries which may come to having to say no to someone else sometimes.  Respect, courtesy, being open minded, having a sense of humor all factor into making a relationship balanced.  Or so I think, for I only have partial experience with relationships and not a lot with having a female friend.  I have to watch out for any subtle imbalance.  With Sam, I could feel the pull of wanting to manage and control her life, which I absolutely do not want to do.  I can make a suggestion or an offer, but I cannot direct another human life.  Big lesson.  Be generous, be supportive, but keep hands off.  Give others the dignity to decide for themselves.  And if they fall, be there and welcome them.  I'm learning, but I don't fully trust myself to steer clear of subtle delusional inclinations.  The inclination to see myself as more important than I really am.

I'm in new territory, the territory of extending myself out from home base.  I will make mistakes, but I will catch them and correct them and not let them color my thoughts and actions.  Vigilance.  That's the name of the game for an individual who has survived acute mental illness.  I've said this before, but my trusty tape recorder helps a great deal with vigilance.  So does writing in a journal and in this blog.  There's something about witnessing myself and having others witness me that is extremely beneficial.  Sickness comes from holding all that confusion and negativity inside of you.  It's better to get it out in the open, share it, get feedback.  It's better to see that you are not a freak, to see that mistakes are all about being human and being human is quite okay.  When you name your particular variety of negativity and say it aloud, it loses some of its power to disturb.  And then solutions are given the opportunity to come forward into the space that you've created.

When I offer to be generous to Sam, I am releasing all of my internal stinginess.  I relax.  I tell you, it feels good.  I love the idea of people coming together and helping each other out in a small community. I love trying to set a good example.  My voices have not  been calling me evil for many months now and when I do something  helpful for anyone I can understand why.  I'm not evil.  Just human and so a mixture of strengths and weaknesses, just like everyone else.  This is another great relief to me because for a time I was battered by the voices telling me over and over that I was evil.  I came close to believing them, but ultimately rejected their assertion.  I set a boundary with them and mostly didn't allow them to cross it, and yet, at the same time, I prayed for them.  If they could heal, then I knew that I could, too.

Lending my car to Sam is such a small thing compared to all the forms of generosity out there, but that small step is helping me to connect more directly to her and her circle of friends.  I feel able to commit now, whereas before I couldn't handle it.  I don't have a life filled to the brim with responsibilities, no husband, children, work and so I  can afford to step up to the plate.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Thankfully Stepping Out Of My Cocoon

Thanksgiving has been over for almost 6 days and I'm only just starting to readjust to being back on my own.  The last two days have been unseasonably warm, but a depressing grey, so that 2pm feels like dusk.  I've been eating left over turkey and sleeping too much.

Thanksgiving was a quiet affair this year.  We had one person come over.  I'll call him Bill.  I was very glad that he came because my brother was making a large feast for us.  Of all the people who could have come, I was hoping that Bill would be the one.  He's good friends with Samantha, my new friend.  And since she couldn't come, he was the next best thing.

Bill is in his mid 50s, he's short, shorter than I am (I'm average height for a woman) and he's quite slim.  Like Sam, he owns property in our town, but doesn't have much money.  He's very much into bartering with people and has a good memory for who needs what.  He is mechanically minded.  For fun he takes things apart and then puts them back together, maybe even improves things.  He's into science, too and does his own experiments.  On Thanksgiving he told the story of how he did an experiment to split an atom, just to see how powerful it was.  I can't remember the experiment except that it used water, but I do remember that he said it knocked him on his ass when he did it.  I thought the fact that he did that was extraordinary.  How many people out there do experiments like that in their free time?

It was nice having just the three of us, more intimate and relaxed.  I got to see a side of Bill that I haven't seen before, a gentler, even sweeter side to him.  Bill knows my story through my brother and through Sam and he seemed to be treating me with patience and kindness.  He also mentioned that he had gone through chemotherapy, though I don't know when.  He mentioned it in passing and I didn't want to grill him on it, but obviously he's had a brush with death and has lived to tell the tale, thank God.  Though he wouldn't thank God because he is an avowed atheist.  Maybe I'll ask Sam about Bill's story.  That's the interesting thing, that I've fortuitously tapped into a small social network of local people through my brother.  Most of them are in their 50s and have no children, are Democrats (Bill is a Libertarian), decidedly non homophobic and mentally and verbally quite sharp, if not actually mensa types.  Our town, because of the college and university here, is an oasis amidst Republican conservative Christians.  This group found each other at the local town bars.

I'm finding that they are very loyal to each other.  This past Saturday one of the group had an accident with a chainsaw--the chainsaw bucked while he was using it and it cut into the heel of one of his feet.  He was alone, but was able to call 911.  A helicopter took him to Rochester where he had an operation.  Sam told me about it yesterday on the phone.  The hurt man, Paul, lives just a few houses up the road from me; I remember the ambulance flying past the house with a police car right behind him.  I remember sending out a prayer, not knowing who I was praying for.  Today Paul came home, but Sam had gotten to his place earlier and brought dry wood and got a fire going and stoked it.  She also washed his dishes and cleaned up; I thought that was very considerate of her.  She stopped by my house afterwards.

I got her some coffee and we sat and talked for a couple of hours.  She was telling me about Paul who is mensa bright but who has a temper from time to time.  I met him in one of the local bars a long time ago and he was very bitter about his divorce.  Sam says he's still bitter about it.  That's a shame to be so bright and yet to get pulled into the blame game even so.  On the flip side, he must have really loved his  wife for it to hurt so badly.  But it was news to me that Paul has a temper because I just don't know Paul.  So Sam was giving me a window into a piece of his life.  That's the thing about Sam's group of friends, they've all bonded in the local bars over at least a decade if not more.  They've seen each other when they've been shit faced and stumbling home.  They've heard each others sad stories and triumphs.    They've also witnessed psychological breakdowns and relationship break ups.  Simply put, they've been vulnerable in front of each other and know a lot about each other and this part of the country.

For me, I see Sam as the gatekeeper for this community.  If Sam gives the thumbs up about me, then I will walk into a small viable community, a community I might wind up growing old or at least older with.  All my years of isolation may actually be ending right now before my eyes.  Now, how cool is my brother for sharing his friends with me and how cool is Sam for welcoming in a another lost soul into the group?  And she has been very welcoming.  She invited me over to her place this Friday and as long as the weather holds, I'm going to go.  It's a treat to go to someone's house and soak up their home atmosphere and especially a treat with Sam.  I believe she's a kindred spirit.  I have so much to be thankful for.  

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Confession and Reflections

Thank you Karen and Anonymous for your comments.  Much appreciated.  I wanted to say that after I did all that writing yesterday I began having some psychotic symptoms last night.  It's embarrassing to admit it, but admit it I must in order to stay healthy and on track.  It's the same old story for me, I try something creative, do it halfway well and then start falling into the egotism of delusion.  Most people can safely fantasize, but due to the schizophrenia, I cannot.  I get pulled into the vortex of something that threatens to consume me.  So I talked into my taperecorder and then aloud to myself and tried to ground myself and then I got a good night's sleep and am feeling a lot better today.  Reading your comments, especially yours Karen, gave me further ground under my feet.  So if you can, keep the constructive criticism coming.  I'm printing out your comments and keeping them in a folder to review from time to time.  It's such a privilege to get your feedback and to read your insights into what I've written.

The truth is that I am a beginner and have to go through the slow,  careful process of creating a story.  I read in one of my writing books that often beginners are good at either the beginning, the middle or the end of a story, but not all three.  Right now, I think I have a sense for a relatively strong beginning, but whether I can fabricate a middle and end, whether I can complete what I started, only time will tell.  I also need to read a lot more short stories, of which I have many collections, and learn from those with talent and the skill of their craft.  All in all, I'm still very pleased with my early attempts and it feels so good to publish pieces of the work here in this blog.  That's a big step for me and opens the door to me letting other people in my life read my work and hopefully give me constructive criticism.

Anonymous, you asked what the difference is between showing and telling.  I'm not so sure myself.  I think showing includes more description and some dialogue.  I lay it out there okay, but I will have to learn to use these other skills.  I feel as if in my writing that I am making lists to describe the characters and sometimes that's overkill.  The stories I've read from other authors leave more to the imagination and are structured more ingeniously.  So I'll keep plugging away and see what I can learn from other writers, from you who read my pieces and from myself in trial and error.

Karen, I think you make some very perceptive points about "Cold Comfort".  I do need to add physical description and it is unclear the switch between the present and the past.  I don't know yet the answers to your questions.  I'll have to sit and brood about it.  I do know that I'm setting Johnny up to be a hero figure, but is he handsome?  My idea is that at twelve he is short and undeveloped.  His physical appearance changes radically at puberty, so much so that Jamie doesn't recognize him in the street later on.  I also think it is too easy to make him handsome.  It might be more interesting if he had imperfect (but perhaps endearing) features.  Maybe the reason he's drawn to beauty is because he's not striking looking.  On the other hand, Jamie is particularly attractive.  She stands out that way.  Two beautiful characters might be too much.

Anyway, despite the minor setback of my psychosis rearing its ugly head, I feel good.  As they often say in 12 step meetings:  Live and Learn.  Eventually, if I keep up with the writing, I would like to write about what it is like to be psychotic.  That's the ultimate challenge because I have to have insight into my own illness and sometimes I struggle with that.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Short Story Excerpt: "Mary and Jake"

Today has been a very productive day for me.  I started drinking coffee early this morning and began to work on "Cold Comfort" then I took a break and started thinking of another segment of my autobiographical novel.  This excerpt is about me as Mary Kelly and a boy I grew up with in Brooklyn.  I am so happy that I may have found my calling because these stories are coming out of me quickly and easily.  It's been a long time coming.  I wrote several short stories in high school, but since then very little. Now, after almost half a century of living, I feel as if I have something to say and a way to say it.  I know this creative streak won't last, but while it's here I will enjoy it.  The hard part is sticking with it for me.  I have a pattern, as you know if you've kept track of this blog, with starting creative endeavors very enthusiastically and then losing interest after a month or two.  What I want above all is to be dedicated and to have a good purpose in life.  This might be it.  God I hope so.  I've been drifting for so long now.

************************************

"Mary & Jake"

Mary Kelly's parents had given her her own phone earlier that year.  So when the phone rang and woke her out of her sleep, she thought it was probably one of her friends, but instead a male voice said slowly and precisely, "I have an aching stick I want to put inside you."  There was a slight pause and then a click and then a dial tone.  The caller had tried to disguise his voice, but Mary knew who it was.  It was Jake Markowsky and it was his sweet sixteenth birthday.  He was probably drunk.  She couldn't imagine him making an obscene phone call to her while he was straight.  But, to Mary, his call wasn't obscene at all, even the language was gentle.  She felt an instant empathy for him.  She knew what it was like to sexually yearn for someone who was unavailable.  She had had a crush on him for years.  They almost became a couple when they were only twelve, but she had pulled away and let him go.  There had been too many available girls and not enough boys which made Mary feel badly about all the attention she had been getting in 7th grade.  That and her best friend Amy, who had gone out with Jake in 5th grade, still had a crush on him and Mary felt torn between having a boyfriend and having a best friend.  She chose the best friend mainly because Jake had not come forward enough, had not fully claimed her.  They were very young and Jake was still obsessed by his childhood love of sports.  If he had to choose between hanging out and playing basketball with his friends or getting his courage up to ask Mary out, he obviously chose the former.  He wasn't yet ready for the real deal, so he settled for a puppy love that fizzled out as Mary gave him the cold shoulder the next year.  The year after that they went their separate ways, she to a private school in Manhattan and he to Brooklyn Technical High School, which she later found out that he had hated; he wound up going to a private school called Friends in Brooklyn.

But here he was calling her up a couple of years later, not to ask her out, but to perversely ease his sexual frustration.  A weird kind of birthday gift to himself.  Mary had the urge to call him up right away at his parents' house, but what could she say to him, "Jake, did you just make an obscene phone call to me?"  She hadn't talked to him or seen him in a long time and she wasn't close to his family.  She didn't even think to call and wish him a happy birthday.  It just didn't work.  He had set them both up to fail by not coming clean to her, by not telling her that he still thought about her, still wanted to know her.  Mary thought about the call for several days.  It was bittersweet, sweet because she now knew that he was attracted to her, but bitter because she was pretty sure nothing would come of it.  He lived really close by, the next block down, but she avoided walking past his house ever since she had started high school.  That was her personality, to let people go and to avoid emotional conflict at all costs.  That and she was an awkward, self-conscious teenager who liked to pretend she was at least partially "cool", a weird kind of cool perhaps, but worthy of a certain amount of courtesy, even courtship.  She knew Jake wouldn't court her properly, instead he'd call her by her last name and nervously poke fun at her.  That's the way it was with the guys, they'd get into ranking each other out and then ranking the girls out, anything for a laugh and to get out of saying plainly:  hey, I like you, would you be my girl?  So, yes, Mary was disappointed with Jake, but she was also disappointed in herself.  It was the mid 1970s and feminism was still flowering.  She thought she should have had the courage to ask him out, the courage to at least walk by his house and say hi to him, but she was stubborn and maybe even a bit lazy.  Too much time had gone by and instead of hanging out in the neighborhood in Brooklyn, she was hanging out with a close friend in Greenwich Village after school and on the week-ends.

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Okay, that's it for today.  I don't think this piece is as strong as "Cold Comfort" mainly because it is autobiographical and I seem to be doing the telling thing instead of the showing thing.  But shit, it's a first draft and it gives me something to work with in the future.  So I'm very happy.  May it last....

Short Story Excerpt: Cold Comfort

Hi Karen!  Thank you so much for your wonderful supportive comment.  I think I've had a breakthrough. I've been working on a new short story all morning and I want to share it with you and whoever else stops by this blog.  But first I wanted to answer your question about what I meant by Alana dressing to her best advantage.  Based on my mother, Alana's figure would be more of an apple shape than the more classic pear shape for women.  So she is narrow at her hips, like a man, but modestly broad shouldered.  Dressing to her best advantage meant wearing tailored, sporty clothing, clothing influenced by styles for men, but flattering to women.  My mother was a teenager in the 1940s, so think of that style from black and white films of the time.  Narrow skirts and jackets with padded shoulders, etc...  A nice pair of pumps and maybe a stylish hat.

Anyway, here is the beginning of my short story.  The opening scene I wrote over a month ago.  It's stuck in my head, so I decided to work on it.  Any comments would be most welcome.

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"Cold Comfort"

The moment he touched her his months of planning suddenly became a reality.  All he knew was it was cold as death outside and she was warm.
"Money upfront" she said.  He dug his hand into his pocket.
"Not here!" she hissed and pulled his arm to get him to cross the street with her.  They slipped into an alley and then down a few steps to a door that was slightly ajar.
"In here--we've got to be quiet."  There was a small vestibule with a padlocked second door and a sign that read "KEEP OUT!!"  She put her back against the outer door to keep it shut.
"Okay, 15 minutes."

John had heard that she had run away from home the year before.  She was 16 then.  Home life had not been good to her.  The word was that her step father had been molesting her since she was 12.  Her name was Jamie Chamberlain and he had known her when he was just 12 and she was 8.  They had been at the same camp one summer.  It was the summer that Jamie learned how to swim.  Harry, one of the camp counselors, had paired him up with her because he had become a skilled swimmer the summer before, had won several races.  Harry had told him privately that she was afraid of the water because her father had drowned the year before.
"So, treat her gently Johnny.  Don't push too hard.  I'm telling you this because I've watched you the last couple of years and I know that you are good with the younger kids.  Patient and kind.  Older than your years.  I'll be keeping an eye out for both of you."

The first thing Johnny noticed about Jamie was that she was beautiful.  Even as a little boy he had been drawn to beautiful things and people.  Sunsets, shells, animals and flowers, but mostly the face of his mother.  He learned very young not to talk about beauty and beautiful things because his older brothers had skewered him when he tried, labeling him a "momma's boy".  And, in a sense, that's what he was, being the youngest of four brothers.  By the time he was twelve he had proved himself to his family by doing well in school and by excelling at soccer and swimming.  He still loved his mother dearly, but followed his father's taciturn example.  He only spoke when he had something to say, the rest of the time he remained a silent bystander.  He learned by watching.  He watched his brothers making rambunctious mistakes.  He learned not to do as they had done.

If Jamie had been closer to his age, Johnny would have steered clear of her.  He had made a habit of falling in love with the prettiest girls in his class and then got tongue-tied with extreme shyness when any of them was assigned the seat next to him.  He hated the feeling so much, that feeling of being vulnerable and struck dumb, that he overcompensated by focusing on the work at hand and had gotten the reputation of being a know-it-all.  He hid behind that persona and acted as if he were coolly indifferent to girls.  Little did his classmates know that he was a closet romantic.  So when he saw Jamie for the first time at the lake an hour before lunch, saw the golden brown ringlets of her hair and her wide green eyes, her serious, stubborn mouth, he knew he was safe because she was only a child, a child who had lost a father, a child who needed his help.  That suited Johnny; he liked to be of help, especially to misfit kids, those kids who were awkward and tongue-tied, too.  If she had been a beautiful, spoiled child, conscious of her beauty, he would have lost interest, but instead she came across as very, very serious, a watcher like himself.

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Okay, that's it.  I hope you enjoyed it.  I'll be working on it for the next few days and posting more scenes here.  Till then, what do you think John does when he gets Jamie alone in that vestibule after he's given her money to have sex with him?  To be continued....

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Tinkering With Fiction

This cold has loosened its grip and I felt better today.  Quite a relief.  I did fiction writing today, some of which I would like to share with you.  Just a page.  I tinkered with it, but mostly it's in its first draft stage.   The main character, Alana, is based on my mother.

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"Alana"

It was nights such as these that she wondered why she had ever married Aidan.  They would go to parties and he would drink like a fish.  At the end of the night she would have to drag all six feet of him to the car and then drive them home.  Quite a feat for a petite 5' 2" woman.  She had only just learned how to drive. Aidan had been her teacher, a lousy one at that and again the thought of divorce had crept into her mind.  But it was the 1950s and divorce was no easy matter.  So she decided to stick it out.  He didn't drink like a fish because he was an alcoholic, like his father, but because he had the habit of blindly drinking what was put in front of him.  Maybe it was that he was nervous in social situations.

Alana knew how to drink slowly, hard liquor with soda or ice.  She had seen her parents get "piss drunk" when she was a teenager and, quite frankly, it disgusted her.  She blamed her mother's sister Mae, who had been a flapper as a teen-ager in the 1920s, as being a bad influence on her parents,  tempting them to drink.  Alana didn't always have the most sympathetic nature.  She couldn't see and didn't care that they were trying to have fun to counterbalance their hard, working class lives.  The upwardly mobile Alana and her precocious little brother, Billy, had agreed in childhood to stand together against their intelligent, but rather coarse parents.  They particularly stood united against their father, an Irish American salesman.  Of the two children, he favored Alana and mocked Billy, who was his wife's favorite.  But just because he favored Alana didn't mean he was easy on her, far from it.  She was a very good student, but if she got an A grade in one class, he said she should have gotten an A+.  Nothing she did was ever good enough.  She found too quickly, that she didn't like her father.  Not only was he outspokenly racist and bigoted, he was clever at it and seemed to enjoy cutting her and her brother down to size, too.

She had chosen Aidan to be her husband because he was nothing like her father.  Yes, Aidan drank too much at parties, but the rest of the time he was smart, smarter than her father, and cultured and upwardly mobile like herself.  She had been introduced to him by a mutual friend around the time that Aidan was graduating from Columbia Law School.  He was handsome and this meant a lot to Alana, who was hyper critical of her own looks.  Physically, to her great dismay, she took after her father who had a large head, short neck, a beaked nose and a short waist.  Then again, Alana had thick auburn hair, attractive grey/green eyes, shapely hands, arms and legs and she was slim.  She learned to dress to her best advantage.  Like her father, she had an eye for fine clothes and shoes and was willing to part with a chunk of what income she earned in order to get them.  As a child during The Great Depression, her mother had made nearly all of Alana's and Billy's clothes.  So naturally, Alana wanted fine store bought clothes, the kind she saw and envied on other little girls in school.  By the time she was a teenager, she knew she wanted all those material things she had been denied growing up.  Aidan was the first man who had showed the promise of being able to provide for her on a big scale.  She didn't think she could go wrong marrying a lawyer fresh out of law school, especially Columbia Law School, which was one of the finest law schools in the country.

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That's as far as I got today.  I'm finding that fictionalizing the members of my family is liberating, even though I'm still doing a lot of telling and not showing.  It doesn't matter at this stage.  The most important thing is to get the words down on the page.  But I do want to learn how to write a small, self-contained story and this example is not of that.  This example is the very early stages of an autobiographical novel.  Lately I've been reading a few short stories by women, two by Grace Paley, one by Amy Hempel and one by Sallie Bingham.  All of them were weird and disturbing and they worked.  The writing I've done here is much plainer and linear going from A to B to C, and that is because I am a novice.  And as a novice I have a lot of reading to do and luckily I have tons of short stories to read by both sexes.  So I am hopeful that by reading a lot and practicing myself that I will begin to get the hang of writing a story, beginning, middle and end.  As I go along I will write about what I've been reading, especially about what writers have to say about the writing process.  Maybe you can comment on the conclusions I come to or share some of your own insights.  


Sunday, November 13, 2011

Cold Doldrums

I said I was going to write more regularly, but almost 5 days have gone by without a word from me.  Bottom line:  I have a cold that has been hanging on for over 2 weeks and it's been sapping me of my energy; while I wait it out, I've been feeling sorry for myself, that and sleeping a lot.  I have been thinking about posting either a poem or a fiction fragment of a story, but I haven't had the courage.  Being sick has made me more vulnerable.  I think negative thoughts and remain passive.  I'm used to being mentally sick with voices, depression and anxiety, but not physically sick on top of that.  I haven't had a cold in a very long time.  It will run its course and I will start feeling better, but I miss writing/playing/singing songs.  It's an emotional release to sing out, even if my singing and playing aren't particularly good.  That doesn't matter so much as that I keep trying to put my heart and soul into the practice of it.  It's more therapy for me.  So I'm emotionally shut down without it.

There's something I do to myself that I don't understand --  I say "No" to myself, no to reading, no to writing, no to listening to music, no to watching a DVD.  The core behind that "No" is fear, fear of making a wrong choice, fear of more suffering.  I have so many good books, CDs and DVDs, but they remain in piles all around me, mostly unused.  I do read and write but haltingly, not with the abandon I once had before I got involved in an abusive relationship.  That appears to be where this monolithic "NO" stems from, a reaction to having been abused.  Becoming ill with schizophrenia was like having an abuser stuck within my mind.  During the acute stages of the abusive relationship and the acute stage of my schizophrenia, I stopped doing the things I used to love to do.  Either I was obsessed with trying to figure out my abuser or I was so caught in my delusions that the focus was not on me but on them.  Now, though I'm in recovery,  there is still this residual negative reaction that I have to contend with on a daily basis.  Perhaps before my reaction served as a temporary protective balm, but now it serves no good purpose; it just keeps me from being a happier individual.

In part, it is my illness that makes it difficult for me to choose what to do with myself, but it is also myself, something about my personality and this is what makes all this so frustrating.  I've internalized my abuser even though the abuse has long since stopped.  I have become my own puzzle and problem.
Living alone intensifies the problem because I am responsible for all the choices I make, I can't defer to another's choice.  But why am I so afraid of making a wrong choice?  Life is filled with wrong choices, but from the wrong choice you learn to find the right choice.  Nothing is fixed in stone; life is fluid, ongoing.  But I act as if making a wrong choice brands me for life as some kind of failure.  I'm also still afraid of the dark side of life that gets expressed in books, CDs and films.  It's as if I were a little child clinging to the fantasy of happily ever after stories.  When I was acutely ill for a while all I could watch were Disney animated movies.  I was hungry for the fantasy, just as most children are.

I've decided that I want to write stories, but for a story to be interesting there must be conflict.  While I think it is bizarre that we as human animals gravitate towards telling and experiencing stories of conflict, I also realize that it is not just conflict that draws us in; it is resolution of that conflict that we're  interested in.  Life is a big problem, there's a lot of conflict and then you die and this is true for all your loved ones and for the whole human race.  So what we want to know is how do we resolve this problem of life and death?  A lot of people place their faith in heroes and heroines who go on a complex journey, but ultimately triumph over seemingly unsurmountable odds.  We listen to/watch the stories because secretly we want to identify with the heroes and heroines.  So is it back to the fantasy that everyone (except the bad guys) lives happily ever after?  Not in the really good stories, the ones where the hero or heroine has human flaws and where the ending leaves open ended questions and isn't just a pat black and white response.  Grown up stories that acknowledge that life is tough and we don't know what happens after death.

Writing this out makes me feel better, gives me hope that I can start to say "Yes" to things instead of "No", but it's not so easy when I'm lying down on the couch staring at the ceiling.  During those moments I feel stuck inside a self-made prison and too often I give in to that belief and do nothing.  Having this cold just accentuates that tendency.  If all goes well, this cold will end and I will be liberated.  May I make the best use of that liberation and start making more choices, even poor ones.  It's not about getting it right.  There is no such thing as perfection.  It's about doing the best you can with what you've got, and I know I've got a lot.  

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

An Old Friend's Birthday

Thank you so much Jen and Karen, as always, for your intelligent, thoughtful and kind comments.  You are part of the reason why I'm going to continue with this blog.  You inspire me with your  blogs.  I think you are exceptional woman and I'm not just saying that to be nice.  I'm honored that you continue to follow my blog and that you stay in touch with me as a few of my best online friends.  Together I think we set a fine example of what individuals with our disability can accomplish.

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I'm writing this morning because today is an old friend's 49th birthday and I've been thinking about her a lot lately.  She was my best friend from high school and I thought I'd like to pay tribute to her in this blog. In real life she has a French name, so I've decided to call her Colette after one of her favorite writers when we were in school.  I haven't seen her for over 30 years.  In the last few years I've looked for her on Facebook but couldn't find her, then I looked for her on Twitter and I did find her.  I knew for sure that it was her because there was this great photograph of her looking away from the camera but smiling broadly.  I snooped around a bit and followed some links and got some information about her.  I discovered that she's bilingual (French, of course) and a college teacher now working on her Phd.  She is the "Deputy Director" of a reputable New York City college and I have no doubt that one day she will become the Director itself.  From her language I can see that she is highly intelligent and sophisticated, a real success story.  On top of all that she's also the mother of at least one child who is probably around 10 years old now.  I found her work email address and in the last two years I've written a couple of emails to her that I never sent.  I felt too ashamed of my circumstances to contact her, especially since we didn't separate on the best of terms.

Colette and I had been so close during high school that we nearly became lovers.  But then in our senior year a boy I'll name Daniel from the grade below entered the picture.  At first he hung out with both of us.  He was very bright and funny, Jewish on his father's side only, quite similar to Colette.  He was a writer and a film buff, spent hours after school watching foreign films at revival houses sprinkled throughout Manhattan.  Sometimes we would all go together.  But gradually, he began to single me out; he made romantic advances.  I realized that he didn't have a happy home life.  His mother was morbidly obese, a smoker and an alcoholic.  They lived in a one bedroom apartment.  He got the bedroom while his mother camped out in the living room.  His mother and father had divorced when he was just a child.  It turned out that his father was mentally ill with schizophrenia and didn't see his son very often.  I got pulled into Dan's world.  He was a little too close to being mentally unbalanced himself and I became protective of him.  I started sneaking him into my house at night trying to save him from having to go back to his cramped apartment and his increasingly drunk mother.  Sometimes we would skip school together.  He became my first boyfriend.  Eventually Colette got fed up and rejected me.  But before that, for a couple of years, she had been my faithful friend, really, my only friend in school.

During high school Colette had been an uneven student and a bit of a pot head.  She was also a good actress (like her father, who was a professional) and a talented modern dancer.  Quick and lively, with a flair for the dramatic, she had thick dirty blonde hair, candid blue eyes, a distinctive Jewish/French nose and a small cupid mouth which easily turned into a wide and pleasing grin when she was happy.  Our high school was located on the edge of SoHo in Manhattan.  Colette lived in a two bedroom apartment with her divorced mother and sometimes her older brother in the East Village.  Her father, too, lived in the Village, though in a somewhat more fashionable part of it.  Colette would take me on walking tours occasionally stopping by her father's apartment when he wasn't home.  She doted on her father.  He was a character actor and a good one, but he was not always available.  She wanted badly to please him with her acting and dancing.  He was the favored parent unlike her mother who invariably got on Colette's nerves.

I entered ninth grade in this strange, private school complete with a Brooklyn accent, nice clothes and a work ethic garnered from having gone to "advanced enrichment" or AE classes in my public junior high school.  No matter how hard I tried to recede into the background, whenever I opened my mouth and spoke, I stood out as different from the more slovenly, generally white, often wealthy, not particularly hard working Manhattanite private school kids.  The first time I became aware of Colette was in French class.  She might have even been one of the kids to try and cheat off my paper while we took a test.  That first year I kept mostly to myself.  I was neurotic enough to avoid the cafeteria because I was afraid of interacting with the other kids.  I wound up eating my bag lunch on the no longer used back staircase, furtively listening to the sounds of the students below me.  During free periods I would either go to the small library on the third floor or outside to wander in the streets of SoHo and Greenwich Village.  I didn't fit in this school and, with typical stubbornness, I didn't try to fit.  I was even proud of being different.  But I was depressed and lonely, too.

I'm not sure why Colette took an interest in me.  She was not particularly popular, but she did fit into the school much more than I did.  By the time tenth grade rolled around, she had taken me under her wing.  She began inviting me over to her apartment after school.  She told me many stories about her old school (another private grade school) and her old friends and stories about her family.  She took me to her favorite places in the Village.  She shared her active imagination and dreamed up fantasies of how we would grow up to be successful, artistic types.  She was warm, engaging and vibrant.  Neither of us were particularly thrilled with our school or with the students in the school.  We went because we had to; we stuck it out together.  Pretty quickly, I lost my Brooklyn accent and my nice clothes.  I cut my hair short one day while listening to Elvis Costello's song "Pump It Up".  I started dressing more androgynously in sneakers, pants, t-shirts and a black oversized man's jacket.  Colette dressed more stylishly and more femininely.  She fell in love with a pair of cream colored cowboy boots and would wear them with long dresses.  Our school was very small, only around 200 students, so there wasn't a lot of choice when it came to boys and so Colette and I stuck close together.  I was a little in love with her and sometimes I felt as if she felt likewise.  She really saved me from being quite miserable.

But then I went astray and got involved with Daniel.  I neglected Colette.  I hate to say it but maybe I even betrayed Colette.  She began to become friends with other kids from school and became progressively colder towards me.  I really hurt her and so she, in turn, really hurt me.  That last semester of senior year was horrible.  Daniel was pressuring me to be sexual with him, but I was such a virgin and I was scared.  I was seventeen years old and I had never been tongue kissed.  When he finally got me to try, I was utterly revolted.  I wasn't all that sure that I wanted to be with him, but I was so insecure I thought I may not ever have the chance to be with a boy again.  And so, I stayed with Daniel...and lost Colette.

I stayed with Daniel all through college, but never made any new friends.  After college we broke up amicably.  A couple of years later I began hearing voices.  Colette and one other friend were the last real friends that I ever had.  And that's why I still think of her.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Being Myself, Alone & With Others

 Last night, because I was feeling rather miserable with a cold I picked up last week, I watched a comforting film, "Pride & Prejudice" the latest version with Keira Knightley.  It had a good cast and was lushly filmed and I've watched it maybe three times so far.  Each time I was crying by the end.  I thought this time maybe I wouldn't cry, but I did.  I'm a sucker for old fashioned romance.  Despite all I've been through with romantic delusions, I still want to believe that two people can come together and be "right" for each other.  I did think that perhaps I was getting a bit too old for all of this.  I'll be 50 next spring and I'm way past believing that I will find a romantic partner.  I don't rule it out completely, but, for now, I am content to be single.

There's an interesting freedom in being a middle aged and obese woman.  There was a time in my early 40s when I wouldn't have said that, a time when looking in the mirror meant instant depression and shame.   My feminine vanity had been wounded, not only because of weight gain due to taking the anti-psychotic medications, but because I had reached middle age and was starting to show it.  Only a few years earlier, I had been attractive, but now I was ordinary.  I had to readjust.  Early in my acute psychosis I was the heroine in my delusion.  I thought real people were paying attention to me, following me, interested in what I had to say.  At first, that was exciting, but ultimately, it was a burden.  The trade off in entering recovery when I began to take the medications was that I was no longer the star of my story.  I was deeply humbled.  I got into the habit of calling myself "fat and ugly".  That sounds worse than it was because gradually I came to accept and like myself in my new state.  I was alive, relatively sane, and compared to the years of acute psychosis, comparatively content.  Gratitude played an important part in my continuing recovery from an illness that, not so long ago, was deemed so severe as to be hopeless.  I didn't feel hopeless anymore.  What I valued more than my looks was my creative intelligence and my ability to survive something so horrible.  It wasn't absolutely necessary for me to be with someone in order to have a meaningful life.  I didn't have to be a wife or a mother; I could just be myself.

Living a solitary life is okay by me as long as I continue to have outside connections to my family and a few friends.  A few months back an old friend that I found on Facebook asked if we could start to talk on the phone.  Since I got sick, I've been nervous about using the phone, but I really wanted to get closer to this friend while overcoming my aversion.  And so we've been calling each other once a week for a while now.  It's been great.  My friend, who I'll call Rita, is presently single and never had children and this is a bond between us.  I also remember her when she was a little girl and young teenager.  I feel so comfortable with her that she's like family and I tell her this.  I tell her I love her.  It's easy to love her because she's been nothing but supportive of me right from the start of our renewed friendship.  I find myself looking forward to years more of friendship with her.  Committing to our connection is a responsibility I want to step up to.  She gives me a much needed link to my past  and this makes me feel more whole within myself.  For years, while living with my abusive boyfriend, I denied that I had a past in New York City because my boyfriend was so insecure about it.  Now, years after the abuse and years after the acute psychosis, I can reclaim my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood all through knowing Rita again.  Thank you Rita.  I would tell the story of Rita, but she's a very private person.  Maybe sometime in the future she'll give me permission to write about the successes and challenges in her life.

I've recently made a new friend who actually lives nearby.  This is another serious breakthrough for me, one that's got me excited.  This new friend, who I'll call Sam, I've been wanting to get close to for several years.  In the beginning of the summer I bit the bullet and asked for her address so that I could start to write to her and she agreed.  She's a good friend of my brothers and he told me that she is a writer, so I thought we could both get to know each other and bond through our mutual love of writing.   That's just what we've done.  On top of that she came to visit me a month ago.  Virtually no one visits me which is why my house gets messy and I feel disconnected from others a lot.  So I cleaned up the house and welcomed her inside.  Sam is close to 60 and quite poor, but she's also a rugged individualist.  She lives in an old trailer with a wood stove and no running water (her water pump broke a while back and she hasn't had the money to fix it).  On her land, which she bought about a decade ago, she has a large pond and has cultivated a substantial garden.  She relies on her garden for a lot of her food most of the year and spends a good chunk of her time taking care of it.  When she's not working in her garden, she's working in town at a local restaurant and bar three nights a week.  When she's not doing that she's either visiting her close circle of friends or writing.  Last winter she wrote a novel.  During our visit she asked me if I'd like to read it.  Right away I said yes.  She said she'd get me a copy the next time we met.

In the interim I wrote to her and asked if I could visit her and a week and a half ago I did.  It was the first snow of the season, but luckily it wasn't sticking to the roads and I found her place with relative ease.  Her driveway is 1/4 mile long, which is good because one, it gives her privacy and two, it keeps her three cats away from the main road.  It's also bad because each winter season she gets snowed in several times.  She has a friend who sometimes plows her out, but I'm hoping she'll let me pay to help her with that this winter, mainly so she can get to work and to the store when she needs it.  She greeted me at the door of her trailer and welcomed me inside.  She had already stoked her 100 year old wood stove, so the trailer was nice a cosy.  She got me a cup of coffee and one for herself and we sat down in front of the wood stove and talked for over an hour.  I felt very comfortable sitting there with her.  She told me about the photographs of family and friends that she had tacked on a nearby wall and she showed me the contents of a small medicine bag where she kept precious items like a nearly perfect arrowhead that she had found in the clay dirt of her garden and a black, petrified shark's tooth that she had picked up on a beach in Florida.  She then showed me her pond and garden and I helped her bring into her trailer some garlic and potatoes that she had grown.  With the fresh fallen snow on the trees and on the grass her property looked lovely and I found myself already looking forward to next spring when the garden would start growing again.  I even imagined myself helping her in the garden.  At the end of the visit Sam placed her novel in a bag along with some garlic, potatoes, onions, a squash and two glass containers, one filled with homemade applesauce and one with chopped up peaches.

I read her novel within 24 hours, waited a day and then read it again.  It was very good!  I felt proud of her for writing it and doing such a good job and soon wrote another letter telling her so.  Her example has inspired me to start an autobiographical novel.  For the last two years I've wanted to write a memoir, but I kept getting stuck.  Memoirs that are "creative" nonfiction are very popular these days.  What makes them creative is that the authors write using the techniques of fiction: narration, scenes, dialogue, character studies, etc....  I found myself resisting some of those techniques, especially scenes with dialogues, because it didn't ring true for me.  I couldn't honestly remember conversations from 30 years ago or more.  Also, I didn't know how to narrow down my subject and began tackling incidents from my whole life, making a mess and not having a focus.  But I'm finding that fictionalizing my family and my past has given me more freedom to explore my personal history while taking some pressure off me about writing "the truth".  In this novel, I can learn the techniques that I was resisting when I was working on a memoir.  Until now, I've made some half hearted attempts to write several short stories, which I would like to continue doing, but I never ever approached the idea of writing a novel.  I needed Sam's example to give me a little push in that direction.

Part of being myself has been writing in a journal.  This blog, though I've been neglecting it of late, has also been important to me by giving me room to practice before a small audience.  I think it's time for a change here.  I need to write more, not less.  I've tried backing away from this blog, but it doesn't feel right and quite frankly, I need the practice not only of writing, but of sharing my writing, putting it outside of myself.  I'd like to include fiction and poetry mainly because I rarely share them and could use some constructive feedback.  I don't know if I'll have the discipline to write here several times a week, but I want to try again.  I need to take the pressure off myself sometimes by writing short entries as well as longer ones.  Let's see if I have the courage to change my approach the way I'm beginning to have the courage to reach out and foster friendships.






Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Something Rich And True

"Find out if there is something rich and true in even the most painful moments."  Nirmala from his book Nothing Personal


And isn't it so that there is a rich truth in our moments of pain and sorrow?  Poetry, stories and memoirs are filled with it.  What would life be like without the darker side to things?  I have trouble imagining continual peace and contentment because that is not the nature of my experience.  I live moment to moment; there is no other way.  The landscape is one of continual change, even when nothing appears to be happening, something always is.  A fly lands on the wall beside you, a breeze comes into your house through the open window and each breath is entirely new.  The Buddhist practitioners that I have been reading keep pointing to stepping into the present moment just as it is.  Some of them go so far as to say that the present moment, regardless of what is happening, is exactly the way it should be.  I've heard this sentiment before in self-help books I've read.  One book in particular stands out, it's called The Language of Letting Go by Melody Beattie.  I bought this book while I was in my relationship with my abusive and alcoholic boyfriend.  It's a daily reader for people who have been in codependent relationships and are trying to heal using some of the 12 step philosophy.  The foundation of the philosophy seems to me to rest on admitting powerlessness over addictions and other people and a belief in some form of higher power that will somehow guide and direct individuals towards help and healing.  Along with this comes the magical thinking that we are all on a journey learning lessons we need to learn, that God, in whatever form we connect with, is giving us just what we need and no more than we can bear.

At the time I bought the book, I took a lot of comfort in thinking that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, but that was usually during the moments of quiet.  When things got intense and painful, I would lose sight of this idea and suffer.  Lately I've been reading this Buddhist teacher Nirmala and I find myself getting pulled back into this magical idea that my life is as it should be, that every moment is somehow perfect and "right", if only I would open to it.  Of course I think, but what about the people who are being tortured right now or what about me when I'm frozen by anxiety over the future?  Are those perfect moments?  I'm pretty sure Nirmala would say Yes.  How can that be?  Nirmala writes, "...our happiness depends more on our attitude about what is happening than on what is happening."  What is happening could be very bad indeed, but often we make it worse than it needs to be.  But why does it need to be at all, as in the case of torture?  Nirmala writes about the Mystery that is life and about going to that place where we don't know.  He writes about Awareness as if it were something in and around us, separate yet joined to us, a living entity.  That Awareness exists is at the heart of the Mystery we call life.  In some ways it's as if he's saying that Awareness is the higher power.  It is always available and always good; there is no blemish on it, no mistake in it.  It is completely trustworthy.  This awareness doesn't discriminate.  It is not meant only for "good" people.  It is available to those who are being tortured as well as to the torturers.  It is Love.  It is Buddha Nature.  It is the Holy Spirit.

Nirmala writes that Awareness is in love with everything and devoted to everything.  So right this moment this mysterious Awareness is in love with me, with you.  It knows you through and through and no matter what you've done or haven't done, it will continue to love you.  It is the origin of unconditional love.  But we're always so busy trying to get somewhere else or so caught up in our thoughts that we don't tap into what is right in front of us.  We get restless, we get bored, we get scared.  All that is a by product of our every shifting thoughts and feelings.  But thoughts and feelings often misguide us, coloring our world with pain and negativity.  Awareness embraces all thoughts and feelings as the sky embraces the clouds and rain.  When the weather clears, the vast sky remains.  It doesn't come and go; it's always there.  And that's what we can return to every moment.  Lately I've been noticing that when I don't have a thought in my head, I'm still acutely aware of myself and my surroundings.  There is magic in that alone.  The silence is pregnant with meaning.  Why do we run from the present moment?

We run because we're ignorant and deluded.  "God forgive them, for they know not what they do."  We are collectively fooled by our thoughts and feelings.  How often do we accept the lie over the truth?  When I am experiencing deep anxiety I really believe that something outside of myself is threatening me, and yet when I look and listen, all is quiet and peaceful.  When I stop and question the validity of my anxiety, I lessen it because I see through the lie of it.  Buddhists say that most of us are asleep and that we accept the dream as if it were the reality and because of this we suffer.  They also say get curious and question everything.  Don't take things for granted; really look.  This can be done despite the conditioning we've had since we were infants.  Our conditioning tells us that we are separate individuals, alone amongst the many.  It tells us that we have a Self that is solid and fixed.  We cling to the idea of our individual selves as if life itself depends upon it.  We say to ourselves and others, I, Me, Mine.  We think our will to advance this I will lead us to happiness, but it never does.  If we do such and such, then we will get such and such reward.  But even if we get the prize at the end of our exertion, we still feel the hollowness of it, we're still left wanting more.

Buddhists assert that there is no Self, that it is a construct we've developed to try and make sense out of our worlds.  The reality is that everything is in flux.  I have memories of when I was 12, but I am 12 no longer and that imagined self was changing back then too, as it is today.  Yes, I can put labels on my "self" that stick such as college graduate, Democrat, blogger, woman, cat lover, schizophrenic etc... but that is far from who "I" am.  Everything that is alive is evolving from birth to death.  Nothing is static, even in death the process of change continues.  And some of us ask, How can there be no I, no self?  Doesn't that mean that existence is pointless?  No, existence remains very meaningful because Awareness is meaningful.  The truth is you can have no self and still be very aware.  Self is way over-rated, just as Awareness is under-rated.  And all of us, whether we like it or not, are interconnected in the web of life.  When I feel isolated, it is an illusion I take to heart.  I am my own worst enemy because I automatically feed my illusions.  That is why so many self-help groups stress keeping the focus on oneself, staying very honest and uncovering all the various misunderstandings that have come up over the years.  They say, don't try and change others; change yourself.  All we really have to work with is ourselves.  Like the Awareness in and around us, we are always available to ourselves.  This is great news.

Even in the most painful moments, there is something good at hand:  space, awareness, love, breath.  We do not need a separate Self to give our lives meaning, the meaning is already there, every millisecond.  But we do need to understand that we are sometimes more in love with the illusions we create than with the ordinary Awareness that is all around us and in us.  Waking up is about gradually stripping the lies from the greater Truth.  Part of stripping the lies is retraining ourselves to see with clarity, openness and love.  But first you must question and experiment.  Don't assume that you know.  Assume that you don't know.  We're living inside a house of mirrors that we have made with our own two hands.  The mirrors certainly reflect some of the truth, but the core of it is within you.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Some Recent Artwork































Just got some new markers and am trying to tempt myself back towards the visual arts.  These images are pretty sloppy because I couldn't get the right white balance in my photo editing program (which is very simplistic and all I know how to use...sort of).  And so white has turned into purple!  Nonetheless, you can get a feel for what I've been working on the last couple of days.  It's all about experimental play and yet, in some ways, it's more serious because I am stopping, assessing, making a new mark all very gradually.  Invariably, I'm scared to make the very first mark.  Scared because I don't have a working plan of action, so then I jump into it.  All I know is that I want to vary the marks on the page and work intuitively.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Home Alone Again

This is the first day in about three weeks that I've had free to slow the pace down.  For the most part, I have not kept up with my online friends.  I apologize for that, but I can only seem to focus on one thing at a time.  Also, before I have to do something with my family I need half a week to a week to prepare and then afterwards I need a half a week to a week to recover.  That's the nature of mental illness for many people I'm afraid.  I can appear relatively normal with my family for a week or two, but then I need to withdraw back into my solitary space.

This was probably the last trip my parents will make to visit Rob and me in New York.  From now on we will visit them only.  My father turned 85 this trip and my mother is 83 and they are visibly slowing down.  The day before I picked them up at the airport my brother had a small fire in his house; he fell trying to put it out and hurt himself and so he didn't come with me to pick up our parents.  It was very good to see them and a day and a half later to see my uncle.  My uncle recently turned 80 and yet he drove from Chicago to Western New York in a couple of days.  I thought he looked great, more energetic than my parents.  He is my mother's younger brother and she hadn't seen him in six years or so.  Despite living a long distance away from each other, they love each other and keep in touch by phone, but, as my mother has often said to me, it's not the same as seeing a loved one in person.

I arranged for my parents and uncle to stay in a B&B nearby.  It was only after a day or two of them staying there that I heard from my family that the owners were conservative Christian Republicans.  My parents and uncle are staunch liberal Democrats and confirmed atheists to boot and so it was a bit awkward for them living in such close proximity to their hosts.  Each side was certainly polite, even friendly, but my family had to restrain themselves and this made them uncomfortable.  Nonetheless, the house they stayed in was nice and safe and they didn't complain too much to me.

I discovered quickly that I had over planned the trip.  I was anxious and eager to please my mother in particular.  Both she and my father are great planners, but this time they realized that they didn't have the energy to do as much as I had anticipated.  And my uncle had the awkward responsibility of following my car with his while transporting my parents while I drove my brother because we couldn't all fit in the same small car.  And then on the birthday day (my brother was born on my father's birthday) as we were beginning the 45 minutes drive to a state park to have a nice lunch at a restaurant in an inn there, my "service engine soon" light came on.  Because we were an hour early, my uncle and I drove to the nearest service station.  It was lunch time, but the owner said that as long as the light wasn't flashing I could still drive the car to the restaurant and back.  And so I did.  The next morning I drove my car with my uncle following to my usual repair shop and dropped off my car.  It only needed a new sensor, but the part was expensive.  So I thought the car was good to go, but several days later, when we had driven to Ithaca, New York, an hour and forty minutes away to have lunch at a Thai restaurant and go to the theater there I encountered another car problem.

It was after we had eaten and after we had finished watching the play that when I tried to pull out in the parking lot, I found I could only move a couple of inches and when I did it made a terrible sound.  I immediately got out of the car and saw that the front driver's side tire was totally flat, but it didn't feel like a normal flat because normally you can still move the car a bit and I couldn't.  I sent my uncle and parents home and stayed with my brother after calling triple A to get a tow nearly 100 miles back to home territory.  Luckily I had gotten triple A plus which covers the cost of a tow up to 100 miles.  The tow truck came in an hour.  The man diagnosed the problem right away, said part of a coil in the front of the car had cracked, broken and sprung into the tire.  My brother and I quickly realized that we had averted serious injury, even death: if we had been driving at 65 miles an hour on the highway hours earlier with my uncle following close behind me who knows what might have happened to all of us?  And so, despite the inconvenience we were very grateful.

My uncle stayed an extra day and drove my parents to the airport and then headed back to Chicago while I had the work done on my car.  I prayed that they all get home safely and as it turns out, they did.  So the visit was a mixed bag, some good days and times and some not so good.  Last year, when my parents stayed at my house, we had a better time, were somewhat closer to each other than this visit.  Still generally speaking it went okay and I was very happy to see them all and spend a little over a week with them.

So here I am back to being home alone and I'm relieved, but it will still take me a couple more days to get adjusted.  A great thing that happened while my family visited was that I got a long letter from a woman I've been wanting to be friends with for several years.  She was responding to a three page type written letter that I sent to her.  She said she really enjoyed my letter and went on to write candidly to me about a few things in her life.  What's particularly cool about this woman is that she is not only a very interesting, individualistic person, but she lives close by.  In her letter she offered to do some work for me fixing my cat pen fencing so that my cats can finally go outside.  My friend Richard created a wonderful cat pen, but cut through the fence months ago to do some work on the back of the house and never got around to fixing it.  Right now he is very busy.  So I'm gearing up to ask this woman to come and visit me.  And I hesitate, not because I have any reservations about this interesting person, but because I have reservations about myself.  I'm so self protective that I don't often take chances.  Still, now is a good time to invite her over because my house is in moderately good order due to my family's visit.  Normally, I used my messy house as an excuse not to have anyone over, but right now I don't want to do that.  This woman is a private person with only a few close friends and I'm finding that I would like to become one of those friends.  So my next order of business is to write a good, long letter back to her.  I'm looking forward to doing that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Few Summer Activities

My brother and I returned early from a four day music festival called Grassroots.  It had been very hot from Thursday to Sunday--hot, humid and practically no rain.  I got some sunburn, which I rarely get and both of us only got minimal sleep, so by Sunday we were burnt out and decided to skip the last day and head home.  The music at the festival was good, but there were virtually no headliners which disappointed us.  Usually when we go there are several A+ bands or singer songwriters like Los Lobos, Lucinda Williams, The Avett Brothers, Burning Spear, etc... so there are high points to the experience.  This time it was hot and mellow, though Fela Kuti’s youngest son Seun was there heading his father’s band (Fela died an AIDS related death in 1997 when Seun was still a young adolescent).  His father was a master at a style of African (Nigerian) music  he dubbed “Afrobeat” partly influenced at points by James Brown, very funky and intense and political.  That got Fela put in prison for 20 months.  Seun is definitely following in his father’s footsteps.  One of the things he championed at the festival was the decriminalization of marijuana.  He was also touching on other political topics, but I couldn’t understand him.  Perhaps I’ll get one of his CDs and listen closely.  I think it takes courage to get up on stage and fight through music and communication some of the injustices in the world.

My brother and I have a whole routine we go through preparing for the festival, going and then coming back.  We stay at the same Indian run motel just outside of Ithaca, New York, which is about a 10-15 minutes drive to the festival in Trumansburg.  We park in the same spot near an off site camping ground.  Most people park in a large sectioned field and then wait for a shuttle bus to take them to the festival several minutes away.  We too get the shuttle, but we park by the side of the road.  We do this because in past years when we’ve parked in the field we’ve gotten stuck in the mud after it rained.  We go to the same Chinese Buffet restaurant on Friday and Sunday before heading to the festival.  Saturday is special because we get to go to a very good Thai restaurant.  We get gai tom ka soup, which is a coconut milk soup with chicken and mushrooms, then he gets a green beef curry and I get a noodle dish with chicken called pad thai.  Why do we get the same thing each year?  Because we don’t get to go to Thai restaurants very often.  But it’s more than that, we obviously get comfort from having a predictable routine.  The routine, which allows for knowing generally what to expect, reduces potentially stressful situations.  I get stressed driving and a bit stressed being around so many people when I’m used to being mostly alone.  Then again, some of the people watching is fun.  This time I took my camera on two of the days and took pictures of people and the fairgrounds.  I got a few nice shots.  It’s been a long time since I was into photography.  I was a film photographer and I’m still not used to digital photography.  With a digital camera, you have to learn the small computer that is your camera thoroughly and I never do it.  I’m intimidated by computers, though I rely on them for information and communication.

My brother was more subdued this year.  Usually he is making conversation with fellow festival goers, often shedding a critical but humorous view on what’s strong and what’s weak at the festival.  This year he said he was surprised that he didn’t see many people that he knew.  It was also in the 90s and humid and as I said, we both didn’t get as much sleep as we would have liked.  Despite the heat and only some breeze, it was good to be outside, good to be around people, good to listen to live music and good to have each other for company.  It was a mostly Caucasian crowd with just a  sprinkling of African Americans and Asians.  Having grown up in New York City, I think the best type of crowds is a multi racial, multi cultural crowd.  So this wasn’t the most interesting crowd to me, but there was still a lot of variety.  Within the crowds amongst the young people and the parents with their children I saw the salt and peppered hair of middle-aged people like myself and even a few rather old people.  Not too many very unusual people except for a man walking on a prosthetic leg, which I thought was wonderful just that he still had his freedom and could partake of the festival.  A few people were even dressed up in costumes with large afro-like wigs.  Some women and children wore butterfly wings.  There were a lot of tattoos on both men and women and a fair number of men with shaved heads.  The women wore all sorts of skimpy dresses in their desire to look good and stay cool.  I wore shorts, a t-shirt and Teva waterproof sandals that fit snugly around my feet.  I didn’t particularly look good, but I stayed comfortable.  So far, my obesity is in the extra large normal range.  I still fit into a bus or car seat and am not aware how heavy I am until I go to the bathroom somewhere and see myself in a mirror.  At the festival, there are many attractive women.  I used to be one of them.  Now I am out of that loop and partially I feel relief at that.  The other part of me wants to look better, not in order to compete with other women, but just so I can feel more normal and healthy.

This Saturday my parents will arrive by plane from Florida for a 9 day visit.  My uncle will arrive from Chicago by car on Monday for a 6 day visit.  I haven’t seen my uncle for four years.  He just turned 80 at the end of June and my parents are in their mid 80s.  For now, they are all in good health, but I still worry.  It will be very good to see them all, but I’ve got a lot of house work to get done this week and a lot of driving and finding entertainment the following week.  Last year, before my parents visited, I did an internet search for things to do in the area.  My planning and preparing was mostly successful and I’m hoping I can pull it off again for the first week of August.  The main problem is that there is not much to do around where I live and so we will have to travel by car one to two hours in each direction.  I’ll have to lead with my car and my uncle will have to follow in his car.  This makes me nervous because we’ll be going to places that I’ve never been to before and I’m afraid of getting lost or worrying about whether my uncle is still following me.  At least now we both have cell phones and can keep in touch even if we do get split up.  My family will be staying at a local bed & breakfast.  Last year my parents stayed with me, but that put some pressure on me to clean up and I didn’t quite get it done and let my mother come upstairs only a couple of times to see the cats.  This year it is just too hot, especially since I don’t have air-conditioning.  Now the cats need to come downstairs from time to time because it is 10-20 degrees cooler...but my father is allergic to cats.  So I suggested the B & B and my family agreed.  Their rooms will be air-conditioned.  Still, I have to get cracking cleaning up my house as best I can because they will visit.  I have four days.  I can get a lot done in four days, if I pace myself.  I might have to change my sleep cycle to the daytime and work at night and early morning, just because it is so very hot.

Climate change is affecting the whole planet.  This is the first year that I got snowed in by a blizzard at JFK airport last December and the first year that I can remember the heat changing the atmosphere at the music festival.  Normally we have at least one thunder storm there, but this year not one.  The days when so many people can own one or more cars each and are free to give birth to any number of children must be coming to a close.  We are guzzling our resources and leaving people to starve to death due partially to overpopulation.  If we don’t change rather drastically, I’m not sure we’ll survive.  What can we do?  People in the US say they really value their freedom, but won’t we all be required to make sacrifices and pull together due to this common environmental threat?  Shouldn’t we be doing it sooner rather than later?  At the festival they were promoting an anti-Fracking position, trying to enlist people into their cause by signing a petition.  Our governor, Andrew Cuomo, is backing the Fracking movement before tests have been done that prove that the procedure is safe for humans.  Business people are frantic and greedy to find an alternate energy source so that we can continue living in excess, even if it means some people will get ill or die because of it.  I’m not against an energy source that’s safe to use for people and the planet, but Fracking doesn’t sound safe.  There needs to be more research done and more regulations put into effect.  Whether we can cobble together various energy sources to survive is unknown, but what we can do is to change our lifestyles all over the planet.  Increase and extend public transportation, even build newer small city/towns that utilize solar and wind energy to the max, possibly return to a more commune like communities where people work together to preserve or extend resources, to recycle, to farm, etc...  There are small communities like that sprouting up all over the US.  Let’s see if they have the right idea over time.