Sunday, June 20, 2010


[Photo: Charles Sherman, Light in Muir Woods]

This post is a companion to “Extreme Effort.” Pondering how low my self-esteem was during my youth, when I was getting emotional and verbal abuse, and how much better it is now, I want to laugh when I think how obvious one huge factor has been in creating that higher self-esteem: working hard, and respecting myself for it. The respect of others came slowly – sometimes never – but I grew less and less dependent on it. What mattered most was the fact that I was making an extraordinary effort. What self-esteem I have I earned the hard way.

The poem below is based only in part on a real person, the young man who ended up committing suicide. It’s more about how I can split myself into two selves. My inner Orpheus is a fragile romantic. But, in a reversal of the myth, my inner Eurydice is Big Mama, a tower of feminine strength. No doubt it has something to do with my having grown up around very strong women. 


In the purple-tainted twilight
of the oil refineries,
I drove Orpheus late at night,

while he sang his chronic hymn
in praise of suicide – 
his urge to crash

into a concrete wall.
Something still smolders
from those years, 

nods over me
with the wheezing heads
of oil pumps on Signal Hill –

hisses the pale burn-off flame.
Reminds me how free I was then,
how I sang And that was life

from Tosca, the love aria
before the execution.
I think it’s the terminal

Orpheus in me,
excited by infernal landscapes,
interrupting with the idiot question,

But without wanting to die,
is it really life? He turns his
bird-bone back to me, 

keeps staring at that long-ago
concrete wall. 
That’s all right, Mama, I sing. 

I’m my own Mama now, 
dead Orpheus 
in my arms as I sing.

~ Oriana


The urge to crash into a concrete wall -- I know exactly where that wall was: on Cherry Avenue in Long Beach, California. A few years ago, driving from San Diego to Los Angeles, I passed the freeway exit that led to it, and burst into tears. But that was nearly the end of those episodes. Last year I fully committed myself to not being depressed and to putting my energy into work instead (my depression was mostly the agitated sort, with high adrenaline-driven energy). I also decided to be happy (insofar as I can overcome my life-long disdain for happiness, the motto that happiness is for pigs), and reach for life-enriching experiences even if they involve considerable stress and expense.

Working hard is as natural for me as breathing. Making myself happy in other ways takes a lot more self-talk and forcing myself, since, and it means going against my deeply ingrained dislike of spending and of travel stress. “It’s only money.” “I will be good for health.” “I can take it.” “It doesn’t really matter.” “It’s only a poem.” These simple phrases can be a lifeline for someone like me, who is not much motivated by pleasure. Where would I be without them? Stuck at my computer, and paying the price in poor health and excessive narrowing of life.

And yet it is to the long hours at the computer that I owe still being alive. 

And yet, more than to Mozart and great books and the beauty of nature, and friends for whose patience with me I am infinitely grateful, it is to the long hours at the computer that I owe still being alive.  To that, and, as I mentioned in the comments in a previous post,

to the impact of having grown up with stories of extraordinary endurance, which make all my troubles seem very small indeed. 



  1. A friend suffered great loss through suicide of a loved one recently. She's still trying to find a way of living with grief. A couple of weeks ago I watched a dead body on the sidewalk in Venice, CA, under a white tarp, with a large darkening stain of blood near the head, surrounded by police tape. Just two meters away patrons were eating their lunch, undisturbed, laughing. It was a strange scene, those peaceful, happy people and the dead body nearby. The man had jumped from the roof of that building, I heard that he was putting on his sweatshirt while falling in the bright light of the morning...You could only imagine the pain that took him there.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I can certainly imagine the pain. Furthermore, I know the shock that comes with experiencing the suicide of a loved one. The first weeks are a daze; it's pretty much impossible to think of anything else; one goes through the motions of daily life like a robot. The most surprising emotion: the fury that he did it. A tsunami of anger.

    Having experienced that startlingly powerful impulse many times -- whether in the form of wanting to crash my car into a solid wall, or jumping from a high roof -- I keep wondering what has kept me alive. In fact a friend once said, "I'm surprised you didn't commit suicide." I tend to agree with Danusha Goska's comment that most likely it was my having grown up with people who had survived much, much worse. I needed to think only of my parents during the war, of my grandparents surviving Auschwitz, of a cousin, a resistance fighting, dying in Auschwitz after torture, his last words being, "I didn't betray anyone." I had a perspective on evil and suffering that made my own emotional pain, acute as it was, relatively petty, and suicide ignoble, deserting your post.

    And eventually I also decided that it was simply too late for both suicide and depression (mine was largely volitional -- I could become depressed any time I wanted to. I know someone else who made that very statement, so there must be more of us out there, "depression survivors" who consciously decided not to be depressed any more).

    Two poems based on the "too late" theme can be found in this blog: