Sunday, May 27, 2012

RILKE: LOVING THE DARK HOURS

“I believe in god, but I don’t believe in immortality,” a woman told me in a restroom at Macy’s (not the first time that I’ve conversed on a grand subject in a public restroom). Since ancient Judaism didn't "feature" an afterlife, I asked, "Are you Jewish?" She said, "No. I'm a mystic." Before I managed to reply, another woman emerged from a stall and asked, “Are you a psychic or just a mystic?” “I am a MYSTIC,” the first woman reiterated.

It wasn’t the time and place to demand definitions, but it was yet another confirmation that people crave something that they can call mysticism or spirituality. And there is certainly mystery enough to make room for this yearning for the benevolent unseen – for a responsive, friendly universe, itself one great collective psyche. The vocabulary changes, but not the nature of the yearning.

The Judeo-Christian god does not seem particularly suited to be the object of that yearning, since he is mainly the god of the dead – a sky god, to be sure, but less Zeus than Hades: the hidden god, the invisible one. Only the dead – and then only a blindly submissive portion of them, those who sacrificed their intellect, as Ignatius Loyola insisted we must – have communion with him. They, and maybe the mystics – who are quick to protest that their visions cannot be expressed in “mere words.”  

If heaven and hell are states of mind – and that’s the current Catholic dogma outlined by the former Grand Inquisitor, later Pope Benedict – then god too is a state of mind, a loving and blissful one (for the moment, let's not invoke the cruel archaic Yahweh, but the kind of benevolent deity that non-fundamentalist believers desire). With this new definition god is a loving state of mind the problem of trying to prove god's existence is solved. 

And since we have access to a blissful and loving state of mind in this life, immortality seems excessive; we can do without it. But, wait a moment: we don’t pray to a state of mind. We don’t worship a state of mind. We ENTER it – but not forever. The human brain requires variety, everything is in flux, and soon enough we exit bliss and enter a different state of mind, one of a hundred emotional flavors between heaven and hell.

If we enjoy infinite variety, if we love traveling, then immortality is still the most wonderful promise any religion could make. I don’t really want heaven (what a bore! in hell at least I could be of use, bringing comfort to fellow sufferers), but I’d love it if consciousness could continue having fascinating adventures even after we shed our bodily container. There is, however, the nasty problem of truth – of evidence or lack of it – that intrudes here. And because of that unpleasant intrusion, I can’t call myself a mystic (I know: I’ve tried calling myself a mystic atheist because, after all, there is so much MYSTERY out there). I don’t even call myself “spiritual.”

the elusive Polish bison – a rare sighting

Some might point to things I love, such as books, music, nature, writing, deep and affectionate conversation, animals, etc, and argue that, combined with my lack of interest in luxury cars, fine clothes, gadgets, kitchen remodeling and the like, I qualify as “spiritual.” “I think you are a deeply spiritual person,” I’ve been told more than once. “Some people think they are atheists, but they really aren’t,” a man recently remarked in my direction. I felt insulted at first, but quickly realized that he was completely confused about the meaning of atheism, and assumed it meant nihilism.

But for me atheism felt like the opposite of nihilism. Taking that plunge into clarity was so refreshing, and what relief! – a hundred pounds of “seeking” and respectfully “not knowing” off my back. Not as bad as tons of religious nonsense crushing me before I left the church at fourteen, all the susurrations of mindlessly repeated Our Fathers – but even the so-called “spiritual quest” was still a hindrance, a drag. Now my energy was free to be directed toward living and thinking, without religious phantoms choking me. I’ve never before felt so affirmative, so capable of enjoying the feast of life.

It’s possible that some people regard “spiritual” as synonymous with “inward.” I think I strike some people as spiritual because I am deeply introverted, and thus have a rich inner life. Among poets, I favor those who likewise seem to have a rich inner life and dare speak with great seriousness. They take that risk, rather than escape into clever irony and humor. And the moment I think of seriousness in poetry, I remember that it was Rilke who taught me seriousness. Oddly enough, as a beginner I enjoyed writing short funny poems. Then came the encounter with Rilke. When I came to the line, “You must change your life” (in response to powerful art), that was already after the fact; his poems had already changed my life.

In some ways, it was an instant change; I was thunder-struck by suddenly grasping what poetry was. But it took many years before I was able to formulate a mental answer to those who tried to force me into the “spiritual” slot: I am not spiritual; I am a writer. (This actually came as a startling personal discovery: I am not a mystic; I am a WRITER. The thought filled me with happiness.)

I’d rather have inspiration than mystic visions; and what joy, the keyboard rather than the rosary! When I gaze at the clouds, I’m not thinking of heaven; I’m simply enjoying the clouds. But I may also be thinking about how to describe them, since I’ve used up “baroque,” my favorite adjective for describing the celestial spectacle.

The churches of my childhood had the most fabulous echoes, especially when nearly empty: then the slightest creak of the pew was multiplied into a huge long groan.

As a writer, I am grateful to Catholicism for all its imagery and craziness, the purple hoods on statues and paintings during the Great Week of Lent, the orgies of candles and na├»ve processions to bless — what? The fields, the animals, or just the small walk right around the church? It didn’t matter. The little girls sprinkling flower petals in the path of Mary’s icon definitely had fun, and had to be restrained from tossing up great geysers of petals all at once.

So there was in me the child who suffered from the anguish of being doomed to hellfire (since I took seriously the constant mea culpa confessions of being by nature a wretched sinner, helpless against Satan) and the future writer who took in the cavernous interiors, the stench of incense, the thunderous rage of the organist. This was long before I learned that the incense was originally used to cover up the smell of blood in the temple, and the mass was designed around the ancient Israeli ritual of animal sacrifice (host = hostia = “victim”).

Ah, the echoes of the past. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud likens the psyche to the city of Rome, with layers and layers of history — so I see within me earlier selves with their now outgrown desires and despair. Living is a continual dying into oneself, over oneself, so to speak, building new layers of consciousness on top of the old.


Recently I came across this poem by the young Rilke. I’d read it many times before, but now it spoke to me more clearly than ever:

Ich liebe meines Wesens Dunkelstunden
I love the dark hours of my being 

I love the dark hours of my being
in which my senses drop into the deep.
I have found in them, as in old letters,
my daily life that is already lived through,
and become wide and powerful, like legends.
Then I know that there is room in me
for a second large and timeless life.

But sometimes I am like the tree that stands
over a grave, a leafy tree, fully grown,
who has lived out that particular dream, that the dead boy
(around whom its warm roots are pressing)
lost in his sad moods and his poems.

~ Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

I like parts of another, more literal translation by Mark Burrows as quoted by Dowrick (p. 154)

I love the dark hours of my life
in which my senses deepen;
in them as in old letters I find
my daily life already outlived
and, as in legends,
distant and complete.
. . .
Sometimes I am like the ripe 
and rustling tree which rises 
above the dead boy’s grave
– gathering him in its warm roots –
and fulfills the dream he had lost
in sorrows and songs.

(When it comes to great poets, literal translations seem both more powerful and interesting, and sometimes even more poetic. In literal translation, the last line of Rilke’s poem reads: “lost in sorrows and songs.”)

This is one of my favorite poems from The Book of Hours – the collection in which Rilke’s artistic genius first showed itself. Those of you with a even bit of German will probably remark that Dunkelstunden is more musical and somber (the heavy doon/shtoon internal rhyme, with apologies for the phonetic transliteration) than the weightless “dark hours” rising like glib balloons, but there is no helping the loss of this funeral-march music. Miraculously, “reif und rauschend” preserves its alliteration in Burrows’ “ripe and rustling.” The original has rhythm and rhyme, and that is lost. But I’m thrilled that both Bly and Burrows at least give us a good translation of Rilke’s imagery and meaning (sometimes lost in Macy’s perversely inaccurate translation).

The poem makes me think of the saying that happiness lies mainly in remembering. While something is happening, we are too busy experiencing it. It’s afterwards, remembering, that we can savor the pleasure without the tension, and can see a particular event as part of the evolving story of our life. At least that’s true for introverts, who need a lot of quiet, solitude, and “down time” (including dim light; introverts don’t like bright light or too much sunshine) so that they can process their experiences and reflect on the meaning of it all. Was Rilke an introvert? He’s the patron saint of introverts. Auden called him “the Santa Claus of solitude.”

I identify so much with everything Rilke is saying in this poem that it’s practically my personal anthem. I imagine that’s true for almost anyone in the Salon: extraverts don’t become poets. This is a good time to be an introvert: we are no longer branded as shy and/or antisocial. Several recent books praise us as thoughtful and sensitive. Quiet is a minor best-seller.

Rilke doesn’t waste time being defensive about what he loves: the quiet solitary hours. He tells us something wonderful: that there is room in us for a second large and timeless life. This life is discovered only through reflection, or by reading old letters and journals. That’s when you see both what has ceased to matter, and what has remained. In another poem, Rilke says that the part that lasts is what “consecrates us.” Whatever is large and timeless will emerge; we can’t really escape our central themes.

from Jung's Red Book

**

It’s wonderful to explore those central themes, to see that “there is no failure; there is only learning.” And we begin to make out the outlines of our own legend, “wide and powerful.” Yet the second stanza moves away from this celebration to note “sometimes I am like the tree that stands / over a grave.” Whose grave? The grave of the young self, the adolescent with all his dreams and innocence and huge ignorance. The adult is not just an older version of the adolescent, but in some ways a different person. The adult has ceased to be just a dreamer and drifter; ideally, she has “found her path in life” and is fulfilling a major dream, instead of setting off into five or six different directions at once. 

I remember the first time someone spoke of his younger self and said, “I wasn’t yet me.” Even though I myself wasn’t quite me yet at the time I heard it that statement, I grasped it instantly. I sensed it was about finding one’s essence, one’s unique self-expression. It’s what happens when a painter stops painting like most of his peers and becomes, say,                    Jackson Pollock.

I’ve always had an intense life of the mind. My real life is my inner life. Nothing much shows on the outside, but in my mind, what blizzards, storms, ecstasies! 

When I think of the great divide between adolescence and adulthood, I can’t of course dismiss changing countries and languages as the first great event that made almost all other change look minor by comparison. But in my life there was an event of comparable, or arguably even greater importance: the discovery of my vocation as a writer. Or maybe instead of “discovery,” I should say “gradual development,” since it wasn’t a matter of a light going off in my head, but rather a “long and winding road” with many backslides; in the end, I did accept the rather strange idea that I was, indeed, a writer. Not a poet – that “vocation” broke down more than once – but, more broadly, a writer, in the Rilkean sense of having to write, because you know that if you couldn’t, you’d die.

There are of course many other kinds of vocation. Almost anything can be a vocation if you feel it’s the right path for you, and you work at it with “wild patience.” Mistakes become stepping stones; the most beautiful trees grow in cemeteries. For me, there is also a beautiful feeling of calm that lets me know I am indeed doing the right thing.

James Hillman was a contrarian Jungian psychologist. Spurning the idea that parents, and especially the mother, determine the child’s destiny, Hillman came up with an “acorn theory” of development: each of us is born with a potential destiny (“daimon”) that can be discovered and fulfilled – just as the acorn contains the potential to grow into an oak. In The Soul’s Code, Hillman recognizes that only some people will go on to realize their potential. In fact such people strike us as extraordinary:

Extraordinary people display calling most evidently. Perhaps that’s why they fascinate. Perhaps, too, they are extraordinary because their calling comes through so clearly and they are so loyal to it . . .  They seem to have no other choice . . . Extraordinary people are not a different category; the workings of this engine in them are simply more transparent. (p. 28-29)

Rilke became aware of his poetic vocation fairly early in his life; once he found his path, he struck people as being totally dedicated to it. The best-known and most startling anecdote about Rilke’s life is that he refused to come to his daughter’s wedding because he happened to be in a fertile, productive phase and didn’t want to lose his creative momentum. Years ago I knew a woman who was so appalled at Rilke’s not coming to his daughter’s wedding that she could not bring herself to read his work. I understood Rilke perfectly, even if I suspected I wouldn't have had his courage to protect his creative solitude as fiercely as that. But Rilke did have that courage and that dedication and that “first things first” loyalty to his calling, and that’s why Rilke was Rilke.

But this poem was written long before the wedding incident. Rilke was already an “oak,” so to speak, but he remembered the acorn – the acorn and the seedling. In The Book of Hours he announced, “I feel my own power.” But in “The dark hours of my being” we also sense great affection in him for the young boy that he once was. For one thing, the boy already had the dream that the man was fulfilling – the dream that the boy “lost in sorrows and songs.” The songs were a beginner’s poems (Rilke started writing verses at the age of nine); the sorrows – read any biography (for one thing, imagine a sensitive boy being sent to a military academy).

Here I’d like to come up with a wonderful coda about all of us being great rustling trees, and quite a grove we are! But “grove” reminds me of “grave.” With every gain, there is some loss, so here is thinking of the young girls and boys whom we outgrew, who are no more except in our memory, but who need to be remembered with tenderness.

This is the tenderness I finally managed to achieve toward my younger self. I wrote the poem before major unhappiness hit again. I could use a third picture, and a fourth one. Such is life. With luck (and let’s face it, it takes a lot of luck), we pursue not happiness, but a calling – which we recognize in the dark, solitary hours of our being.

TWO PICTURES
You will love again
the stranger who was yourself.
            ~ Derek Walcott

Photography traffics in time.
On my driver’s license, at thirty-nine
I look younger than at twenty-seven.

At thirty-nine, my eyes are lit
with an astonished smile.
My wayward hair seems to dance 
over my right brow.

At twenty-seven, I’m withered inside:
tight mouth, defeated eyes –
a face like the arrival
of familiar pain.
I’ve given up on my hair –
a wig crowns me with synthetic sheen.

I want to go back
to the woman in that faded polaroid –
get rid of the wig,
throw out the thriftshop blouse,
the platform sandals so worn down
she waddles lopsided.
I want to buy her a self-correcting
typewriter, so she doesn’t inhale
so much correction fluid.

I want her to stop wasting herself
on loveless men. They call her
a diamond, a pearl,
leave her like broken glass.
I want to crumple that list
she keeps near the phone,
of clever things to say.

I need to talk to her, it’s urgent:
she mustn’t spend evenings crying.
I want to buy her decent shoes.
She must be told she has talent.

Oh, she is bright and funny too –
watch her cook the “nothing soup,”
or read whole volumes, crouched
in a dim corner of the bookstore.

Secretly I admire her style –
waking at six to record
a flute concerto from the static-y radio;
drifting to sleep in the drowning
moonlight of Selected Shelley.

Dear child, I want to say,
forgetting it is she
who’s my unlikely mother –
this stranger who at night
will not pull down the blinds
so her houseplants can feed
on the morning’s first timid light.

If only I could show her
the other picture. But I can’t.
She must stumble into the future
blindly, carrying me into the now –

this woman slender as new moon,
too young and fragile for the task.


~ Oriana © 2012

Charles:

Love the continuation of your wrestling with God thoughts. So many brilliant viewpoints in just the first few paragraphs.

Did you know that the word, "Israel" means, he who wrestles with God? You would have made a great Talmudic scholar.

Then that pleasant surprise image of 1/2 a Polish bison.

You are a committed atheist and you back it up with profound thoughts. I don't believe you could have gotten to where you were if you didn't go through Catholic boot camp.

People often accuse me of being spiritual but all I want to do is become a better human being. I could care less about being spiritual.

"I’d rather have inspiration than mystic visions; and what joy, the keyboard rather than the rosary! When I gaze at the clouds, I’m not thinking of heaven; I’m simply enjoying the clouds" is my favorite few sentences.

“Two Pictures” is also a great poem.

Oriana:

I'm still not sure if it was just a coincidence that my commitment to atheism – finally deciding "this is it" – and the quantum leap in happiness that I experienced. I think we need to close doors – keeping too many doors/options open (in this case leaving the door ajar to the possibility that "maybe god exists" – not a being floating in the clouds, that’s just too silly, but some kind of cosmic force) drains energy. Once a choice is made, there is less stress. It’s similar to committing oneself to a vocation – you stop imagining yourself doing other things, and focus on one path. There is power in simply having a focus.

Catholic boot camp – I love the phrase. Yes, the exposure was both toxic and challenging . . . It was pretty dramatic to be plunged into Catholicism after Winnie the Pooh . . . and to this day, nothing compares to Catholicism in terms of aggressive indoctrination and my ultimate rejection of that indoctrination (even assuming that total recovery is not possible). People who think that Communist propaganda was a ruling factor in my childhood obviously didn’t experience old-time Catholicism, which outdid the government not just tenfold, but worked at a much more powerful life-and-death level, and had fabulous images and music and stories. The splendor of the churches compared to the dull, boxy “House of the Party” – well, there simply can be no comparison. 

(But now I also realize that I was deprived of what existed for the Jesuits, for instance: the deep meditation on the Gospels, a more interesting and experiential approach. The church wasn't going to see a mere girl as anything but superficial, not worth initiating into "spiritual exercises" -- those were for the church elite, especially the Jesuits.)


So my leaving the church, once I came back full circle to the perception I had already during my first religion lesson – that this is all fairy tales, and there is no invisible bearded man sitting on a throne in the clouds, whose will determines all that happens – my breaking away was the greatest act of courage in my whole life, since back then a part of me still believed that I was dooming myself to eternal torment in hell. In fact even now I am not totally free of that old terror – except that, should I turn out to be wrong, I am prepared to say, with Bertrand Russell, “Sir, you didn’t give us sufficient evidence.” And should hell as a place of eternal torment turn out to exist, then a deity who created it is worse than Hitler and is not worthy of worship.

In any case, I reject the criterion of faith and accept only conduct as having any validity for judging a person. I know this is a more Judaic than Christian thinking, as is the concentration on this life rather than the afterlife.

In many cases belief is irrelevant; it’s the behavior that matters. When I was doing depression, if someone asked me, “Do you really believe all this nonsense? Do you believe you are worthless, of no use to anyone, your whole life a failure, and so on?” it would probably have depressed me even more, since now I’d be exposed as a moron who worshipped at the altar of such falsehoods. In any case, it would have plunged me into more thinking, this time about my own thinking. I needed to stop thinking and start working. In a similar vein, people who torment themselves pondering religious questions that can have no verifiable answer are mostly wasting their time – unless they have Dostoyevski’s genius and the result is The Grand Inquisitor. Otherwise just giving a dollar to a homeless person is worth more than all the metaphysics.

Speaking of Dostoyevski, I realize that I can understand literature better because I am familiar with both the Old Testament and the Gospels. I also understand why someone like Dostoyevski could have a deep attachment to the person of Christ, and thus be unable to make a clean break (though he could never be conventional; he constructed his own heresy). Literature is the richer for his conflict between reason and faith.

Many people still confuse atheism with nihilism. The latter means a lack of values. All atheists I know have strong moral values, love beauty, love their friends and families. As Milosz observed, believers and non-believers are not all that different. Where Milosz was probably wrong was in his assertion that believers made the choice to believe. I think that’s decided on the level of the unconscious. I can’t believe if there is lack of evidence, even if I’d like to believe. In others (e.g. recovering addicts), the need to believe may prevail. I say: whatever works. How we live right here on earth matters because it touches the lives of others. We are responsible for that. It’s social contract all the way. Even suicide is a social act. So ultimately it all comes down to being a good person, and I think everyone can say Amen to that. 




Thursday, May 24, 2012

EXIT THE DRAMA QUEEN: REBIRTH FROM DEPRESSION


A dolphin inside the womb. Photo: National Geographic

On a wonderfully overcast Thursday (Tuesdays and Thursdays have always been my favorite days of the week – don’t ask), a friend and I walked on the Imperial Beach Pier. It was cold and windy; let’s face it: it was freezing. I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the only woman fishing at the pier, who was in shorts and high heels. Alas, she did not have good legs; anyway, the men were much too busy catching lots of mackerel. The mackerel were migrating, thanks to which we got to see more dolphins than ever before. Pelicans were few, being outcompeted by the dolphins. But those elegant slender birds that make seagulls look like ducks slashed through the air like white knives. And the final treat: very close to the pier, a sleek brown seal came up for the air four times, its dear little whiskered face in full view, before it dove deep into the gray-green water.

I thought, with some surprise: I’m glad to be alive. To me this thought is still a novelty. After decades of seeing my life as a mistake, and myself as a mistake, a birth defect, this was new.

Later, the brown seal and the sleek dolphins still “flashing upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude,” as Wordsworth put it, I happened to read, in the more slender and easier to lift of my two gigantic biographies of Dostoyevski, the letter that the writer sent his brother just several hours after the mock execution and the sentence to a Siberian prison (Dostoyevski’s “crime” was belonging to a socialist circle that sought freedom of the press and the abolition of serfdom). The sentence was read, including: Dostoyevski, Fyodor Michailovich . . . for participating in criminal plans and spreading the letter written by Belinsky, which is full of impudent words against the Russian Orthodox church and Supreme Power . . . is sentenced to death by shooting.” But in the last seconds a white handkerchief was waved and the drum roll of retreat was sounded. The firing squad lowered their rifles.

The mock execution made one of convicts, Grigoryev, among the first three to be tied to the post, go insane. But the future author of Brothers Karamazov wrote instead an almost jubilant letter that continues to astonish me when I reflect on its context. Yes, his life had just been spared, and I can understand his joy at the reprieve – but right after the proclamation of clemency, he learned he’d been sentenced to four years of hard labor in a Siberian prison (the Russian word katorga is more dreadful than “hard labor”), then exile. The prison, where he wouldn’t be able to read and write – wasn’t that living death? Still, the joy of being alive prevailed, the joy of still having consciousness, of being able to see sun:

Brother, I’m not dejected or crestfallen. Life, life is everywhere, life is in ourselves and not in the external. There will be people near me, and to be a human among human beings, and to remain one forever, not to become depressed and not to falter – this is what life is, herein lies its task . . .

When I look back upon the past and think how much time has been spent to no avail, how much of it was lost in delusions, in mistakes, in idleness, in not knowing how to live; what little store I set upon it, how many times I sinned against my heart and spirit – for this my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every moment could have been an age of happiness. (~ December 22, 1849; the transport to Siberia, in shackles, began on Christmas Eve).


Aleksander Sochaczewski, “Farewell to Europe”; convicts being sent to Siberian katorga stop at the obelisque that marks the boundary between Europe and Asia

Dostoyevski had no idea how much suffering still awaited him, how oppressive the prison would be – “a coffin” – with those other human beings (thieves and other criminals) filled with hatred, constantly swearing and quarreling, as if the living conditions both during winter and summer were not oppressive enough. That he didn’t come to despise his fellow prisoners but preserved compassion for them is impressive enough. That he always remained capable of seeing that “life is a gift, life is happiness” seems a miracle. (How different from Buddha’s “life is suffering” – and this coming from Dostoyevski, the “child of the age, child of doubt,” torn between faith and reason, with his deep knowledge of self-torment as well as downright torture – that’s what the mock execution was, an old technique of torture.)

Oddly, at first I misread a phrase in the letter: “life is in ourselves and not in the eternal.” And that makes wonderful sense to me: life is of the moment, this moment; life is now and not in the hereafter. We can connect to great art, which lasts for centuries, we can learn history and fantasize, always inaccurately, about the world as it will be a hundred years from now; but to waste even a day of actual life is a crime against oneself.

How I wish I had understood this a long time ago. Dostoyevski’s words about losing “so much . . . in delusions, in mistakes, in idleness, in not knowing how to live” burn right through me. Like everyone, I have to forgive myself and make the best of what time remains.

**

EXIT THE DRAMA QUEEN

May is my rebirth month. April is my birthday month, but late May marks the anniversary of a major perception shift in my life. I can’t believe I didn’t write the actual date; but I remember standing to the left of my computer desk, the exact spot on my road to Damascus where I just stood for a while, dazed, grasping the fact that I would no longer be depressed, not ever. This kind of behavior-changing perception shift is known as “paradigm shift.”

For private reasons, I chose May 24, 2009, as the day of that powerful burst of gamma waves that’s associated with insight. A new neural network created itself and took over. The portal to depression disappeared.

The first step involved suddenly realizing that there wasn’t that much life left. While this might look like an effective way to start descending into depression, the opposite happened. Three years ago I gave up depression forever. This thief of life had stolen way too much time from me starting in my teens. I haven’t had a single relapse, which parallels all the other times I’ve experienced a shift in perception: I simply cannot go back to the old behavior. Not even if I wanted to (but that’s just it, it’s impossible to want to go back). The neural portal has vanished. Yes, I do remember at least one of the thoughts that used to be the key, but I can’t bring myself to call up that thought, which now strikes me as idiotic.

I take little pride in having made the decision. It felt as if something took place in my brain without regard to my wishes – as if the part that I call the Observer, the inviolate innermost self that never gets depressed or angry or hateful, but simply watches the craziness, waiting for it to pass – it felt as if the Observer got tired of the nonsense and decided to take charge. I didn’t have to struggle, then or later. I repeat: I haven’t had a single relapse. My brain has been on automatic, keeping me on a bizarrely even keel and ridiculously rational (oy . . . being rational sometimes feels like a burden; do I really have to be strong and cope? Can’t I just sulk like a child over whenever life doesn’t give me what I want? Apparently not.)

Now, one of the images that kept me entertained through the long years of brooding about my worthlessness, uselessness, chronic failure and so forth, was a New Yorker cartoon of a man with a cardboard sign that says “Irrational.” I identified completely. I certainly agree with Dostoyevski about the waste of life in delusions, mistakes, etc, but still . . . now and then I mourn the drama queen I was, with her intense self-loathing and near-delusional melancholy. And what about the crying fits – the later ones couldn't rival those great howling ones of my youth, but they were still vehement enough, sinister, Byronic, or, to change literary reference, like King Lear in the storm, mad and poetic. Madness! Who hasn’t felt drawn to that ultimate escape . . .

And the brilliant way I could enter depression at will, using the key of a single thought, and then go deeper and deeper, riding the spiral of automatic negative thoughts. There was something exciting about this entry into the lush darkness and total hyperbole with no supportive evidence whatever. My life seemed a series of catastrophes, a domino collapse. Wasting away with frustrated passion, all my energy and intelligence and gifts tossed away like nothing . . .  Only when that chapter of my life was finished did I realize to what degree I had cherished being the star of my own film noir. 

Artists love passion, intensity. I had an intense life of feelings. Unfortunately it stemmed from self-torture, something Dostoyevski understood well. Having been humiliated many times, you keep on humiliating yourself. 


Limbourg Brothers, Hell, in The Rich Hours of Duc de Berry, 1416

But would I want to go back to being that drama queen raging on some imaginary moors? No. Life is too short for that. Having wasted so much time, I have an immense desire to be productive. What I love most is the opposite of the drama queen: the sense of deep calm when I feel I’m on the right path.

Even during the worst years, I had the “mental resources” to lift my mood if I chose to. There were moments of grace, like hearing Mozart’s 25th piano concerto on the car radio when I felt I had no strength to face another day. Even in the depths of my personal hell, in my own heart of darkness, I still knew many ways to lift myself out of despair and make myself happy. But I had no motivation to be happy. How boring to be happy, how unfulfilling (insofar as I even remembered such a state, increasingly an abstraction). Depressives seek to enhance their sadness. You know how people try to “cheer up” a depressed person, but all suggestions are instantly dismissed. Of course! If an angel, wings and all (I insist on wings), had appeared before me and said, “I could make you happy forever” – I’d have shrieked and assaulted the celestial.

(I still would. The prospect of being happy forever has something nauseating to it – it’s so inhuman. We are nourished by sadness as well as by joy (I mean sadness, and not depression, which constricts and diminishes one’s life instead of nourishing it; the sadness that can nourish is a transient sadness, the kind that doesn’t transmogrify into self-loathing, suicidal imagery, and so forth). (And anyway, about assaulting the hypothetical angel: it would be even worse if it happened to be certifiably god himself. I agree with the Yiddish saying: “If god lived on earth, people would break his windows.” There can be an enormous rage at god, even in people who are non-believers.)























Hell, circa 1180.

But the only angel I can remember was a Polish woman biochemist whom I asked about tofu. “Tofu never passes my lips,” she said, and in one stroke I was liberated from the food I hated but kept forcing myself to eat. My body was screaming to tell me not to touch the poison (one woman’s tofu is another woman’s poison; food is to us what sex was to the Victorians), but the pro-soy propaganda was powerful. Soy was politically correct, while dark meat, dopaminergic and energy-giving, was politically incorrect in the highest. The bad news about tofu – interference with thyroid and zinc absorption, increased risk of Alzheimer’s – hadn’t yet hit, but based on a couple of previous (and in one case, life-saving) gems from biochemists, I put my faith in biochemists rather than those free magazines you get in so-called health-food stores.

But I’ve digressed enough. As Milosz says,

The account of my stupidity
would take many volumes.
. . .
The account of my stupidity
will not be written.
It is late,
and the truth is laborious.

**

THE THREE GRACES OF TOUGH LOVE

I have always been aware of the power of words. I remember what the “no talent” verdict did to me, and the antidote delivered by a man who decided (on the basis of my prose) that I did have talent.

In spring of 2007 I began to experience what I called “morning insight.” Sometimes these were statements I read that affected me deeply. Three of them in particular turned out to be crucial. They were my “three graces of tough love.”

It’s too late for discontent” ~ Jack Gilbert

You can live from your wounds, or you can live from your greatness” (~ I don’t remember the source, and I know that this is not the exact quotation; but it was in this either-or that the statement had a powerful effect on me)

You can practice falling apart, or you can practice being strong” ~ the surprising source for this was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. (I prefer not to ascribe any significance to the fact that two of my “graces” share the same last name. Sometimes a coincidence is only a coincidence.)

Those three statements shook me to the core of my being. I was ready.

LETTING GO OF BEING ASHAMED OF MYSELF

Insights in various form kept coming even after my paradigm shift. My understanding kept deepening. It’s curious that only yesterday, reading the biography of Dostoyevski that I mentioned, I came across a passage about Fyodor Karamazov, the “buffoon” father of the three brothers who bore his name, and his abused illegitimate son who’d kill him. Fyodor visits the monastery whose resident sage is Father Zosima. The monk tells him, Don’t be so ashamed of yourself, for this alone is the cause of everything.

This went through me like lightning. When I was growing up, one of chief child-rearing practices was shaming. It was bad enough to be humiliated by one’s peers; few sensitive children escape that. But priests, nuns, teachers – they were the main emotional abusers. And our transgressions and inadequacies were such trivia, really. I have a poem about it:

IN THE CAULDRON

You should be ashamed of yourself!
I heard from teachers, parents, strangers,
rouged old ladies in fox-fur collars
with the fox’s sad little feet.
Sometimes even a dinner guest
would thunder at me with the voice of God.

I can no longer remember why –
did I spill tea or stain my dress?
Did I break tipsy porcelain?
How could people who’d survived the Nazis
be so offended by a child?
 
I couldn’t answer that when I was nine,
when I imagined myself in hell
in the same cauldron with Hitler –
that lethal mustache and I,
a sign around my neck:
She should be ashamed of herself.
 
At confession, the old, hard-of-hearing priest
demanded, Louder! when I counted off
dirty thoughts” and other
deeds of darkness. Then he’d hiss:
You should be ashamed of yourself!
 
A young priest came, only once.
He listened to my meticulous account
of the mild swear words
that crossed my mind, my list of sins:
disobeyed grandmother five times;
muffled a chuckle and said,

“One Our Father, One Hail Mary,
and pray to God that all children
be as good as you are.”
His voice grew even softer
as he blessed me: “And will you also
say a prayer for my soul?”

~ Oriana © 2012

**

The poem has turned out to be an audience charmer, a humorous piece. The reflection that a lot of my later insecurity and anxiety came precisely from having constantly heard the message that I should be ashamed of myself – that came relatively late in life, after many years of suffering.

And what were these terrible things that I should have been ashamed of? When I recalled the confessions of my misdeeds, and other things I was shamed for, those were such trivia. It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be convicted in any court of law. In the worst case – perhaps I’m forgetting something – I’d be sentenced to community service (which I’d love: being useful and gaining new material for writing).

I don’t know if everything, all kinds of pathology and foolishness, stem from feeling ashamed of yourself, as Father Zosima observed, but that is a major factor. And Louise Hay was wise in observing that the path to recovery starts with unconditional acceptance of yourself. Goodbye, unhappy priests and sour-faced teachers; goodbye, the idea of being a terrible sinner and total failure as a person. Good-bye, Drama Queen! Alas for you, such a quiet vanishing instead of the Big Bang of suicide . . .

The annular eclipse seen in Tokyo, May 20, 2012

Marjorie:

What you wrote at your blog about throwing yourself into work is similar to what I call putting one foot in front of the other. It’s a mechanical thing. You put one foot down and then you tell your other foot to come forward to meet the first foot. And so forth and so on until you’re far from where you started and can begin to progress normally.

Oriana:

I went through that first “blind work, like blind faith” period, but it wasn’t quite that heavy, mechanical feeling that even simple activities, like making the bed, can have in depression – the bedspread seems to weigh a hundred pounds. But it wasn’t quite like that. The paradigm shift was very swift. It was breathtaking, to come out of depression as suddenly as that. But that's how paradigm shift works: your perception changes, and suddenly you can no longer do what you did for many, many years. It no longer makes sense, so you simply can't. And I didn't even realize that on some level it DID make sense to me in the past to become depressed and to augment that depression once it was underway.

One of the things I missed by going through a perception shift is that neat feeling, almost a high, when depression lifts on its own. Instead I was INSTANTLY (at the speed of thought) in a kind of "not really happy but not depressed either" state. But not everything was instant. The ability to feel pleasure again and the retrieval of positive memories took time. The latter in particular took a good year at least – those neural pathways had been in disuse for so many years, I suspect I had to build new ones, using what traces remained. Certain poems that recorded what I call “eternal moments” proved important. But this reconnection to my positive, radiant side was gradual.

I didn't try to force anything, and just concentrated on being productive. It was pretty exhausting at first. Now I feel pleasure just looking out the window. And after working for a while in a focused way, I feel serene, which is a new kind of pleasure for me. It’s that deep quiet that has always, throughout my adult life, let me know I am on the right path.

More important, I haven't had a relapse in three years, and I don't think I'll have any. The door not only closed, but disappeared. The negative Drama Queen left through that door, and never returned.

I do, of course, feel the kind of sadness that it's only human to feel. But it doesn't transform into self-loathing, suicidal imagery and ideation ("the world would be a better place without me" and similar drivel), crying fits, deluded blaming of self and others etc -- you know, the usual depressive craziness (though I don't think I was ever in psychotic depression, at least not in public; sitting for many hours in a stupor was the deepest I ever descended, and that was only once; mostly I did agitated depression -- I think there may be something to the theory that agitated depression is what some people experience instead of a manic fit, missing all the euphoria -- sigh . . . )

Charles:

The wonderful story about Dostoyevsky is a build-up to the profound realization in your life.

Love the phrase a "...domino collapse"

Wonderful images of Hell by Limbourg Brothers.

Here is a picture of Christ in Glory that looks more like Hell.

Oriana:

It’s the beginning of the Last Judgment: the angels are blowing the trumpets to wake up the dead, who are already beginning to scramble from under the earth. The red color of the angels and the blood of Christ’s wounds, the earth cracking as the dead begin to emerge – this is hardly pleasant. But then life in the Middle Ages and beyond was so harsh that many yearned for the world to come to an end. Love of the earth and of this life is a fairly recent development . . . 

But that's a very interesting throne of rippling clouds on which Christ is sitting as he keeps on bleeding. The idea of blood sacrifice is a particularly archaic feature of Christianity.


John:

Oriana, have you seen this?  


Oriana:

Yes, I saw it a few months ago (?? or more recently). And he might have a point, since the brain knows how to heal itself, once you limit the input and are confined to one spot (like a small room, but the bed seems even better). The thing is, I knew a lot of things that would have worked for me, but I wasn't about to try. I didn't want not to be depressed. I wanted to enhance the depression. That was part of the disorder. I think by now it's finally acknowledged that once people get into depression, they are not motivated to watch a funny movie; they act so as to enhance the sadness.


But I love Bukowski's idea of LESS, of limiting input. That’s why I rarely visit Facebook. Focus is marvelously healing. Maybe "working works" because you achieve total focus. My dream is having a "zero room" – nothing in it, just blank walls. To that room I bring a single book (or magazine, or a ms of my own etc), and concentrate 100%.

I have no problem sitting on the floor, propped against the wall, but – whatever works. It’s the complete sinking into a single project that is just terrific.

Why people don’t understand that they have to DO LESS in order to accomplish more – I should say: FEWER PROJECTS – that puzzles me, since it's so obvious. And it was obvious millennia ago. Isn’t it somewhere in the gospels – let your concerns be two or three? Even then people were multi-tasking and cluttering up their days with trivia. And if you’re not accomplishing anything because you try to do everything, it’s harder to resist depression. But if you concentrate on just one thing, wow, growth can be so quick, results so rewarding. 


Marjorie:

You say, “One of the things I missed by going through a perception shift is that neat feeling, almost a high, when depression lifts.”

Sounds as if you had a bit of manic depression disorder. You probably corrected it with proper nutrition.

Oriana:

I shouldn’t have used the word “high.” I didn’t mean any kind of euphoria, just a kind of pleasant “Oh!” when you wake up and the depression is gone. And yes, I think it was always in the morning. You wake up, you reach for the depression, and it's not there. Strangely enough, you feel quite good and refreshed by sleep. You don't feel like going into automatic negative thinking. You just don't feel like it. The brain is pretty amazing.

I rarely experience elated moods, and when I do, the elation is brief. That’s fine with me, since what I love is the feeling of very deep calm: what I call "floating." The sense of being weightless, rather than weighed down. Not striving.

But I am interested in the theory that agitated depression is a kind of manic state, just without the pleasure. Linda, who really was bipolar, and mostly manic, told me that at just the right degree of mania there is great joy and great energy. That’s why she hated to be on medication; she missed the intensity. Once when we were together near the ocean, I exulted over a beautiful sunset. She said, wistfully, “If I weren’t on lithium, I’d feel as delighted as you.”

I didn’t change my nutrition. I was low-carbo then and continue to be low-carbo. I learned years ago that low blood sugar can result in a low mood, but I learned to keep hypoglycemia away by emphasizing protein and good fats. My motto is, “When hungry, eat real food.” I also eat fish every day. My chronic depression wasn’t due to bad nutrition.

I don’t want into the account of the probably causes (several come to mind, but that’s probably only the tip of the iceberg) because, to quote Milosz again,  “the account of my stupidity would fill many volumes. But it is late, and the truth is laborious.” 
Marjorie:

In your poem I especially love the part where you confess your sins to the priest, who comments he wishes all children were so good. In my pre-school years, I was often sent during dinner to sit on the cellar steps. I didn’t mind too much, because our dog lived down there; so I had communion with the dog while being punished.

Oriana:

I think he was the only sane priests among them all. In fact too sane to remain a priest. I bet he left the priesthood soon after that unforgettable confession experience I describe – priests and nuns, the best and the brightest, were just beginning to leave the church.

I like some of the modern ideas that came into Catholicism – especially that heaven and hell are states of mind, and a hint (I’m not saying it’s been made clear) that God too is a state of mind. If so, then we don’t need the concept, God and heaven fusing into a blissful, loving state of mind.

There is a psychological problem, however: bliss can continue only so long. Then we need a variety, so that bliss can feel blissful again.

I can see how being with an affectionate dog transformed your punishment into a semi-heaven. No wonder these days people insists that dogs also go to heaven. I suspect they look forward to being reunited with their dog(s) more so than with their relatives.


Scott:

Your mention of Father Zosima brought back fond memories of the Brothers K, an all-time favorite. Zosima is one of my favorite literary personalities, the sort you would have enjoyed a good cup of coffee with over a game of chess. The icons of the Orthodox faith have always struck me as very beautiful.
Oriana:

The Brothers Karamazov is easily one of the ten greatest novels ever written. Just the chapter with Ivan’s “Grand Inquisitor” is enough to place it in the top rank. For all my admiration for Christopher Hutchins and other eloquent atheist intellectuals, all their volumes hardly amount to anything when compared to the Grand Inquisitor. That’s the power of great art versus merely competent expository prose.

Father Zosima is supposed to be a powerful character, the only one who could answer Ivan. The story of his conversion is interesting, but afterwards . . . well, Dante’s Paradiso is pretty boring compared to the Inferno. The dramatic tension isn’t there, the opposing argument is missing. On the other hand, Zosima has some interesting teachings.  I think he goes beyond even Christ: it’s not just that we are supposed to love others; we should feel responsible for all. Thus, if someone commits a crime, we need to take the blame – in some way, we have failed to nurture him into a loving person.

My favorite, though, since it applies to depression, is “Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.” Depressed people strike us as very self-involved and unloving towards others. That doesn’t mean that they love themselves. Their brain function is disturbed and they are unable to love anything or anyone, including themselves.

This leads me to something that may seem tangential at best, but which I see as relevant. If a person can make a fantastic omelet, all is not lost; we can build on that. So many people cannot do a single thing really well. It’s not that they are lazy; they have simply not been taught how to be competent at something. We know that children who learn to play a musical instrument do better not only in school, but in life in general. Prisoners who are giving cooking lessons so they can indeed make a fantastic omelet and more, who are given training in how to be a restaurant chef, have something to give, and something for which they can value themselves. (And a woman will not want to leave a man who can cook.)

I know a man who is a schizophrenic and an alcoholic; as if bad genes were not enough, as a child he was abandoned by his mother. But one man taught this abandoned child how to work with clay, and this apparently hopeless person became a very competent potter, able to make a living selling his shimmering, beautifully glazed ceramics. And that has been his salvation. He still hears voices, but that hasn’t diminished his skill. He’s also been pretty successful at staying out of bars because he needs his driving license so he can drive to art shows where he sells his wares.

How did I get into all this when I meant to discuss Father Zosima? Because I think his answer is only partial. Teach a person how to give a great lymphatic massage, for instance, and now s/he can support herself, and will come to love herself and others. This will do much more good than attending church services.  “Spiritual activities” may help, but I suspect that what we need more than anything else is trade schools, music schools, art schools, hands-on classes, coaching – we need to teach skills. It’s not that I disagree with Father Zosima. Being able to love is very important; it's just that I think it's much easier to be a loving person when you've been trained and educated to be competent, to be good at something, to be useful.