Christian Schloe, digital art
THE OCEAN IS MY SPEECH THERAPIST
In memory of Linda Brown, 1941-2006
The ocean is my speech therapist, Linda,
fluent spirit with no need to remove
pebbles from your throat.
I watched you climb my steep
Polish name on the first try,
licking off your cappuccino’s last foam.
We roamed in Yogananda’s Gardens,
the ocean lipping below,
lapping in flamenco billows.
You blew kisses to everything around:
a cypress twisted like a yogi;
the slow-motion koi. The plump gold one,
you said, was your guru, reincarnated now —
Swami turned Swimmie. In life
you crashed many times, and got up,
and got up, and smiled your wild smile,
until that final fall when you were beyond
anything as clumsy as mere getting up.
Overlaid with the great Amen
of surf, your voice speaks to me
again: So you’ve made a mistake.
You will make more mistakes.
Old grief and old salt,
what dancers they are! And the liquid
mockingbird sings forgiveness.
I still can’t pronounce
a single pebble correctly, not one blue
syllable of your death, Linda,
my friend, my friend,
you who had no right to die —
You laugh, an unstoppable child.
You are my speech therapist, Linda,
you and the Pacific Ocean,
that mouth full of broken glass —
wave after wave repeating,
Let’s shimmer, let’s shimmy, let’s shine.
~ Oriana © 2016
Not long ago, out of the blue, it seemed, I thought of Linda Brown, a well-known San Diego County poet whose premature death shocked the local poetry community. I checked, and that day happened to be the tenth anniversary of her death.
She and I would walk together in Yogananda's Gardens in Encinitas, always pausing to watch the koi. Then we’d sit on one of the stone meditation benches. She’d take out her notebook and effortlessly write a new poem — she was prolific. The world is a less vivid place with her gone.
Linda was bipolar. I’m not betraying any secrets here: she was completely open about all of her problems, and belonged to more 12-step groups than I can remember. Nor can I remember the number of times she ended up on the mental ward because at the height of her manic mode she became psychotic (again, she was quite open about this — she seemed to have no secrets). She also worked as a librarian, specializing in creating much-praised thematic displays.
In addition, for a number of years Linda taught a poetry workshop at a community college. She had a lot of friends and attended all manner of events. She traveled. How on earth did she find the time to do all those things, and to write poems besides — many ranging from good to excellent?
That, perhaps, was her one secret. Basically, she hardly ever revised. For her, poems simply welled up, the way that thoughts “arise.” If I hadn’t seen it, I’d have trouble believing it: once she opened her notebook and put her pen to paper, she didn’t stop until in her mind the poem had closure. Now, I can’t vouch that this is how she wrote every single poem she ever wrote, but it wouldn’t surprise me. A lot of poets have stop-and-go fits of inspiration; they revise and revise (Yeats was an example of a “serial revisionist”), and really sweat to find the right ending. Linda didn’t sweat — to put it mildly.
I knew one other person who wrote in this manner, but without achieving Linda’s quality. She also had some of the same mental-health problems and addictions, coupled with high energy and difficulty revising (since a poem was strictly “in the moment”). She produced poems by the hundreds.
I am not writing this to demonstrate, as if more demonstration were needed, that there is a link between creativity and the bipolar disorder — or maybe we should speak about the “bipolar spectrum.” Obviously, “there are so many madmen who are not artists.” And one doesn’t have to be bipolar to be creative. Yet being mildly — I emphasize ‘mildly’ — manic seems to help, at least when it comes to sheer productivity.
(But to complicate matters, many poets claim that for them being mildly depressed is inspiring. Some are downright afraid that happiness — a happy relationship, for instance — will ruin their creativity and deprive them of material.)
Like a lot of creative people who are also bipolar, Linda would go off her mood-stabilizing meds because he didn’t like normalcy. She felt the drugs “blunted” her, making it impossible to feel enthusiastic about anything — not even a sumptuous Pacific sunset. She didn’t care to be the efficient, mundane, down-to-earth person much like her very competent and practical mother. Not surprisingly, Linda enjoyed flying high and being artistic. She loved her “happy times.” And during those times, she had the happiest smile. She looked radiant.
But the “happy times” lasted only so long. Pleasant euphoria would shift into over-excitement leading to insomnia, overspending, and other out-of-control behavior. One of Linda’s sorrows was that she’d never known lasting love; her relationships were too turbulent to be lasting.
Here is an excerpt of one of Linda’s poems that her audiences loved. It starts with her mother teaching her about vacuum cleaner attachments and how to vacuum properly. But the gist of it is the difference between mother and daughter:
“I’d rather be an efficient devil than an inefficient angel,” Mother proclaimed.
Yet she’d birthed a dreamer, a throwback to her mother who fled housework
to fish, napped two hours after lunch like an orchard of slowly fruiting trees.
We were seeking different kinds of order. She wanted perfection, nothing less —
immaculate mattresses sans “body ash,” dead skin flakes that sift through sheets;
everything in place — heavenly stasis — polished, put away, gleaming and clean.
I loved storms, fast-moving clouds, wind shaking its fist through leaves.”
To do justice to Linda’s mother, Margaret Brown did more than just clean the house. She loved gardening — that was her art. And Linda did have poems that were an homage to her mother, remembering the mother’s amazing resilience, her ability to remain undefeated no matter what life threw at her. One of her two sons committed suicide, and Linda was of course a difficult daughter, occasionally even becoming psychotic. Margaret, always supportive, soldiered on into her eighties.
Why is being mildly manic apparently good for creativity? Both energy and brain function are involved. There’s more to it than dopamine, but if you increase dopamine through drugs or falling in love, creative output tends to go up — including people who pick up the brush or pen for the first time ever. At the same time, we need the usual caveat: not everyone on dopaminergic drugs experiences a creative flowering. It’s not as easy as that.
Quality is another matter. Writers who use uppers often end up crashing — the opening of the novel may be brilliant, but the last chapters fizzle (P.K. Dick was a classic example). And the price can ultimately be horrendous, including an early death.
Ah, the brain, the brain. It may be too complex ever to understand its own function. Remember that we still can’t even define consciousness, much less explain it. Who knows, perhaps we are like those ancient people who tried very hard to figure out where the sun went for the night because they had no idea that the earth rotates on its axis.
IS AMERICA A HYPOMANIC NATION?
“Energy, drive, cockeyed optimism, entrepreneurial and religious zeal, Yankee ingenuity, messianism, and arrogance—these traits have long been attributed to an “American character.” But given how closely they overlap with the hypomanic profile, they might be better understood as expressions of an American temperament, shaped in large part by our rich concentration of hypomanic genes.
If a scientist wanted to design a giant petri dish with all the right nutrients to make hypomanic genius flourish, he would be hard-pressed to imagine a better natural experiment than America. A “nation of immigrants” represents a highly skewed and unusual “self-selected” population. Do men and women who risk everything to leap into a new world differ temperamentally from those who stay home? It would be surprising if they didn’t. “Immigrants are unusual people,” wrote James Jaspers in Restless Nation. Only one out of a hundred people emigrate, and they tend to be imbued “with special drive, ambition and talent.”
A small empirical literature suggests that there are elevated rates of manic-depressive disorder among immigrants, regardless of what country they are moving from or to. America, a nation of immigrants, has higher rates of mania than every other country studied (with the possible exception of New Zealand, which topped the United States in one study). In fact, the top three countries with the most manics—America, New Zealand, and Canada—are all nations of immigrants. Asian countries such as Taiwan and South Korea, which have absorbed very few immigrants, have the lowest rates of bipolar disorder. Europe is in the middle, in both its rate of immigrant absorption and its rate of mania. As expected, the percentage of immigrants in a population correlates with the percentage of manics in their gene pool.
While we have no cross-cultural studies of hypomania, we can infer that we would find increased levels of hypomania among immigrant-rich nations like America, since mania and hypomania run together in the same families. Hypomanics are ideally suited by temperament to become immigrants. If you are an impulsive, optimistic, high-energy risk taker, you are more likely to undertake a project that requires a lot of energy, entails a lot of risk, and might seem daunting if you thought about it too much.
America has drawn hypomanics like a magnet. This wide-open land with seemingly infinite horizons has been a giant Rorschach on which they could project their oversized fantasies of success, an irresistible attraction for restless, ambitious people feeling hemmed in by native lands with comparatively fewer opportunities.”
Is there a dark side to the hypomanic exuberance? There is, of course, the danger that the risk-taking and reckless optimism will lead to a collision with reality. But people who are genetically inclined to be risk-takers also seem very resilient. A week later the disaster is forgotten and they are already pursuing a new project.
It was a friend of mine who put her finger on what I see as the truly dark side of mania: “Manic people are shallow.” She said “manic” rather than “hypomanic,” but I think it applies especially to the non-stop go-go-go hypomanics.
Is Donald Trump hypomanic? One could argue that he is a classic example. One give-away: his self-reported low need for sleep. He is the go-go-go type.
Only a minority of people are truly hypomanic. However, it's a significant minority because those individuals are so active.
It's not really a disorder. Hypomania is not the same as “bipolar.” Hypomanics may have bipolar relatives, but they themselves are spared the ravages of the syndrome. If their elevated mood does crash, their depression tends to be mild and fleeting. But let’s remember the dark side: shallowness.
I realize that others would prefer to single out narcissism, arrogance, insufficient self-control, tendency to talk too much and insult others, never apologizing, never feeling sorry, and so on. These are indeed real problems, but for me they are secondary to that lack of depth of seems to go hand-in-hand with being “chronically happy” — especially if that chronic good cheer is achieved only through never slowing down.
Someone once told me, “Speed is the national drug.” Could this be related to excessive “pursuit of happiness”? Contentment seems to be a more desirable state, more conducive to depth.
Linda’s greatest wish was for serenity.
Half Moon Bay, Sabi Baral
THE FICKLE CHEMICALS OF LOVE
“Love triggers dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. That's why it's so motivating. But happy chemicals come in spurts. They do their job by turning off after they turn on. When your happy chemicals dip, you might interpret it as a loss of love. That turns a natural fluctuation into a crisis. You are better off knowing why love makes happy chemicals go up and down.
DOPAMINE brings about that great feeling you get when you find your missing keys. It's the neurochemical that evolved for seeking and finding. Animals sniff around for food and mating opportunities, and when they find something that meets their needs, dopamine surges. But the surge is brief. Dopamine does its job by dropping after it rises, so it'll ready to alert you to the next chance to meet your needs—and so you'll be sure to pay attention.
When you find your keys, you don't expect that great dopamine feeling to last. But when you find "the one," your body may produce so much dopamine that you assume you'll soar forever. When it finally subsides, you wonder what's wrong. You might even blame "the one" for having changed.
OXYTOCIN is the neurochemical that causes trust. It's released during orgasm, and in smaller amounts when you hold hands. In animals, it's released when mothers lick their babies. Oxytocin is the good feeling of a common cause, whether a political rally, a football huddle, or thieves with a plan.
Reptiles release oxytocin during sex, but mammals produce it all the time. That's why reptiles stay away from other reptiles except when mating, while mammals form long-term attachments to relatives and herds. The more oxytocin you release when you're with a person, the more attached you'll feel. More touch = more oxytocin = more trust.
Getting respect feels good because it stimulates SEROTONIN. In the animal world, social dominance brings more mating opportunity—and more surviving offspring.
Your brain always wants more respect to generate more serotonin. Your loved one may give you that feeling at first, by respecting you or helping you feel respected by others. But eventually your brain begins to take the respect you already have for granted. It wants more, so it can get more good feelings. That's why some people constantly make more demands on their loved ones, and why others constantly seek out higher-status partners.
Happy chemicals give us information that's hard to interpret. For example, if I watch a football game and burst with excitement when my team scores, I see thousands of others share my reaction. It feels like they understand me. Why doesn't my partner understand me when thousands of others do? The answer is simple. SPECTATOR SPORTS TRIGGER OXYTOCIN, AS DO OTHER GROUP ACTIVITIES SUCH AS POLITICS AND RELIGION. You get a good feeling of trust. Of course, trusting a large number of people in a limited way is not the same as trusting one person in a comprehensive way. But to your mammal brain, it's all the same oxytocin.
We want all the happy chemicals we can get. You expect some from romance, and some from other aspects of life. But no matter where you get them, happy chemicals sag after they spurt. When you know why, you can manage your behavior despite the confusing neurochemical signals.
There's good news here. Don't blame yourself or your partner if you're not high on a happy chemicals all the time. Maybe nothing is wrong. You are just living with the operating system that has kept mammals alive for millions of years.”
Hong Kong in the rain
THE GREAT SECRET OF MORALS IS STRESS REDUCTION (my favorite baboon story)
“It’s one of my favorite Darwin quotes—"He who understands baboon would do more toward metaphysics than Locke"—scribbled furtively in a notebook between visits to the London Zoo in the summer of 1838. Twenty-one years would pass before On the Origin of Species would shock the world, but Darwin already knew: If man wanted to comprehend his mind, he’d need to train an unflustered gaze into the deep caverns of his animal past.” ~ Oren Harman
The man who probably understands baboons better than anyone is Robert Sapolsky, a primatologist who spent a lot of time studying one particular troop (from Wikipedia: After initial year-and-a-half field study in Africa, [Sapolsky] returned every summer for another twenty-five years to observe the same group of baboons, from the late 70s to the early 90s. He spent 8 to 10 hours a day for approximately four months each year recording the behaviors of these primates].
The story is that of a “tragedy”: the alpha males, the bullies of the troop, all died after eating TB-infected meat. What happened later is what makes me want to cheer: without the bullies, the health and well-being of the troop markedly improved. The levels of cortisol went down, and with them high blood pressure and other markers of stress and inflammation. Secure from aggression and harassment, the surviving animals were thriving. But the most striking result of this stress reduction was a “cultural” change toward cooperation and affection. Occasionally a male from another troop would join, and after a while adopt the non-aggressive ways.
Remove the bullies, and everyone benefits. In human cultures, this should start with zero tolerance for child abuse and abuse of women. Safe from abuse, a mother can provide more and better nurturing for her children. Stroking, grooming, speaking in a soft voice. It all starts there.
The title of this post was inspired by Shelley’s “The great secret of morals is love.” But for love to flourish — and by love I don’t mean the storms of romantic passion but mutual nurturing — there has to be enough freedom from stress. Under heavy stress, the goal is sheer survival. Love — or call it nurturing affection — grows and blossoms when stress is down to manageable levels.
Robert Sapolsky and friend
ending on beauty
I beg you have no fear of silence
silence is eloquent
hatred yells roars barks and howls
love smiles and keeps silent
it’s waiting for you
~ Tadeusz Różewicz, tr Oriana
from the Polish website “You don’t read? Then I won’t go to bed with you”
Dali, Meditative Rose