Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Gratitudes and Lessons 2009

I come to this late, weeks late, something I annually try to complete by the turn of the calendar year. It seems I've been late all fall; or at least since I had a relapse of chronic illness. One of its worst aspects is debilitating fatigue: I get tired quickly, and although I can go for several hours at a time, and occasionally a day or two, when I hit that fatigue wall, I am halted in my tracks, sometimes suddenly trembling with fatigue, and I have to stop, right now. So I often feel as if the Things To Do list gets longer while I can only manage one or two important things a day. it does clarify your priorities, though. Extra errands get dropped. When you're done, you're done, sometimes for the rest of the evening, sometimes for more than a day. Sometimes I can go a few days feeling good, then I must take a rest day and literally Do Nothing all day. I "lose" full days sometimes. So I'm always feeling like I'm late, like I've fallen behind, like I'm catching up from being held back, from being delayed. Feeling late has itself become a chronic condition.It just takes longer to get things done. You have to accommodate that.

One of the lessons of this past autumn of 2009, when this relapse hit me, after the stress in late September through mid-October of dealing with my uncle's death and my aunt's dementia (I want to say madness, but I hold back from that word, just, because she is not to blame), was that I must take those days off when I need to. If I don't get anything done for a whole day, so be it. It's important to my physical health to not push myself over the edge into collapse. So I've learned to pay very close attention to my energy level, throughout the day, and rest when I must. I've learned to take more naps than I used to. And a short nap, on some days, is fully restorative. I also do hours of Reiki on myself, now, almost every day and night. You learn to slow down and pause, because you have to. Often it feels like there's no choice: it's stop for awhile now, or really truly hit that wall hard, and be stopped hard for a lot longer.

I learned in 2009 that, like most people, I can be my own worst enemy. By that I mean that I can tie myself up in mental knots, get stuck in spiraling maelstroms of mind-drama, and make things worse. I'm told by more than one source that one of the risks smart people are prone is thinking they can solve their problems by thought alone. I've certainly got myself stuck in that trap; and I know many others who have done likewise. But you cannot think your way out of an emotional dilemma; you can't intellectualize your feelings or spiritual crises to solve them. You have to go with your gut. Smart people tend to forget to turn the mind off, every so often, and go on instinct and intuition. By now in life I have a pretty well-developed and well-trained intuition, and still I can get myself stuck in mind-drama. One of the worst patterns is that when you've tied yourself up in knots, you forget that you already have lots of tools to unknot yourself: you forget that you can meditate, do exercise, do spiritual practices, and many other things. And when you do remember, later, you can feel dumb for having forgotten about your tools.

You have to learn to forgive yourself for that, however, and not beat yourself up about it. You must learn patience with your own process. When I get tired of my own process, of feeling like crap yet another day, I have to remind myself to be patient. You can't "get over it" by an act of will alone. It will take as long as it takes. There is no overall plan, and there is no failure for not living up to some arbitrary schedule. I get tired of feeling stuck; and I've learned that I can't afford to get upset about feeling stuck. It's a waste of energy. Getting upset about feeling upset is one of those spiral maelstroms—it's laughable, really, the irony of being upset about being upset. Sometimes you have to laugh at the absurdity of this whole process!

I come late to finding things to feel gratitude for. I am still struggling with feeling grateful; the past year has seemed so hard, so much like crap being piled on top of crap. All too often I've felt like situations just keep getting worse and worse, and getting better is just a myth. It's all too easy to see the glass as eternally half-empty.

I come late to this annual practice. Things have changed. So I must do it differently. I must break the pattern, a little, because life itself has changed. I generally back away from being so self-revealing, mostly because I don't have the hubris to imagine my personal problems are interesting to anyone but me. I set a time limit on this writing, this more personal than usual writing, so that I don't ramble on eternally. That would bore anyone.

The core practice of doing gratitudes, I've learned over time, is to arrive at the point where you are grateful for the challenges, difficulties, obstacles, and roadblocks. When you write do gratitudes, you start with something small, and you eventually arrive near the paradox of being grateful for what has caused you harm or suffering. This is the paradox where you come face to face with the question of why bad things happen to good people—the question behind theodicy. The point is not to resolve the paradox, or answer the unanswerable question: but to face them, to live them, to know them. Because the Divine lives at the point of such paradoxes.

I find myself, this year, able to be very grateful indeed for the lessons received and learned from the several crises of this past year. I am finding it nearly impossible, thus far, to be grateful for the crises themselves. I find myself wanting to keep the lessons learned, and forget the rest. And I allow myself to do that, this year, as an altered practice: as a means of not dwelling on the crises, of not recycling and reliving them in mind, while nonetheless keeping what each one taught. And there have been several crises this past year.

I am immensely grateful to the people—friends and family—who I phoned during the lava-hot peak points of each crisis, who helped me talk them through, and helped me work out the lessons that came forward. From these friends and family—my friend Bill, my friend Pamela, my sister Pam and brother-in-law David, and others—came the moment when we were able to crystallize what I was going through into words; specifically, into slogans and reminders and aphorisms that I could keep, take forward, and remind myself of when necessary. Some of them have ended up as post-it notes on my kitchen cabinets, where I see and read them a few times a day, to help groove them into my consciousness. (A technique I recommend entirely because it works.)

I am grateful to those living teachers whose words, written and spoken, have provided me guidance through all these crises. Not just this past year, of course, but for many years already, and likely for many to come. I find myself increasingly turning towards the Buddhist portion of my idiosyncratic spiritual practice (a tradition of one), and earlier in the year, I found myself repeating the taking-of-vows as a kind of mantra: I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It doesn't take a commitment to become a monk to say this; there is plenty of room in Buddhism, which at root is more of a spiritual technology than a religion, for other belief systems to be included. So I have no difficulty saying that Buddhism is part of my idiosyncratic spiritual practice, and no difficulty reconciling going deeper into it with a vow while at the same time not denying the rest of it. Those living teachers are Dr. Caroline Myss and Pema Chödrön. I get a great deal from their teachings, that helps me deal with whatever is going on at the moment. On long roadtrips, I often listen to one or another of their audiobooks.

I find myself grateful for those things that I have doubted are good for me. I feel grateful for the advice of my doctor, even when I was reluctant to act on it. He turns out to be wiser than expected—and did your doctor ever give you a hug as part of the consultation, when you needed it? Mine does. I'm grateful for having a doctor that really gets what I've been going through.

I'm grateful to the Universe for providing me with what I needed, when I needed it—more accurately, when I was finally open to receiving it, to hearing it, to letting it in. You can knock for hours at a door but if they don't want to hear you, you won't be let in. Sometimes what the Universe provides is unexpected. I have learned to follow my intuition, even if I don't understand why or wherefrom, and go where I'm lead to go. So I find unexpected treasures and gifts; I'm grateful each time that I am led to those moments and gifts, and I repeat that gratitude now, in general.

Here's a short list of gifts received via intuition, that took the form of teachings given via reading books that appeared in front of this past year. I guess I was finally open to some of these teachings. And I did take some solace from them. At semi-random, the pages fall open to:

There comes a time in the grief process when the person remaining must give herself permission to go on with life, just as she gave permission for the loved one to die and pass over. While going on alone is not easy, it gets easier over time. And though difficult especially at first, setting yourself free from grief is as much a blessing as setting the loved one free from her finished life. When you are alive there is nothing to be done but to go on living. Make it as easy and as gentle as possible for yourself to continue and go on.
—Diane Stein, from On Grief and Dying: Understanding the soul's journey. This is a book on grief and life from an eclectic neo-pagan perspective, a perspective in which other lives and levels of reality are acknowledged. Grief counseling from this perspective is rare and thus very much appreciated. Stein is also the author of one of the definitive guides for the Reiki practitioner, titled Essential Reiki.

Don't be caught off guard by "griefbursts." Sometimes heightened periods of sadness overwhelm us when we're in grief. These times can seem to come out of nowhere and can be frightening and painful. Even long after the death, something as simple as a sound, a smell or a phrase can bring on a "griefburst." Allow yourself to experience griefbursts without shame or self-judgment, no matter where and when they occur. If you would feel more comfortable, retreat to somewhere private when these strong feelings surface.
—Alan D. Wolfelt, from Healing Your Grieving Heart: 100 practical ideas. A nice little book you can just let fall open to any page and find some timely thought about the process. Not the sort of book you sit down and read all the way through in one sitting, and not intended to be.

One lesson I've learned is that my feelings, especially feelings related to grief and memory, are like the weather: they just happen. I'm no more in control of my feelings than I am of the weather. My friend Jane, understanding griefbursts as being like cloudbursts, gave me a Christmas ornament as a talisman: a small snowflake inscribed with the words Let it snow. If I feel a wave of emotion come over me, for no reason, I don't try to block it, I just let it snow. The weather is the weather, your feelings are your feelings.

Years ago, probably 1982 or so, I wrote a poem, perhaps presciently, that I have recalled to myself during several times of grief. I repeat it here, as a way of summarizing how unexpectedly memory, grief, and recovery can come over you, without warning. I had already experienced some deaths of important loved ones in my life, before this poem was written; nonetheless it seems more deeply embedded outside time than I can explain.

after elegies

we move normally, as though
nothing were changed.
but the lie is made by the hands
that, filling a glass,
slow and become still,
as though remembering.
and we move quietly, just as if
you were sleeping in the
next room. give us time;

"now, it will take some time,"
they said. but I still
pause in moving, as though
you had just spoken a word,
stepping out of the bedroom,
into the light,
into me.

Where did that poem come from, twenty or so years before my parents died? I can't account for it. Sometimes poems seem to come from outside normal time, years before the events manifest that give them meaning. I can't explain that; I just that it's happened to me more than once.

I have never heard an ill person praised for how well she expressed fear or grief or was openly sad. On the contrary, ill persons feel a need to apologize if they show any emotions other than laughter. Occasional tears may be passed off as the ill person's need to "let go"; the tears are categorized as temporary outbursts instead of understood as part of an ongoing emotion. Sustained "negative" emotions are out of place. It a patient shows too much sadness, he must be depressed, and "depression" is a treatable medical disease.

Too few people, whether medical staff, family, or friends, seem willing to accept the possibility that depression may be the ill person's most appropriate response to the situation. I am not recommending depression, but I do want to suggest that at some moments even fairly deep depression must be accepted as part of the experience of illness.

—Arthur W. Frank, from At the Will of the Body: Reflections on illness. This is a particularly wise and relevant book for anyone experiencing a chronic or life-threatening illness. It comes out the author's personal experience as well as his research into medical sociology.

The model of the Perfect Patient is stoic acceptance, or cheerful existential contrariness, i.e. laughing in the face of doom. If you can't live up to the expected stereotypes, you're given subtle messages that there's something further wrong with you. There are friends who disappear on you, who abandon you to your fate, if you're too upset too much of the time. There are others who will stick with you, but even they have a hard time in the long run. The Model Patient is a stoic, cheerful patient. Nobody's allowed to feel bad anymore. As a culture we stigmatize and fear those who feel bad; one imagines how much further this attitude can be pushed in our already over-medicated society. And so the chronically ill can come to feel even more isolated, alienated and abandoned because even the staunchest supporters can't follow through with infinite saintly support. You end up feeling even more cut off than before; and if you find yourself feeling resentful for being abandoned, you feel guilty because you understand burnout and don't want to blame anybody. Quite a welter of confusion that becomes.

I've learned this past year to let that welter just be what it is, and not try too hard to sort it out. Honest feeling is better than denial, even if some part of you judges yourself for feeling that way. That self-judgment is one of the most toxic aspects of illness, grief, or recovery: because it isn't socially approved or understood. But you have to let it rain, no matter what. You must get it out of your system, or be dragged back down into it. You don't have to tell everyone what you're feeling about their lack of support, on any given day; and don't judge your own feelings even so. Feel what you feel.

So one of the big lessons learned this past year has been simple acceptance of whatever it is I'm feeling. Maybe I'll feel more infinitely grateful later; I don't right now, and I accept that as it is. Today it's sunny outside, and warm enough to sit on the porch; tomorrow, who knows.

No matter how relatively small your illness is, compared to other illnesses that others experience, you have the right to your feelings about it. Your illness may not be as life-threatening as some others: but don't believe that you have no right, therefore, to feel scared, worried, depressed, or just plain freaked out. Without creating more drama than necessary, you need to acknowledge those feelings–especially fear, which lies at the root of so much else.

I spent the first half of 2009 trying to make sense of why I felt like such a victim of circumstance. I was stuck in Victim mode, no doubt of it; but the Victim was playing offense for the Saboteur, too. There are few more effective ways in which to sabotage my own healing than by feeling like a victim. Yet the flip side of the Victim archetype is the Victor: when you strip away a lot of the chaff, take away all the distractions, and get down to the root level of survive-or-die, you uncover this tenacious part of yourself that may be killed but can never be defeated. For me, this is the Warrior part of myself, and it's come forward in my life every time a crisis or conflict has stripped everything else away. A lesson of this past year has been to call up the Victor, and the Warrior, more regularly, at early need—and need has been greater than ever—not just as a last resort. Don't let it get that far: slay those inner predators who would try to take you down as often as you have to. They will rise up again, and so you just keep on slaying them as often as necessary. Think of one of those lightsaber battles in any of the Star Wars movies: light as a symbol of the Warrior's righteousness, light as a tool for defeating the predator within us all.

And there have been parallel lessons about surrender. Surrender, which in this context is a synonym for faith, for trust. Trust was a big issue for me, earlier this year. I felt betrayed and abandoned many times, culminating in asking that basic question behind theodicy again: Why does this crap keep happening to me? What did I do to deserve it? But asking why? is one of the most suffering questions in the world. You almost never get an answer; or an answer you can accept. Asking why? doesn't usually get you anywhere.

At one of those mid-year crisis points, I had to strip this asking down to a single aphorism, which has carried me a great way towards peace, for which I am infinitely grateful: Trust that which you already know to be trustworthy . . . and let go of the rest. I trust in the earth. I trust in the stars, and their light given to me at night, which is one light that has never betrayed me or been absent from my notice. The stars are eternally there. I trust in the land, to my connection to the land.

In my travels as a wandering photographer, the images that I make are equally about the land and the sky; no matter what their ostensible subject is, I feel the land in them, and the sky in them, as presences I am connected to, that lift me up, and that I celebrate. No matter how slowly the camera moves, those presences, those spirits, give their all into my lens, and through the lens, into my being. When a viewer tells me that some photograph of mine has given them some experience of that connection to presence, I am deeply humbled, deeply rewarded. I trust my cameras, and my photographer's eye, and I trust my ability to just stop and look long enough to see what's really there before making an image. Releasing the shutter is almost the last thing you do.

the Grand Tetons, Wyoming, September 2008

I trust my creative process, I trust its rotation between different media, different crops, different means and ends. I trust that the river dark water that symbolizes that universal creative force behind everything I do will always be there. I trust that I will make some kind of art on the very day I die; or be preparing to make new art.

There's yet more to say, more to be grateful for, more lessons to relate. And I am at my self-imposed time limit. I must stop here for now, shift gears, and go do something else for awhile. I must go off and do what errands restlessly call when I feel refreshed in my spirit, after this writing.

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Blogger Elisabeth said...

Well, Art, I almost don't know how to respond here. You have written such a lot about your internal and external struggles. I can only agree with you that it is important to go with your grief and also to think about it and find ways of bearing it even as it seems unbearable. It seems to me from what you write here that you are doing this.

I have just started to read a book by Barabara EHRENREICH called Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. (I heard about it through the b;ogosphere but cannot remember where)

I think some of what Ehrenreich writes applies to the western world, the emphasis on false positivity even when our hearts are breaking.

It seems to me you're doing well, Art. Your photography is certainly testimony to this. It is insprational. I offer my best wishes for your continuing journey.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks very much, Elisabeth. All responses are appreciated, as always. :)

The Ehrenreich book sounds worth looking into. There was a self-help book published some years ago, not a very good one, but it had a great title which stuck with me: "Your Right to Feel Bad." Its one point was that no-one coerce you into feeling something you don't feel; in other words, forcing people to put on a happy face because they make us uncomfortable is coercive and wrong.

I think all of this must also tie into the whole Western idea of "the pursuit of happiness," as though it were a commodity or goal that own could once and for all capture and own. I think the false positivity is part of that, in fact.

Once again, this was surprisingly cathartic. I did feel better for the writing. I'll get back to usual stuff soon. :)

1:10 AM  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I sometimes think that we Brits could do with a Thanksgiving celebration of our own. It’s not something I think I’ve ever done, sat and thought about what I have to be grateful for. It’s so much easier to dwell on the negative or at least to sit in neutral. I’m feeling a bit burdened myself at the moment so you’ll forgive me if I keep this brief. The one word I think I’ll take away from this post is “griefburst” – I think it’s a very accurate expression for those washes that come across one. I know I’ve suggested in the past that I didn’t grieve the passing of my own parents but that’s not true. I didn’t (and don’t take this the wrong way) make a meal of it – that’s the way my parents would talk about things; they were both plain speaking individuals. Yes, be sad by all means, but life goes on. And so there is a bit of the stoic about me which is why the wallowing, which is what I feel I’m doing just now, in whatever’s wrong with me makes me feel as if I’m letting the side down; I should just go and give my face a wash and get on with it. Not so easy. So, although I may not understand the level of grief you’re going through I do understand the frustration when your emotions and mental processes take on a life of their own. I do believe in going through the motions though. So I get up every day and go through the motions of work knowing that I wouldn’t last a morning in the kind of job I used to do but I still go through the motions because that’s what makes life make sense to me.

4:18 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

A lot of food for thought here that relates to my own internal questions. Thanks for putting words to many of my own mental wrestling.

1:04 PM  
Blogger mand said...

I'm not ignoring the bits about yourself, but i am in a non-verbal phase and can't think of anything sayable to say. So, {hugz} and well done. And i'm amazed that (so far) everybody has been having a hard time lately.

I have lifted the passages you quote from Stein and Wolfelt, as they fit perfectly into a comment thread on another friend's blog (http://lolaconstanceevelyn-kristalee.blogspot.com/2010/01/narcissism.html). Thank you for happening along with these words just when they were needed.

Off to wrestle mentally some more, now...

7:29 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jim, coming from my own family background of stoicism, I've found the advice to "Let it snow" be a real help. I think one of the core problems with stoicism is that it DOES focus primarily on the "glass half empty" worldview; the fundamental assumptions of stoicism are that life sucks and you have to endure it. That can lead to liberation, but it's a hard path, and perhaps not always the best path. I find that finding things to be grateful for has gone a long ways towards undoing the stoic worldview for me, and replacing it with something a bit more affirming. Thanks.

I totally agree that "griefbursts" is a great way of describing the process. You can go a long time, later on, feeling neutral or good, then for "no reason" a griefburst hits you. Routines do help to get through it.

John, thanks for the comment. It is interesting to me that almost everyone I know has been going through something like this.

mand, believe me, I know about being in a non-verbal phase. I've been feeling a lot less verbal in general, lately. That seems paradoxical to say, after a post like this one and the previous one, nonetheless, it's true. So I certainly understand what you're saying. Thanks.

9:33 AM  
Blogger mand said...

'seems paradoxical to say, after a post like this one and the previous one, nonetheless, it's true.' – not to me it doesn't. I'm familiar with exactly that. When did the psyche ever run on logic?

10:25 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hopefully at least a little bit of self-consistent internal logic, if nothing more. LOL

12:21 AM  

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