Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Gratitudes 2011

I'm struggling with feeling gratitude, here at the end of a very harsh and bloody year, at the end of a long decade of things always getting worse rather than better. I'm at the point where I have doubts things ever will get better. Some things are getting better for some of my friends—and for one or two, abysmally worse. I just want 2011, the Year Of Hell, to be over at this point.

Christmas was good in that I spent it with a couple of close friends, but otherwise I just wasn't in the spirit of things. Life has looked bleak for a long time, and things keep happening that seem designed to break you. Call my Christmas mood, if you need a marker, somewhere in the middle of A Christmas Carol, neither the sentiment or joy of the ending, nor the bitter comedy of the beginning. A dark time in the middle of the story, that's all.

I just want the world to stop getting more vicious and fascist and bitter, cease its plummet down the steep incline of the black hole of self-destruction, pick itself up, and turn things around. Of course, it's people who make up the world—kanjo,the warriors are the castle—so it's up to us to turn things around for the better, and make a finer world. You. Me. Everyone you know. Everyone you care about. The responsibility and the task and the blessings are all of ours.

I'm having a hard time, after the Year Of Hell, finding much to be grateful for. Of course, I could start with the big and obvious one: I'm grateful to still be alive. In the past two years, as the chronic illness I had (mostly unknowlngly) suffered from for two decades deepened and worsened, I almost died a couple of times, I had some near-death experiences, and in the surgery that culminated as well as arrested the long slide, I genuinely felt like I had died and been reborn. Only now my body doesn't know what the rules are anymore, the old blueprints don't seem to work, and I keep stumbling over unexpected and unplanned changes. Things I used to like my body no longer likes, or tolerates. My diet has become so restricted that most days eating is not the pleasure it used to be. I end up breaking dietary rules simply because I can't stand going on. It's not about discipline or willpower—if health was subject to power of will alone, there wouldn't exist a billion-dollar industry supporting cures that don't work. It's sometimes about endurance, about doing everything right and still nothing works. Then what do you do? You can keep practicing the ascetic self-denial of self-flagellation, or you can live in denial, or you can fall into despair. Are there other choices? Nothing off-the-shelf does any good. Some nights you wonder why you've bothered.

For the first time in years, I find myself questioning my own practice of writing gratitudes. I find myself often unwilling to show up at the gratitudes dojo for practice, because it just feels like slogging through meaningless sludge. Wisdom both conventional and unconventional suggest that's just when you need to keep going, that maybe the very next repetition will be the one that turns things around—if you stop at 99 when it takes 100 repetitions, of course you won't see the end result. But many days it feels like you passed 100 a long way back, and still nothing has changed.

It's also true that lots of more shallow pundits in the self-development movement use the guilt-tactic of blaming the victim to motivate. Have you ever noticed that the entire weight-loss industry is based on the language of scarcity, and uses language that is uniformly negative and self-punishing? It's no wonder people suffer from abysmal self-esteem. Who wouldn't, when told again that they're "failures" unless they "lose." Look at the words: that's a double negative that leads not to a positive.

I guess I'm grateful I'm still alive. Most days, anyway. Some days, it's hard to get up enough strength to care.

I am grateful, genuinely, for the support of friends and family through all this, even when it's been tough love rather than emotional support. I struggle mightily with being grateful for the bad advice that comes from good friends, sometimes: well-intentioned, but not really helpful because not really taking into account the entire constellation of choices and challenges facing me. One big piece of clichéd conventional wisdom I've been confronted with since my surgery is that if people haven't been through it, they often really do not get it. They can empathize, and support you, and mean well, and love you—and, still, sometimes they don't really get it. That's a truth I've never liked to face, since I am someone who has experienced the power of imagination and empathy to connect. But I guess it really is true, at least sometimes.

I'm finding it hard to be grateful to some friends, therefore, who mean well but really don't get it. I don't want to be a cur, and tell them to their faces that they don't get it. I don't want to seem surly or ungrateful. I do know that it's possible to be grateful for someone's well-meant intentions to help you, on the level that they obviously care for and worry about you, and still not want to hear their advice. I'm sorry, sometimes it's just not helpful.

The event and process I feel the greatest gratitude for, this past year, is being commissioned to write music. Getting paid to exercise my creativity. That has meant more to me than almost anything else. It has turned my attitude around for months, by giving me something to do other than brood on my misfortune, or engage in a self-pity party. I am also grateful for one lesson learned from having successfully completed the new music commission: Always have another project to engage in right away. Don't allow yourself any down time.

It's when you stop and have nothing to do that the bad voices start to manifest again in the back of your mind.

So begins my churlish and wounded little heart, and scarred belly still worried about its future, to discover gratitude. I do have big things to be grateful for this year—and there are no doubt smaller, simpler things as well, if I can but examine myself to tweezer them out of stasis—yet I find myself not wanting to do this. I have been too wounded, in some cases literally, to feel confident of my own spiritual ambitions anymore. I am too uncertain of outcomes. Another big lesson, this year, wisdom that cements another common spiritual law that you already knew, but now you really Know For Sure (and for which I am grateful): There are no guarantees. Life is uncertain, and not always user-friendly. Any of this could all come to a brutal end, at any moment. Do not take lie too seriously, but don't take it for granted, either. Enjoy what you have while it endures. There may be more, but you can't count on that, so don't take this moment for granted. And don't be cheap about it, either.

Maybe I'll have more to say soon, more gratitudes to write out. I'm really struggling with this. I just want this awful, awful year of bad things to be done with. Gods bless us all that the coming year is a better one, a finer one, a kinder one.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I think it’s a shame that we in the UK don’t observe some kind of Thanksgiving celebration, a moment when we can sit down as a family and reflect on what it is we have to be grateful for. There’s nothing stopping us taking a moment like that any day of any week and yet the modern world being as it is it sometimes is helpful for someone to tell us to stop what we’re doing, step back from our lives and take stock. I suppose we all are prone to some level of reflection on New Year’s Eve but I think there it’s too easy to shrug off the year that’s gone and allow ourselves to be at least slightly overoptimistic about the year ahead even when we have no good reason for any kind of optimism; the drink helps.

I agree that the music commission was a real blessing for you. Getting up and getting on with it is all well and good but the simple fact is that I don’t need to get up and get on with it. The world will continue revolving and most people whose lives are already full to overflowing with all the crap they think they ought to be doing will notice nothing and the sad thing is that they won’t even have the opportunity to be grateful for the fact they don’t have one of my horrendously-long blog posts to wade through. But having a job with deadlines, with people depending on you to get your act together, that’s a different kettle of fish.

Emotions are wee buggers though. I’ve had a fortnight of being at the beck and call of mine and the reason they’ve jumped in and given me a hard time is that I’ve been alone. When Carrie is here I do make some effort but when there’s just me and the bird—whose needs are minimal—it is easy to give in and wallow. Not that wallowing is all bad but it is the thin edge of the wedge. I may have no fear of the blank page that goes on forever—it was so much easier when pages had dimensions and you could hold that 8" x 11" piece of paper in your hand—but I prefer my days to have structure and having someone to care for other than myself helps. And the bird, let’s not forget the bird, who in his own small way does help because I do have to get up and sort out his cage every morning. I think he must be cold this morning because he’s clambered down onto the fish tank and is sitting above one of the lights where it’s warm.

People though, where do we begin talking about people? I think I said it best in this short poem. It has the thing I try and incorporate in all my poems—I suppose you could call it “the Bleaney effect”—a poem that makes you want to shudder after reading it, at least that’s how it still makes me feel; uncomfortable truths do that.

      ADVICE TO CHILDREN

      People will fail you.
      It's a fact of life —
      they'll let you down.

      But not always.
      And that's the worst of it —
      sometimes they don't.

      But most times it's hard to tell

      6 March, 1996

Illegitimi non carborundum, Art: don’t let the bastards grind you down.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks.

You're right, being alone is worse. It gives lots of room for worry and brooding to take over, which never does me any good, although I'm very experienced at it.

And having someone else to take of is a major help. I learned that when I was the live-in caregiver for my parents, and even though it was exhausting and difficult at times, it was still a great focus for living. It comes down to the principle of "being of service," which often gives meaning to lives that otherwise would have none.

Like I said, though, what really seems to work best to keep the bad voices at bay is to always have a project to work on. As if I wasn't already productive enough, creatively. Well, one good thing about this time after surgery is that my stamina and physical strength ARE improving, after the long slide down. So that gives me some ability to keep making things.

4:15 PM  

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