April 24, 2017

24 04 2017

It was lovely yesterday, and I got out and worked in the yard. I’m paying for it in sore muscles. I have to remember that I am not thirty anymore. Yet it was so satisfying.

I was mad to tackle the second raised bed. The irregularity in the way the concrete blocks had been seated—the ex’s “close enough” attitude—has annoyed me for years. So I pulled them out, pulled up the post (the support for trellises for peas and beans), dug out all the grass that had grown in through the gap, then reseated them properly and symmetrically, good and tight. Then I got the sledgehammer and pounded the metal post back in. The end result was immensely satisfying.

Jen came out while I was in the middle of it and said, “You ought to get the boys to do that.” I made excuses. The truth was, I wanted to do it myself. I may not be thirty anymore, but damn, I’m a good healthy sixty. See? And it was yet another bit of the ex’s legacy chipped away.

I want to fix the asparagus bed, too. The sides need to be built up. I was going to use concrete blocks, but then I noticed the timbers leaning against the house, set aside for some building project he never got around to. I thought, No, better save them.

For what? There is no one here who has any inclination towards building projects. That wood will stay there until it rots. What a waste that would be. I could use them now.

This is my house. I don’t have anyone to answer to but myself. Sure, I always consider the kids’ feelings and wishes, but ultimately the buck stops here. The twenty-six years of automatic deferral is over. If I want to do something, I can have at it.

So today I am going to haul down those timbers and cut them to length to raise the asparagus bed. My body is going to scream in protest. Never mind. I can do this. The pain will be temporary. The end result, while not permanent (remember; nothing is permanent), will nonetheless last a good while and will be immensely satisfying.

April 21, 2017

21 04 2017

Doing puzzles is a bit like Buddhist sand paintings. All that time is taken to create the image or solve the puzzle, and then it is done. The sand is blown away. The newspaper is recycled. The picture is taken apart and put back in the box.

I am sitting in bed on this rainy morning, sipping tea and working on a jigsaw puzzle. (Or, I was until this thought occurred to me.) Through my open window I can hear gentle dripping. Birdcalls are subdued. The ducks are about and quacking, enjoying the weather. It is a peaceful, soothing morning. I don’t have to be to work until one.

Because cats, I do virtual jigsaw puzzles. All three cats are asleep on the bed with me. I have my laptop open to a site I like, working on a scene with flowers and an old barn. I have done dozens of puzzles on this site. Put them together, admired the image, and then moved on to the next. Nothing of lasting value is accomplished. Some would call it a waste of time.

What is lasting value? How long must it last? Some folks laminate their puzzles and hang them on the wall. They cannot let go of their accomplishment and want to preserve it. Eventually, when they are gone, it will likely be thrown out anyway when it doesn’t sell at the yard sale. All things pass.

Some work hard to build a business, to amass a fortune, to rise to greatness. Within a few generations, it has dissipated or become subsumed into someone else’s quest for greatness. Within a few hundred years all is forgotten, except perhaps for a page in a history book. Within a few thousand years, other events eclipse it and even history doesn’t remember.

All things pass. Nothing is permanent. All attempts to preserve ourselves in our accomplishments is folly. Does this thought depress you? Does it discourage you from trying to accomplish anything at all? Why?

Only because we human creatures are blessed and cursed with long memories of the past and the ability to imagine far into the future. And for some reason buried in the depths of our psychology, we place value on things that persist over time. Well, it’s good to build things of quality; useful things like buildings or furniture. Still, they must be faithfully maintained or they won’t last either. We busily run about fixing things, maintaining things, patching them up and washing them down, in an attempt to make them last. Nothing wrong with that. As long as we know that eventually, despite all our efforts, time will undo it all. And that thought saddens us.

It shouldn’t.

This moment is real. In this moment I am writing a blog that will be read by a few people and then descend into the virtual sediment, becoming buried under layers of future blogs. It is ephemeral. I derive great satisfaction from writing it, ordering my thoughts, choosing words, making manifest the thoughts in my head. I am pleased at the thought that someone else might enjoy reading it it, that the thoughts in my head, through the medium of words, can become thoughts in another person’s head. It gives me a sense of connection with others. They may comment, it may lead to a discussion. If that happens, those moments will be pleasant.

None of this is permanent. None of this will be remembered in a century or two, or even a year most likely. What of it? The happiness in this moment is real.

Because that is the nature of true happiness. It occurs in each moment and is not spoiled by anxiety over its impermanence.

My tea is growing cold. I need to refresh it, and then I’ll return to my puzzle.

April 20, 2017

20 04 2017

Busy day today. I’m covering the library from 9 to 5, then hurrying home to put together dinner. Dungeons and Dragons tonight.

I’ve been experiencing what I think must be side effects from sertraline withdrawal: a funny tingling sensation all over my body, particularly around my face and, oddly enough, my mouth, as well as dizziness. Not severe. And no depression or anxiety. In fact, I am continuing to feel better than I have in a very long time.

Even with the grey, drizzly weather today, chilly and gloomy, my mood is good. The ducks like it well enough, and are wandering around the yard, quacking and waggling their butts. I can let them free-range, whereas the chickens scratch up the flower gardens and raise hell. I’ve separated the two, giving the chickens the large run out back. The ducks get the front.

It isn’t that all my problems have gone away—far from it. But they are just problems. They will pass, solved or endured. And it isn’t that nothing ever bothers me; I still have moments when I feel the whole range of negative emotions: fury, resentment, despair, melancholy. They, too, pass. For the most part I feel contented and hopeful. Occasionally even joyful. There is far more good than bad; precisely the reverse of how I felt a month ago. Yay, progress.

My Pledge of Allegiance article should be in the Monitor next week. Time to compose another one. I think I’ll write about the lessons from The Book of Joy and how they are critical to healing the divides in this country. It’s my small blow against the Empire. Back when Trump was first elected, I said it might be a blessing in disguise; he would be such an abominable leader that it would trigger a true revolution of the sort that Bernie Sanders talked about during the election. While we had the option of voting for the status quo (Hillary Clinton) many were content to do so. Had she been elected, we would have continued on our present course, gradually increasing income inequality, continuing our belligerence overseas, making ineffectual gestures towards addressing climate change and paying lip service towards social issues. Sufficient to support continuing complacency.

But the shock of the Trump administrations’s horrifying extremism, as well as the rise of alternative facts and suppression of truths that don’t fit the agenda of the Oligarchy, has galvanized people into action. Perhaps we as a nation will begin to realize the deadly folly of the status quo, and begin pushing in the opposite direction. Pushing hard enough to force change. To dethrone the Oligarchy, to reject our soul-killing culture of envy, competition, and anti-social individualism, and move towards something wholesome, healthy, life-affirming and compassionate. It would require a major paradigm shift. Paradigm shifts take time and cause chaos. It won’t be smooth or easy, and it may not even be possible.

I think of the Dalai Lama’s peaceful, persistent efforts to liberate Tibet from China. I think of Archbishop Tutu’s fight against apartheid in South Africa. The former seems hopeless, but so did the latter. The point is, one continues. Hope is so much healthier for the spirit than despair.

My articles are my humble contribution to the effort to bring about change for the better. The by-product of writing them is my own medicine for melancholy.

April 17, 2017

17 04 2017

I am reading The Book of Joy. It is a dialogue with Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. The title is very apt.

Here are two spiritual leaders from two different belief systems that would seem to be utterly contradictory—one theistic and one atheistic—and yet they are devoted friends from way back who think very much alike. In their eighties, they are still vibrant, eloquent, witty, and both with a puckish sense of humor. “Mischievous” they say of each other and themselves. Filled with joy despite the hardships and bitter disappointments both have faced in their lives. Both are political as well as religious leaders, fighting for a justice that seems impossible to achieve. And yet they continue to do so with reason, compassion, and steady determination.

Marvelous, admirable men. This is a book well-worth reading for any person of a philosophical bent, anyone who yearns to understand the meaning of life and the enigma of true happiness.

What is riveting for me, and makes me go back and read certain passages over and over again, is their agreement on what is true. Here are two learned men, educated in very different wisdom traditions, from very different cultures, and yet they have come to very similar conclusions. As I have said before, I find the scientific method to be the best way to assess reality. If the same experiments can be done, the same data collected, and the same conclusions reached by any individual regardless of ideology or background, one can be pretty sure they are factual. This can be a working truth to build more understanding on. One experiment is not enough. There must be corroboration.

Here is corroboration in a spiritual search for truth.

I became an atheist because the whole business of the existence of God was controversial. There wasn’t universal agreement. People conducted their own spiritual research, if you will, and were coming to a host of different conclusions. It was an unresolvable mare’s nest. Belief in God required all sorts of mental calisthenics, and still people throw up their hands and declare that His ways are mysterious. The best parallel I can come up with is the Ptolemaic model of the solar system which held sway for hundreds of years. The Earth sat at the center, and a convoluted choreography tried to explain the motions of the heavenly bodies. Then along came the Copernican system which put the Sun in the center. It was simple, elegant, and explained everything without the need for all those celestial gymnastics. Although it was controversial at the time, considered heresy by many, it emerged as the working truth upon which science has operated ever since.

For me, eliminating God made everything simpler. No need to wrestle with the problem of evil or the contradictions inherent in free will vs. the omniscient, omnipotent deity, or given the vastness of the universe and our utter, vanishing insignificance, how a personal creator in whose image we are created can make any sense.

Of course, your results may differ. And that’s just the point.

The results the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop came to in this book did not differ except in minor ways. In matters of religious dogma, the two agree to disagree. They come from different belief systems. No matter. What does matter is the fundamental purpose of life and the key to happiness. We are here in this world to seek true happiness, which is achieved through compassion and caring for our fellow creatures. We are a part of a slow process of working towards perfection. Each individual strives for it in their lifetime (many lifetimes in the Dalai Lama’s belief system) and humanity as a whole is striving towards it. The Archbishop points out that our news media makes us feel as if the world is rife with violence and injustice, and getting worse, that people are basically bad and there’s no hope. But a study of history shows strong, steady improvement. Once, some human beings, and all women, were considered no better than cattle. This attitude is heading towards extinction. Because slavery and abuse still exist it only means there is more work to be done. People are basically good, and are generally kind and helpful. This does not make the news. The ugly exceptions do, because they are startling exceptions to the norm.

True joy is found in simple things, in connecting with others, in being content with what one has and at peace with oneself. Happiness is not the goal; it is a byproduct of living a good life, avoiding negative emotions like fear, anger and envy, cultivating patience, tolerance, and empathy. No wonder there is so much depression, so many people steeped in anxiety, despairing, desperately searching for the key to happiness. Western society is built on materialism, competition, suspicion, fear and outrage. From an early age we are set against one another, stressing over test scores, trying to be the best. We celebrate winners and scorn losers. Whether it is beauty, income, power, material possessions, or any of the other idiotic yardsticks we measure ourselves by, we envy those above us, compete against our peers, and feel contempt for those beneath us.

In other words, we have built a society designed to make us unhappy. That is why we find joy elusive.

Easter 2017

16 04 2017

I’m up this morning as usual, perhaps a bit later because no one is scheduled to work today. As I’m making tea and cleaning up the kitchen, Jen comes up in a pretty sun dress looking for a shawl to go with it. My meager wardrobe doesn’t have anything quite right, so she goes back down to change. She in a hurry because she has to go to church.

Church? I think, momentarily puzzled. Jen doesn’t go to church. Oh, that’s right. It’s Easter.

Alec had scheduled a stream for this afternoon. His usual online friends and fans said sure, Sunday is a good day. Then, whoops! Sorry, can’t do it this Sunday. Because, well, Easter.

It’s one of those holidays that catch us off-guard, like St. Patrick’s Day or Passover. Days which are very important to other people, but have no significance to us. It’s not like Christmas, which is so overwhelmingly universal that there’s no avoiding it, whether you celebrate or not. I recall doing things with Easter eggs and baskets when the boys were little. They’ve grown up now. So we mark the season with Cadbury eggs, and that’s about it.

We live in a diverse society. Different folks have different beliefs. Different things are important to them. There are celebrations centered around sports events, religious festivals, national memorials. There are birthdays, Mother’s, Father’s, and even Grandparents’ Day. Weeks or months dedicated to Women’s Studies, Black History, Cancer Awareness, Dairy Products, and goodness knows what else. All designed to focus our attention on something important, to get us to put it on the front burner for a while and think about it. We are free to ignore it if we wish.

It harms me not a whit if my neighbors are celebrating Easter, Passover, the Spring Goddess, or National Pickle Day.

When I hop onto Facebook for a quick peek, just to see what other people are talking about, I sometimes see righteous posts: “Everybody presumes I celebrate Easter. Kindly remember, not all of us celebrate the same holidays.” Or “I don’t give a damn about sportsball. What’s with all these people going crazy over some stupid game?” Got to admit, I’m guilty myself. I’ve played the misguided diversity card, trying to shame other people because in their enthusiasm to celebrate, they presume I’m celebrating, too. I’ve been that obnoxious person who, being wished a happy Easter, makes a point of saying, “Thanks, but I don’t celebrate.” This accomplishes nothing aside from making the other person uncomfortable. And let’s face it, the dominant religion in this country is Christianity in its myriad forms. It isn’t unreasonable to presume your neighbor or the clerk in the store is doing something for Easter. In Israel, the set of reasonable presumptions would be different.

The big one is, of course, the aforementioned National Festive Orgy known as Christmas. I’m not sure how it became the mutated monster holiday that is is now. Various reasons, I suppose, the largest of which might be capitalism. It’s a very profitable holiday. And all the excessive spending can be cloaked in an assortment of sentimental and religious excuses. We are shamed into pouring money that many of us can’t really spare into the pockets of merchants.

And we add to the stress of this holiday by doing the annual Not Everyone Celebrates thing. Good lord, why do we do this? Piling resentment and injury and righteous grandstanding onto people who are already overwhelmed and trying just to cope? Turning it into a Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas war that takes the Happy and Merry completely out of it. Like we really need another wedge driving us apart.

For years I added to the stress, seething every year with resentment for being forced to celebrate a holiday which I find appalling. I met every defiant “Merry Christmas!” with an equally aggressive “Happy Holidays!” I sent atheist Christmas cards, ranted about how Christ wasn’t even born in December and the Church just appropriated the date from Pagans in an attempt to force their religion on them. Oh, I ran the whole route.

Now, reflecting on Easter, I am struck by the senselessness of it. Easter is another Pagan holiday taken over by Christians because their narrative of the Risen Christ fit neatly into the wakening of the winter-dead world into spring. So what? They have their narrative, I have mine. Both bring us joy and hope. Why fight about who’s “right”?

And now that I think about it, this relates to what I wrote about the Pledge of Allegiance. I stand respectfully while those who believe in it recite it. I don’t get in their faces. I don’t make a speech regarding our kinship to people of other nations and how dangerous nationalism is. I let them do their thing in peace while I peacefully abstain.

I’m going to try to remember this in December. I’m declaring a truce in the War of Christmas. The rest of the world can deal with the holiday however they choose. They can greet me in the marketplace however they choose. If they insist on giving me presents, I’ll accept them graciously, but will not feel obliged to buy gifts in return. Since what they call “the spirit of Christmas” is what I strive for the whole year through, I needn’t feel pressured to act any differently in December. I will go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

Everyone yearns for happiness and joy, and tries to avoid suffering. May our actions promote the former, and may we not add to the latter.

April 14, 2017

14 04 2017

There was a frost last night, but the day promises to be glorious. I went out to feed the birds, but I no longer have to haul water. The overnight freezes are minor, and it’s safe to run the hoses. The snow is nearly gone, and I’ll be able to hang laundry on the line outside again.

Today I had tea instead of coffee, and I will be taking Bruce home. He is the cat who has been visiting us. I know he will be very happy to be with his people again, and they have missed him terribly. Although he has frequently been a pain in the backside, we are going to miss Bruce, too. He may be a disturber of the peace, but he has his charms.

This also marks the last week of taking sertraline. It did seem to help for a while, during the darkest times last year. But over the course of the winter, I began experiencing disturbing symptoms. Memory loss (yes, worse than the usual for an aging brain), spells of disorientation and confusion. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed, the lethargy was so bad. One day I realized that I hadn’t felt genuine happiness for weeks. Like the Paul Simon song, I felt like I was slip-sliding away; a good day had no pain, and a bad day I would lie in bed and think of things that might have been.

When I went to my counselor, her solution was to increase the dosage. Take more of what wasn’t working? That made no sense. She also had all kinds of advice about what I could do to solve my problems, getting job training from some state department. She talked about the success some of her other clients had doing this. Then very thought made me even more tired. Like she hadn’t heard my pain at all. Like she was running off a script: This is what I tell clients who are in this situation. I left feeling miserable and guilty because I couldn’t follow her advice. I didn’t want to fight my way through yet another government bureaucracy and force myself to learn new skills that might or might not get me a job. But if her other clients can do it, some even older than I, I should be able to do it, too. If I don’t, it’s my own fault, my own weakness, I have no one to blame but myself.

I was laying in bed one morning after a week of obediently taking the increased dosage. I was to see my counselor again in two weeks. That was the soonest she could schedule an appointment for me. She has a very full schedule and only works four days a week. Two more weeks of feeling bloody awful. Then a mere 45 minutes of trying to explain, probably doing it badly, and leaving feeling inadequate. Being told I really had nothing to worry about, and here’s what I needed to do.

A defiant, angry voice somewhere in the back of my head, shouted “This is bullshit!”

I had a flash of insight: I don’t have to do this.

All that day I thought about it. I was falling into an old pattern, trying to live up to my counselor’s expectations the way I had struggled to live up to my ex-husband’s expectations. Why was I putting myself through it? Why was I continuing to do something that made me miserable? I though of the old joke about the person who goes to see the doctor and says, “Doc, it hurts when I do this.” And the doctor replies, “So stop doing that.”

When you break your leg, you need to have a cast. The cast is a perfectly appropriate treatment. But then the time comes to take the cast off and start using the limb again. It was time for me to take the cast off.

Hence the blog journaling, canceling my counselor appointment, and weaning myself off the sertraline. I’ve been writing about the changes I’m making, the self-therapy I am going through. I have spent years learning about myself and how I think. I went back and reread my accounts of MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) and my adventures in meditation. It was all there. I had all the pieces. And now that the major toxic element that was clouding my thinking is gone, I can put them together. I can rebuild my self-confidence now that I don’t have someone constantly undermining me, gas-lighting, trying to convince me that they know me better than I do, that I am deluding myself and I need to listen to them and do what they say.

Yes, it is spring, and the real test will be when winter comes again. But damn, it is good to feel joy again!

April 12, 2017

12 04 2017

A dear friend of mine emailed me. I have several friends with whom I keep in touch by email. We send long, chatty messages to one another, much as past generations wrote letters sent by snail mail. One could lament the loss of that tradition, how virtual letters get lost and aren’t saved in little bundles for future generations to discover. Although I’m told that email messages never go away, and can come back to haunt the writer. Never mind. The primary purpose—two people keeping in touch and sharing thoughts and news, the basics of friendship—is still fulfilled.

I’d gone on a tear in an earlier message about my ex-husband. She responded as a friend would, saying, “How the heck can he hurt you now? Don’t give him permission to enter into your life ever again.” I’ve gotten a lot of good advice from friends; one described how she disciplines her mind as she would a dog: “No, we are not going to roll in that foul stuff today. We are going to keep walking.” Others have said, “Don’t let him get to you. If you do, he wins.” True, all true.

But as good as all this sounds, how do I actually put it into practice? We have only limited control over our feelings, and thoughts do come unbidden. To say “Don’t think about him,” is like saying “Don’t think of an elephant.”

As I told my friend, after 26 years of intimacy, what can one expect? It is going to take a long time to get past the hurt and bitterness. All the brave talk and defiance doesn’t change the facts. The fact is that I loved and trusted him, believed him when he said our relationship was forever and I could always rely on him, that there could never be anyone else for him but me. Then he turned on me and abandoned me when I ceased to be the ideal wife he wanted. He quickly and easily moved on to a new love, and new family, a new home, a new life. And suddenly it became clear to me just how shallow his love was, how he manipulated me and used me to deal with his own neuroses. It was never me he really loved but the idealized role I fulfilled for him. It’s been devastating, and I can’t just walk away from it any more than I could shrug off a knife wound to the chest. This is going to hurt for a long time, and even when the wound heals it will leave scars, and I don’t know if I will ever fully recover my ability to love and trust another person again.

Even as I wrote that I could feel the tightness in the chest, the sting in the eyes, the knot of intense emotion tightening. That’s going to keep happening. Anyone who has been through a catastrophic trauma of loss must know this. Your friends try to be encouraging, but in their hearts, most of them know there is really nothing they can say that will help. But you are grateful to them for caring enough to try. Something like this hurts unbearably, but you bear it anyway. Some do it better than others. Some make such a good show of it that others marvel at their strength and courage. Some don’t do so well. Some just can’t do it and fall to pieces. We all have a different tolerance for pain.

And nearly everyone has to deal with something like this at some point in their lives. It was just my turn. Life isn’t picking on me in particular, although being in the midst of it, it feels like no one could be suffering as much as I am, and the Universe has picked me out especially to torment. And it feels like it is never going to end, and I will be miserable forever.

One does get over these traumas, more or less. The damage stays with you in some form, even if only subconsciously. Recovery is rarely complete. But it does get better. And, like recovering from a serious physical injury, one needs to work at it with determination. I think of my friend Mary who went through a double knee replacement. The pain was awful at times, and the physical therapy was excruciating. But she kept at it, doggedly persisting, and now is back to hiking mountains. She hasn’t the same mobility that she had when her knees were young and healthy; nothing can return that to her. What matters is that she is not immobilized at home, crippled and miserable.

So, after writing about my ex-one-true-love, weeping and feeling betrayed and sorry for myself, I got up and made myself some breakfast. There was a bit of the loaf of bread I baked a couple days ago, so I toasted a slice of that. Fried up two duck eggs from our productive flock, and took it all out onto the deck. The air is fresh and smells like spring. There’s a purple crocus opening in the garden; green shoots are poking through everywhere. I’ve got to prune the kiwi or it’s going to take over the lilac. One of my cats comes over and sits down next to me and purrs. The frogs have begun chuckling pornographically in the wetland.

I’m doing all right.