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.

April 10, 2017

10 04 2017

This is one of those days that balances out the rest. Not only is it a taste of June, getting both me and Jen outside for a healthy dose of sunshine and activity, but the frogs are stirring in the wetlands. Jen put out the hummingbird feeder and we talked about planting a rose bush in the flower garden. In the back is a stubborn pile of packed snow blocking the tool shed and the faucet. I attacked it with a shovel, flinging snow into the sunshine to melt. The windows are wide open and the sound of birds fills the air.

Just now I got the word that I have been hired as a substitute librarian at Durham Public Library. Because I am a part of a pool of subs, I only need to take the shifts that fit my present schedule. It does not need to interfere with my work in Deerfield. Extra hours and a bit more money. This is good news and hope to stash away against the troubles to come. Because inevitably, troubles will come.

The tax return I was hoping I could use to pay the accountant turned into taxes owed. Seriously? I was shocked when the accountant called and apologized for the error. This on top of an abscessed tooth that is going to need surgery. And the car needs new tires, and the maintenance light just came on. Owing the IRS is adding insult to injury. But hell, they’ve got wars and walls to pay for. Way more important than my mortgage and abscessed tooth.

Never mind. It’s lovely today, the birds are singing their hearts out, and there’s more to come. Gardens and flowers and fresh vegetables and walks in the woods. And I’m bursting with new ideas to write about. I have my next Monitor article all ready to submit. There’s a novel I’ve been working on periodically called The Juggler. I’ve already sent out to beta readers, but rewritten it since. Every time I think it’s done, I get a new idea. It takes place in a small town, and at first I made it fairly harmless and generic. It’s rapidly growing into something that can’t be published until I’ve either left Deerfield or I’m safely buried in its soil. Be careful what you say or do to a writer.

It’s a bit frightening, actually, the power that the pen (or keyboard) wields. Books and articles can be read more widely and last longer than the protests of the party upon whom the writer has visited literary justice. (Unless, of course, that individual is a writer themselves.) The writer’s version of events, skillfully cloaked in fiction, can outlive them both. The penalties are harsh for libel when it can be proven, which is often difficult to do. Especially in works of fiction. Vindictive authors with an ax to grind can do life-ruining damage to the hapless object of their wrath. And they can hide behind the disclaimer that “any resemblance to any individual living or dead is purely coincidental.” Even if they do get successfully sued, the book is out there, loose in the world, and its readers might not get the memo that the depiction is highly biased or just plain wrong. In fact, most readers would not care.

I vow I shall use my power for good and not for evil.

But I shall use it.


April 9, 2017

9 04 2017

It is expected to be lovely today. I’ll try to keep this short, as I have a very busy day ahead of me. The sun is shining brightly through my window—a splendid sight to raise the spirits. This morning I am drinking my coffee out of my Al Jaeger mug. He is a master potter who lives here in town, and a delightful soul. A couple of years back we traded crafts: two of my books for one of his mugs. Originally I had gotten the mug as a Christmas present for my then-husband. He left. I kept the mug.

It’s an earthy, organic brown, perfectly designed, easy to hold, with a generous capacity. The interior glaze includes materials Al got off of his own property. It’s dark with a sprinkling of cinnamon. I’m very fond of it, especially considering the source.

Yesterday I cleaned out the spare room, carefully packing up Angi’s things to be stored in the attic until she is able to pick them up. Angi was the artist who stayed with us for a while with her three cats. She did the cover of my second novel, and designed the cover of my third. It’s been a rough year for her, losing her living situation and then that terrible car accident which she is still recovering from. I dearly hope she can get her life together soon.

In the meantime, we really need use of that room back. We still have one remaining guest, Bruce the cat, who belongs to a writer friend. Another temporary lodger, we are keeping him for them until they can get their house sold. Everybody involved fervently hopes that is soon. They miss him, of course, and as charming as Bruce is, he has just about worn out his welcome. He is curious and bold, and gets into things, including the trash. He is especially interested in what is at the bottom of the bathroom trash receptacle. He also has a great deal to say, especially in response to closed doors. Regardless of Bruce’s operatic protests, sometimes doors need to be closed, since what my guys eat is a special diet which costs about three times as much as what Bruce eats, and what Bruce eats is not good for them.

Bruce does have an unusual and expressive meow. But we are less than thrilled to hear it at four in the morning when he begins to perform La Traviata. And my cats, after putting up with Angi’s crew for several months, are all out of patience. They want this obnoxious interloper gone, and they want him gone yesterday. Their frustration is partly due to having been cooped up in the house all winter. At least they can go outside now and get away from him. Bruce is constantly trying to follow them, because outdoors in interesting and new, but he is not allowed. This is an added challenge.

Never mind. With luck the house will sell soon, and Bruce can go back to where he belongs. Then things can settle down a bit. My guys can stop expressing their fury by trying to spray everywhere that Bruce has been (which is pretty much everywhere) and we can start making use of the spare room for our own needs. No more guests, at least long term. The house is ours, the four of us, and this year is going to be about making that work, repurposing space to our use, reclaiming the parts still cluttered with the debris of those departed.

Stability is what we all need. There has been too much chaos. The uncertainties of Life always inject a dose of chaos no matter how well one plans. But we can do our best to minimize it.

April 8, 2017

8 04 2017

Morning chores done. I have to go to work soon, but I have half an hour or so to write before I need to get ready to leave. When my marriage was collapsing and I was tossed on the waves of divorce, I couldn’t focus enough to write. Maybe the occasional black tirade, either tucked away or emailed to a sympathetic ear. But that was all I could focus on. The collapse of my world and the ominous future that faced me. Oh, it still haunts a substantial number of my waking (and sleeping) hours, but now other things are interesting me. I am writing like mad. It feels wonderful.

Aside from these blogs, which once were irregular, coming several times a month, I am cranking out stuff for the Monitor as fast as they will take them. Should be one coming out tomorrow. And today I’ll be working on another. It comes as a reflection on something I heard. I and another individual in town were criticized by some local busybody for not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at an official function. It was implied that I was ungrateful and disrespectful because of it.

I’ve written about this before. A good number of years ago I thought long and hard about it and decided the Pledge wasn’t for me. The reasons are many. Topmost is that it makes no sense to me. I am pledging allegiance to a flag. Alright, the flag, by tradition, symbolizes a nation; “the republic for which it stands”. So I’m saying I’ll support this nation in all things, presumably right or wrong, disregarding all other nations. What if our country declared war for reasons that I thought were utterly wrong and unjustified? Given the utter lack of judgement and wisdom displayed by the current administration, it is easy to imagine. I could not in good conscience support this action, and might even go over to support the other side against the United States.

I am a humanist. I feel kinship to all other human beings. National boundaries are arbitrary divisions, based on geography, culture, and history, subject to change at any time. I admire the accomplishments of Sweden or Great Britain or India or Ecuador, because they are human accomplishments. The evil done by Syria, China, or the United States angers and frustrates me, because these are human actions agains other human beings, other creatures, or the planet we all share. The flag is irrelevant.

There are other problems with the Pledge. In our current state, we are hardly “one nation, indivisible.” We are violently divided and actively hostile towards one another. (Never mind the “under God” that got stuck in there during the fifties for political reasons). The Pledge was written at a time when we were still recovering from a war that literally divided us. We managed to pull together, at least superficially, for several decades, but the divides have never really gone away. Factions are still at war with other factions, groups are determined to oppress and dominate other groups. As for “liberty and justice for all”, well, that is a myth. How much liberty and justice any citizen enjoys is largely dependent on race, ethnicity, class, and income.

There are certain things I do appreciate about this nation. I have the freedom not to say the Pledge if I don’t want to, and I have the freedom to write about why. And those who disagree with me are equally free to disagree and to criticize me for it. I appreciate the limited socialism we enjoy, which provides a highway system, public education, Social Security, and Medicaid. I am glad for government support of libraries, arts, and museums. I am grateful for the EPA and other regulatory agencies which protect our environment and ensure that our food is fit to eat and our water fit to drink. I am grateful for national parks and NASA.

You may notice that most of these institutions are presently under siege by an administration determined to underfund, defund, and dismantle them in order to pump yet more money into an already insanely bloated military and national security machine. I could not be more opposed. Is this what I am supposed to pledge my allegiance to? I don’t think so.

Others may feel differently, especially veterans and those of a different generation. I get that. The symbolic meaning of the Pledge and its recitation is deeply significant to them. So I stand with quiet respect while they face the flag with their hands on their hearts. I do not mock them; I do not make a show of my lack of participation. Those whose eyes are focused on the flag are unlikely to notice what I am doing (or not doing). I fail to see what business it is of theirs anyway.

With the editor’s blessing some version of this will be appearing in the Monitor sometime soon. A free press is the greatest strength of a free nation. And that is something I am willing pledge my support for.

April Madness

6 04 2017

Tea and sympathy?

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

There is a strange seduction in madness. Insanity horrifies, yet fascinates us. We joke about being crazy and dismiss our enemies as being crazy. If we do something impulsive or irrational that we later regret, we mutter, “I must have been out of my mind.” It can even frighten us if our behavior leads us to question our sanity.

The idea of losing our reason and self-control terrifies us. And yet, we sometimes willingly abandon that control either through drugs or alcohol or total immersion in some fantasy that distances us from reality until the fantasy becomes real.

Our survival depends on our ability to apprehend what is going on around us accurately, and then to make wise decisions and take appropriate action. Every waking moment our minds busily consult our senses, sort through our memories, make guesses about the future, think and plan and worry. Anyone who has tried meditating knows how difficult it is to get the mind to slow down and focus. The brain doesn’t like to be idle. It’s like an outboard motor constantly running. Even asleep it spins out dreams and mutters to itself.

All that alertness can wear a person out. (And I hear Talking Heads Stop Making Sense start playing in the back of my head.)

So we indulge in play. Nonsense, fun, some absorbing pastime that relieves our mind of being constantly on guard. We joke, laugh, play games. Even though we dip our toe into the chaotic waters of the absurd, we keep one foot firmly grounded. We know we are being frivolous and foolish. We know we are giving our serious mind a break. We are still in control; we can switch back to logical judgement at the first sign of danger.

What if we were to let go completely? What if, instead of keeping one foot on solid ground, we ran into the water and dove in?

The idea is both alarming and alluring.

Often it seems that chaos rules the world. Trying to make sense of it is hopeless. Imposing order is futile. Instead of standing on solid ground, we are already far out at sea, clinging to a raft and working merely to keep our heads above the waves. The only control we actually have is our grip on the raft. We can’t direct where it is going, and we can’t predict what might rise at any moment out of the depths. Madness grins at us and whispers, “Aren’t you arms getting tired?”

As a philosopher I am constantly trying to figure things out. If something baffles me, I go to work: reading, writing, investigating, taking it apart and examining it from all angles. I gain insights, sudden enlightenments, the satisfaction of getting it sorted. Or I am left with the ball of yarn after the kittens have gotten to it. I have to give the puzzle up. And still some part of my mind goes back to worrying it again and again.

This constant drive to make sense of things can be exhausting. I want to give my cerebral cortex a ticket to the Bahamas. It drives me crazy.


It would be so liberating to just check out. To hell with logic. To hell with reality. To hell with trying to make sense of people, social interactions, the workings of society and the world, right and wrong, good and evil. No wonder so many crave a Prime Arbiter who will lay down the rules and ask only unquestioning obedience in return. They want everything figured out for them so they don’t have to. I sympathize! To just go about placidly with nothing to decide except what to have for dinner, and some belief systems even have that mostly figured out for you.

Or to down a bottle of scotch and go wilding in the streets. Do whatever you please and to hell with the consequences. Utter anarchy with no regard for others, no agonizing over morals or ethics or what the past was or the future might be. Run with the mob or the wolves or the gang or trash even that primitive form of organization and wander aimlessly on your own. Laugh at nothing, weep at nothing, rage at anything, with no need to justify any of it.

Or pull into yourself and build your own world. Wander about oblivious to anybody or anything, conducting your own inner monologue out loud. Dress in costume or rags, in furs or fuchsia, or nothing at all. Spend your days playing in the mud or believing you are a knight, a wizard, a famous actor, or Jesus. Relive the day you were left at the altar, pretend your dead children are with you again, stare in the mirror seeing yourself as the beauty you were decades ago when the world was at your feet. Shut yourself away from everyone and everything until they find you months after the stacks of stuff you’ve been hoarding fall over and kill you.

We make films about them, write books about them, study them, even romanticize them into heroic or tragic figures. The mad. Those who let go of the raft. Like Ophelia, they let themselves sink and drown.

How much of their madness do we dare admit we see lurking in ourselves?

April 5, 2017

5 04 2017

The heavy snow of April 1st is melting under the assault of yet another rainy day. As I took feed out to the birds, I heard the quacking of ducks. My own, of course, but also quite the fuss coming from a different direction. The mallards have returned to the wetland.

After morning chores I settled down to read a blog by Aron DiBacco. It is nice to come across another person of a philosophical bent who expresses themselves in accessible terms. I drifted away from academic philosophy because of its lofty, insular discourse. What is the use of using specialized scholarly jargon and references to other philosophers and schools of thought that are understandable only to another PhD? It makes sense to do so if one is in the sciences, communicating on sophisticated material to other scientists. But philosophy should be everyone’s business; it deals with ideas any thoughtful, reflective person can understand. Let the academics debate to their hearts’ content in their stratospheric towers. I want to talk to ordinary people.

Back to Aron’s blog. The main part of her article was about unearthing a favorite book of her father’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. Her father had heavily annotated the text in the margins, giving tantalizing clues as to what was going on in his mind. Since he is gone, she can’t ask him what he meant. But she can still learn from him by the way he argues with the author in the margins. (Kuhn’s book might sound too academic to interest most folks, but the ideas can be easily paraphrased so that anyone can understand them. A good teacher would do so.)

Underneath Aron’s writing lurks a discussion of epistemology. WTF is that, one might ask. See, that’s the problem. Philosophy nerds know what that word means, but most people wouldn’t. And yet it’s about something almost everyone wonders about at one time or another: What is knowledge and how do we know it?

My comment on her blog included the following: “Epistemology is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of philosophy, indeed of any serious discourse. We cannot effectively debate the merits of any issue unless there is some agreement on what we know and how we know it. In this era of ‘alternative facts’, it is as if we’ve abandoned the process as futile, and what can be known is a matter of convenience.” In other words, truth has become merely a matter of opinion, and we as a society have thrown out a common understanding of what is real and what is a fact. (Not all of us, fortunately.)

Although it is far from perfect (because it is being done by imperfect human beings), the scientific method is the most successful way for us to know stuff we can all agree on. (Back to epistemology: we can safely say we know something when anybody anywhere can repeat the experiment, or collect the data, and get pretty much the same results.) We’ve been at it long enough that we’ve amassed a vast body of knowledge about the world. Because there is so much we’ve discovered, we need to specialize. Some learn all they can about meteorology, or astronomy, or engineering. Or flying an airplane. We rely on them to do what they do because they know more about it that we do.

Politics is a difficult business. Governing a country like the United States is more complicated than most of us can comprehend. We are a nation of laws, and our representatives must have an understanding of them to govern properly. We live in a world of dizzyingly complex diplomatic, economic, and political relationships. One must take into account history, psychology, culture, geography, and dozens of other factors when dealing with other nations. No single individual can possibly know everything necessary to run things, and thus our leaders must rely on a stable of experts with long experience and deep understanding of their various fields. In other words, experts in government.

And so, like it or not, we need professional, trained politicians. If we don’t like what they are doing, or feel they are out of touch with our needs, we tell them so and demand changes. If they don’t comply, we look for alternative representatives to elect who are more likely to listen. But agreeing with what we want can’t be the sole criterion for voting for someone. It makes as much sense as choosing an electrician because he supports the same sports teams as you, ignoring the fact that he hasn’t had any training beyond high school shop class.

In order to function as a society, we need to agree that facts are objective, knowledge is real, and it is good to have both at one’s disposal. In our spare time we can (and should) keep refining our understanding of what we know and how we know it. Our understanding of what is truth may never be perfect, but the very process teaches us much.