How to Infuse Mopiness with Good Thoughts

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It was not a morning for fanfare. My left eye opened to a dark cave beneath quilt’s edge, the other narrowed against blurred weak light beyond its edge. Instead, a morning made of sinking thoughts, remnants of dreams, a signalling of more rain at the window. It is February, and although there are crocuses, snowdrops, camellias and even daffodils showing off their happy faces, mine wanted to stay hidden. Melded with the gloom. Why bother to jump up and get going?

It was not the first morning such as this lately. I think it is not even the rain, that easiest of scapegoats around here, as the rain and I tend to be amiable cohabitants in this valley nestled between Cascades and Coastal Ranges. Rainfall’s virtues include: tenderizing moisture for skin of creatures and plants; life-giving nourishment for same; misty landscapes with palettes of gentled hues; musical accompaniment day and night; mild temperatures that stave off any frostbite. Though I begin to long for the unveiling of spring’s enchantments about now, I can’t place the primary burden on rain.

It’s just me. It’s a final flick of the tail end of the holiday season with everyone (children, grandchildren, other family,  friends) back to old routines of work and school. It’s the resonant echoes of death, both my sister and brother-in-law; the heart disease of a brother and a cousin who just pulled through emergency operations. It is the stale rumination about life’s battles and how close we live to the edge of the precipice. I live, that is, with crazy heart arrhythmias and two stent implants so far– the fact that this family disease just keeps cutting us down. And, alright, perhaps it doesn’t help to greet more tedium of rain and dour, heavy clouds. Perhaps, as well, the apparent ruinous state of the world that doesn’t improve with worry.

Usually it is a competition between me and arrows of negativity piercing my brain: I like to win, so I take on the current perceived threat to my well-being with that intention. Soon, the hour and then the day or night improve bit by bit. After turning on the TV for a half hour as I ate my bagel and drank my chamomile tea in a futile attempt to redirect my mental state, I gave up and sought more help. First prayer (I sometimes forget when caught by self-denigration), then reading for distraction, then–aha!

That nice black, mostly empty journal on my messy desk.

I had given up personal journals years ago as being self-indulgent, a dumping ground that turned into rot. Not that keeping a journal didn’t hold some value during trying times over the decades–nothing like speaking to something that cannot talk back, or using language skills to help decipher an impenetrable problem. But I had systematically burned or shredded every one I had a kept boxed far too long. Looking back at the well-trod trail wasn’t a temptation. It wasn’t art. They took up room. I was done.

But I have always kept various-sized notebooks in which to jot down ideas or book titles or music recordings to refer to later. Song lyrics when I was songwriting. Quick poems dashed off when there wasn’t time to work on them. And I used to paint and draw more often in sketchbooks that had stared back at me when I was looking for something else. I considered the pleasure that could occur if I began a new journal, some jottings mixed with visuals, like scrapbooks I had as a kid but not like the current rage of scrap booking. I didn’t need fancy or expensive. Just a place to let off a little creative steam or release my brain of some miscellaneous meanderings.

It took a long time to find the right one, don’t ask me why, I simply had an idea in mind and it wouldn’t do to start with a journal less than what I wanted. In fact, all at once I found three that might do the trick. Yet they remained on my desk, unopened and gathering a thin veneer of dust.I knew it would not hold me deepest secrets, nor would it be a testament to any talent I may or may not have for visual art. I just wanted to have a spot to park ideas and set down a few drawings or paste a few collages together for fun and relaxation.

Then, on such a day as today, when I was restless but didn’t know what for, and couldn’t shake the doldrums well, I got it out and started to write. It was pleasant. A page of words, a page of drawings. Fill up empty paper, see them change.

So today, when overshadowed by what is not right in the world and in my life, I took up pencil and scrapbook aka journal and a folder of cut out pictures and other remnants, then got my art toolbox. And I settled down to find what came of my mopey doodling and scribbling. What arose was the importance of choice coupled with power of imagination. I could think/meditate/create my way into a more hopeful and fruitful state as I have done countless times.

I have spent some time in emotional prisons (and other literal confinement) of my own and others’ making and because of that, I learned early how vital it is to be able to flee from them. If the cage was fear, then safety had to be envisioned and sought. If it was sorrow, then a glimmer of joy was recreated. If it was pain of a physical or mental sort, then a refuge was constructed of healing peace. If confusion made of secrets and lies prevailed, then clarity came from a focus on the smallest bits I found. If life was torn apart, then the bloody pieces had to be gathered and placed together so the picture was mended and emerged whole again, even if not the one I needed or wanted yet.

When I was just fifteen a therapist kept telling me: “You are not your thoughts or beliefs but your feelings. You are what you feel, not what you think.”

That certainty coupled with intelligence was a bit intimidating but I didn’t like her much. I felt she lacked…imagination. I managed to sit composed in her dungeon office. Gazed out the small window above her head. If that was true, I almost replied, I was truly doomed, because feelings are difficult, changeable, intense, more powerful than many things in life, and they caused considerable embarrassment to my well known family back home, as well.

Not to say, alarm, at times. I had acted on reckless emotion–not foolishly, but out of anguish and anger–and so, was being given a break. As they were given, too, from me. I was sent to a private, big city psychiatric ward.

“No,” I asserted, “I am what I think. What and how I think of myself and life is what shapes me, my life. My emotions…are part of it but they come and go. How I think triggers emotions, it seems to me. I have to change my thoughts somehow and learn how to live with my difficult and pesky emotions.”

She was not amused. She tapped her pen on a clipboard of papers. I had not said the right thing. I may have been a bit precocious, she said, but I was the patient, was I not? The next visits she repeated the same things and eventually I understood I should agree. She was pleased. I sat on that ward and watched those who seemed no longer able to think, who rocked back and forth after daily doses of potent medications that manged symptoms but also their entire lives. Many stared mutely into space, had lost the freedom to speak up, to make different choices. To get better–because they had forgotten or never knew they were worthy of happy lives. Their stories were unheard now and who would witness their suffering? I took out my notebook and wrote of it, the seeming waste of those human lives and the grief of it and, too, the fledgling hope that took hold of me once more despite unabated loneliness and longing. I knew I would walk out that door. I would think it through, find my way, discover how to live without so much fallout. Creating that life would come from within me and could not be denied me.

This was long before a gradual but important shift began to occur in the mental health movement. It leaned more and more toward the idea that people are, in truth, what they think, that we can make progress even by thinking good thoughts, that we can visualize our goals and this will help manifest our dreams, even greatness if that is what we truly desire. We can imagine and participate in each step and move closer to who we determine we want to be. The fact is, there is truth to all this. People decide they want things to happen; they plan for it and then practice change both in their thinking and behaviors and it works. Powerful things happen when there is commitment. I have witnessed it myself. 

In the late 1970s, the Transtheorectical Model was developed by Carlo DiClemente and J.O. Prochaska when trying to figure out what would help smokers to give up the habit. They discovered that there were five stages through which people moved while striving to make lasting changes: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and finally, maintenance of new habits. This has been applied to a diversity of problematic behaviors, including addictions of all sorts. When people realize they can have doubts amidst certainty and hope as well as misgivings, they can begin to accept the situation better–and then determine the success of their own lives. This is taking responsibility. It has the effect of real energy applied to mass: action happens.

So, back to my spot at the dining room table this morning. I was ready to change my day (I have low tolerance for feeling poorly when I can mange to feel better, even if a little.) I already had the will to improve the tenor of things. I started with the idea of elevating  both mood and productivity, considered my options, then gave it movement.

I opened the journal and took up my favorite mechanical pencil.  I wrote:

Even though the senses are indispensable avenues by which to explore and experience, they are not complete–not without imagination. If I can think it, emotions can be roused by the conjuring and I can choose how to respond to them as well as the contemplation. I don’t initially have to be or do anything other than bring forth an idea, an image, in my mind. No, it is not a tangible thing, not three-dimensional unless I choose to make it so. And the world likes something to have physical properties, something that can be studied and designated as thus and so.

But the human imagination, ubiquitous, amorphous and vast, is within reach of anyone, anytime. It has the ineffable power to transform my thinking and my world. Where possibilities are acknowledged, there is choice and with choice there is change. There is freedom and when that happens, a life unfurls into a glorious journey despite the hardships which leave scars to mark our survival. We find our way because we hope, believe; we envision and act and undergo metamorphosis. How malleable we are as humans, and how little it can take to help bring about our better selves.

And so I continued another twenty minutes until two pages were full enough. I felt lighter but needed more. Out came the pictures and colored pencils, the paste and paint. I didn’t have a clear plan, only that I wanted color and form, life given shape without my words awhile. I soon stopped pondering and let simple creative impulses direct my hands. Random magazine pictures and other odds and ends were trimmed and positioned; paints and colored pencils were applied. The extra pages developed into lively scenes with their own stories. No one was going to give me a prize but I had made internal progress in a short while.

As I tossed unusable scraps and put away the art toolbox, I felt…good, calm, right with myself again.

The day has flown, after all. The murky daylight has become a quiet nightfall. The fantastic dragon of life has entered repose, put at ease again. I am about to put on the kettle for more tea and root around for some dinner, then pick up Marc from the airport. I won’t be shouldering a dark cloud. Imagination has saved me once more and I am feeling a little glee.

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, memoir, nonfiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Enter Stage Right. Again.

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The day was met with my favorite floral china cup of strong Oolong tea, the newspaper and Arthur, my unkempt miniature labradoodle. Though the hour was often marred by the rushing of cars carrying workers to important positions in the world, I persisted. Before long things would settle into a companionable quietness rounded out by bird song or squirrel chatter or the occasional barking, all of which Arthur offered commentary on. I could hear all this from my kitchen window, Arthur having exited through the side doggie door to do his daily and sniff about the flowers and trees. The light fell in such a way at seven a.m. that I was neither too wrongly awakened or kept lagging in that leftover daze of slumber. It caressed the deepening lines in my face and warmed my cool fingers. The tea was quite good, the cranberry orange scones I got by the half dozen, better, and the paper fell somewhere below par.

When he came back inside, I took us both out to the front porch. Arthur got to romp about the yard up to our white fence. I got the rocker and a decent view of everything my eye could find. The lumpy but firm green and gold pillow was stuffed behind my back; otherwise, the sitting would have been hampered by a spine that has had too much stress for too many years. As a ballet and later a modern dancer for twenty-seven years, I had felt the strain of a body’s glory as well as the wonder. Now things–connective tissue, the spots between joints, the arches and toes of feet overused so long–they hurt me if I moved too much or too little. There is a more happy medium but it had eluded me recently. I still danced once a week, if you could call it that, at a local studio. And Arthur and I took to the neighborhood park as often as we could and what a good time we had there, myself on the swing as he met up with his buddies. One of the appreciated features of the park is that people with dogs like to chat, so I got my own socializing in for a few days. We both ended up feeling well enough satisfied.

But I did dislike being one of two who appear over seventy. The other one, Mr. Carney, was disagreeable at best, ear flaps pulled down from his red and grey plaid woolen cap–yes, even in warmer weather– and his subsequent complaint that I spoke quite unintelligibly. If he could understand more than five words in a half hour I felt victorious about my ability to shout without seeming idiotic or rude. But he really didn’t want to converse. He whined about things, not just my speech, which he said often resembles that of a child with cookies caught in her mouth.

So I tended to keep watch from my swing while Arthur bounded here and there and Mr. Carney shuffled along the path with his waddling corgi. I have feared for them both, their weight and lack of cordial interchange. They frankly seemed happier with each other. As for me, I have remained thin and if my doctor has cautioned that I could benefit from more fat, I have liked the lightness and ease of a body not carrying unnecessary cargo. I’ve imagined it’s due to being a dancer so long. One is loathe to disturb what has served one well for decades.

But who am I to ever make a point of it? I have not been the most generous with my own time and attention in the more recent past. There was a time for all that, when I didn’t mind being called upon, when I was needed and not at all bothered. Appreciated, too. But as the years went by even my children came armed with many demands or needs but with little else–either to offer or to say. It’s the way of things, I suppose. They with the complicated lives which I have already inhabited and shed, like a snake of its useless skin. I now fit in yet another one and will get rid of that, too, and more, in time. My granddaughter laughed when I said that but she, too, will hopefully live to see the truth of the analogy.

This morning Arthur started barking before I even got the kettle to a boil. I felt out of sorts, as if I couldn’t quite see the point in the sun rising to shine. I fiddled with my crooked glasses–I stepped on them a few days back–and swept up my long hair into a topknot and stuck a decorative chop stick in the wispy mass to secure it. The last scone was dried out. There was s sliver of butter left so I spread it on, then a thick layer of peach preserves to see if that helped. The first bite was not a delight but I continued masticating until I could manage a swallow. Arthur kept barking, not ferociously, but with an emphasis that drew me away from my paper. I could see him jumping against the fence a few times, so stuck my head out the door.

“Get your mad, noisy self in here, Arthur! Now.”

He turned to assess my intention, then kept on barking. I frowned at him and swung my gaze over the driveway next door. Nothing. There wouldn’t be. The Bellsons had moved three months ago, the empty windows and driveway finally seeming normal to me. But as I looked farther down the drive, I could make out something, a truck and maybe a car or even more. And three people waiting on the patch of overgrown grass that separated sidewalk from street.

Had the real estate sign been taken down and I not even noticed it? Well, I had stopped thinking about who might come there or if it would be torn down for a new monster of a house, if a renter with uncertain origins or intentions would take up residence and the poor house surrendering itself. I guess it didn’t matter in the end. I was on the corner, a boon. My back yard yielded some privacy. And no matter who took over the neighboring house, I would be in the same spot until I wasn’t.

Arthur came back in and headed to his food and water as I made tea. I spread open my paper and scanned the usual dreadful headlines about politics, car wrecks, a fire in the next county, yet the weather would remain fair. We could hear the sounds of things nearby, doors opening and closing, squeaky wheels, masculine voices directing one thing or another. After my scone was finished by force of habit and appreciation of the jam, we took ourselves out to the porch. Whereupon Arthur resumed barking until I was sharp in my reprimand. But I could see why he was flustered. Something was certainly changing next door and we had little idea just what it would bring.

There were a husband and wife, they appeared to be Asian, on the front lawn talking with restraint while gesturing at the furniture and boxes being hauled inside. Then I spotted who I guessed was a daughter of teenage years. She was slight, compact. She wore her hair blue-tinged and short. I glimpsed bright bangles on her wrists. Misgiving rose up in me even though I liked young people, if largely from a distance. The Bellsons had not yet had children if they ever would; they were eager to advance and moved off to New Zealand. Nothing had been complicated about their lifestyle and I missed them, at the very least for that. I wondered how this teenager would conduct her life, if that meant my sleep would be jarred by exuberant pop music, if the street would be lined with her friends cars, if there would be antics of all sorts. I hoped for better.

Arthur lay down with head on paws, watching with me. I got up to pour more tea and then returned. The sunlight made its way through the latticework that was on each end of my porch and set its pattern upon the wooden planks. My pink-slippered feet rose of their own accord to dance in the streaming light, then landed by Arthur and stretched, toes pointing and flexing back, pointing again. The motion gave me twinges of discomfort and pleasure in equal amounts, as always.

And then I saw it, a massive irregular shape all swaddled and tied up neatly as it was rolled up to the front door. I slunk over to peer through the lattice just as three men removed it from the big rolling carrier and got the bulk turned sideways and lifted with effort. Then they slid it through the front door and out of my sight, the three newcomers following.

“Arthur”, I whispered, “that was a grand piano! We may have a piano player. Oh, please let there be music.”

*******

Days later the sun brightened my dingy kitchen and the tea kettle let loose a steamy whistle as Arthur had his foray into the back yard. And I waited to hear the now daily piano scales. Up and down the piano keyboard, playing in major or minor keys, the girl worked her way with an expert touch. I knew it was only she  who played since a week had gone by and we saw the father leave for work, then the mother. That left the girl at home alone for a half hour. Each morning she played exercises. My window was open enough that on a breeze rode every single note, firmly sounded. Arthur cocked his head back and forth, ears pricked, and I awaited his comment about it, perhaps dislike. But he, adapted already, went on about his business as I read my paper. Sometimes we got to the porch before she left but usually she had since left for the bus stop at the corner. I found myself stepping slowly about the floor of the porch, stretching this way and that, arms held aloft, then sitting with legs raised and scissored, slippers dangling, then discarded as the weather leaned more toward spring. The daffodils were shooting forth from the dark earth as if in grateful response to live music in their territory. I wouldn’t be surprised if my garden just up and blossomed in a frenzy.

The Musgraves across the street waved at me one Thursday as I exercised-arms in and out, stretch side to side– in sweetening breezes. I hadn’t seen them for months except huddled in their cars, on their way downtown to their offices. I waved back, then pulled my soft blue shawl about me as I stood on the porch looking at the now-empty bus shelter. They were not the friendliest neighbors, but they were civil and we exchanged good wishes and general inquiries when we all emerged from behind the barrier of wintery rains. Could they have heard the piano, as well? Or were they just feeling more friendly with more sunshine, I wondered. I had also noticed the Engers had lingered at their door one afternoon when the grand piano had flung its notes into the street with some vigor.

In the late afternoons, the girl came home alone and after a short time, sat again at her piano. I could see her from my side living room windows. I put down my hobbies or my work–the crocheting or a large book of collages I was making from photographs and mementos. Or the tedious polishing of silver place settings taken from a red-velvet-lined, teak silverware case. I was thinking of giving it to my daughter-in-law for her upcoming birthday, as she liked to entertain. I had been thinking I had too many things I didn’t even like, anymore. But music wasn’t one of them. I still maintained a large collection of records and CDs that I listened to off and on.

Now this new family and with their arrival, piano music slipped out their walls and windows every day. As early spring turned up its heat bit by bit, it got so Arthur and I would settle ourselves on the porch even before the girl–Japanese, I’d decided, though I was no expert on such matters–got home. She walked fast and ran up the front steps and disappeared inside her house. I imagined she got a snack, something light, and set her books out on a desk for later study. The she pulled the piano bench up to the mammoth instrument, Lifted her lithe hands above the keys and placed fingers on each white or black key and began the sonata, the concerto, the specific measures she sought to master. And oh, the music produced with each touch of the keys.

And I remembered. I was sent back to that room with the wall of full length mirrors, the other wall of rectangular windows casting such light caught beyond the historic brick building. We were lined up along the barre. The standard ballet positions began, and plies ensued as the accompanist played the songs that gave us rhythm, that steady, encouraging practice music for our warm up. The common score of the dancer starting work. I remembered how my muscles pulled and lengthened, how feet found their places and held fast, then responded to the spoken and clapped commands, pushed from the floor for airy spaces. Strove for perfection, created beauty. Delved deep for disciplined and rich expressions of life. Such pain and sweat, that homely exchange of energy for minute or grand movements. And even elegance beneath each exacting motion. Leaping and bounding, then tattooing the old wood floor with a hundred tiny changes in step, in balance and form, in center of gravity as the body whirled and rose and fell, lengthened softly, and speaking with limbs and emoting with face, hands, feet. The neck and chin. All.

Art was wrought from primal animal life and a vigorous athleticism that pushed and prodded me until I found the needed connection as bone and muscle and tendon synchronized at last with mind, heart, soul. Heaven opened up for me as the rest of the world turned and tossed. The most ordinary paths of being and doing released me every hour I danced. It had gone on to carry me and I, it, into a lifetime of fulfillment.

But, of course, then the neighborhood piano would stop and silence would shock me back. I would refocus my eyes on the yard, our porch. Arthur would get restless. The night then began to gather in corners of sky. We we would go indoors. In awhile Arthur and I heard the girls’ parents’ car pull in and their voices using a language that confounded.

Then one night as the temperature rose to a balmy record-breaking high the girl opened wide her living room windows. Arthur and I stepped onto the porch again. There came music that was flashier, a semblance of jazzy notes that caught fire. I heard every note; each chord was insistent. I slipped off my woven flats, left my chair, and started to sway and turn and execute a few little steps, my knees resistant at first while my head filled with visions of stages from long ago. Arthur pawed at my long skirt as I swept about, wanting to join in, so we descended the steps and bobbed about the yard, the piano music swelling, cascading. My old flesh and bones answering with each feeling, the beckoning notes weaving and rising inside the measures.

And I was happy! I twirled about, feet feeling soft prickles of new grass, my skin slipping through tender air, a fragrance of flowers and green growing things a veil of perfume that forever entranced young and old. I was dancing and Arthur was singing along in his way and prancing about and all that was upside down was righted again, my solitude of widowhood; strangeness of finding my way inside a thinner, looser skin; the odd reality that everyone was on a fast train, thundering by without so much as a wave or my agreement.

I was dancing, I was still that dancer and no one and nothing would change that. I squeezed my eyes shut and turned and turned in the swirl of mysterious, life-giving music, felt my body transport from this time to another, I gave it my respect and permission to do what it wanted. Unfettered again.

Then bit by bit, I reigned myself in, slowed to a stop. My breath tore through my  lungs and it felt good. All was still. I opened my eyes.

In the faint sheer blueness of that time between dusk and twilight, outside my fence but right in front of my house, there stood the Musgraves and Carsons, the Engers and even the Harolds from way down the street and several others I barely knew anymore. They were staring at me, hands to mouths, arms linked with their mates’, their eyes so wide. I felt a sudden horror that they believed I had lost my mind, that I had finally succumbed to the threats of advancing old age and would never be the same. How could they even know anything of who I had been and was?

Unsettled and embarrassed, I stepped back, saw Arthur licking the new neighbor girl’s hand. She patted him, then advanced toward me. I stood my ground as she entered the yard, her small, quick steps bringing her closer and closer until she stopped and carefully put her hands together before her as if praying and gave a little bob of her head.

“I am Miyoko. Thank you for appreciating my music enough to feel like dancing.”

I said, “Oh. Yes…well, I’m Daphne. Thank you so much for sharing your fine gift, Miyoko.”

She gave me a good smile as her parents came forward, the faces made friendly with kind eyes. Then my old and new neighbors started to clap, the light, sharp sounds a lovely syncopation, filling the evening like bright confetti. Arthur barked in glee, I suspected, and raced about in circles.

And I bowed, almost full of grace now, nice and easy, head low so a vagrant tear would fall away, my trembling arms high above my head, heart and hands to sky.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

A Wholeness of One Amid Others

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Being more alone has become a curious experience; the more it occurs, the more its vagaries and useful qualities surface. And the longer I live within it, the more I find a home within its mutable parameters.

It’s similar–though granted, non-material in essential nature– to the first time wearing a new pair of jeans. I mean real jeans, not the ones with plenty of helpful stretch. Think how they feel somewhat stiff,  perhaps unfriendly to hips and other rounded bits when squatting, stretching, even sitting a long while. Much more in the newness except easing in, out and walking about is not that great until they relent under the bulk of your body. In time, though, they get used to your personal configurations and you, theirs. The denim and seams, zipper and brass button begin to conform to the owner’s shape and every requisite movement. After thorough washing several times and repeated wear and stretch, you begin to forget they were once new. They become much better than new–that is, comfortable, a pleasing part of your wardrobe and even the easiest option. Trustworthy, you might say.

The analogy works pretty well but it stops here since the state of being alone is not an object, of course, not disposable or shareable. Unlike blue jeans, its innate and defined nature would be altered entirely: it is no longer be aloneness when including another person. Since I am not talking about the trying experience of acute loneliness–which can move into a danger zone–being alone necessarily exists in a modified vacuum ( things and events can exist in the same time/space). A situation separate from others’ direct impact. This state is at the beck and call of the one who inhabits it. Aloneness can sought out, welcomed and then shaped by what is added or subtracted. It can be avidly protected and nurtured and made into something delectable. And also found wanting, even despised and rejected. Being alone in itself seems to me a neutral state that can be managed for various purposes. It can be a metamorphose into a deepening, complex thing whether it is left to itself or designed with care. It’s nature reflects the one who is alone, the current emotional needs, spiritual flux and physical health.

Since no longer working away from home in a 11-12 hour a day position, it has been a more frequent experience. The first couple of years of (somewhat early) retirement I felt out of sorts being home every day, was more restless than usual. Much was missing suddenly. I found myself seeking contact with storekeepers or people walking their dogs on the street, even the neighbor with a grumpy affect whom I usually avoided. I visited book stores or coffee shops for an hour or two to be a visible part of gathered Homo sapiens. And noticed for the first time that others might be doing the same. I often felt guilty about wasting time but no one else hung their heads in embarrassment or shame. So this was how it was to be anywhere I wanted with no scheduled appointments, doing little of import at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon. I found it extraordinary. Weird. I felt like a wastrel in between moments of enjoying myself.

Lest I forget, let me include the fact–for those who don’t know much about me–that I am married. So, I might agree, not strictly alone in the long run. But he works worse hours than I used to and his business can require travelling. Thus, I’ve ever not had adult company around day in and out. I am often asked if this has bothered me but it became status quo after the first few years of marriage. It was not that relevant even raising five children. We all do what we need to do; I certainly didn’t count myself heroic or unusual as a kind of single parent. Being an independent sort, anyway, I didn’t require his constant presence. I was seldom truly alone with all those kids–and their friends and the pets that came and went. My familial community thrived from my early twenties to late forties–and a couple children returned a short time.

So how much have I even had alone time? The truth is, I’ve had a lifelong kinship with introversion and solitude–as well as moderate extroversion. My work as a human services employee and later, a counselor, kept me connected to large networks of co-workers and clients with emotionally diverse exchanges each day. Beyond work, though not an avid seeker of memberships to groups, there have been some I did enjoy, like choirs or writing critique groups, dance classes and gyms–those which reflect interests.

So when being part of the fray in the work world ceased, I was surprised to find myself out of the loop. Alone. Not dismayed but discombobulated. I was unable to reconcile this outgoing part of my nature with such sudden loss of routine interactions. I am sure most who cannot or do not get up and go to work know what I mean. I had a few months of estrangement wherein a couple of “Meet Ups” with neighborhood writers and also some tai chi students were sampled. Those were dissatisfying. I decided to wait things out, see what developed. How I might change.

There was plenty to do in the meantime with all this elective isolation from the outside world. There were ubiquitous, repetitive household tasks and errands. I read and wrote several hours daily and prepared more submissions for journals. I spent time with my family and a handful of friends when they weren’t working or otherwise engaged. I power walked daily at least an hour–an old habit now possible before nightfall–and did finally join a gym for a year. And, of course, my marriage kept me engaged. We share activities every week-end possible.

Gradually I spent less and less time longing for and seeking others’ company. I can’t pinpoint when, exactly, it happened. I might take into account a few serious family needs that asked more of me. Or hurting my foot and not being able to exercise hard for months. But it started before then, perhaps the end of my first no-paycheck year, when I found the more I hung out with myself, the better it felt. Insidiously, imperceptibly, I changed from someone who longed to be with others every day–the chatty camaraderie and intense work and meetings and gatherings–to someone who didn’t miss it for days on end. Then weeks. That crammed schedule seven days a week faded from memory. The bone-deep tiredness that sometimes brought unbidden tears to my eyes as I finally drove home from work at nine o’clock at night accompanied by the thought: will I always feel overextended? It vanished.

There may have been a smear of loneliness hidden inside all that activity. It was partly an effect of being in a human services profession–it requires output of immense emotional energy, the mental presence that cannot afford to miss important cues, long hours that get longer if you want to do your best. But it was also a result of not refilling my emotional wellspring often enough. This is a hazard for counselors and others in helping professions. Oh, I believed I was exercising good self-care, allotting time to do things I enjoyed. But I needed more. I didn’t think “burn out” was hovering on my horizon nor the suffering from dreaded “compassion fatigue” that hits so many who do such work. Not even after decades. I had seen some bow out from this work after five years or ten. I knew how to avoid such a demise. Right? Of course.

But I may have to amend that now. I better understand I truly required more time…alone. To rest, to follow my separate creative passions, take assiduous care of my health to avoid another heart attack. To experience deep peace in sustainable, rewarding ways.

A memory comes forward of a younger co-worker, perhaps in her mid-thirties, who one day swiveled her chair away from her desk toward mine.

“Cynthia, I’m so tired  of working…. I’m up for a promotion, you know–supervisor of the team. But I hate being copped up in an office, at times find it hard to listen so long to clients. I care about them, sure, but what I want is–oh, never mind.”

She turned away, acutely aware that she had let down her guard. We had been friendly, yes, but neither of us had time or the inclination to get that personal.

“What is it that you really want?” I asked.

“I mean, I want to advance and make more money. I guess. But I am an outdoors person first of all. I love sports and nature and just being on the move physically. It kills me to be sitting every day.”

“I can see that–you fidget, stand up to type, move your legs and feet all over even when you’re at your computer. I keep waiting for you to get up and do jumping jacks. So if you don’t want to be in an office, what would you be doing for work?”

She frowned. “Maybe I shouldn’t be saying all this. I could be your manager.”

I laughed. “No worries. If you’re ever my supervisor, I know you’ll be organized and direct–we’d be fine. And as far as that position–in the last ten years I was offered opportunities twice to get into management. Obviously, I declined. In my earlier career I ran a whole department for a Detroit area aging and home-bound services center, hired and trained and fired people, oversaw 350 clients’ welfare. I wouldn’t do it again though I learned much. I did love the client contact just as I do therapeutic contact here. But you don’t want to even be here…do you?”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Well, no.” She rolled closer and whispered. “I want to be a firefighter or a police officer, maybe an EMT. Is that nuts? But I am an adrenaline junkie, I’m physical, I love those kinds of challenges.” Her face, usually so composed, even emotionless, was fully animated.

“That’s great. So what’s stopping you?”

“Maybe I’m too old to start all over. Or maybe I would fail. And I don’t want to let down some people.”

“You’re stopping you, that’s all. You ought to do what you truly want to do. You can figure it out step by step.”

She nodded, stood up, then turned back leaning against her desk. “What about you? Is this your true calling?”

“Well…I fell in love with it accidentally. But my first passion is writing and I’m thrilled by the arts, though I also crave being outdoors. I’ve enjoyed counselling, yet I’ve waited a long time to do more of what my heart desires. I feel like I need to change that, I’m quitting soon. I’m not that pleased with the clinic’s politics, long hours–I’m just done.”

Her face registered genuine surprise.”But you’re good at this work!”

“So are you. But do you want to keep doing it because you’re good at it or do you want to do what you love most before you’re my age and wish you hadn’t put it off?”

She–a woman known for composed manner, reserved nature– smiled at me warmly. I thought how beautiful she was when she let herself be herself.

“Don’t give up your real dream.” I said.

“You’re right. Thanks… for hearing me.”

“Thanks for talking with me.”

We both went back to work but whenever we saw each other in the halls or at meetings, we exchanged more personal looks and words. We knew each other now in a way no one else there quite did. We each had plans, I imagined.

A month or two later, I left that organization, the work that had become an avid calling. And have not looked back. Whether my co-worker made healthier choices, I do not know. But there needed to be a life change right then. I wanted to slip into a pool of sweet stillness, bask in a lifestyle of fewer demands, less crisis where one poor decision could impact a vulnerable client in terrible ways as well as good one.

I wanted to be more responsible to me, not just others and that mean more air and space inside and outside myself. Solitude beckoned me like along lost my intimate companion, resonating with possibilities. I believed in this separation from the one life for another. And after the first adjustments to make the fit better, my new schedule aligned more with body and mind. Life developed a different rhythm. It went from good to better.

The quietude in my home each morning is an edifying experience. I read meditations, pray while the tea kettle is brewing for a mug of Bengal Spice tea. Classical music is turned on, or jazz. I read from a few books or magazinea as I nibble a simple breakfast of toasted bagel and almond butter. I check my Moleskine planner–still useful. These lists include: WRITE, walk/dance, email or call (fill in blank), download and sort photographs, work on collage journal, WRITE. Paint, watch an online film, walk to tea shop, library, WRITE.

Yet sometimes I worry I could become a recluse. When I began this piece, that was the main thought while all the virtues of being alone rose up. I worry that I won’t do enough to aid others since I have not volunteered for any organization. Should I find ways to make a slew of new friends (who are also getting paid to work)? Will I look for more opportunities to just be kind and friendly? Will I run out of years before I get done all I find so compelling? Will I forget the value of social gatherings, how fascinating it is to spontaneously talk with strangers…will I lose the skill to interpret others’ unspoken selves or stop valuing the common ground of shared talents–and the brainstorming and the simple foolish moments?

You can see there is not a lack of things to stir up my brain even when I’m busy doing things I like. Perhaps it’s the lifetime spent rushing to assist others; one does get used to that mode of being. But it is natural, too, for me to seek other people; they intrigue me, mean something to me. Anyway, I worry, yes about the quality of this present life. And then I do not for long periods. I am becoming at home in the generous welcome of solitude.

I used to jot down story ideas between each clients. Now writing happens daily, and rewriting and more writing. So maybe I will become a woman whose life revolves around teetering towers of books, a love of photography and music. A woman whose life is defined by folders and stacks bursting with ramblings, odd musings, tales that will molder until someone is forced to come in and sweep things clean of all those odds and ends when my days here are done.

Perhaps this will be so. I feel less and less inclined to be concerned.

I trust the teachings of solitude. I see how it clears away my falseness, and renders me accessible to deeper feeling and being. It provides me with daily opportunities to take stock and blame no one but myself for errors. And to uphold my goals and ethics without constant defending of them or approval. My life is on me; the value comes from being alive, not accolades, not even responses from others. I have sought and honed the awareness that nourishment is yielded by constancy of God and I can respond with greater attention to my soul’s authenticity. I am carried into each moment. The directions taken arise from instinct and intuition, from sleep and waking. Small flashes of wonderment. I have a multitude of questions. Now there’s a good portion of time to seek knowledge.

There is also more to free up, snatches that circle within and then land well or clumsily on the page. Many stories may never leave this room. In solitude, who witnesses the joy or misery of what I discover know or undertake? We each face ourselves when alone. We sit with ourselves and are overwhelmed or find we are in acceptable company or some of both. I find it liberating, this going inward and beyond self to a greater embrace of life.

Some days aloneness can seem closer to lonely, its true. Not even my husband or family can abate that. It is being human. It may be the choices I have made. But it passes. I wrap myself in the beautiful patchwork cloak of solitude and it shelters me as I labor and meditate. I release it, let it fall away, and find the joy of other humans as I need to. Living is like being on a seesaw; we each find new points of gravity and balance. That requires careful thought and action.

We all maintain a symbiotic status that serves us well even when we do not share discourse. Whether you speak in the same room, I can still hear–feel–humanity’s hew and cry. Whether I need to come forward to respond more or not is part of what I am learning. How do I live a full and accountable life now that I am sixty-five? I am bursting with ideas. And I patiently toil and rest within this being alone, drawing inward toward more mysterious, opening doors. This time in my life I am giving my soul, mind, heart and body full permission to be still or to speak, to be alone or join others. To allow my writing its own power, relieved of the burden of any more punishing regrets.

Dear God, help me stay loyal to my chosen tasks and to give more freely. And dear readers, may you find your true path and make it a good home for your life.

 

Posted in creative nonfiction, essays, inspirational essay, nonfiction, prose, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Oriane the Messenger

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I scanned the heavens and noted the faint silver streaks overlaying a starry blue-black sky. It was the last few hours before the Dawn of the Starfire Queen. I had been running for a good hour after awakening from a brief standing rest. My breath was even and unhurried. Still, underneath my flesh crept a slow burn, ankle to calf, knee to hip. I knew this day’s run had to be shortened somehow. Yesterday’s journey, my second day carrying the message, had lasted from morning until high moonrise when I finally left behind the trio of guards. I knew they might catch up on horseback as I tired, so I had taken my fill of paste of prime root and drunk as little water as possible. Nothing is worse than running with full stomach sloshing.

Best to stay muscle and bone, that was my philosophy. It kept me streamlined and fleeter than other runners and the better messengers. As a result of my lightness and narrowness, some doubted my gender was female. That suited me. I passed more easily through all spaces and lands with a slight profile. But I had kept my name, Oriane, as my mother said it would be a blessing of mercy upon me when all else failed, though she never explained. It was, I knew, the name of a rare wildflower that bestowed unusual strength on those who found it. She had discovered and transplanted one when she was pregnant with me, only to have to eaten by wolves after my birth. She did not gain strength at all, yet it had reached me through her hands, her blood, her breath. When I was seven, she wept when she told me how the flower was devoured, but even then I found it reasonable that wildness sought the nourishment of wildness.

She was right about the importance of the oriane flower, as I was the one by age eleven with the most stamina and strength. Because of this, I have become greatly valued since I have come of age. Beyond that, I don’t know what to think of my tasks or her ways. She is the Lady Tam, the creator of music that soothes the temperamental, those distressed of spirit. She thus holds a powerful position under the ruling of my uncle who is, in truth, the most temperamental man I have yet known. I am being judicious with my words. My mother bows to him though I cannot easily do the same. The Lady Tam has made her place; I assume there she will remain. I fear it, despite changes ahead. And between her position with my uncle Rath Overseer of Trammill, my fate appears to be sealed. But once I had not believed I would undertake a challenge such as I have done.

One winter evening I admitted to admiring the Starfire Queen’s visionary ways and I was promptly forbidden to again leave the boundary lands beyond Trammill alone. I should have thought twice; I am most given to silence, but felt compelled to admit this neophyte royalty held a wisdom I not only had heard about–I felt it so. Knew it to be truth. Hence, the guards–Rath Overseer’s henchmen –as I carried the missive. I had been charged with delivering the letter informing the new queen that if she took her foretold position at Antelier in Immerling she would have to face battle with the southern lords. Though I had served as Messenger out of my love for my mother and duty to my uncle, they had long spoken against the Starfire Queen’s ascendancy. She had dared to exceed the parameters of the lords’ traditions. She riled those who held dear the patriarchal and privileged ways with her sweeping belief in celestial guidance. Everyone assumed the worst, as if she was set to be the usurper of their jealously guarded territories.

I thought  she meant to unite us all, not separate us from one another further. Only a fool would take the ancient warring road to greater might. I had read some of her ideology, passed hand to hand by those of us who have eagerly sought her ideas. My mother knew  little of my new-found beliefs as she did not inquire. I was expected to follow the known ways and she seemed unaffected by the debates others had. Only Rath Overseer, whom I had been taught to obey despite my dislike of his manner toward most (though lodge folk said he loved my mother and I could not deny her right to such since she was widowed so young), thought I was a danger.

And he was right. I found no good reason to bear up his arguments for his own (and his cohorts’) autonomy, nor accept still them as truth before hearing more of the Starfire Queen’s. Surely she did not deserve threat of defeat before her own voice carried more clarity and the very power of coronation. Immerling was a land of fertile earth and lush beauty and if small in acreage, it’s bounty had kept the rest of us alive more times than not. It had been well ruled for centuries, if little weight had been given to its political workings. It was known as one of the very last matriarchal societies, I had heard, which I found odd if intriguing. Others found it irrelevant. Until this new person this heretofore unheralded Starfire of Antelier.

I had to warn her of trouble. No one should be judged ruinous until the facts are known. And we–even those of us who read her few works– did not even know her yet.

So here I was moving very fast on foot, my boots skimming the hard ground. I felt driven morning til night by the intention of reaching her before Rath Overseer’s men did. I couldn’t consistently outrun horses or most other goodly beasts. But I did know how to outmaneuver them, hide well, forge difficult new routes that they and their riders could not. When I was climbing the Fifth Wall of Rock that surrounded Immerling’s far borders, I turned to look back once. The undulating desert sands rimming the last low mountains of Trammill glowed white under the moon’s glow. The horsemen were specks in the distance as I flattened my body to the rock, hoping the outline of my figure might appear as one jagged spot along the wall. But they might see it for myself, who they sought since my eluding them before last dusk. My feet found purchase so I paused to send a thought toward my mother, praying she might find it and be heartened.

Oriane is flying well, rest assured, the fire is bluest at night.

Surely she would remember the line of the song she gave me as a child, how the fire burned hottest under the tending of her own hands, my safety assured by life giving heat and steady light. Her loving watchfulness. Now I was seventeen. I was on my own. True, her love could not protect me as once it did. But I needed to draw on her caring, wanted my gratitude to be felt as I carried on alone.

It was a mistake to pause even that moment. As I lost my point of reference a split second, fear invaded me me. My right foot slipped, rock loosening and clattering below as I reached for a jutting ledge above me. My hand strained and missed and I slid, losing a few inches, my shins seared by pain as my worn leggings and then my flesh were torn. I poked and prodded the toes of my sheathed feet towards a spot where rock held fast. Reached and grasped, exerted my might. And surmounted the ledge, breath ragged. I would not be looking back again. I would not be sending thoughts to my mother. I could not forget this was survival and make progress towards the only goal needing to consume me. But the Fifth Wall was not accepting my presence, it seemed, as my sense of balance was altered and I descended too fast.

As I slipped and pounded down the rocky prominence, I recalled the basic fight mechanics of hawk hunters I had studied the last few weeks at home. I raised my long arms and held fast my slim legs, compressed my skin and heavier bones and when my feet again contacted the obdurate surface of the rocky wall I pushed off and rose above it. I willed my body to release gravity. And then began to soar. My heart stopped beating or perhaps it was thrust into a different rhythm and mode of operation as I traveled through the empty moonlit night. And then turned upside down and headed downward, swooping right and left like the brave hawk hunters I had witnessed. Only I wasn’t a hawk hunter, I was a runner only and out of my element, needing ground beneath my feet. Now. I scrambled awkwardly as the mighty currents of air tossed and turned my body; there was nothing to hold me fast. How did the hawk hunters master such a skill? I was falling and flailing to my death.

Was I being tricked by Rath Overseer’s men, were they really magicians that he sent to follow me? They must have gotten me to believe this was an option. I was galled but panic gripped me as I gulped wind that tore at my throat. My flesh felt as it would burn up, vanish into the atmosphere. I would not overcome these elements, and I had made a foolish assumption that I might do whatever I believed possible. It had worked before but I saw it was likely I was done with this living.

I closed my eyes against the pressure of turbulent air. The Pre-Dawn was upon me and I was so close to being in Immerling… yet would not complete my crucial task. Faster and faster I plunged toward the emerald earth below. Though spinning now, I tried one last time to reassert orientation, hold my head up, bring my body to vertical position. To calm heart and mind, locate the forest that shielded the Starfire Queen’s vast lodgings if only by my instinct for survival.

My arms were being tugged, almost stretched and first I felt my right hand grabbed and held tightly, and then the other hand. I saw I was  being held aloft and slowed down in increments as I slid through softening air, my body righting itself. I more felt then saw two beings with bronzed limbs that sparked brightly, then faded to a warm glow as we descended, landing at last amid tall grasses with a quiet thud.

They released me and neatly vanished before I could summon the will to speak or move. The silence hummed. I smiled as I checked body parts, held my head. I was whole and alive, stunned but relieved.

Come, Oriane, fleet of mind and foot, brash of heart and strong of soul.

The words melted into the fading night as I crouched and turned in a slow, full circle. I saw nothing parting the grasses, nothing above or beside me. My sore but now more energized legs pushed me up to peer over tops massed blades of deep wild grass. There was the forest. Splashes of light limned the massive tree trunks. I parted the plants and plodded toward a golden mist that began to gather among the center most trees.

I want to say that this all made sense to me, that I knew well the tales of Immerling and so was prepared to enter the golden center of the land. That fear did not enter my bones or anxiety, my center. That the two day trajectory from Trammill’s mountains to desert to wall to grasses to forest was what I had expected and could manage the walk with grace and assuredness to see what lay ahead without any self doubt. In truth, I knew nothing of what was to be experienced other than a message sealed and tied under my innermost garment would now be delivered.

Oriane, Oriane, Oriane I heard and I followed the beckoning into the forest and the golden gleam that wound around the trees pulled me forward, the flutter of small, transparent wings about my shoulders, the heady scent of flowers rising  from each step, the taste of strange fruits in my mouth. And yet I was not unable to navigate by my own power, think my own thoughts of my singular needs (a meeting with the Queen, simple food, rest). I was not unable to see the end of the forest and as the stream of light faded, I saw the sky was lightening above as the sun began to end its faraway journeying and rest with us.

Was I too late? Where would I find this threatening, wonderful Queen?

Come, Oriane, I am waiting, see me here.

And so she was, diminutive yet standing firm, her pale silvery hair wrapped in a royal rose turban, her body swathed in blue folds of shimmering, sheer fabric that billowed as she moved toward me, hands held out. Breathtaking, her face clean of any sign of unease, eyes filled with promise.

And behind her trailed Lady Tam. My mother. And she wore a rose turban wound about her her own dark curls that strayed about her lined, gentle face.

I stumbled forward and fell to my knees but could not lower my head as protocol demanded. I lifted my burning eyes and stared at them both.

What is the meaning of this unlikely  meeting? I asked, stilled by this strangeness.

The Starfire Queen came to me first, and she pulled me up so we were face-to-face. A frisson of energy shook me. She guided me to a tent and my mother, after searching my baffled face with a knowing look, followed. When the Starfire Queen settled on a bench, my mother and me sitting on another across from her, she began, her words falling into my consciousness the way I had believed only my mother’s and mine could do.

This story is of  a family wrongly divided . Our father, Lord Medalor, died at the hand of Rath Overseer’s warriors. Your mother was long ago taken from Immerling, from the royal family after the Ancient Wars, which finally killed your father. Rath Overseer saw fit to enforce the old rule: that she was duty bound to be his right hand companion since his brother, her husband,  was deceased. She was forever of Immerling and he knew that but refused to release her after a visit. Of Immerling , yes, just so, as were you. As am I. For I am your older sister, Oriane, and your mother is my mother.

I thought I had misheard this young woman, this soon-ascendant Queen. Dizziness threatened me, sitting there with her and my mother, as if captured in a sleeping dream, not a lucid one where I could find my way around and out. My mother, wanting to ease my confusion, turned to me, then gave me her thoughts.

Let me continue. I had to leave your sister behind, as she was next in line for the Ruling Chairperson upon her twentieth birthday, after our Dowager Queen passed on. Rath Overseer didn’t want her, anyway, just me. But he didn’t know that your father had left me with child, that. you were waiting to be born. I have seen Starfire less than a half dozen times over the years, but could not tell you until I was certain  we might get away at last. Because this was the prophecy, Oriane. You and I had to be returned before Starfire would be Queen and peace could begin to take root, at last.

But Rath Overseer and his warriors! We are not safe here, either! And how did you even get here? I impatiently responded.

I followed your path without your knowing so you would not be delayed. I can move in other ways, too, if essential. One day I will show you more. Much more.

I dared not ask anything else. It was overwhelming hearing these confessions.

Queen Starfire came to us, taking my mother’s and my hands into hers.Her touch was radiant and told me more.

Be at ease, sister Oriane. We are not alone with our calling and our work.  Light of All Light fills us here in Antelier, withing our country Immerling and the wonder of Creator Power is that it provides us needed courage, good wisdom, and brings with it lasting victor. Now we will share the demands and dreams of the royal Chair. We can put plans of unity with  love into action at last. Mother holds the beneficent, tempering songs we need; you hold the strength and trustworthiness; and I am given honor and commitment to being a leader here. Take your place among us.

Steadied by such certain and bold words I squeezed their hands in affirmation and we stood in harmony, together at last.

The long, exclamatory procession of Immerling’s people came upon our meeting place soon after, and after I was introduced and then wrapped in my own rose turban and draping gown of blue, we left for the forest’s radiant inner meadows. The ceremony was something my poor words cannot begin to describe–graciousness of a perfect sunrise bestowed upon that place; joy that gathered and emanated from everyone; the land’s beauty enriched the accord with which the people gathered. And the brimming heart and clear energy of their new Starfire Queen. My sister. And, too, our mother, now known by her formal name: Tambralia of the Sacred Song.

I am still just Oriane. I am yet the fastest, most reliable runner. Now in my own country, I can begin to teach the children how to move in harnony, powerfully, at will. But now I am also a Messenger for a Queen. More that, I hope you can call me a ready peace worker, a servant of love and humble carrier of Immerling’s tradition of benevolent truth.

Posted in fiction, prose, short fiction, short stories, Uncategorized, WPLongform | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Diagnosis: Wounded Spirit

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“I can tell you she’s a borderline–watch out for drama, Cynthia. Be careful, just calmly back off when she gets hysterical.” Trina peruses the inside of the staff refrigerator and pushes aside my lunch and her leftovers from last week.

“No, more narcissistic, I suspect.” Henry pauses with an out-sized bear mug in his hand, staring at the wall. “At the least, sadly.”

Mary strides in, hair disheveled, face a bit pale. “And I have yet another Asperger’s with severe social anxiety waiting in my office. Two the last week. I need a drink…just kidding, I need cheddar and crackers and pass me that apple juice.”

“Anyone want the leftover salad? Vegetables are critical to the positive progression of my jam-packed day. Could we get more emergencies, you think?” Trina doesn’t wait for a response and pours on balsamic dressing.

Henry emits a snarky bark of a laugh and mutters to himself, “For me, another sociopathic sex–and meth, of course–addict, so away we go.”

I’m exiting to my own office with my cracked blue and white mug of peppermint tea, wondering when this day will end. When, in fact, I will no longer be working here. It’s not that I don’t give some credence to my co-workers’ professional diagnoses. It’s not that I do not care about my clients. I’ve been doing this work for years and though I am not a psychologist and provide basic mental health counseling within a context of intensive addictions treatment–even though I cannot argue effectively against their specific education and insights, I am long past weary of the diagnostic web.

So finally, I retired three years ago, and this is partly why. I saw too often that the people I was trying to help had become caught up in defeatist mode, the standard cures often complicating their lives. And I also have always wondered why the health of the spirit is not addressed as part of treatment. It seems a no-brainer to me, whether it is addressed outright or, at the very least, considered an influence upon well being.

Once cast into the sticky weaving together of mental health services, clients can have a very hard time extricating themselves from it. Anyone would, likely, if you consider how die-hard labeling of people casts them in a certain mold, right or wrong, with its attendant interventions, secondary diagnoses and uncertain prognoses. Once on record–the DSM-V Diagnostic and Statistical Manual tagging you as having a certain disorder, say–it lasts a very long while if not always. And people carry this with them secretly or fearfully (due to worry of stigma) or with a certain pride: this underlies who I am, this is what happened, this is what can be fixed now. It’s an identity, an explanation, a cause for thinking and behaving certain ways. But people too frequently become inured to an insidious helplessness that accompanies such labels. It’s powerful stuff–it keeps one stuck within a point of view that shapes an entire vision of his or her life. It also can become an excuse or a burden: “I can’t help it; it’s haywire neurology; it was imprinted on me by environmental factors; it’s genetic; it’s just how I learned to cope. And I sure can’t change now.” Worst of all, it becomes a convenient identity card: “I am anxious and OCD” or “I am traumatized, have ongoing PTSD” or “I am on the autism spectrum so I’m of course really different.”

I heard hundreds of histories of uniqueness for decades. It was the common threads that interested me, for each of these persons shared underlying similarities.

And all those years I sat across from people sent to me for their alcoholism or opiate dependence or methamphetamine addiction and so on. But what I really saw were persons who had had profound harm visited upon their spirits. Not their egos, not their minds, not their bodies–though all those were also impacted. Their very spirits.

I wanted to set up my own shop with a sign hanging outside my window: “Spiritual Self-Healing/ Support Services Available/No Fee Charged.”

I realize I’m going out on a limb here. I’m not going to write a research-based treatise decrying current mental health practices. But I am suggesting rather strongly that people who need or want help sit down for intake and within a couple of hours are given a diagnosis, They then can walk out and more fully live out that diagnosis. They are anxious. They are delusional. They are reactive. Rather get better or even recover, they name the symptoms and perhaps it does bring some comfort in the naming. But if one is vulnerable, any sort of intelligent-seeming explanation looks like a fluorescent life jacket. And perhaps it is a real beginning, the way to extend a helping hand.

But then what happens? After the medications are adjusted and readjusted and deleted and started again, after the therapy sessions are extended a year or two or more, when groups multiply and become mandatory…well, what of the person who walked in that door desperately looking for better control of her own life? For freedom from confusion, a burden, the dependence on a substance to try to govern his mood or behaviors, his seeming destiny? At home again, sitting in their rooms, what do they see in the mirror then? They see trouble and sorrow, a loneliness that permeates all else as they are deemed sick people now, not struggling people trying to become stronger and wiser.

Only a small percentage of the emotionally challenged are chronically unable to function daily or to learn how to carry out a better balanced life. And the majority of substance abusers are not doomed to a fatal addiction. But they do need an emotional and spiritual overhaul, a goodly change of direction, and lots of support along the way. Not a label that tells them they are one thing and that is how it is and it will never be different. What has happened to a guided transformative process in the diagnosis- and pill-driven therapeutic process? People who are looking for happiness or peace want to participate in their rediscovery of both. To gradually take responsibility for the search and finding. They need a mirror to show them what’s still good and hopeful inside so they can begin, then sustain the work. I could (and can) do that.

I understand why mental health providers–myself included at times–like to identify, categorize, organize their caseloads into neat diagnostic slots. This one needs that, that one needs this, and these few cannot be in the same room together for more than fifteen minutes. It makes matters more manageable for providers and can seem helpful to the clients. Such sorting and tagging aids treatment planning and points us all toward a direction. It takes on the semblance of cogent action. It targets an outcome. We humans do like explanations, and if they sound and look like science, so much the better–whether in truth they are effective or not.

But what is the science of personal suffering, the significant bio-neurology of it notwithstanding? We know it erodes health, from the arterial inflammation to  dodgy digestion to restless sleep. We know it creates cognition deficits and emotional lability. We further know it can lead to breakdown, bit by bit, of one’s common functionality. Diagnostic criteria can aid in this information tabulating, yes. Yet the spirit of the person–what of that? How can that science go deep enough to find and heal the devastated soul of a human being–that is what I asked every day. That is what has me all these years in and out of the field.

I have not forgotten a great many of my clients’ therapy sessions and groups. They stay with me, perhaps, because long before I decided to retire I had begun to see the majority of people had a very hard time recovering–from grief and loss, from abuses of all sorts, from failures to love and be loved. Seeing diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety, acute depression with psychotic features or schizophrenia did not tell me nearly the whole story, however. Barely any of it.

What spoke to me was how they sat, how they did not speak of what mattered most, of how they sought or avoided my eyes as the pain rushed in the chinks in the armor we had discovered or made together. Their anger toward some omnipresent but blurry God for feeling forgotten and left behind. Their bitterness toward the ones they had once loved and now blamed. The pain that they had swallowed year after year because no one wanted to know of it. They were truly sick at heart. Broken of spirit. Or had had so much overload, diminished by months or perhaps years of substance abuse, that they could note very little as an authentic feeling. The identity they had been given was addict or alcoholic or crazy person.

How does a counselor propose hope as a tool to those who do not embrace it’s value? How is the path forged that helps them find their way back to some semblance of wholeness? We didn’t so much talk about their symptoms. We didn’t study weekly assignments. They didn’t have to enjoy being there or even like me. They just had to show up and I needed to be utterly present with them. To listen not only to the words but the undercurrents, the shadow of feeling, the ghost of the past that kept showing itself despite complex camouflage. Slowly, the masks designed to keep the world at bay would begin to fall away. Even the criminally active. Even those who heard odd voices. Even street-savvy heroin lovers. What they choose to do when that reveal was up to them. It mattered far less that I had to send a family services report or call their psychiatrist or probation officer. What I looked for was the barest resurfacing of who they were and could be. What they needed to stay alive without such regrets.

First and last I offered compassion. That is all. Because people who are in pain need the balm of kindness and those who rail against the world’s inequities and cruelties need steady, non-judgmental caring. Just as we all do. Love. It comes down to that. When someone is ready to accept an outflow of love, then spiritual and emotional healing can initiate and a lifelong, rich adventure unfolds–with less harm and more good being done by the very one who came in for help. Hurting persons, hungry for relief and finding love supplies that, are far more apt to pass it along. We –counselor and client–can work with each other in familiar ways even if it seems foreign at first to the client. Common denominators include being human, and we all suffer and we all are also spirit. Or so I, and so many others, do believe.

Blaise Pascal, a French philosopher, inventor and physicist alive in the 1600s, wrote that humans are restless, want to fill our craving with things that are of no real help, when the “infinite abyss can be filled with only an infinite and immutable object, in other words by God himself.” (from Pensees VII) We can be cognizant of the God-shaped void, yet dismiss or forget it’s importance when all is well. When it is not, people once more to reconsider. And an even partly honest reckoning is hard.

“It must take such emotional and mental energy, I admire that you can do this. I surely could not,” I heard over and over.

Or: “Well over twenty years in this field? How do you do that? I burned out after five (or ten or fifteen)  helping people.”

Yes, to be of hopefully good use to other humans can be taxing. I think the power source makes the difference. It’s not veggies or tea or rest and exercise that fuel me. There was a primary source of my commitment and stamina but not my stubborn will or that I’ve always felt called to be of some help to others. It was God’s love of me. Every time before I met with another client (or groups) I prayed for more guidance and mercy, the strength to be a witness; also for good humor and patience; for my own petty ego to step aside and let God use me. Each hour of every day was nowhere close to any sort of perfection. I wasn’t looking for a mark of success. But I knew from my conviction as well as experience that with Divine Love to empower me, I would do what was needed or discern what other options would be good.

How much separates us from one another, the ones who become diagnosed and treated and the ones who pride themselves on doing just fine, thank you, true or not? A very thin line. No one knows what might happen that can tilt the balance, upend gravity so that your life starts seesawing and you cannot keep all in orderly balance. And I can assure you, it won’t strictly be a diagnosis or pills that will delineate your path and empower your life. That will be your seeker’s soul and whoever can hear its cry. It will be seizing the opportunity to avail yourself of compassion given, then learning how to plant the tiniest seeds of hope and faith in its fertile sustenance. I assure you, it happens. Life changes us but we, too, can effect great change.

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