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Archive for September, 2011

Poetry & Yoga

After being gone for a long weekend (I had a wedding to attend near where I went to college), I’m having trouble getting back into my routine. The gray weather and my irregular sleep pattern is putting a damper on my writing and increasing my need to nap. Since writing has been going poorly, I’m reading old journal entries of mine and listening to podcasts about topics like mental health and spirituality. All of these things seem to be bringing me back to yoga, poetry, and the relationship between the two.

Poetry, like many of the greatest things in life, lacks a concrete definition. A creative writing professor once asked our class to explain what poetry means to us using metaphor. My answer was something about poetry being like yoga because both are spiritual exercises I’ve studied a bit, read a lot about, and yet can’t seem to take part in without the fear I’m not doing it right.

Last night, I listened to a “Speaking of Faith” episode (A show from APM that is now called “On Being”) with famous Yoga Instructor Seane Corn. Her thoughts about Yoga and how it impacts our lives spoke so deeply to me, I went back and listened to the entire uncut interview (which was about forty minutes longer and much more conversational than the 53 minute radio show). Ms. Corn is young and didn’t go to college or take any traditional life path. Her wisdom and ability to articulate life experiences and spirituality astounded me.

My yoga instructor in college often reminded us that Yoga is always a practice. Having been a perfectionist for most of my life, this non-competitive nature invigorated me. Sports had been a huge part of my life growing up. Soccer consumed most of my high school days. I played on a club team almost an hour away from where I lived. This required driving to practices three times a week, games even further away twice a week. Plus, we even traveled the Midwest to compete in tournaments. Soccer taught  me a great deal about myself and helped me meet a beautiful variety of people. I don’t regret the way I considered it a huge part of my identity or the time I invested in it.

That being said, it has little to do with my life today. Many people don’t even know soccer had such a huge influence on me. After being forced to face my depression in college, I realized it had served as another avenue where I could focus on everything I did wrong. Yoga introduced the idea that it was less about the final result or goal and more about the actual experience. Sure, there’s improvement, weight-loss, muscle-toning, and other things to strive for in yoga. That’s not why I do it, though. Now that I am practicing yoga regularly again, I’m reminded at the imperfection that comes along with it. Some days I fall out of a balance pose, other days I get wrapped up in my plans for afterward or a conversation I had the night before. Yoga requires me to gently accept these things and try to return to mindfulness.

Seane Corn talked about these imperfections that reveal themselves during practice and how we must accept them as part of who we are. I wrote down this quote from her about yoga practice, “It’s authentic to who the person is. It’s their own poetry.” This caused me to reflect on my metaphor of poetry as yoga from years ago. I still lack confidence in yoga and even more in poetry, but I also find much more solace in them. It’s less about what I might screw up and much more about the process. It’s no surprise so many poets are trying to write about seeking something greater than our five senses can attain. Even the conventionally religious poets (the talented ones, anyway) seem to understand the complexity of seeking something beyond our five senses. Poets try to articulate feelings and experiences that straight forward words can’t do. Yoga is a way to align the mind and body on a level that runs much deeper than what words can express. Both seem to be food for my soul, which seems like a cliche expression to use at the end of this entry focusing on language. Have fun with that irony.

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So You’re Nice? That Don’t Impress Me Much.

Nice: pleasant, agreeable, satisfactory

 Kind: having or showing a friendly, generous, and considerate nature

As a child, I desired nothing short of sainthood and believed I had some divine calling. At seven, I felt convinced I had a vision from my mom’s brother who died in a drunk driving accident long before my conception. He told me to donate the remainder of my first communion money, which was one of my first experiences having my own money, to the visiting priest from Mexico. This priest traveled around asking for donations toward the poor village he lived in. Of course, this “vision” didn’t change me enough to stop me from being a kid. I still picked on others and got picked on myself.

When I got old enough to start applying what I learned in catechism to real life, I misinterpreted sainthood as being nice. By the time high school came around, the saint thing seemed a little extreme, but I still took my relationship with “God” seriously, and I thought that required being nice. It probably only made things more intense that my parents also emphasized being nice. In fact, I might go as far to say I learned that being nice trumped everything else in importance.

I sacrificed a lot of myself to be nice. Not the Biblical idea of sacrificing myself for a good cause either. There are countless times I allowed myself to be walked on and put myself in negative/unhealthy situations trying to be nice and help others who didn’t want help. It seemed to pay off when I won the award for “Nicest” in High School. I felt a sense of relief when anyone told me how nice he or she believed me to be. This is not to boast, because somewhere I internalized the idea that being called nice served as proof of my worthiness to live. Not sure where or when I subconsciously got the idea that I didn’t deserve to live (would’ve never admitted these thoughts to myself).  I’m guessing it connects with all that “ I’m not worthy” and guilt-based stuff catechism emphasized. This mindset proved to be fertile soil for depression later on.

I don’t know when my depression officially began. I think certain types of personalities are more prone to it, and I can remember having depressive thoughts as far back as seven. This could be because of all the time spent thinking and reflecting, even at a young age. Although I appreciated having plenty of friends, I still felt isolated because no one wanted to talk about all of the other stuff on my mind.

My youthful sadness is difficult for people to believe, because I smiled more than any of my siblings. People tell me what a happy child they believed me to be. They aren’t remembering incorrectly. Depressive people, when healthy, seem to be able to feel overwhelming amounts of joy. Combine that with a child’s natural ability to feel pure bliss, and I remember moments of euphoria.

Chemical imbalances run rampant in my family. The symptoms or actual chemical imbalance didn’t occur in me until later in high school when the panic attacks began. Due to being unaware of what these sick spells meant, they felt even more terrifying than they already are. I remember telling family and friends about how I’d woke up sweating and feeling like I might vomit and pee my pants at the same time. We all laughed at the absurdity and shrugged it off. They didn’t happen regularly, so I just kept on living my nice life until I physically couldn’t.

I don’t want to reflect too much on my recovery yet, because I’m sure it will come up often. Also, people in recovery are always in recovery. It’s part of my life forever. This frustrates many people–that we can never fully recover, but what does that even mean? Recovery is a journey that overlaps with life perfectly. Both require constant seeking of wisdom and courage.

Mentioning recovery seemed necessary to understand my healthier thoughts about  being nice. I’m not impressed by niceness anymore (And why yes, I did allude to a Shania Twain song in the title of this entry). Sociopaths are nice if it helps them get what they want. Society revolves around empty niceness. Because, let’s face it, being nice helps us get further in life. I am beginning to understand that niceness is not the same thing as kindness and integrity. Sometimes, in our language, we use the word nice to describe some sort of kindness or act of integrity. I don’t want people to think I mean the opposite of nice is mean or rude. Being mean and rude is just plain unnecessary. I’ve only just started to uncover that most of the people we hold up as role models weren’t nice. They stirred up ruckus and rebellion and refused to tolerate injustices. I watched a documentary on Thomas Merton and then a separate one on the historical Jesus—both people who are held up very highly by many individuals regardless of religion. Turns out, they were not nice people. They were kind, compassionate, and full of integrity. I’m slowly learning to worry a little less about being nice and seek the courage to be kind, compassionate, and full of integrity. It’s a life long journey with no ending that guarantees “success” or “perfection.” There will always be times I choose the easy path instead of the right one, but it goes back to that Buddhist story. I’m just saving whatever starfish I can along my life path, focusing on the ones I tossed back instead of those I failed to save.

Productivity Evaluation

I’m going to start looking to blog about twice a week. I thought once a week would be best, because it would keep people who subscribed from being overwhelmed with e-mails every time I update. That being said, I don’t think twice a week is too much, and it turns out, living with nuns gives me a lot to reflect on and share. Who would have guessed?

I’ve developed a daily schedule that will change a bit when I start helping in the kitchen as an aide  (doing dishes, setting tables, etc…). I seem to be most productive in the morning, so I wake up early like the rest of the women who live here and join them for a light breakfast. I do yoga for an hour followed by 2 hours of writing (which is sometimes more like staring at the screen). Then there’s daily mass and lunch. The afternoons and evenings are rather free with the exception of evening prayer, which is just 15 minutes before dinner. I spend my free time walking the beautiful, hilly grounds I live on or long boarding at the nearest park. I also read a lot (I’m so excited to be able to read whatever I want that I’m reading four books at once) and watch documentaries on Netflix. Of course there’s the less productive choices of napping or wasting my life on the Internet, which I probably choose more often than I should.

Yesterday, I sat on a bench/swing for nearly two hours doing absolutely nothing. I had my notebook and pen to write things down and even brought a book to read. I often get restless in those situations, sometimes feeling like Ginsberg when he wrote, “I can’t stand my own mind.” It made me feel like a kid again to just rock back and forth on this swing, be able to think about whatever I wanted (No worries about Monday like I used to have), and listen to the forest. Facing thoughts like, “I should read, write, or meditate,” but then challenging those thoughts and their origins. I thought, “Why should I do anything else if I’m content? Just because I’m not doing something society views as “productive,” am I wasting time?” It made me think of that John Lennon quote that’s something about how time you enjoy wasting isn’t wasted. It hit me that I couldn’t be doing anything better with my time. Sure, reading, writing, and meditation are great. I just didn’t want to concentrate on my breath. Sometimes I like getting lost in past memories and anticipation of the future. It allows me to be creative and combine unlike things. It helped me think of an idea for a poem and two different essays that I’m excited about. It’s the actual writing them out part that I can’t seem to do yet.

With all the reading, listening to Bible verses and homilies, watching intense documentaries (Recently watched, “Radiant Child” about painter Jean-Michele Basquiat. Can’t stop thinking about it), unique conversations with women who were around for things I learned about in history, and time to google anything that pops into my head, I’m having some interesting writing and even more interesting dreams! My thoughts are just trying to combine things from everywhere. It’s very creatively stimulating to have so much thought-provoking activities every day.

Still not making much progress on the actual book. I’m thankful a writer friend reminded me how we have to trick ourselves into writing what we want by starting with other things that have less pressure attached. I’m at least getting comfortable playing with language again. Living and working in a small town can be really creatively stifling. I’m to blame for most of it. I mean a person should be able to be creative anywhere, so I’m not blaming the location or the people in the locations. I just get in that work routine and don’t have many conversations on a daily basis that get me reflecting. Plus, there’s no air conditioning where I work, so it’s easier to just come home and sleep in the AC after a hot day. I work with underprivileged kids who require a lot of energy and love. I have a blast working with them, but maybe most of my energy is invested in them instead of writing. I guess I don’t know why summers are never very productive for me, as a writer. At least this summer I accepted that ahead of time and didn’t beat myself up for my lack of productivity. I just enjoyed the summer, which was great. Even with my writing goals, I’m going to keep being forgiving of myself on bad days. I might not finish the book that way, but at least I will have absorbed as much as I can from this experience.

Atypical “Your Generation” Conversation

Yesterday at lunch, the priest and I had a conversation about progressive, radical people. He said radicals lose their passion and radical ideas to conform to the rest of the world by the time they are 30. I disagreed and added some radical writers I know over thirty. He listened and even ended up adding a few. This eventually led to a reflection on my generation. One of the kitchen staff joined in. Both she and the priest came of age in the 60s and 70s. The priest started with, “I heard your generation called the ‘service generation,’ but I don’t see it. Am I just not encountering the right young people?” I had to think about this. I know a lot of young people who are passionate activists and like helping others in whatever way they can. I also know we are often in the minority on college campuses, so I waited to answer. The priest went on trying to better explain himself. He talked about how his generation really united to end the war and make positive changes. He said he doesn’t understand why that sort of movement isn’t going on strong today when there’s still plenty of unjust violence and war.

Before I could answer, the woman from the kitchen went on a rant about how they were actually about something bigger than themselves and that my generation is too caught up in worrying about ourselves. The priest warned her that was over-generalizing, but the woman continued on about how great “those days” used to be and what a mess everything is “these days”,” saying she doesn’t understand our apathy. I agreed that something has changed. I suggested it might be how “replaceable” we are treated in the job market. It’s expected an employee have a Bachelor’s degree. If anyone wants to take a stand about something and cause any sort of ruckus, they’ll replace him or her right away. My mom works in a public school system, so I’ve seen a little bit of an insider perspective that caused me to look into more school systems. It’s not just her system; it’s most public schools. People are laid off and replaced by kids like me, fresh out of college, desperate for a job and willing to work for just a little over minimum wage to start paying on student loans.

The woman from the kitchen said, “See. Everyone is just worrying about themselves.” The priest said, “But what happened to our generation? I think it’s something different about the time we live in, because why don’t we see old people protesting this war all the time like we used to? Why are we sitting back silently? Aren’t we, too, worried about our pensions and social security?”

I liked that he brought up this point, because so many times I’ve heard about how legendary the 60s and 70s were. I don’t want to discredit the powerful movements and icons of that time. I, too, look to leaders and artists from that era for inspiration. I’d just never thought that it could be a difference in social situations instead of someone attacking my generation. Not only do I hear complaints about activism being different today, but I hear complaints about the way we study art in school. I hope to pursue an MFA in creative writing, but many older writers talk about how the quality of writing as a whole is decreasing because institutions are trying to “teach” art in the same way they teach something like math.

From a young perspective, what other way (other than an MFA program) can I find a great writing community, have insurance, and a safe environment to pursue writing? My brother and I have talked many times about how radical the Beat poets were, but it’s just not feasible to drop out of college and hitchhike across country anymore. I know people who try to do that sort of thing, and it’s already been done. My friend Nik posted a link to that website called “things white people like,” and they had “Taking a year off” on there. This was aimed to make fun of people like me who do something alternative to working or going to school for a year. They talked about how many people have written books about their “year off,” and how very few people actually read them. I don’t take offense to this. It’s just a reminder that I need to be tactful about how I present my book, because it’s not about my year off. I’m taking the year off to write a book about my experiences of struggling with depression and spirituality because I got fed up with the mental health literature that either ignored spirituality completely or belittled the complexity, swearing “God” would save me.

I bounced these thoughts off my best friend, Laura, and she added an interesting perspective. She suggested it’s not that our generation is more selfish or naturally apathetic, but we’re burned out. We get news online just minutes after it happens. We hear about all sorts of injustices, war, genocide, deaths from hunger, sex slavery, HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, and we are paralyzed by grief and helplessness. How does one combat such huge issues? I confess I only recently started reading the news and getting back into activism since my depression two years ago.

As a self-defense mechanism, I had to shut out the negativity in the world and focus on my own life. I’d like to think I’m now more productive in making a difference after taking time for myself to heal. I’ve heard something called “Africa Burnout,” where Americans hear all of these horrid stories of injustices in Africa and the statistics and facts end up losing their humanity. We write it off as some place far away and beyond being saved, so we don’t think about how those statistics are human lives–each one with a story. How do we solve the world’s problems without paralyzing ourselves with despair? The answer: we don’t. There’s some quote Ashley Judd used…something about yesterday being clever and trying to change the world, but being wise today so trying to change herself. I forgot who is the author of that quote, but it’s profound. We can only do our best to rise above the negativity, preventing ourselves from contributing or enabling it and hoping to influence others to do the same. Some people might not see the point in pursuing peace if it’s not completely attainable. It reminds me of that old famous Buddhist tale about the heaps of star fish dying all along the beach. A man saved one by throwing it back in the water. The other one asked why he bothered, saying he couldn’t save all of them. The other man responded by saying, “Well, I saved that one.” I’ll keep taking it one day at a time, throwing star fish back when I can.

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number?

I’m officially living with nuns. Not just any nuns–retired nuns. One of the sisters said the average age here falls somewhere in the eighties. After volunteering in a nursing home for almost two years in high school, I developed a pretty solid understanding of age by eighteen. Eighteen years is not enough to appreciate the depth of aging, but I at least had enough wisdom to laugh at my parents for calling themselves old. My friendship at the nursing home with a 96-year-old woman quickly helped me realize that the many middle-aged individuals in my life who feared getting older were wasting lots of time and energy being consumed by fear instead of just living life to the maximum.

The grounds I live on are beautiful. I’ve seen deer three different times in the past 24 hours. My cell phone doesn’t work inside here. It’s frustrating, but it forces me to go for a walk if I want to call anyone. Today I had to laugh in the middle of a voicemail to my friend, April. I described the beautiful scenery around me and told her about how I had deer on both sides of me. Then, it hit me that it probably sounded like I’m living in Narnia. This experience is probably rather surreal for most. I’m always surprised at how people think about nuns. People think of the Pre-Vatican II nuns. The nuns I know don’t wear habits, never hit kids with rulers, and believe in love not judgment.

In fact, the poet/nun who got me connected with this place is actually one of the coolest people I know. She’s 75, and breaks every stereotype about nuns and 75-year-olds. She has been a social justice activist forever, jailed for her beliefs, and even drank straight whiskey with James Baldwin. That’s only scratching the surface of her stories! She’s a phenomenal role-model for anyone regardless of age or religious background. I love to tell people who fear aging about how she says each year of her life gets better than the last. She loves getting older and that every year is the best year of her life. I can tell she means it, too. I’m grateful to know her. It would be a lie to say I’m not just like most foolish youth. I certainly have the occasional fear of aging that my friends complain about. Sometimes I have to sit down and wait for logic and the wisdom others have shared with me to kick in. I could do an entire blog entry about stepping back in order to allow logic to take over feelings. That was a huge part of my partial hospitalization program. They always said, “The feelings are the last things to change,” meaning we had to go through the motions of health–even if it felt fake–before we could see positive change. I try to apply that in situations like this where I’m overwhelmed with fear, but know I’m in the right place.