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Archive for January, 2012

Trees & Such

After several unsuccessful attempts to blog in the past few days, I made a resolution to sit here until I come up with something to post tonight. My last two entries received a lot of positive feedback. Such encouragement helps me fight the negative voices and laughter in my mind about how naive I must be to think anyone cares what I think. That being said, I used the slight feeling of accomplishment to put pressure on myself, thinking I had to post something reflective and topic-driven every time I blog. I’ve accepted that my ordinary thoughts are just as much part of my experience, if not more–since I deal with them daily.

Today was a sleepy day. I woke up restless before my alarm, but part of my mind remained asleep all day. It was the sort of day where, while getting around this morning, I thought: I need to brush my teeth, only to realize by my minty breath and clean feeling teeth that I already had. That mindlessness occurred all day. I tried reading poetry to ignite my desire to write, but couldn’t stay awake. I can barely remember eating lunch, and I slept a good portion of the afternoon away. I’m thankful I woke up in time for a nice walk before dinner. I was able to practice some mindfulness, and it was miraculous temperatures outside–record highs. I didn’t even have a coat on, and it’s January!

I walked the labyrinth here and wore my thick Columbia fleece: a gift from a friend in the psych unit. I don’t even know her last name or how she recovered. That’s usually the nature of psych unit relationships–probably for good reason most times. This woman had gained a tremendous amount of weight due to some of the medications she took. Because of this weight gain, she couldn’t fit into the brand new fleece she’d gotten at Christmas. She had her husband bring it to me one day, asking if I’d like to keep it. I loved it but couldn’t wear it unless I let the nurses cut the elastic bands around the bottom of it. I didn’t want them to ruin it, so it sat in my locker until my release. It’s rare that I’m mindful enough to remember where it came from, but as I walked the labyrinth this afternoon, I wondered how my friend was doing. I tried to send healing energy her way while I inhaled the fresh, spring-smelling air and listened to the trees.

While hiking with my good friend, Adam, once, we took a break, listening to the trees. He said he believed God to be “the sound the trees make in the wind.” I still think of this quote often. In fact, today, I was thinking about how if I had to pick something concrete to pray to, I’d choose trees. They possess such a divine radiance.

Here, I’m surrounded by more trees than ever. Some of them are older than I can comprehend. I love to think about how huge the roots must be, underground, to enable all the giants to lean and seemingly defy gravity like they do. I have a favorite tree I like to visit here. I call it the “WTF Tree”, because that’s the typical expletive reaction when anyone sees it the first time. It splits in the bottom, making it look like it has two trucks. The one branch splits off into the other direction, only to take a  strange turn back into the trunk where it merges back into the tree like it never happened. It’s incredible. I like to step through the oval created by the tree’s strange acrobatics; it feels like the tree holds me in her arms. It takes me back to childhood when I had a tree friend instead of an imaginary friend. I named her “Kristy” after my favorite character from The Babysitters Club series. I’d climb up on her branches, telling her about my day.

This past weekend, one of my best friends came to stay. I’d had visitors here at the convent, but no one has ever stayed enough to really get a taste of what my life is like here. Saturday night, we stayed up chatting most of the night, like she and I have been known to do since we first became friends. Then out-of-nowhere, she said she couldn’t stop thinking about how proud she was of me. Startled, I had to ask why. She said after being able to experience my schedule and my lifestyle, she realized how much motivation, courage, and determination it takes to live a solitary life without the distraction of school or work to fall back on, in addition to not having any friends or family around.

This friend is the same friend who took me to the ER for my hospitalizations and gave me rides to and from the hospital for my day-programs. She’s seen me at my absolute worst, and probably my absolute best. She emphasized how far I’ve come in my recovery and continued to compliment my writing, thought-process, and dreams. When I had a lazy day today, I reminded myself of her words. Living such an unconventional lifestyle, I don’t get a lot of validation. It’s not that anyone is unsupportive, it’s that they need something concrete to focus on. For example, at least one person every day asks me how writing is going. This is a fair question, because I came her to write a book. The writing is not going as planned, though, and the journey has turned into something much more complex than a writing retreat. It’s nice to be reminded I’m accomplishing different types of success–even if I’m not accomplishing the original success I came here to achieve.

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Fighting Taboos

Taboos are prisons of the mind. I’m currently working to break away from the cultural taboos that I find to be harmful. It’s incredibly challenging and requires a new level of self-assurance and confidence that I’d previously lacked. If any subject makes me uncomfortable, I’m digging deeper into my subconscious to figure out why.

Working on developing confidence to calmly discuss such topics starts out with fake confidence. I can’t deny I still have moments where I panic and sweat for a moment, thinking “Did I really just admit that?” For example, I try to talk openly about my experience with mental illness. In order to do that, it requires talking about a lot of thoughts and behaviors that I’m not proud of–behaviors I had previously thought needed to be deeply private. When I catch my stomach turning in discomfort at my confessions, I remind myself that I was sick and my sickness doesn’t define me. Even more importantly, I remind myself that being honest about it helps others know they are not alone, all while also helping me feel like I don’t have to hide or be embarrassed by my experiences.

I recently had the privilege of observing a NAMI presentation that was to inform the audience about how to respond to someone who is suicidal. It gave fantastic advice, and I wish everyone was required to see something like it. Suicide makes everyone uncomfortable; I get that. But if we can reduce the stigmas associated with it and become more comfortable talking about it, it will provide a safe environment for those who feel suicidal to speak up and get help.

There’s this misconception that talking about suicide will encourage the person to follow through on his or her thoughts. It can often be the opposite. After I was hospitalized for being self-destructive/suicidal, I had to have a discussion with many of my loved ones about what I needed from them. With the help of therapists, I was able to articulate that even if my thoughts made them uncomfortable, I needed a place to be honest about how I was feeling. That doesn’t mean they should get used to me saying scary things like, “I don’t want to live.” I just didn’t want them to respond with their usual: “Don’t say that,” or “Don’t joke like that,” or “No you don’t.” That doesn’t make the thoughts go away. It just keeps the person from being able to express his or her feelings. With the exception of two friends who stopped talking to me after my hospitalizations, the rest of my loved ones were incredible. My friends researched my illness and asked me what I needed. They knew not to let me wallow in suicidal thoughts, and to take me back to the hospital if I couldn’t help obsessing about them. And I owe some of my recovery to my loved ones because talking about such powerful thoughts and urges helped defuse them, making them less scary.

A guy I graduated with recently died after overdosing on heroin. As if that, alone, isn’t tragic enough, the part that really hurts to think about is that it happened IN rehab. It makes me think about  my time spent in a psych unit. There’s a reason you are locked away in those situations, and that is because you are not healthy enough to be safe in the real-world. If things got bad enough to put someone in rehab or a psych unit, then you can trust that they are not healthy enough to say no to something harmful, or even deadly. You’re so vulnerable in those states of mind. The fact that he was  in a location fighting with everything he had to stay alive, and it wasn’t enough, breaks my heart.

I’m thankful the guy’s family and friends are using this tragedy to start a fund in his name that is designed to help people who cannot afford treatment get help for their addictions. Reading about this classmates’ story and seeing how people respond to such situations reminded me how important it is to be countercultural when dealing with societal taboos. I understand that people get uncomfortable hearing about things like addiction or suicide, because they don’t want to think of being in that situation with a loved one. Many also worry they might say the “wrong thing.” That is a valid concern; although, I find remaining calm and just listening is a huge step in the right direction. From my experiences, I say the least helpful things when I’m trying too hard to say “the right thing.” We can rest easy, knowing there isn’t one “right thing” to say. However, if you are anxious about talking to a loved one struggling, there are a variety of ways to get educated on how to respond appropriately. Knowledge is power. Ignoring painful issues doesn’t make them go away. You’ve got nothing to lose. Consider reading up on such issues and talking to others. We, who have a voice, must be advocates for the voiceless suffering from things like taboo illnesses, poverty, AIDS, and any or all of the struggles that go on without being acknowledged by our mainstream culture.

After Calling Dustin Hoffman & Lily Tomlin

Considering where I am at in life–both literally and figuratively–I should’ve been prepared for an existential crisis. I’m only in my first year out of undergraduate; I live with retired women who reflect on both their lives and death daily; I’m applying to graduate schools that require me to write about my goals for learning, teaching, writing, and life. Plus, I’m trying to write a memoir about my short life, which requires piecing together common themes, digging for symbols and meaning throughout my meandering path of a life. Is it really a surprise that negative thoughts surfaced, causing me to question my purpose in life–or anyones’ purpose in life? In the past month, we’ve celebrated a 100th birthday and two separate 95th birthday parties. I’m living with women who know a thing or two about how life slips by.

I’ve been thumbing through all my favorite books, looking at underlined passages to remind me about all the joys of being alive. I’ve been re-reading a lot of my favorite writers lately, but especially the woman I’m doing my independent study with this summer. I reread her books for technical reasons, so I could focus on her different strengths at the craft level. This way, I can properly articulate my goals for working with her when we meet in a month. I can’t be happier that I took another look at her latest book Waiting: A Nonbeliever’s Higher Power. It applies to what I’m experiencing spiritually lately, even directly addressing the issue of existential crises, and how it’s important to be open to what they have to teach us. So, her book woke me up–in the way only good books do. This quote of hers helped me realize what needed to change in my life:

“We are surrounded by the clutter of busy lives, lives busy in part because we clutter them up, trying to fill the nameless needs that we don’t want to feel” (Horbacher 51).

So I’ve spent the past few days taking away the clutter. I stopped working on my final grad app, which may not be wise, because it’s due February 1st. It’s almost done, though, so I felt confident in just relaxing for the weekend. I painted, listened to an audiobook, a ton of “On Being” podcasts from American Public Media. A lot of them I’d listened to before, years ago when the show was called “Speaking of Faith.” I forgot what wisdom is packed into that 50 minute radio show. I also journaled, read, and just sat in silence, which is hella hard. It’s not just sitting in silence that’s hard; it’s sitting still, too! I think Elizabeth Gilbert says it well, in Eat Pray Love, when she writes: “When I ask my mind to rest in stillness, it is astonishing how quickly it will turn (1) bored (2) angry (3) depressed (4) anxious (5) all of the above” (Gilbert 132).

I found one theme, in all of the spiritual literature and interviews I’ve been absorbing, and that’s to slow the eff down. There’s just not a polite way of saying it. They all remind me that I can’t force myself into an epiphany, and chasing spirituality won’t get me anywhere. One of the podcasts talked about how we are entitled to the right to pursue happiness, in America, but sometimes we need to stop pursuing it and let it come to us. And that’s what I’ve done. The past few days have been the medicine I needed.

After pausing this evening, to realize how proud I am of the peace I feel lately, I started digging through my books again–to find some quotes that might inspire me to blog. In my old copy of Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott (a writer I’ve wanted to be like since I first read her when I was 18), I found some scrap paper from the hospital. In the hospital, my brain was so sick, I couldn’t concentrate to read anything. Yet I found solace browsing through this book. A folded piece of notebook paper fell out. It was covered in scribbled cursive, barely legible because it’s written in yellow colored pencil. Reading it, I realized it’s an activity we did in group therapy in the hospital. We had to write a conversation between our sick and healthy voices, using our dominant hand to write our sick thoughts, and our non-dominant hand to provide “insightful” answers. I remember thinking it was pointless. Hating that I had to get out of bed to sit at a table with people crazier than me. Here is my boring, frustrated, and sick inner dialogue, which will not have quite the punch it packs on paper, seeing the messy child-like handwriting in yellow colored pencil.

Right Hand: I’m concerned about feeling better. Will I ever enjoy living again?

Left Hand: In time, you will learn to love life.

Right Hand: I hope so.

Left Hand: It won’t be easy. It will take effort and patience.

Right Hand: I don’t have anymore patience or the energy to put in the effort

Left Hand: That’s why you’re here.

Rigth Hand: I don’t want to be here.

Left Hand: No one does, but you’re getting the help you need.

Finding this note reminds me of how much I’d given up on life, and that an existential crisis is not the same as giving up on life. I think the crisis is fading, anyway. I just needed the old remedy of watching “I ❤ Huckabees,” yoga, reading, and lots of silence. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I’m happy with the results.

MLK DAY

I feel mixed emotions every Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s a day meant to celebrate the power of people coming together. I try to bask in the joy of what greatness can come, did come, out of people of all backgrounds and beliefs uniting to better the world. Yet, I’m always shocked at how negative people want to be on this day. My logic: this is a day to celebrate one incredibly flawed human who inspired the rest of us–incredibly flawed human beings–to refuse to let a mixture of hate and apathy win.

The negativity goes back to black and white thinking (metaphorically–not racially speaking). Instead of celebrating victory and the beauty of humanity, they want to focus on this one man, MLK, and his flaws. Don’t we spend enough of our days focusing on all the terror humanity can cause? Making a holiday out of MLK’s birthday never said anything about him being a saint. Yes, I realize most people either want to see King as a hero or a fraud. We like either/or thinking. The religion department at my university brought a speaker who talked about the way we want our heros to be “super heros.” We can’t seem to accept that being human comes with shortcomings.

This inability to see people we admire as human reminds me of a conversation I had with a role-model of mine, the 75-year-old nun who arranged my living situation. She told me the history of her order’s founder. Apparently, the woman is up for sainthood. Sister Pat said, “To be honest, I don’t want her to become a saint.”

I laughed, asking why.

She said, “she’ll seem less threatening that way.”

That’s like the incredible Dorothy Day said she didn’t want to be a saint, because she “didn’t want to be wrote off so easily.” People are threatened by the greatness in people like MLK, Dorothy Day, Einstein, etc… They want to worship them as gods, and will feel threatened by anything that challenges that view, or they want to see them as frauds.

Either way, it allows the believer to keep from asking themselves why they are not striving for greatness. If I accept that MLK made mistakes that I disagree with, that would make me think–despite my own mistakes–I could also try to achieve the degree of greatness he did. That requires me to refuse to settle in my comfortable life. This might require me to risk my life for greatness, or risk my reputation. Or like King, lose my life and then my reputation because people want to share all flaws to discredit your integrity.

Below this entry are links to two articles I found helpful today. Despite all the hate and negativity I feel and see everywhere I go, today is a day where I choose to smile and think of everything great people can do together. It’s a day I think about a man who gave his life to a cause he believed in, and in return, motivated masses to do the right thing. It’s an example of good trumping bad. I try to celebrate that whenever I can. It’s so rare we get a national holiday to do such a thing.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/opinion/krugman-how-fares-the-dream.html

http://urbanlegends.about.com/library/bl_martin_luther_king.htm?r=facebook

Mess

My brain felt messy today. Not sick messy–where it’s negative thoughts of every kind. Instead, I’d consider it more unorganized messy. It proved to be helpful for writing. Thoughts from every which way crashed into thoughts from the opposite direction, spinning into some new idea. I didn’t get a full draft of anything done, but I started a lot of little things. I find starting a piece is often the hardest. I worked so intensely throughout the afternoon, I lost track of time. I rushed to dinner, late, without realizing how messy my hair looked. I’d straightened it this morning, so it had looked fine. However, while wrapped up in my writing, I’d thrown my hair into a pony tail without using a brush–just to keep it from being in my face while I worked. I didn’t use clips, so pieces of hair hung loose, and I tucked it behind my ears.

I confess I don’t usually put much effort into my appearance, considering I live with old women. Yet, I felt unsure whether to laugh or be offended when I heard one of the sisters talking about my messy hair. This particular sister talks loud because she’s hard of hearing. She must not realize how loud she talks, because she still likes to put her two-cents in about everyone and anyone. From across the room, I heard her say something along the lines of, “Look at Aimee. It looks like she just got out of bed.” In reality, she only spoke the truth. Yet when the whole table of nuns she sat with turned to look at me, I felt like I was in middle school again, wishing to be invisible.

I smiled bashfully, but then realized that I didn’t mind that my hair was messy. It was messy because I’d had a great day of working nonstop. Plus, it looked nice earlier in the day, and this place really slows down after dinner. It would have been outrageous to straighten my hair a second time just for dinner.

My hard-drive is messy, too. I got a strange variety of CDs from the library yesterday, making an even bigger mess of my music. However, I’m thoroughly enjoying my 3-disk collection of the Best of Motown. I also got some Willie Nelson and even a Bad Meets Evil CD, which is a rap duo that consists of Eminem and another Detroit rapper.

I often wonder what the librarians think of my odd selections. I’m a regular, and I check out such an unpredictable range of materials. Libraries are so wonderful, for that reason. I check out materials that I wouldn’t normally buy myself. It allows me to step out of my comfort zone in every genre: movies, CDs, audiobooks, poetry books, and informative books. I try not to check out too many actual books (as in stuff I should read cover to cover), because I already have too many wonderful books that I haven’t read yet on my own shelf. Not to mention, I have trouble finishing books–especially in a timely manner. I usually read 5 books or so simultaneously, rarely finishing one. I just start another one, letting another book drop off from the list of “currently reading.”

I’ve been told my inability to stay organized can be endearing–It’s good because I owe a lot of my creativity to my scattered thoughts–yet most of the time, it’s frustrating, and inefficient. I’m still finishing up graduate applications. I’m also preparing some materials for my meeting with my ind. study instructor for the summer (the writer I really like). I need to stick to one thing and finish it.

Balance & 2012

Early evening, New Year’s Eve, and there I sat in the ER waiting room, trying to avoid smelling the odor of the severely obese and ill woman across the room.

Backstory: That day, I’d lost my balance a couple of times while shopping alone, causing me to find the nearest chair and call my mom. I still worried I might be overreacting–since I didn’t have any other symptoms. As I expressed that concern, my ears started ringing, I couldn’t see straight, and sweat dripped. My parents both came to get my car and me. After sitting in the middle of the mall for almost an hour, we agreed I should go to the ER.

Like many times in my life, they did a few tests and sent me home without much of an explanation. My family doctor didn’t seem too happy to hear this days later. He diagnosed me with an inner-ear infection. I’m on an anti-biotic, and my balance is still not 100 percent, but I’m functioning normal.

***

Several years ago, I had the joy of spending a few days in a writing workshop with a free-spirited woman who’d just drove from Chicago to my small hometown to take the workshop. Don’t get me wrong, it was a wonderful class, but everyone else was from the area. She’d showed up in a strange place, not knowing anyone, and just explored. When talking about all of her travels alone, I said I envied her courage to just up and leave anytime and anywhere. I don’t remember the entire conversation, but I remember she said the biggest life lesson she’d learned was to pay attention to signs–both literal and symbolic.

This thought stuck with me, even if I know it can be considered fluff by some. My lack of literal balance seemed to be a slap in the face–a kind of, Duh, aren’t you getting this yet?  sign. I’d already been having stomach problems (some of which I eliminated by cutting back on dairy), and I’d even more recently been having severe neck pains. I kept trying to do everything right to be healthy, but it just wasn’t enough.

Signs pass me by too often–both literally and figuratively. My cynicism, inadequate peripheral vision, and inability to multitask can be frustrating–if not downright dangerous when it comes to following signs.

I’ve had a wide array of health issues since infancy. The story of my life seems to always be one extreme or the other. I either get told I’m overreacting and nothing is wrong, or I ignore the problem until it’s out of control and doctors scold me for waiting so long. I go back and forth between thinking I have a crazy-high pain tolerance to assuming I’m a hypochondriac, depending on what the doctors tell me.

Losing my literal balance taught me that I have a new year, another chance to become more in tune with my body and learn to trust my own physical and emotional feelings more than others’–no matter how “qualified” they might seem . No one knows me like I do. I’ve lived my life letting others tell me how I’m supposed to feel or act. I don’t want to become some social outcast, but some balance between society’s reality and a spiritual reality might be nice.

***

2012 has the potential to be a big year. I’m applying to a few MFA programs. At this time next year, I have no idea where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing. I don’t like to make black and white resolutions, because I often don’t keep them and then feel bad about it. Instead, I’ve set a few goals for these next few months. I’ll see how those go and adjust the goals alongside of my life changes.

Instead of a strict schedule of when to write, do yoga, read, etc… I’m aiming for 5-6 hours a day of no internet or phone. This might not sound hard, but because my cell does not work well here (except for texting–which I do too often), my only social life involves chatting with friends online, e-mailing, etc…

I will be able to split up the hours however I want. During the inward time, I will be able to do yoga, write, read, or even just listen to music. Anything to force reflection without feeling too structured.

I’d also like to be more mindful when I eat. The nuns comment on how fast I eat. I don’t think I eat that fast compared to the average person, but I agree I rush eating. Eating fast was a way of life all throughout growing up, because I was one of those kids always on the go. The nuns are either very mindful or very old (often both), because a good majority of them eat slowly. I’ve caught myself rushing at every meal, and I don’t even change it every time. I figure noticing it is the first step.

May this be a healthy year for all of us–mentally, physically, and spiritually. Happy 2012!