Good Morning, Monster

Making psychological changes also provokes anxiety. It’s very hard to break a habit, especially when you’ve adapted yourself to a particular pattern that, however maladaptive, has kept you alive. The unconscious is powerful, and it will fight to the death to keep an old pattern in place.

Catherine Gildiner, Good Morning, Monster: A Therapist Shares Five Heroic Stories of Emotional Recovery (St. Martin’s Press, September 22, 2020)


Notes:

  • Highly recommended.  Gripping stories…
  • Amazon Best Book of September 2020
  • CBC.radio: “Catherine Gildiner is an American-born and Toronto-based memoirist, novelist and former psychologist. In her latest book Good Morning, Monster, she focuses on five patients who overcame their personal trauma, a process Gildiner defines as being heroic.  ‘These five people that I write about always came back to me — out of the hundreds of people that I had seen.’ — Catherine Gildiner.

All My Friends

This book is dedicated to the voices in my head, the most remarkable of my friends.

And to my wife, who lives with us.

Fredrik Backman, the opening dedication to his new book titled “Anxious People: A Novel” (Atria Books, September 8, 2020)


Notes:

Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts

The scent of sun-dried sheets fresh off the clothesline can completely change my state of mind. Like the sense of well-being that comes over me when a song from my youth is playing on the radio, the smell of line-dried sheets takes me home to Alabama, back to a time when all my beloved elders were still alive, still humming as they shook out a wad of damp bedsheets and pinned them to the line.

This summer I have repeatedly washed not just our sheets but also our 20-year-old matelassé coverlet, whose scalloped edges are now beginning to fray. I have washed the dust ruffle for possibly the first time in its entire existence. Once the linens are reassembled, I crawl between the sheets, breathe in, and feel the muscles across the top of my back begin to loosen. As my friend Serenity’s mother is fond of saying, “There are very few problems in this world that putting clean sheets on the bed won’t improve, even if just a little bit.”

These days it’s truly just a little bit, even when the clean sheets have been dried on a clothesline in the bright summer sun. Everyone I know is either suffering terribly or terribly worried about someone who is suffering. When will they ever find work? What if they get sick at work and can’t afford to take time off? What if they bring the virus home to the people they love? How will they work and also home-school their children? Will their parents die of the coronavirus? Will their parents die of loneliness before they can die of the coronavirus?

For months now, all my phone calls and texts and emails have begun, “How are you, really?” or “How is…?” Sometimes I’m the one who’s asking and sometimes I’m the one who’s being asked, but every exchange begins the same way.

Without even thinking about why, I engage in useless compensation. Bringing a few swallowtail caterpillars inside to save them from the red wasps. Repotting eight years’ worth of Mother’s Day orchids. Buying mask after mask, as though this color or this style or this pattern will somehow protect me and those I love. I am getting through these days primarily by way of magical thinking, and sheets billowing on a hot August wind are my talismans against fear and loss.

In June, after 25 years in this house, my husband set to work on our 70-year-old kitchen cabinets, chiseling out layers of paint, planing and sanding warped edges. When he was finished, the cabinet doors would close all the way, and stay closed, for the first time in decades. If you ask him why he went to all this trouble, he has no explanation beyond the obvious: For 25 years it needed to be done, and so he finally did it.

But I think it’s more than that. I think he was worrying about his lonesome father, quarantined in an efficiency apartment, and that’s why he fixed those cupboard doors. He was worrying about our oldest son’s pandemic wedding and our middle son’s new job as an essential worker. He was worrying about whether our youngest son’s university would make the inevitable decision to hold classes online before we had to sign a yearlong lease for an apartment our son might never set foot in. My husband can’t control any of those things, much less cure Covid-19, but he can by God make the kitchen cabinets stop flying open and knocking us in the head while we cook.

The other day, I posted a picture on Facebook of our masks drying on the clothesline. “At some point I’m going to have to stop buying masks with flowers on them,” I wrote. “I don’t know why I keep thinking a new mask with flowers on it will solve everything, but I keep thinking it anyway.”

My friends began to chime in. “In case you are wondering, ice cream doesn’t seem to solve anything either, but I’m still collecting data,” my friend Noni wrote. “I confess I have not picked up an iron in years, but I now iron our masks each week,” wrote Tina. “It’s important to get the pleats just right. For some reason.”

We know the reason. In Margaret Atwood’s 1969 debut novel, “The Edible Woman,” a character named Duncan copes with chaos by ironing: “I like flattening things out, getting rid of the wrinkles, it gives me something to do with my hands,” he says.

A few days later I was still thinking about Tina ironing those masks, so I asked, outright, what my Facebook friends are doing to manage their own anxieties. When I checked back a few hours later, there were more than 100 comments, and every one of them was a lesson, or at least a needed reminder, for me.

My friends are giving themselves difficult and absorbing assignments: reading classic novels, learning a new language or a challenging song on the guitar, working complicated puzzles. “I am doing so many puzzles because it feels good to put something back together again,” my friend Erica wrote.

They are throwing themselves into the domestic arts: preparing complex meals, learning to make paper flowers and, yes, ironing. “I’ve been ironing my pillowcases,” wrote Elizabeth. “They feel so crisp and cool on my poor menopausal cheeks.”

They are putting in a garden, in the suburban backyard or on the city balcony. They are feeding the birds and sometimes the turtles, rescuing orphaned opossums, walking in the woods. They are sitting on the porch — just sitting there, listening. At night they are going outside to look at the stars.

They are taking care of others — adopting puppies and lonely neighbors, coaching elderly aspiring writers via Zoom, breaking their own rules against pets in bed, taking the time to get to know their U.S. Mail carriers. They are meeting friends — outdoors and from a safe distance — and making a pact to talk about anything but the coronavirus. They are reveling in the slower pace of family life and falling in love with their partners all over again. My sister, who still lives in Alabama, is sending boxes of Chilton County peaches to faraway friends who have never before experienced the taste of heaven.

Tears welled up as I read their stories, and by the time I’d reached the end, I was openly weeping. It felt like nothing less than a blessing, in this hurt and hurtful time, to remember how creative human beings can be, how tender and how kind.

We may be in the middle of a story we don’t know how will end, or even whether it will end, but we are not helpless characters created and directed by an unseen novelist. We have the power, even in this Age of Anxiety, to enfold ourselves in small comforts, in the joy of tiny pleasures. We can walk out into the dark and look up at the sky. We can remind ourselves that the universe is so much bigger than this fretful, feverish world, and it is still expanding. And still filled with stars.

—  Margaret Renkl, “A Reminder to Enfold Yourself in Small Comforts” (NY Times, August 24, 2020)

none of us can bear too much reality

Thinking about swifts has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I’ve dealt with difficulty. When I was small I comforted myself with thoughts of layers of rising air; later I hid myself among the whispers of recorded works of fiction. We all have our defences. Some of them are self-defeating, but others are occasions for joy: the absorption of a hobby, the writing of a poem, speeding on a Harley, the slow assembly of a collection of records or seaside shells. ‘The best thing for being sad,’ said T. H. White’s Merlin, ‘is to learn something.’ All of us have to live our lives most of the time inside the protective structures that we have built; none of us can bear too much reality. We need our books, our craft projects, our dogs and knitting, our movies, gardens and gigs. It’s who we are. We’re held together by our lives, our interests, and all our chosen comforts. But we can’t have only those things, because then we can’t work out where we should be headed.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo Salvi Danes, (Barcelona) (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

T.G.I.F.: Truth


Source: Thisisn’thappiness

 

Workin’ WFH. With Yiyun Li.

WFH. (Work From Home). No shoes. No socks.  Chained to the desk. Lower back groans.

HBR: “The risk is substantial. The lines between work and non-work are blurring… (those) who feel “on” all the time are at a higher risk of burnout when working from home than if they were going to the office as usual.”

I pause for a few page turns of Yiyun Li, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life:being caught by the mesh of one’s mind.”

Friday Night. 11:30 pm. Everyone in bed – but me. I’ve shifted positions, from desk to couch.  I’m clearing out a swollen email box. 214. 210. 198. 175. 143. 138. 117.  18 hours. Calls. Conference Calls. Conference Calls. Conference Calls.  110. 108. 106. 104. 101. 99.

Get up to stretch. Walk to the kitchen. Grab a ramekin. Scoop out 3 heaping tablespoons of Talenti, tamp it down, lean in on the spoon again, add another scoop.  Today, Talenti for late breakfast, for dinner, and again, now, at midnight. Mint Chocolate chip. Close eyes. Gelato slides down throat, soothing. The only thing that is.

88. 85. 84. 83. Losing focus. Re-reading same email 2x.  Replies are littered with spelling mistakes. Autocorrect, correcting incorrectly. F-** it. I send it anyway. Does it really matter. Lose. Loose. Lose.

81. 79. 64.

Back to Yiyun Li. “Even the most inconsistent person is consistently himself.”

63. 62. 59. 57. 56. 54. 53. Li: “Wanting nothing is as extreme as wanting everything.”

50. 47. 43. 41. Li: “Did we ever ask ourselves: Why are we so lonely, so proud, and so adamant about perfecting our pretense?”

40. 39. 38. 37. 34. 32. Li: “we are, unlike other species, capable of not only enlarging but also diminishing our precarious selves”

30. 29. 27. I’m closing in on clearing my cue, but like Sisyphus, the closer I get to zero, the steeper the hill seems to get.

26. 25. 24. 23. Neck aches. I mean aches.  I turn, twist to adjust my position. 23 left. Come on. Bring it home.

I stare at the remaining cue. And stare. And stare.

And quit.

I gently set my iPhone on night stand. Twist in the earbuds, skim to find Chill Playlist, and hit Play.  But Yiyun Li can’t help herself, and lip syncs over it.

…the worst kind of fidgeting is that of one’s mind…I wonder…—not that one has known…but that one knows…This ceaseless effort—

 


Notes: Photo – Shibari & Photo Geoffroy Tako Baud. Model Lafille Delair (via Newthom)

Sunday Morning

Last year, as often happens, my mood waned with the autumn light. At work, I stared blankly at my computer, inexplicably on the verge of tears. At home, I counted the minutes until I could sleep. I still woke early, intending to read and write, but instead lay on the couch, idly thumbing at my phone. I felt numb to the world. My psychiatrist adjusted my medication and suggested I invest in a light-therapy lamp. “Winter is coming,” he said without a hint of irony…

The darkness threw me over the edge. Over the next few days, as I began a free fall into despair, I was surprised to find a quiet comfort in the birds flitting about my friend’s window. Suddenly, I grew envious of his yard, a seeming prerequisite for a feeder. Then it occurred to me: I am not the first apartment dweller with this predicament. I opened Amazon, where I’d been browsing for light-therapy lamps, and discovered feeders that could be attached to our apartment windows with suction cups. “I bought myself a Christmas present,” I told my wife when I arrived at my in-laws’ house.

When we returned to Brooklyn, a house-shaped plexiglass feeder and four pounds of Deluxe Treat birdseed were waiting…Three days later, my wife texted me a picture of a blue jay. More soon appeared. So did sparrows, nuthatches, cardinals, mourning doves and a single red-bellied woodpecker. Within two weeks, I was ordering 20-pound bags of birdseed, Eastern Regional Blend, and filling the feeder’s trough daily.

Initially, it was the sheer novelty that caught my attention. My phone couldn’t compete with a woodpecker eating two feet away. Then I started to actually notice the birds, the peculiar rituals and particular charms of each species. I saw the nuthatches creeping down the window frame vertically, like awkward thieves, and dashing in for single sunflower seeds. The fat, insatiable mourning doves gorging themselves on white millet. The cardinals loitering shyly in the pear tree, waiting for them to finish.

The novelty has faded over time. But the beauty of the birds continues to draw my attention. In the tableau of blues gridded across the jay’s wing and tail, I see patterns of a Mondrian. More than once I have begun to scare away greedy doves only to stop short at the gleam of iridescent plumage. In these moments, and in the daily routine of filling the feeder with seed, I forgot my anxieties.

That something as simple as bird-watching could release me from the confines of my mind came as a surprise. When I began to struggle with depression, at an evangelical college, the faithful proffered a verse from the Gospel of Matthew: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” This provided exactly zero comfort. I wasn’t sure I still believed in a benevolent father. And besides, I’d seen enough dead birds in my cat’s maw to question their value in his eyes.

If the birds still don’t fill me with any divine reassurance, they provide something far more valuable: a respite, a chance to turn my attention away from myself to the grace and beauty of the world. I don’t know if God is feeding them, but I am.

~ David Michael, from “Letter of Recommendation: Bird Feeders” (NY Times, July 9, 2019)

(Sleep) Walking. Into Saturday Morning.

Friday night. Netflix movie. Two handfuls of shelled pistachios. Heaping bowl of Nacho Cheese Doritos. 3 scoops of The Fixer, Talenti’s Mint-Chocolate Chip gelato.

Full shot? Or half shot? After effects: Groggy to semi-groggy. I bite down on the smooth, egg shell blue Tylenol PM pill, snap it in half. Toss one half back and place the other half on my tongue.  I cup hand under the running water, scoop it into my mouth, throw my head back, and chase it down. Do your thing Girl, do your thing.

I flip through blog feeds, Apple News Feed, Google News feed and RSS feeds. A quick peek at work emails. And then on to Kindle.  I wade through the last two chapters of A. K. Benjamin’s Let Me Not Be Mad: My Story of Unraveling Mind. Turn the last page of the book, and pause. Why this book, this title, at this time, out of the millions of Kindle options. Benjamin’s words: “Words never surpass the bliss of breathing. Place hand through head: no brain, no mind, no hand” and “I could walk over London Bridge in rush hour, faces thronging around me, and diagnose each one in an instant: Psychosis … Depression … Lewy bodies … Panic … Depression … Sociopathy … OCD … Cynophobia … Panic … Guam’s … Everybody has something.” 

Everybody has something

Just give me 7 hours, 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

And then this somebody will deal with that something, and that everything.


Notes:

  • Inspired by: Michael Wade in his post: “The Day” …”Firm Ground Rule: Do Everything Slowly.
  • Inspired by: “Recreation, love, spirituality—each turned into work: This is how we cope …A current darling of neuroscience research—the cultivation of default-mode networks—indicates that our brains need mindlessness, unemployment, f*$king about, eating mental crisps, in order to thrive. ~ A. K. Benjamin, Let Me Not Be Mad: My Story of Unraveling Mind (Dutton, June 11, 2019)
  • Photo: Wes Sumner (San Francisco, CA) (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

 

Look at you: You are no accident.

Your face: the eyes…the line of your nose; that lickerish mouth, one moment tight with fear, overtaken the next by fountainous laughter … Always faces, tens of thousands across a career, each one made up of countless micro-expressions that register everything; more liminal than a blood test, less decisive than a lumbar puncture, but meaningful all the same…

We are skull-jumpers; there is no limit to our identificatory capacity. Your face, voice, breath continue their unfolding, each now different from the last, changed beyond recognition in the two hours since we first met. Looking: more intimate than any physical examination. The voltage switches once more, symptoms pooling between us, tributaries of some larger untold story…The intensity of neuronal activation is processed through deep limbic structures, and when intensity exceeds a genetically defined threshold it leads to activation of the autonomic nervous system, triggering unconscious automatic changes in cardiovascular and respiratory systems—readying us to fight, to flee, to freeze, to love. We are sensitive; we have no choice. Look at you: You are no accident.

~ A. K. Benjamin, from his new book titled Let Me Not Be Mad: My Story of Unraveling Mind (Dutton, June 11, 2019)


Notes:

Driving I-95 S. With Hammer at Rest.

A nothingburger during a nondescript morning commute a month ago.

Not a Vuong nothing Moment that changed everything after it.

But it changed Something.

Why this particular Moment among the billions?

Why is it called up when it is?

And here IT comes again this morning.

This Moment. It’s pulled forward, to the front. Taking its right hand, sweeping aside the incessant swing of the Hammer on the searing molten metal, of not enough, not good enough and Now.

And it’s exactly at this Moment, when the Hammer rests, and Vuong’s luminescence offers its cooling respite.

It whispers listen, pay attention to This. And it hangs around until I do.

The pre-rush hour traffic on I-95 was detoured onto Exit 2. GPS routes me through Port Chester. I pull up to a stop light, and there they are.

Father and Son. Son, maybe 4 years old.  Dad is wearing an overcoat, much too heavy for the season.  Son looks up to his Dad, Dad bends over and picks him up, hugs him tight, then sets him down.

And they walk. Dad’s lunch box swinging in his left hand, his Son’s hand swinging in his right.

Let’s play it again Vuong. One more time.

The Hammer rests, for this Moment.


Photo Credit

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