Thursday, August 11, 2011

Did I mention I love my therapist?

“What do you think of when you think of a higher power?”
“Honestly?” I paused giving the question its full weight. “I think of nothing.” I could see she was searching my face for some emotional response. “Not a nihilist or atheist nothing, like there is nothing out there nothing, but a once you are a part of the all what is the difference between being part of everything and being part of nothing…nothing.”
“What does this nothing look like to you, then?”
“You mean am I blissed out, living with angels and harps? No, probably not. But I suspect that given the alternative, being a part of this nothing is a helluva lot better than the alternative.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean a world full of opposites, good/bad, right/wrong, even earth/heaven. You know the idea of heaven is a little suspect, isn’t it. It is just another aspect of the same old thing. We are born, we live, we die, and then we go to heaven. Then, because we don’t know any better, or because that is the way it is, it starts all over again. I want off this cosmic merry-go-round. That is my idea of heaven.”
“So why not get off?”
“I would if I could.”
“Have you tried doing it in reverse?”
I paused and thought about this for a moment. “You had me right up until the end. What do you mean, doing it in reverse?”
“So, according to you, there is nothing, and the nothing is split into a universe of opposites.”
“Right. First there is the word, and the word is separate from the silence.”
“And then one is judged good and the other…”
“Bad.” I added with extra emphasis.
“Right, bad. And so it goes, opposites are created and values are given to each pair of opposites. One is good the other is bad.”
“I think I see what you mean.”
“So now you take it in reverse. You identify what opposites you give value judgments, and remove the values, without values there is no…”
“Difference?” I interrupt.
“Without, value judgments the differences fade, without differences, there is no opposite. In the end all you are left with is your nothing.”
“I don’t think it is as easy as that.” I add skeptically.
“Have you tried it?” She asked inquisitively.
“No.” I said matter-of-factly.
“Well then how do you know?”
“Every movement towards the divine takes an act of faith.” I say superiorly.
“Why don’t you try?” she said, patiently.
“I suppose I have nothing to lose.” I say with a bit of defeat.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The "Spiritual" Journey

Good literature tells a story. Good literature communicates something about the characters, their world, and the things they believe. Often the characters may start out with a series of false assumption. The character is flawed in this way. Then through a “spiritual journey” the flaw is revealed. The character must face a challenge that destroys the old assumptions, the old lies, and replaces them with something new, some new truth, that is hopefully more profound, more meaningful. This truth has the ability to profoundly transform the character or their world in such a way that the old life is left behind.

I wouldn’t say that this characterization of literature is all encompassing. But it is a formula that I frequently encounter. Whether it is the battle against mortality in the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, or the quest for redemption in the recent novel The Kite Runner, this formula makes its appearance.

So let me ask you a question. What lie do you believe? What so-called truth are you holding on to that is, in fact, a deception, self inflicted or otherwise? I ask this question because I had a moment the other day, while I was talking to a friend, when I realized that I have been telling myself a story that might not be entirely true. The fact that it was a partial truth made it all the more insidious because as anyone knows, the most powerful lies are the ones made up of truths. I can’t tell you a lot about this conversation, but suffice it to say that at some point my friend was making an all too familiar lament that life was not turning out as expected and that this was made the more bitter because they have tried to live a spiritual life, to be close to God, and that God, for what ever reason, had not acknowledged those efforts.

I say this is a familiar lament, because I make this kind of plea in my prayers all the time. I do not, as some are able, pray to god for comfort. I never have, and I wouldn’t even know how to begin. Rather, I pray to god for power, or, if you will, empowerment. I suspect, as divine dispensations of power are in rather short supply, that this is the root cause of my disappointment. My “spiritual journey” or whatever you want to call it, has frequently taken on the form of trying to rid myself of those obstacles that stand in the way of my feeling powerful, and while this is not always the case, I am sure that this is at least in part, the lie I tell myself.

I grew up in the Christian faith, and because the Christian religion is often thought to be solely about personal salvation, I frequently think about myself. Further more, we live in a time when “personal religious experience” and “private belief systems” draw upon our culture’s radical individualism to define the essence of any religion. My own current beliefs are a patchwork quilt of Protestant Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism, Al-anon, and Jewish mysticism. Religions, which, for the most part, have at their core, ideas of community, and compassion for others, and are not just expedient paths to eternal life for solitary individuals. In Christianity, for example, Christological titles like Some of God or Christ were not used to imagine Jesus' personal divinity, as if becoming god were the most important thing that could happen to a person, they were instead used to describe how Jesus had become “king” of a “kingdom” to which all people belonged and in which all were equal.

It is hard for me to admit this, but my spiritual journey, self-labeled, is a blanket term I use to feel good about my relationship with my higher power, and has little to do with any sense of profound spiritual truths that have been learned.

I don’t know what, if anything this helps. But I do know that convincing myself that I am “enlightened” or that I am ‘aware” or “awake” has at times caused me to loath my Higher Power, and so I suspect, the phrase has outlived its usefulness.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Guitars and Paintbrushes

I bought my first guitar at a pawnshop in Greeley, CO. It was a ’61 Fender Jazzmaster. It had a purple starburst finish and sound so clean and smooth and mellow it made you want to lick the notes out of the air. Not, of course that I knew how to play it. I didn’t. I didn’t even own an amp at first. I would just sit with it in my lap, cradling it like a newborn infant. I don’t even know when I learned my first chord. It was probably a G chord. Everyone learns with a G. Then, almost a year later, I knocked on the door of a guy living in my dorm that I knew played and asked him for lessons.

“What do you want to play?” He asked.
“I don’t know. Blues I guess, or Jazz.”
He eyed me like a mechanic eyes me when I bring the car in for an oil change.
“How ‘bout I just show you a blues scale. You can play pretty much anything you want with that.” He was being really kind. He showed me the scale and corrected my grip and gave me a parting shot. “When you have that down, come and see me again, then maybe we can do something.”

I never went back. But that one lesson taught me all I ever really wanted to know about playing a guitar. From then on, when I sat with the guitar in my lap, my fingers running up and down the frets, I would imagine myself a great bluesman. To this day I can play that same scale in infinite variation. I can’t play a song, but I can make my guitar cry.

Painting came to me in a similar fashion. A roommate in college was an artist in remission. Never one to throw things out, I caught him tossing out all his old paint, a quickly tucked them away. A few years later, my wife and I moved into a crappy two room apartment at the bottom of Artist Road. We were just starting out and had a futon mattress on the floor of our bedroom and a three-legged table I bought at a thrift store that marked the end of the living room and the beginning of the dining room. One night, probably after drinking too many martinis, I took out the paints and decorated the cement cinderblocks that served as the posts in our bookshelves. From there I bought canvas and more paint and brushes. I painted little still lives of my beta fish and surrealistic bedroom scenes.

A few years later I was still painting the same things when we stumbled into the Art Institute of Chicago. The institute hosted a huge Monet retrospective. We spent most of the day wandering through gallery after gallery of his early impressionist work, his haystacks and cathedrals, and finally to his mature water lilies. As you might have already guessed I walked away from that experience thinking I was the next great impressionist painter.

From Impressionism to Cubism, Cubism to Abstract Expressionism, I have made my way ever since, learning from these masters of art and making my own paintings. I got my first taste of selling my art almost fifteen years ago. I was flabbergasted that anyone would want to buy my paintings, and elated as well. I suppose I had that feeling because I didn’t feel like I had done anything new, or original. I had just taken what I saw and applied it. Later I would have that same feeling about art sales, but more it was because I never really think about selling a painting until it is sold, so it always comes as such a surprise.

Painting is, as you might expect, a solitary enterprise. When I work, I never think about the canvas or the gallery, but always about the mark, the color, the texture, or the feel. For this reason I can’t look at my paintings the way most people do. I can’t see the forest for the trees you might say. For me the feeling of that moment when the painting was made always lingers and it clouds everything. Only later, years later, can I see a painting for what it is, and then, because I am such a harsh critic, I usually can’t look at it for long.

Well, I am sure I have more to say about that, but alas, I can’t for the life of me think what else there is to say. So, until next time, Salud!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Pain and Mindfulness

I recently went through a painful experience in which, well, suffice it to say I had one set of expectation about how things were going to go and my superiors had another. You may have had a similar experience in losing a job or having gone through a painful break up, either of those examples would work for my situation. Part of my attempt to start a new blog was born of that experience. But new starts are hard, especially when you bring along old baggage. Is there ever really a new start? Perhaps a better way to view the new blog is that it is a new shuffle of the cards. The cards are the same, but the way they are dealt changes. I am still me. I come to the table with the same set of problems, the same hang-ups. But maybe this time I can look at them from a fresh perspective.

One thing that has really dogged me in the past is my propensity to replay certain events over and over in my head. I frequently find myself reliving certain events of the past in my thoughts. I used to think that this made me crazy some how. Mostly because the reliving of those thought often brought to bare painful memories that evoked bitter emotions. I would not only reminisce the past, I would relive it. I would replay the same conversation, I would experience the same emotions, I would undergo the same machinations.

Why would I think I was crazy? Well because usually as I experienced these memories I would try to alter outcomes. I would find myself arguing, pleading, doing just about anything to change the past. But the past is the past, and no matter how hard I tried the outcome was invariably the same.

I might add a note here and say that what I describe above might lead people to think that I was actively pursuing reliving these memories. But I want to assure you that I was not. These episodes, for lack of a better word, always come unbidden. I would be taking a shower, or driving the car, or fixing dinner and would suddenly find myself knee deep in thought and feeling that completely incongruous with reality, and that, more than anything, made me think I was crazy.

But I am not crazy, and no one that I have talked to about these experiences, not therapists, priests, friends, or family has ever suggested as much. In fact it has been quite the opposite. While the episodes may be crazy making, they are not the product of a crazy mind. They are the product of a mind that has been hurt. I was hurt. I was let down. I was devastated. Now my mind, ever my friend, is trying to make it all right. It is trying to help me make sense of the world that makes no sense. It has created a fantasy of familiar characters, situations and feelings that I can latch on to in the hopes that I can somehow make sense of the ridiculous.

Sadly there are times when my mind, ever my friend, is rather primitive and it is up to me to reign in on the insanity. I cannot allow myself the luxury of self-doubt, self-loathing and self-pity. Sadly, while I mourn the state of events that has transpired, the memory of them is driving me mad. Allow me to say this again. I am not crazy, but the memory of these event, however fresh, is crazy making.

So Dr. Me, what is the cure?

A few years ago I had a Jungian-like revelation that my fantasy character, the people I was thinking about, while based on real people, were not, themselves, real. In essence I am talking to myself. I can do one of two things with this revelation. I can begin to address these people for what they really are, figments of my memory, or if I am daring, I can choose to look at them as parts of myself. Either way The key here is to remember while the situation is real, what happened, happened, my memory of it is not. My memory is my memory and I can choose to remember or not.

The other day I was standing in the shower when the memory of some of these events came back to me. Before I knew it I found myself shouting at the principle players. See, even though I know what is happening, even though I am aware that reliving this painful memory is detrimental to my health, I still sometimes find myself doing it. So what do I do? I can roll with it, let it do its thing, and in the end nothing will change. The events will still have happened. Or I can stop it. I can shout “Stop it!” I can pinch myself.” I can turn the shower on “cold.” I can go for a walk. I can call a friend. I can walk away and in short, I can stop it.

It isn’t easy. The first forty times I wasn’t successful, but while I wasn’t able to stop my mind from driving me crazy, I could continue to practice, after all even if I wasn’t successful I was becoming more aware of myself, I was becoming more aware of the episodes, and awareness is key. Awareness is gold. Some people call it mindfulness or consciousness. Many religions consider it the key to liberation and in recent times it has been used in psychology to battle depression and obsessive/compulsive disorders. I don’t know much about those things, but I do know about this. I want to be free. I want to be free of this painful memory and more I want to be free to choose my own path to happiness. I don’t want my primitive mind making those decisions for me, because it never makes the right call. I have used mindfulness to battle physical back pain and emotional trauma and I am here to tell you that this works. This works. It doesn’t work all the time but it works.

It works because instead of thinking about all of the S.O.B.’s in my life I can be free to think about me. I can think clearly about my disappointing situation and instead of feeling the gravity of it burdening me, weighing me down, I can feel the possibilities of choice open up around me. When I am in the memory, the many faces, the ex-lover, the old boss speak for me, they speak collectively and they bring me down, but by being mindful I rid myself of the extraneous voices and I can finally find myself listening to just one voice, my own, and that voice says I am loved. I am successful, and I am free.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Life is calling

When I started the new blog I really had vision of a fresh start, I thought “this time I am going to do things differently.” Though in all honesty I have to admit that I didn’t really have a firm plan about what “different” was, so I suppose berating myself for not having done it different is really foolish; worse because instead of doing things differently, I haven’t done them at all. My blogging has fallen off dramatically. I was reading the blog of a friend of mine who is really going through the fire right now and I had this fleeting thought that maybe my blogging had fallen off because I wasn’t doing anything, or that my life wasn’t, well, inspiring me to any new thoughts and ideas.

That is a very depressing thought. Depressing more because I feel like I am working harder now than ever before. I don’t know if it is true, but there really doesn’t feel like any time for anything extra. I could blame my lack of blogging on all the therapy I have been in, that is, I am pouring out myself in therapy instead of here, but that isn’t the case. I could say that I am blogging less because I am painting more, but my painting is only slightly more sporadically successful than my blogging.

I am teaching right now four times a week from eight to noon and that is a huge time drain. I wake up at early and dash off to work hoping to get things done early in the morning before class, but usually this time is only marginally fruitful. When I get home it is lunchtime I feed myself or family and try to get into a working mindset but no sooner am I there then I have to go back out- take a class or deliver a child and by the time I am through it is dinner time or later and I begin to run out of steam. I feel like so much of my day is busy work, running from place to place, and really it probably is, but in the hurrying and scurrying to get things done, the truth is that nothing is getting done, or nothing that I want to get done is getting done.

So I take care of the essentials. I make time for feeding and for work and for kids and for everything else and if, in the odd moment I feel lucky enough to settle in and paint a little or jot a thought down here then I should try to feel extremely lucky, and I try to use thought moments for mindfulness and gratitude. Really this is the best use of my time, painting and blogging and all the extras that I pine for have become an exercise in feeling thankful for them, and while I haven’t figured out how to make that gratitude spill over into all areas of my waking life, I can’t help but wonder if it will.

They say fake it until you make it, or practice makes perfect or something along these lines. But I don’t know that I am faking anything or practicing anything I am just treading water trying to stay afloat when all around me the dams seem to burst and spill. I have had a lot of set backs lately and maybe this feeling of being busy all the time is really just the feeling of adjusting to the fact that life doesn’t always go my way. It is kind of like how time flies when you are having fun, when life seems very busy when it doesn’t go the way you expected. I am sure there is one more pithy aphorism I could squeeze in here but J. is leaving and the kids are hollering and life is feeling very busy all of a sudden. I want to remind myself to feel gratitude. Life is calling. I should feel thankful but somehow I just feel busy.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Analyze This

As I sit here watching the baby stirring, I wonder “how long” and “can I write this in time?” I don’t even know what I am writing. I sat down here with the vaguest of ideas about capturing my recent experiences in therapy. Still, it is hard to know where to start.

I suppose I could begin with the arguments I have been having with my daughter. These violent clashes have been escalating for some time, and it didn’t take a genius to know that something was wrong.

I could also start with my relationship. J. and I were separated five years ago, and after we came back together we had made certain agreements that seemed in need of fine tuning. The most obvious of them was finances. We have been living beyond our means for some time, and I had agreed to take on the bulk of the financial burden for the family. I have struggled to figure out how to do this, and nearly had the job that would have put me on the road to a secure financial destiny, but as of yet I am without success.

Lastly, I could start with myself. As part of the condition to meet those financial goals, I had gone back to school seeking a graduate degree. Unfortunately getting the degree had proven harder than I imagined, as the nature of attaining an MFA in Art is highly subjective, the hurdles illusory. My own stubborn pride in my talent and intellect, coupled with the like-minded faculty turned out to be poison for me. For years I struggled against the invisible foe that took on the guise of ivory towered academia. While I managed to eek out one Masters Degree, in the end my graduate experience ended in a whimper.

I paused here because I thought the baby was stirring. I reread the passages above to find my voice to continue, and found that I couldn’t. None of these places seem like the place I want to start. Though I have been in counseling for all of them, none of them seems like the thread that touches the depths of discomfort that signifies brutal honesty.

I guess I need to ask myself what brutal honesty looks like. What makes me uncomfortable??? What makes me so crazy that I would literally crawl out of my skin if the topic were brought up? My failure as a parent? A husband? A person? What would it take? In my last meeting with my personal therapist I think he was suggesting that this is part of the problem. That I ride comfortably in the wake of these facts without really taking the risk of confronting my own fears and thus live blind to them and, ultimately, at their mercy.

Is anyone so different?

I want to try to take a stab, but I know that any fear I list here would just be the fear that I am comfortable telling you about. I sincerely doubt that I could blog about something so personal, so raw. I mean I fear failure in my relationship with my wife. It is why I am obsessed with tending to her moods, why I am so unwilling to be comfortable in a place when I know that she is mad at me. I don’t want people pissed off at me, I mean, no one does. But I am so afraid of it that I will go out of my way to make sure everyone is happy. I suspect that this is because I was so afraid of my father as a child. But also, because I was bullied by my peers and never really learned how to related to anyone without being pacifistic.

There are exceptions of course. I mean, there is nothing I can do about the Graduate faculty. I am done there. There opinion of me no longer holds any sway. But perhaps this is because I am done there. I have no more emotional investment with these people so I am no longer so obsequious to them.

I have to pause here, because, when I sat down to write I really had no idea what I was writing about, and now I have come to a place where I am, well, obsequious. It might take a moment to get used to. I have to try on that word and see it if will fit. I am not sure it does, but I want to be sure. I hesitate here because I know myself to be willful and independent. I have a clear vision of my identity. I know who I am, where I came from and who I want to be. But perhaps being willfully independent it just a cover for my fears. Because if I am independent then, I don’t have to answer to anyone, and if I had to answer to anyone then I would be, well obsequious.

Have you looked it up yet or do you know the meaning of the word? I thought I did. I thought it mean servile. But when I looked it up just now I discovered that it has a slightly different meaning, one that I think is apropos. It comes from the Latin obsequium and it means “compliance” or more literally, ob- toward + sequi to follow. So it means “a follower” a “tagalong.” You know I sometimes think I am never going to really know myself. But I can tell you this about myself. As a child my family moved around a lot. As a result I often had to make new friends, I had to reintegrate myself into new groups time and time again. As a result I became a stupendous follower…

Well this has been fun, but the baby woke up. Maybe we should talk like this again soon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I haven’t blogged in a while which means I have a reservoir of topics that have built up over time. The one that stands out I had shortly after Easter, where I realized that the subtle shift from celebrating the rite of Spring to celebrating the resurrection of Jesus meant that our focus on the passage of one season into the next was co-opted or perhaps a better word is transformed from being about the world to being in the world. We went from thinking about seasons to thinking about Man, or specifically one man, and his power over death. What is that relationship? That is, what is his relationship to death? What is our relationship to him? And what does that all mean about our relationship to God? All came into question, and at the same time it pushed out questions like: What does it mean to be one of the myriad living things one this planet, all of which are mortal? What do we understand about the cycles of life and death that we see all around us? What does this mean to me, personally? And so on. Christianity, for me, messed with the cycle. It went from being about the cycle, to being about the man. And thinking about man, as the only important thing worth thinking about has created a lot of trouble for mankind over the years.

I am not really about basing Jesus or Christianity, after all Easter is about rebirth. It is about a death and a resurrection. It doesn’t get much more cyclical that that right? I mean there are plenty of religions that have the same motif; the death/rebirth of Osiris springs to mind, or the Fischer King, civilization is replete with the standard. What do I hope to add but a little Jesus bashing? Except to day that I can’t think of anyone who has ever colored the Easter event for me in such a way as to make it synonymous with the little green shoots popping out of the earth, or the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees and the moon up above. No, the story of Easter for me was always about chocolate and eggs and a Rabbit. The story of the Crucifixion of Jesus was always told to me like I was one of the members of the crowd who had gathered to see the spectacle. Far from understanding the story as part of a cycle of rebirth, Easter, for me, was about shouting “Crucify Him!” flowed immediately but a two nights and a day of guilt that is conveniently pacified in the end with scads of chocolate and a ham.

No, I am not a Christian basher. There are other that do the job far better than I could ever hope, no my job, here, is for me to muddle out what all this mean to me. What does it mean to me? I mean, for example, why are cycles important, why it the question important? Is this just another, we need to get in touch with the cycles of Mother Earth, Green, Hippie, Lovefest? Is this just another rant that ends in someone telling me that God is really the Goddess and that instead of driving my car I should be biking and planting a tree and eating local foods? Because, if it is, I don’t want to read it. Scratch that. I don’t want to write it and I sure as Hell don’t want you to read it.

No it is important to me because I am beginning to understand how important it is for me to see my life as a series of cycles. Too long have I imagined the future as the unbroken line extending into the distance without thought about what comes after or before or after or anything at all. Live in the moment. Embrace the now. The now is where consciousness dwells, so too should I dwell there for to live in the now is to be enlightened. I am guilty of thinking this way, while all around me I see the things of the now, coming back around full circle time and time again. Don’t get me wrong. The now is all-important. It differentiates this pass around the loop from the last. But too long have I been so consumed with the now that I have ignored everything else. I have been consumed with the state of my soul. To put it in Christian terms, I have been obsessed with my own redemption. Am I a good man? What does God think of me now? How about Now? And Now? How about Now? Now? Now? Now? I am an arrow, released from the bowstring at birth I have striven towards my target unwaveringly. But the more I sore, the more I think “something feels painfully familiar here.”

Studies show that men are just as hormonal as women. The Men move through cycles, and that our thinking, our very fabric is designed around theses shifts. We are not immune to cycles. The moon passes over our head, the earth turns around the sun, the sun around the center of the galaxy. Yes all of these things are subtle reminders that we are cyclical creatures. Sometimes I am prone to depression, other times I am indomitable. Today I create, tomorrow I sow, on Wednesday I weeps and on Sunday I laugh. The more I strive to understand these cycles, the more I come to understand myself.

In writing this piece I had a vision of a story of a man who owned a rat, or possibly a ferret. The longer the man and the ferret lived together, the more the one became like the other, till finally, the ferret had become the man, and the man the pet. For me the Cycle is the Man, the Ferret the Now. They live together in the house of my soul, circling each other. Exchanging information. Slowly learning to live together, slowly learning the others ways. Till one day they awake and look in the mirror and they do not recognize the other. They do not recognize themselves. They are in a frenzy to make sense of it and all around the world seems topsy-turvy. Someone recently called my short stories Kafkaesque, but only I think because I recently woke up and discovered I was a gigantic bug. More and more I think, I am not the bug, I am a man living like a house pet, living like a man, trying to wake up and doing things the only way I know how.