50 at 50: Fires of the Mind

Today I completed my 50th class in 50 days, so I’m at the halfway point in this journey, this experiment that I am carrying on.

As I mentioned before, I haven’t lost an ounce but have changed sizes.  My jeans fit much looser around the waist, hips, and thighs.  I’m not trying to lose weight, but I have begun to eat differently.  I’m way more conscious of how my body feels before and after eating and notice that some foods, such as meat, processed grains (such as bagels or white rice) and, alas, popcorn, seem to move very slowly through the digestive system.  What I have for dinner affects the way I experience yoga at 10 the next morning.  Sometimes this really sucks.

It’s so not about what I look like, but rather about how I feel.  My spine is stronger and more flexible.  My muscles are stronger.  My heart and lungs function more effectively.  My blood carries more oxygen.  “Oxygen!  the greatest nutrient we take in!” my yoga teacher likes to say.  Fire of the body.

In general, I am emotionally fitter.  That is, I feel calmer, more patient, more relaxed than I used to.  Part of that has to do with having a regular practice and finding out that I experience the practice differently each day.  Sometimes I am strong.  Sometimes I am weak.  Sometimes I am very tired and have to sit down a lot.  Sometimes my body does more than I think it can do.   Sometimes I can’t psyche myself into a better pose, and have to accept that.   Each day is just a day.

In general, I’m much more at peace with myself.  Around day 40, however, I thought that perhaps I was having a breakdown.  Intense waves of rage, or misery, or sorrow, or impatience, seemed to be sweeping over me unpredictably and irrationally.  The slightest thought, or sight, could bring tears.  At around day 40, I seemed to begin every single class in the bathroom stall, crying for no apparent reason.    Then I’d get through the class and the extreme emotions–I’m going to call them the fires of the mind–would dissipate.

I asked my teachers and other students about this.  Could it be that this had something to do with the process?  The common wisdom is that the first 30 days are physical, the second 30 days are physiological, and the final 30 days emotional.  But most of the women I spoke to (I didn’t know any of the men well enough to ask them about it) said that they, too, had gone through similar periods of intense feeling, waves of seemingly irrational and often overwhelming emotion.  Many of them said that this process brings issues they had been denying or repressing to the surface.  Some said that they were simply becoming more aware of what they were feeling.

Meditating and staring at yourself in the mirror for 90 minutes a day at 105 degrees makes it rather difficult to avoid yourself.  You’re simply going to have to come to terms with whatever it is that you are, or, rather, however it is that you are.   Another one of my teachers recently said to me, “K,  you’ve got to realize that you’re just fine.”  There is nothing to complain about.  She gets impatient with me when I start to make excuses for my inability to do the poses the way I want to.   And who could blame her?

At any rate, just finding out that the fires of the mind were normal seems to have settled them down.  That is, I’ve done nothing different but I feel better.   But that’s not entirely true.  I have done something different.  I’ve made a more conscious effort to pay attention to myself and to accept whatever I find here.

Honestly, I’d like to lose weight.  But the journey seems to be taking me to the mirror of self-acceptance and away from the mirror of self-criticism.  Maybe the weight will come off, maybe it won’t.  It’s more important to me to feel good–supple, flexible, strong, and calm– than to feel thin.   For now.  In general.  Thinness is way overrated anyways.

Where Did My Back Pain Go? Bikram Day 43

Fortuitously, my countdown in bikram coincides with the day of the month, at least through January.  So, today is January 3 as well as the 43rd day of my bikram practice.  What is different?  Sivasana.

Yes!  Already!  It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat.  Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.

I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years.  It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort.  Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting.  Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture.  For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve.  It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable.  The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true.  It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.

What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up.  This is the usual response of my spine to the pose.  Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain.  What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create.  I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain.  That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it.  Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.

It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting.  Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up.  So my resting period ends up being quite short.  But it is getting longer.  That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.

Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana.  Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief.  But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief.  Where was the pain?  The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared.   I shifted position on the floor, looking for it.  It had to be there.  It has always been there.  But it wasn’t.

So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson?  Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world.  Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.

During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity.  I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it.  I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness.   What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.

The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond  the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be.  There was no pretending this devastation away.  In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt.  The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became.  So I had to learn to give in.

When I first lost him, I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.”  Of course I would weep.  Usually I would cry myself to sleep.  I did this for weeks, for months, for years.  But it was the only way to make it bearable.  Only by  focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way,  could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity.  I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.

The key is learning not to respond.  The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it.  I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.

To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma.  Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic.  And sometimes just breathing is traumatic.  Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away.   Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt.

A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or  behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as over-exericising, over-eating, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life.  But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through  and  beyond it.

Bikram Day 15

After half a month, I think I’ve reached some kind of plateau.  I don’t seem to be getting better at the poses as rapidly as I did before, and I often feel very tired in class.

The first few days, I felt completely exhausted after class and could not understand why Jonathan, my friend, said he felt the yoga energized him.   I came home and collapsed into a chair or bed and moved very little afterwards.

After about a week, though, I began to feel a certain lightness and joyousness that started right after the final sivasana and stayed with me during the day. It was as though my very glands were coming alive again as I flushed the toxins from my body.  And it seemed that each day I awoke with more energy, power that I plowed back into the practice.  I bent to the side and backwards with more effort and enthusiasm.  I threw my chest off the floor during locust.

Lately I have felt tired in class.  I’m dragging.  I had to sit down today.  I’ve pulled a hamstring and my leg hurts.  In sivasana, I’m hot, hot, hot, hot.  I can barely stand how hot it is…I search for the slightest whisper of air.  I swallow to bring moisture into my throat.  I stare at the ceiling and call out for the old ones to help me endure.  My clothes, plastered to my body with warm sweat, feel heavy.  I wait for release from my misery.  It comes with the next pose, a sit-up, that leads right into the next contortion on the floor.

So I’m just here, in this place, after 15 days in a row of yoga.  I’m supposed to feel the benefits by now.  Am I?  I suppose my concentration has improved and my endurance has grown, along with my humility.  Sivasana still hurts my back.

I’m no longer bragging to my friends about this awesome new practice I’ve begun.  But I’m still committed, more than ever, I suppose, to seeing it through.  I’m going to have good days and bad days.  As one of my teachers likes to say, the worst days are the one when you don’t show up.  I’m still showing up.

And I’m learning, incrementally, to become more aware of the tension in my throat, my neck, my chest, of the ways that anxiety and fear and worry register themselves in the muscles in my back. I can’t release those muscles until I know what I’m doing with them, and I can’t give up the stress that I’m holding until I release those muscles.

The heat, the discomfort, the heart pounding the blood through my temples and chest I’m learning to experience as temporary sensations that come and go.   I am learning to look for a cooler, calmer, steadying aspect of my experience, which is also there, and perhaps always there.

Being alone in Colorado

2 October 2010

My mother died on this day 30 years ago.

Being alone in Colorado during the day.

When I’m in Pittsburgh I’m immersed in noise.  City noise–boom boxes and explosive car radios, trash trucks, jack hammers, car alarms, planes, helicopters,  that incredibly irritating back-up sound that goes Beep, Beep, Beep, insanely, driving you insane; trucks driving or idling, for no apparent reason,  buses, motorcycles, leaf blowers, people walking down the street who converse by shouting at one another from either side of the road.  In the 19th century the steam engine was thought to be a kind of devil, roaring through the world and practically tearing people’s ears off.  But it seems to me that the devils of the 20th and early 21st centuries are machines powered by gasoline.

When I “relax” I turn on the television, usually quite loud so that I can hear it over the noise in my neighborhood, and when I go “out” to “relax” and have a drink, I go into a bar where there is usually a television blaring or music drowning out the silence that city people have apparently no ability to deal with.  And speaking of bars.  It’s annoying enough that there is a television to deal with, but what I don’t understand is why the t.v. always has to be tuned to golf or baseball or football?  Why can’t it be Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Six Feet Under or Battlestar Galactica?  Let it be CNN or even that republican machine, Fox News.  Are city bars only populated by sports fans?

But here, where I am now, I hear virtually nothing but the sound of my own breathing, the dogs, three of them, following me here and there, their panting, the cat meowing to be let in the door that he knows he doesn’t usually go through, the wind, if there is any, the very rare car passing by.  If I want to hear something, I can play something on my computer, through itunes.  There’s a t.v. here but nothing on.  Nothing means: nothing I care to watch or listen to. And the radio isn’t much better.  Colorado stations seem to feature NPR most hours of the week, but so much of that programming seems to have to do with authors excessively pleased with themselves, who really don’t have that much to say, in fact.  Or that idiotic program, Car Talk, with the brothers whose laughter is so obviously forced it grates.  They don’t laugh because they’re amused, but rather because they’re uncomfortable.  Or so it sounds.  Why would anyone want to listen to the sound of forced, uncomfortable laughter, when one could listen to silence in one’s car or house?

But how rare is it to “hear” silence, to be able to think for one’s self, in quietude?  We live in cacophony and wonder why it is that we are continually getting sick from “stress.”

I’m not lonely.  There are three dogs here–Bear, Blackjack, and Kea, in order of importance.  Bear is a good friend, even though he begs too much.  Blackjack snores in his sleep and I find the sound comforting.  Kea is always way more excited to see me that I think she will be.

I love being able to do exactly what I feel like doing.  I can walk, dance, cook, and drink. I drink as much wine as I feel like drinking.  I’ve been cooking a lot and finding that I have lost my taste for meat.  It is good to be alone; to be with myself for an extended period of time, in the quiet, without a schedule, without quantification, just being.  I go to be around 8:30 and get up at 5 or 6.  I live as I want to.  It is wonderful.

Being alone in Colorado at night.

I had to go to Hotchkiss this afternoon and didn’t turn back until after dark.   Halfway home I stopped along the road, turned off the engine and the lights, and got out to look at the sky.  A dog at a nearby farm was barking but it fell silent.  So many stars.   It had been a long time since I had seen the Milky Way.

It’s hard to comprehend how we could be “in there” when, from earth, it looks as though it is “up” or “out there.”   And when I remember that it is not a water-cloud, but a star-cloud, and that the opacity of “out there” is more or less how our “over here” looks to the beings on that side of the galaxy, it’s harder to grasp.

Is it like the relationship between Self and Other?  We dismiss or underestimate or simply forget about or try to kill the Other because it is other, because we can’t stand the difference in the color of their skin, or the way they eat, or walk, or express affection, or believe, or vote, or fish.  What we’re missing out on when we allow these differences between to divide us is that we are not “here” and “there” but, rather, together, bound up in the same web, the same world.  There’s a German word for this, mitsein.  It means “being with”  So, it is possible to say, in German, not only “ich bin,” I am, which is a pretty powerful thing to say, actually.  But it is  also possible to say “ich bin mit,” I am with.

As I got back on the road I thought about how insignificant I was, in my tiny little car, soft flesh clothed in an exoskeloton driving along on a capillary.  So often I think of myself as the center of the universe, a “me” an individual, isolated sun, and that what I am doing is of infinite importance, and must come before all other things.  The sky above seemed so vast, so much greater than this personal scenario, this whole world. But then I thought about the complexity beneath the tires on the road, and beneath and beside the road, all the birds and skunks and snakes and lizards and toads, and the insects that they eat, and the hives and burrows that the creatures build,  and the thread-like paths that ants leave, and the smaller ones, the mites, the tiny larvae, all busily going about and around And then I thought about smaller things that you can only see under microscopes, and all the organisms that make up dirt, in which the plants grow.  So I felt better.

And when I got home the three dogs were so happy to see me they danced. Blackjack ran around the yard with his enormous teddy bear in his mouth, and Kea wagged her whole back body at me, and Bear was love-dumb as always.  I laughed at them and said, “Hello, Friends!”

Danse Macabre: Mourning My Mother

So I’m listening to Mahler’s first symphony, which I love and have loved for all of my entire adult life.  Or since I was 20.  When does adult life begin?  Hard to say.  I’m about to turn 50 and still sometimes have trouble understanding myself as grown up.  But what is the 1st symphony about? It is about life, the business of life, the joy and buzzing business of the bees and the flowers and the animals and the fervor of everything that never ends, even when some of us die.

But standing here on the verge of my fiftieth decade frightens me, not least because my mother died of colon cancer when she was 55.  She was diagnosed when she was 54.   There were signs before.  The winter of her 53rd year we were in Sun Valley, and instead of skiing my mother stayed home, in agonizing pain that every one of us, my father, an orthopedic surgeon, my brother, my sister, and I interpreted as gas.  How could we all have been so stupid?  Yet we were.  What do orthopedic surgeons know about the diseases of the internal organs?

So, she died.  By the time we caught it, the cancer has metastasized and spread throughout her body, including her lungs.  She died of asphyxiation, fluid from the cancer building up in her lungs.  It took some time…enough time for us to go on a river-rafting trip down the Salmon River in Idaho.  She had had the first eliminating surgery, and some chemotherapy.  We were all pretending that she was going to recover, go into remission. But she was so short of breath.  And my father knew.  I didn’t.  Not until the very end.

It was yuk.  You can’t say how awful it was so you have to understate it.  I remember driving around the hills of Santa Barbara on the days just after her death, madly playing polka music, which I didn’t actually like all that much, not least because it struck me as a kind of dance of death, that mad refusal to believe in the end, that the peasants of Bruegel or Defoe are dancing.  I was driving in delirium, the furious round and round of the mind that cannot take in what is.

The thing about death-dealing sicknesses, or bills of death, sentences of death, in short, cancer, is that the mind does not go there.  It refuses.  And death or its prognosis never makes any kind of sense.  It interrupts the rational.  It fucks you up.

So here I am witnessing the sentence pronounced on my dear sister-in-being-and-love, MJ, who has just discovered that she has ovarian cancer.  The silent killer of women.  A sort of Jack-the-Ripper of the reproductive organs, a disease for which there are few reliable diagnostic tests, and fewer cures.  When it is found in the body late, as it has been with my sister, the prognosis is not good.

Everyone said that my mother’s cancer was nothing to worry about.  O, people recover from colon cancer all the time, they said.  It’s one of the best cancers you can get.  There are no good cancers.  Each one of the is deadly.  Every cancer spreads like a noxious weed, a plant that, thriving, chokes out the life in which it grows.  And it flourished in my mother.

My mother did not acknowledge this flourishing.  This bitter root spreading throughout her.  Or she did, but thought that somehow thought could eradicate it.  She believed that if she could heal every one of her significant relationships, her connections to her brothers and her children, that miraculously the cancer would die.  This theory infuriated me because it located the source of the cancer in other people while blaming the victim.  It seemed to be a kind of mental torture program masquerading as help.  If she could only fix her relationships, she would recover.  And we were all enlisted in this recovery, of  course.  We weren’t allowed to be negative

I took this philosophy to heart, and tried to be supportive, accommodating, helpful.  I quit my job as Director of State Relations at NYU and moved home to be with her.  I was pregnant.  I needed my mother.  Nothing worked.   She died. But I was not permitted to acknowledge that she was dying.  As a good daughter and caretaker, I was enlisted in a program of upbeat thoughts and morale building.  It was worth a shot, of course.  But I never got to say goodbye, because my mother never acknowledged that she was going.   When she left, I felt it was my fault. If only I had tried harder, had believed more in the possibility of her recovery. If I had had that powerful faith, then it would have been enough.

Yes, I know.  This was an unreasonable fantasy of power.  But we are exhorted in our culture to have these fantasies, to pray, to believe in prayer, and to blame ourselves for not having prayed hard enough when our prayers fail to come true.  I did not believe that she was going to recover.  Was it therefore my fault that she died? Or am I to blame for not having been more “supportive” of the fiction that she committed herself to?

My mother seemed to be the victim of a false consciousness program propounded in books for people dying of cancer–a program that exhorted that if only the mind would change, the body would follow.  This program sold lots of books but also made lots of people who ended up dying of the cancer they couldn’t control anyway feel like losers, like people who hadn’t tried hard enough.  I hate this program.

It seems to me–and how I hope that  will not need to practice what I preach here–that when something happens to us, especially when that thing is a medical condition that we have no control over and cannot understand, that we need to accept what is and step aside from the whole program that tells us to feel responsible for the fact that we got sick and that falsely promises that we have within the power to get unsick.

Now this is not to say that we shouldn’t try to maintain a healthy body/mind connection, or that we shouldn’t eat well and take our vitamins and get plenty of exercise.  We are responsible for our health every day.  But my mother was the healthiest person I knew, a moderate drinker, a light but hardly anorexic eater, and an active exerciser.   She played tennis three or four times a week, walked vigorously for miles every day,  had good friends, a relatively happy family.  As a good if lapsed Seventh-Day Adventist, she avoided fatty foods and alcohol and caffeine and ate loads of fiber.  But she still died of colon cancer.  It wasn’t her fault.  Nor was it mine. Or anyone else’s.

I just wish she had said goodbye, that she had let me know that she knew what was going on and that she had some kind of parting wisdom for me.  But she didn’t. She just left.   And I felt really guilty about it, because it seemed that I had not done everything that  was capable of doing.  If only I had prayed harder; if only I had believed in prayer.

It’s hard.  You have this life, however short.  My younger sister, with whom I have a difficult relationship I guess because we lost her, our mother at such different stages in our lives, directs everyone who receives email from her to live each day as though it were their last.   Nice sentiment.  What if you only had a year, or six months, or two weeks, to live?  What would you do?

My first impulse is to say that I would keep on working on my book.  Or I would try to paint at least one painting, that “tree of life”painting that I’ve had in my head for all these months.  But what if I didn’t have the energy?  What would I do then?  I would like to think that I’d write letters to all the people I love, in order to tell them how much I appreciate them. I would explain what they mean to me, and how they have changed my life.  Maybe I would do nothing.

My mother did not write any letters.  She just left.  But that is not quite right. She had been telling me all her life how much she loved me, how much I meant to her.  What more could she say?  Probably something.  But that was not her style.  She would have frowned, as I would, on some perfunctory expression of love, since she would have known that no singular declaration could possibly encompass all that she felt.

In short, we forgive the dead whom we have love, we make an effort to understand how they went, under what circumstances, and to appreciate them over the course of their lives.  We do not measure them according to their last moments, or years.  We remember them fondly, openly, with love.

Does everyone who leaves us remind us of this primal loss, the death of our mother, the woman who bore us into the world?  Probably.

I don’t have the faintest idea of how to process this new confrontation with death, this reminder of my own mortality.  How are any of us to know that we do or don’t have ovarian cancer, the silent killer of women?  Why don’t we as a nation or world have better tests for detecting this killer?  This, too, is a woman’s issue.  Why should the silent killer go after one of the great woman leaders of my time, my friend and sister, MJ?  How do I know that it has not also invaded my body?  Why don’t we have better technological understanding of this disease?

I am frightened.

Fear of Writing

fellow wordpresser relates that she typed in “fear and writing” and that a lot of stuff came up.

She didn’t explain what came up,, or what prompted her to google “fear and writing,” but she did say this:

A friend and I laugh about how it’s gotten that not only do you have to write a book, you’re expected to edit it, market it, and then pulp it too. You certainly have to know exactly what shelf it’s supposed to be on.

The stress and frustration comes when the mind refuses to participate.

The fear, of course, is that we will not be able to pull off all of these different tasks, which used to be shared between various people.  And that fear taps back into the anxiety that most of us picked up when we were children, when, no matter what we did to please our parents, we were still not good enough.

Now, it appears that the writer of this blog and her friends are non-academic writers, but the anxiety she describes about presenting her work as a commodity in the marketplace before it has even become a thing, a work of art, a symbolic expression, a statement to the world, affects scholars as well.  She writes,

The marketing buzz has gotten out of hand. We are trying to market before we’ve even created. And there are writing books that actually say don’t type a word until you know your audience. Don’t let a thought fill your head until you know who you’re going to sell it to.

Although we academics and the upper-echelon university administrators for whom we work like to pretend that we transcend these petty concerns of profit and interest, although we claim to be engaged in the pursuit of truth and knowledge, the realities of the market affect us, too.  Whole books are stifled because presses are increasingly under pressure to publish only what they think they can sell.  And who wants to read an academic book other than other academics?

A friend–I say “friend” although the trust on which a friendship is built has yet to be established–let us say, the husband of a friend of mine, a man who is the child of academics and who spent long years working in academia, recently said to me, when I told him that I was still plugging away on my book,

Why?  What is the point of writing something that no one, or maybe five people will read?  What are you writing it for now that you know you’re not going to get tenure at X?

He was not exactly encouraging. I, however, was prepared for him and answered that I believed that I had a contribution to make, an original argument that deserved to be published, and that it meant something to me to express it.   Then he asked me if I had anyone reading it, an editor or fellow-writer to bounce ideas off of.  When I said that I had sought such a helper in vain, he responded,

In my experience people who don’t have a reader cannot finish their books.  You simply can’t do it.

Okay, so this really irritated me in that way that a microscopic piece of glass under the skin of your index finger irritates you. And it deflated me to a certain extent because I have heard this same refrain in my mind for years and years. And yes, to a certain extent, the echo still reverberates.   This person seemed to be encouraging me to give up and admit that I had failed and would never finish the work that I had been working on for so many years, the book that I had originally envisioned completing in two or three years.   But for some reason I didn’t hear him saying this.

When people say things like this to me, what I hear is that they would like to write and are afraid to do it.  If they can convince me to give up my project, that will justify their decision to give up theirs.  This sort of statement only comes from someone who has bought into the whole, ridiculous belief-system that a person is only real once he or she has published a book, or made a fortune, or conquered a country, and so on.  What they–we–are all afraid of is of being scorned, or ignored, or somehow evaluated as inadequate.  And this fear probably comes to us not only from our childhood, from our parents, who projected onto us their feelings of failure and unworthiness, which they experienced in their own relationships with their parents and their cultures.

This is an old, old fear, passed down from generation to generation.  But it is also a new fear, one that we encounter when we enter into the market as writers and believe that what we are selling is somehow a part of ourselves.

I do not know how to write without understanding my writing as a part of myself.  I know that lots of people do grasp this.  Popular authors invent or copy a formula and reproduce it in a fashion that is sure to sell.   I also do not know how to write without feeling the pressure to sell what I am in the process of writing, of expressing.  It’s not possible to be a writer who expects or needs to get published without being subject to market pressures.  And this is as true for scholars as it is for popular writers, for novelists and poets and self-help manual-writers.  It is not possible to create art, to be an artist, without being conscious of, or in some fashion under,  the force, the influence, of commercialism. We live in a commercialized world.

Hell, we are all forced to become capitalists.  Or we are if we are wise.  In this economy, saving money in a savings account or CD simply pays so little that, after the effect of inflation, the value of our money actually DECLINES.  We think about what is happening to our wealth as a sum, a number, in nearly every decision we make–when we decide to rent instead of to buy, when we decide to buy goods of any kind–milk, paper, educations, lawnmowers, sheep, art, companions– at exorbitant prices or at the bottom of the market.   And in our particular economy (as opposed to say, earlier forms of society, when economic values were largely held in land and people and animals, as opposed to in money and stocks), it doesn’t pay to save money without figuring out some way to make that money grow.  People don’t keep gold coins in chests anymore.  People didn’t used to believe that money could make money.  They also didn’t used to approve of lending money for interest, or of deliberately paying a person to produce a commodity a fraction of what you know you’ll get when you sell that commodity in the market.

So, we think of our selves as body/minds for sale–newscasters and politicians nearly always have to be physically appealing to succeed.  And how many obese, female CEOs do you know?  We sell ourselves, our skin color, our education, our reading list, the newspapers we subscribe to, the cars we drive, the labels we wear, the dogs we care for, the accomplishments of our children, even our most intimate companions, our lovers, our wives, our husbands, these things become attributes, aspects of our abstract portfolio, our virtual net worth.  We are not evil or bad or selfish, inherently,  for thinking this way.  It’s our culture.  It’s all we’ve ever known.

So of course writing–and all art–is subject to market pressures, the need to know who your audience is, and how to market it, and where to try to sell it.  And yes, the people who are best at promoting themselves as commodities are in fact the people who make the most money.  They’re not necessarily the best at what they do.

Okay, so in very few instances, they are.  Mozart was good at selling himself, and he was great.

You could say that even the idea that we are writing for reasons other than material need is cultivated and promoted in the market as a way of trumping up the value of what we produce.  This “true expression of the spirit” is what we covet, what we as buyers want to purchase.  We put it on our bookshelves and on our walls when we are rich.

And yet there is somehow the drive, the insane push to formulate some kind of analysis or narrative of something or other, purely for sake of expressing it.  This is the same impulse that we are all under to “be creative,” to find some means of representing our “inner selves.” This, of course, cynically viewed, is just another way of buying into the idea that there is an inner self that could be expressed.

Still, there is something more than this, too, a need to contribute, to get into the conversation, with other people who also care about the past and who want their scholarship or their novel or their craft or skill to explain things in a way that will make a difference.

In the past, people like Milton believed that this wish to generate art, or to have a job best suited to his or her capabilities, was the yearning of God to show himself (Milton believed that God was male) in the world, to communicate with his creatures.  This was a radical idea, believe it or not, compared to the older belief that people worked in the fields and the stations to which they were born; they didn’t even have a concept of individual desire, inclination, or talent for one thing or another.   We are all subject to this longing–not just the writers among us, but also those of us who work in business.   In corporate culture more than anywhere, in fact, the pressure to be “creative” is felt.

I am still thinking that this may be a universal longing in the human spirit, even though I don’t actually believe in transhistorical longings on the grounds that our desires are constructed and sustained in historically specific environments.

Tara Brach writes and speaks about an ancient Tibetan wisdom which teaches that the divine abides in everyone.  She tells a classic tale about a monastery that has fallen on hard times.  There are only four monks left, and they are all old. The community is not thriving, and they have no ideas for how to continue.  One day the abbot goes to visit a rabbi.  He tells him that he is extremely worried about the future of the monastery, and asks if the rabbi has any suggestions for how to plump up their membership and coffers.  “No, I can’t think of any way for you to plump up your membership and coffers,” the rabbi says, “but I can tell you one thing.  I can tell you that one among you is the Messiah.”

The abbot is astonished to hear this and relates the news to his brethren.   Once they learn that one of them is the Messiah, the monks begin to treat one another with an extraordinary courtesy.  And an extraordinary change comes over the monastery, a light of kindness seems to glow in the faces of the monks, and bye and bye word gets out and new monks come to share in the extraordinary community.  Soon so many new members have come, the monastery swells and thrives.  All because each of them believed that one among them was the Messiah.

So Tara Brach interprets this tale according to the Tibetan wisdom that the divine inhabits each one of us, and that the god or goal we seek is already here, within us, and that our true nature is love.  This is not so different from the advice of my fellow blogger, Nina Killham, encourages us all to ignore the market and write out of love.  Love is the main ingredient, she says, of what we ought to be writing.

That’s nice.  But in fact we can’t ignore the market.  Nevertheless we could try to write out of love, not fear.  Fear comes to us, seeps into us, through the market, which transforms each of us into small children needing to be accepted and valued by “parents”–our audiences, our publishers, our critics, our rejectors, our deniers–who don’t give a shit about us, who have not entered into anything like a dignified and loving relationship with us, and who never will.

What I suggest is what Tara Brach would suggest.  Let us all put our hands upon our hearts and acknowledge with compassion the need to be loved, our longing to be accepted and valued–hell, not just valued, but SEEN, recognized, acknowledged–in this particular time-frame of human culture, and accept that this is.  Let us also see that we are seeing this.  Let us step above ourselves for a moment, and understand with love why it is that we need this, why it is that we fear writing, because of what it has come to mean for so many of us.  Let us find some way to write in spite of this anxiety, from which we cannot every fully come free.  Let us understand ourselves as writers with love, not fear, and try somehow to get across what it is that we need to get across, in order to have an intelligent conversation with someone, and to get a better sense of what it is that we are trying to understand.

This is it: this is my life

So, tonight I woke up at a cocktail party and thought, ‘this is it; you have grown up and this is your life.’   So different from the way I grew up.  But which is worse? to grow up again and again in new worlds with their own particular customs and rules, or to grow up in the same place, again and again, with the tiny group of people you have always known.

So many people choose the latter, it seems, for safety.  I guess.  But I could never make that choice.  There is so little time left to me, I fear, and so much more to do, to see, to share.  In this brief existence, surely we are meant to learn as much as possible from as many different people and cultures as we can.  Surely we are supposed to try to understand and love one another.  So we should travel, and converse with, and learn to love, as many different people as we possibly can.  We should seek them out, and listen to their stories, and recognize our common divinity.  We should learn to experience one another with our hearts open and not closed.  I love to be on a bus or boat or train or plane in some place that is not home, and to encounter a person I would never have meant in my tiny little home world.  Sometimes  I resonate, admire, and even come to  adore, as in love, that person, or the person whom that person led me to.

What more matters, after all, than to have a good friend in life, someone you can truly count on.  A genuine friend who counts very few people amongst their real friends.

We don’t often meet people who, a) see us and b) respect us and c) call this and nothing other than this “love.”   Not that it has to be a sexual love.

But how could you love someone who can’t or won’t really see you, and whom you don’t respect?   That person might be in the category of just-met-and-really-fabulous, but you can never really love a person you don’t respect.   And you can’t really become available to be loved until you respect yourself.

So you have to do some diving.  You have to go down deep into what you call yourself and find out what it is that you really want, and how you really want to go about getting it.  You almost always really want peace.  But not death.   So there is this problem, this paradox, from the very beginning, and you have to sort it through.

Looking for work or having a baby? Leave the country: The Global Gender Gap

Of all the interesting and depressing statistics that the authors of a recent Newsweek essay on sexism at work–U.S. men still earn 20 per cent more than U.S. women do–the following seemed most important to reiterate:

The Global Gender Gap Index—a ranking of women’s educational, health, political, and financial standing by the World Economic Forum—found that from 2006 to 2009 the United States had fallen from 23rd to 31st, behind Cuba and just above Namibia.

The report measures how countries distribute their resources and opportunities between women and men.  That means it also measures how various countries continue to treat women as less than human beings.   It measures “hard” statistics in four “pillars” of civilization:

  1. economic participation and opportunity: “hard” statistics measuring what women and men get paid for relatively equal work; the ratio of women to men in positions of leadership (bosses) and workers;
  2. educational attainment: girls’ and boys’ access to education and literacy rates;
  3. political empowerment:  the ratio of women to men in positions at the highest levels of government;
  4. health and survival: life expectancy of women and men and  sex selection at birth.

Scores in each of these countries measure the level of sexual equality and freedom for women.  Women have more liberty in 33 countries than they do in the United States.

Women have the most liberty in the following countries: Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, S. Africa, Denmark, Ireland, Philippines, and Lesotho.

Women are least free in the following countries, in descending order: Morocco, Qatar, Egypt, Mali, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Benin, Pakistan, Chad, Yemen.

Why does the U.S. score so low? The statistics don’t look so bad at first, especially when you look at education.

We’re at the number one spot, with Iceland, when it comes to literacy.  93 per cent of our girls and 92 per cent of our boys are in primary school.  96 per cent of our women get some education beyond high school, while only 68 per cent of our men do.   Still, gender equality in U.S. literacy rates is no greater than it is in Mongolia, Cuba, Honduras, Latvia, and Nicaragua, so it’s hard to brag.   Consider the fact that, in Kazakhstan, women hold 63 per cent of the tertiary (beyond high school) teaching positions, while only 45 per cent of the tertiary teachers in the US are women.

Men overwhelmingly dominate positions of authority in U.S. institutions of higher education. There.  We’re not feeling so smug now, are we?

Things also look  not too terrible in category one–employment.  After all, 69 per cent of US women work, compared to  81 per cent of U.S. men.  But the average woman makes only $25,613, which is paltry compared to the average man’s salary: $40,000.   In Iceland, where 83 per cent of the women work, and 89 per cent of the men (it seems the Scandinavians DO have a stronger work ethic in general), women earn $29,283 compared to $40,000 for men per year.   There are even statistically more women in positions of authority in the workplace–bosses, managers, and senior officials–in the US than in Iceland.

In short, fewer U.S. women have access to paid work, and those that do get paid a lot less for the same kind of work than in other countries. Men are still powerfully discriminating against women in the U.S. workplace.

It’s rather humbling–and quite infuriating–to find out that women in 16 other countries–including Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Mozambique–have greater economic equality and opportunity, compared to men, than they do in the U.S.  Canada is way ahead of us in providing jobs and equal pay for women, and Uzbekistan is ahead of Canada.

When you get to category 4, political empowerment, it becomes very clear that men are making most of the laws in our country:  women hold only 24 per cent of our high-level (ministerial) office, while 76 per cent of the high-ranking officers are men.  In Iceland, women occupy 36 per cent of high-ranking positions.  But they have also had a female head of state for 16 of the last fifty years, while we have never had one.

What really brings the US down in this study of equality between men and women around the world?   You guessed it: our abysmal health care system.

Maternal morality rates are a very good indicator of how a country takes care of its people, especially women.

HAVING A BABY?  LEAVE THE COUNTRY:  Women are  more likely to die in childbirth in the U.S. than in Austria, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the Netherlands.

11 out of every 100,000 women who give birth in the U.S. die.  In Iceland, 4 of every 100,000 women die.   Okay, so we’re way ahead of Yemen, where 430 out of every 100,000 women, or Nepal, where a startling 830 out of 100,000, die giving birth.

Humane health care is the sign of humane attitudes, not wealth:  Women who have children in the U.S. receive far less support from government and private sources (like employers) than they do in 39 other countries, including Guatemala, Barbados, Columbia, Mauritius, Mexico.

Here’s the really startling statistic that shows that our failure to provide health care results in many more teen mothers than in other countries:

In Iceland, as in all countries that offer universal health care, or nearly universal health care to its citizens, only 14 out of 1,000 adolescents give birth. In the U.S., where  religious extremists who oppose giving women their constitutional right to make their own health care decisions, 41 out of 1,000 adolescents have babies.

How many of those 15-19 year olds are ready to be mothers, do you think?  And what kind of health care are those new mothers and their children getting?  How likely are those children with babies to get a higher education? How likely are they to fall into poverty?

I’m still mad and I’m still writing.

The Hard Road to Freedom

What does it all mean?  And why am I still ANGRY?  Why are the National Organization of Women and NARAL, our nation’s strongest advocates for women women’s health, upset?

The mostly male members of the House and Senate managed to bring a little sanity to our insane health care system last night.   With nearly all Republicans voting against health–which in my book amounts to the same thing as voting for death– the Democrats took a first and very timid step towards better health care for all Americans last night.  But they caved into right-wing demagoguery and big-business interests anyway.  When will they learn?

Here’s how this bill, if it is allowed to stand, will reduce the liberty of women in our country:

1.  It will severely curtail women’s access to abortion.  Employers and employees will now have to write two checks EVERY MONTH, one for health care, and another for an “abortion rider,” if they want to have coverage for abortion.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  Before the bill, 85 per cent of insurance companies covered abortion without stigmatizing it.  : it imposes new restrictions–burdens and cumbersome procedures–that will effectively limit women’s access to choose, which is exactly what the religious zealots and terrorists wanted all along.

2. It will effectively cement the power of the Hyde amendment, which is not an established part of the law, but rather a measure tacked on to the appropriations bill every year.  Why?  Because the President agreed to issue an executive order that will lend the weight of his office to the anti-abortion measures included in the bill.

WHY THIS IS BAD: It shows us that the guys in government are willing to trade away women’s rights to get what they want.  The end does not justify the means. By strengthening the Hyde amendment, which prohibits federal funding for abortion, this order weakens women’s constitutional right to choose to end unwanted or dangerous pregnancies.

3.  It will allow insurance companies in the health exchanges to discriminate against women and the elderly, most of whom are women, to charge women and the elderly more for health care –if the pool of people to be covered is greater than 100.

WHY THIS IS BAD:  It penalizes women for being female.  In the case of elderly women, who are poorer because they’ve been discriminated against in the workplace for their entire lives, it redoubles the penalty against women for being female.

4. It imposes cruel and unreasonable limits on health care coverage for immigrants.  Legal residents must wait a for five years to be eligible for Medicaid and other assistance, and undocumented workers cannot even use their own money to purchase health insurance through an exchange!

WHY THIS IS BAD: It’s racist and classist and backwards.  We are a nation of immigrants, and every one of us deserves equal access to health care.   And by the way–did you know that 25 per cent of all Black people in American immigrated to this country at the end of the 20th century?  So this policy is going to hurt, badly, at least 25 per cent of Black women in our country today. That’s shameful!

A good end does not justify bad means.  You can’t achieve justice for all by trading away the rights of some.

But WHY AM I STILL PISSED OFF?  Because religious extremists and religious terrorists are steadily eroding our basic freedoms!!!

Women have a basic right to bodily integrity and subjectivity.  By limiting our rights to the governance of our own bodies, by telling us that women do not have the ability or the freedom to choose what happens to their own bodies–a right they would never dare to take away from men–the lawmakers are attacking women’s fundamental rights to subjectivity, to personhood, to liberty.

I’m mad because these guys don’t care about my freedom, about my liberty–in fact they’ve shown me again and again that they’re perfectly happy to treat me as a less human than men, less entitled to basic freedoms than men.

Not enough Democrats and Pro-choice Republicans seem to be getting this message:  Women’s basic liberties are  falling under the monster-truck tires of the demagogues and the religious terrorists, who are determined to grind women into the mud.

These people are not just against health care, not just against abortion, they are against WOMEN.  (And on Stupak’s resolute disregard for women, especially for Nuns, see Jodi Jacobson).

And yes, some of these extremists and terrorists are women, but that means nothing.  Women have historically traded away their liberties in exchange for financial and emotional support from men–Women are not the only group of oppressed persons who believe what their oppressors tell them to believe, and who would rather take the lazy road of slavery than the hard road towards freedom.

Let’s all of us stop going along with the people who hate women.  Let’s all of us get on that road to freedom.

The sick men (and women) who want the middle class to be sick

What is with these guys? Why are they blocking legislation that would expand health-care coverage to people in the middle class, who are already paying taxes for it, and who need it?  As a new report from the non-partisan Robert Wood Johnson Foundation finds, the health-care crisis in our country hits the working people, the middle class women and men who pay the taxes that keep this country going, harder than anyone else.  According to this report:

  • More middle-class Americans are uninsured.
    Nationwide, the total number of uninsured, middle-class people increased by more than 2 million since 2000, to12.9 million in 2008.
  • The average employee’s costs for health insurance rose, while income fell.
    Nationwide, the average cost an employee paid for a family insurance policy rose 81 percent from 2000 to 2008. During the same period, median household income fell 2.5 percent (adjusted for inflation).
  • Fewer people were offered, eligible for, or accepted insurance coverage through their jobs.
    As costs of health insurance premiums rose, some employers stopped offering coverage benefits to employees, or changed the criteria for employees’ eligibility. While most employers still paid the lion’s share of their employees’ insurance premiums, rising costs have been passed on to workers—with some choosing to drop insurance.

How many people do YOU know who have lost ground in the health care industry lately?  Just about everyone I know has.  How many people do you know who are miserably stuck in jobs in which they have never flourished, and never will, because they are afraid to lose their health insurance?   Think of how much more productive we would be as a society if people took and stayed in jobs because they liked the jobs, not because they needed health care, or because they know that if they leave, they’ll join the ranks of the unfortunate persons who, often for very trivial reasons, are tagged with “pre-existing conditions,” and who will never be able to afford private insurance? How well, how energetically, how creatively, how industriously, do you think the people who stay in stupid jobs they hate because they’re afraid to lose their employer-sponsored health care, do their jobs?

And why should employers have to pay?  How much more productive an economy do you think we’d have if small businesses didn’t have to pay health care premiums?  Think of the great county we could be if employers were not hampered in this broken system.

How can these guys in any kind of conscience, much less good conscience, stand up and block health care to millions of American people?  How can these people call themselves “representatives”?  Who are they representing?  Who are these mythical people they claim do not “want” health care reform?  Who does not need health care?  And how do you think these Republicans, and the few wacko Democrats who have been LYING about what the bill will do (as has been exhaustively demonstrated, the bill will not make federal tax dollars go to fund abortions) live with themselves?  How would you like to go down in history as the guy who was against health?  It’s kind of like going down in history as Hades, or Hitler, or Nero.

How can anyone be against health?  Why would anyone want to prevent sick people from getting medicine, treatment, and care?  How can these guys insist, which is what they are doing, that Americans who get sick (and that would be all of us, because we all get sick at some time or another), should STAY SICK?  Is this the voice of reason?  Is this the voice of sanity?  In what lunatic cosmos do these people live?  And why aren’t their constituents throwing these anti-health, pro-sickness bums out on their bums?

How are we supposed to recover from the worst economic depression that we have had in nearly 100 years, and get back to work, when we are sick because these guys don’t want us to have health care?  Why do they want us to be sick?  Don’t they think Americans deserve to have productive, healthy lives?

And they say they’re the party of fiscal sense?  In what universe does a country full of sick people who have been denied health care constitute a healthy economy?  These guys must be sick–they’ve been thinking out of the wrong end for so long that they’ve gone mad on the gas fumes.