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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Epilogue 

Or something like that.

Not a denouement, for sure.

Perhaps it’s closer to a Decalogue.

Yes, that’s it.

I stopped writing in this journal because I was weary of myself and, by extension, my depression. I feared that my hard-won, multifaceted identity was in danger of being usurped by the Black Dog. And, truth be told, the continuous self-examination required to sustain this journal was exhausting and saddening.

When I stopped scrutinizing my thoughts, however, I began to regress. A little. Just a little. Nevertheless, as I have so painstakingly learned during the past five years, I can no longer afford even an infinitesimal regression. I’m going to grapple with this internal struggle for the rest of my life, it seems, so I’d better get used to painful introspection. It’s good for me, believe it or not.

I had my major breakdown almost five years ago, on my birthday. Although the event that precipitated it was – in retrospect – utterly inconsequential, the fact remains that it happened to me. It happened to me. My mind went somewhere very far away for a very long time. I still categorize events in my recent past as occurring either “before” or “after” October 2003.

Thus, I must continue to work diligently on my mental health every moment of every day. The process is often painful and I cry about something-or-other at least daily, but my tears don’t always signify sadness; instead, I think of them as expressing and representing emotion, which, for me, is always a good thing.

I couldn’t know it at the time, but my first visit to The Good Doctor signaled the beginning of the rest of my life. “We’re not going to use medication,” he said. “It is only by fully experiencing your [unrealistic] thoughts and feelings that you will be able to get better. We’re going to use your immense intelligence – not drugs – to help you get there.”

I know it’s not a popular course of action, but for me it was the right thing to do. With his help, I allowed myself to experience all of the wrenching, bottomless grief and fear (all there in my archives) that ultimately led to a restoration of my mind. “Remember,” he used to say, “feeling better is not the same as getting better. Feeling better is easy. Getting better is hard.”

I chose to get better, sustained by these words of wisdom from a most unlikely source:

only the most brave
go into the big waves
even
mark foo
went under
I’m glad I chose to go into the big wave. Happy birthday to me.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Journey 

"The frequently made comparison of Crewdson’s work to the movies – Steven Spielberg, Wes Anderson, David Lynch, etc. – are suggestive and derive from the “look” of the pictures, which resemble no visual artifact made by man so much as 1950s Technicolor movie stills posted in the lobby of the Palace Theater in Lake Placid, New York, or the Star in Concord, New Hampshire, or the Capitol in Montpelier, Vermont. The small-town theaters of my boyhood and adolescence. They’re like stop-action shots, inviting one, obliging one, especially perhaps if one is an adolescent boy, to concentrate on the details.

The comparisons to movies derive also from the way in which the contents of the pictures are assembled and staged – the special way in which the photographs are made. They do not conceal their staging (the staging, its artificiality, is practically flaunted), but like movies they are obviously expensive to produce and require an enormous amount of planning and huge crews and vast amounts of equipment and machinery. And similarly, their production depends upon trust and collaboration among many people with many different skills and types of expertise. They are assembled like soundstages, most of them built in and around the decaying towns of Western Massachusetts and Vermont, with the characters (and they are characters, rather than subjects) played by local citizens and sometimes by professional actors. A single shoot can force a town to reroute automobile traffic for entire days. So it’s natural to want to compare them to the movies."


~ Russell Banks
Introduction to Beneath the Roses by Gregory Crewdson

When I first experienced Gregory Crewdson’s monumental Edward Hopper-like photographs, I was moved and stunned, because it was my long-ago rural hometown that Crewdson employed as his canvas, muse, and palette: the place that held long-buried secrets and memories; that ultimately lifted me from the depths of my major depression; that formed the girl who became the flawed but finally integrated woman who writes these words today.

To me, the title of Crewdson’s book and exhibition spoke to the deeper entanglements – anxiety, loneliness, fear, and separation – that lurk beneath the placid surface of small-town America ... and within Crewdson's own psyche, perhaps.

Of course I was compelled to see his brooding seven-foot-wide photographs in person at the Luhring Augustine Gallery – what choice did I have? Crewdson’s unsettling canvases represented my psychological redemption.

My high school was just around the corner from the theater marquee at the right, and I learned to drive on that very street:


I passed this down-on-its-luck cafe every day as I walked home from school. I laughed as I remembered how the tough Polish kids used to beat up my brother with alarming frequency:


But this one ... this one gave me pause. It was taken in the very spot where I grew up:


This pre-production still/study absolutely captures the bucolic nature of that time and place:


When I told the gallery attendant, she said, "You've come a long way, haven't you?" I smiled and said to myself, "Not so. Not so. You'd be surprised."

As my dear friend observed, "In so many ways we never do come that long a way. Or if we do, it is a journey deeper into, not outside of, the self."

I think my dear friend is exactly right.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Of Spring and Memories 

My closest friend died a year and a half ago. I still think about her every day. I’m crying as I begin to write this, in fact.

A group of my oldest and dearest friends decided to meet last week to honor her memory. It wasn’t easy to assemble everyone, but somehow the friendship gods cooperated and we found ourselves assembled at Café de Bruxelles, her favorite meeting place. Pommes frites and Belgian beer – is there anything better?

I told some favorite stories about the old days with her (alcohol, drugs, and the Grateful Dead, primarily) as we sat for hours, undisturbed, at a secluded table. It felt good to be with everyone and reminisce, as only longtime friends can.

Afterward, we all lingered in the street, air-kissing and chatting, as we prepared to leave our temporary cocoon of intimate friendship and reenter our separate lives. I wasn’t quite ready to return home, however.

Springtime, to me, has always been synonymous with the semi-riotous flowers – daffodils, pansies, tulips, and masses of forsythia – that my friend and I loved and cultivated. We emerged from the sex-drugs-rock and roll phase of our early friendship into a slightly less ruinous nature-and-flowers era, during which we stalked obscure garden centers, searching for exotic, untamed perennials.

Thus it was that I took a flower walk with my friend last Sunday.

Ancient, unruly vines have always fascinated me. This magnificent specimen originated here:


… coiled around a neighboring window:


… and snaked across the street to terminate here:


I christened this humble vignette “Still Life with Tulips and Air Conditioner On Blocks”:


I don’t quite know what this was all about, but it just reeks of a decadent fashionista sensibility, no?


And this was simply … lovely:


All in all, it was a perfect way to honor her memory. I think she’d agree:


Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mementos 

I’m not a terribly sentimental person, at least in terms of clinging to quotidian possessions. Most often, I tend not to invest most inanimate objects with emotion or meaning (excepting photographs, of course).

But there are a few possessions that I cling to, that I’ve kept close by throughout the years – totems, in a sense – that help me understand the life I’ve lived and the person I used to be … and still am.

When I was eight years old, my grandmother (now long deceased) made this cat in her ceramics class. She did most of the painting, but left the right eye unfinished and asked me to complete it. I remember her telling me what a magnificent job I had done when I presented her with my asymmetric creation:


She also made this ceramic jewelry box for me, inscribing it “To My Darling. From Nana”:


Even now, it resides in all of its glorious, baroque, basement-ceramic-class splendor upon my bedroom dresser, a poignant reminder of how much my Nana loved me, once upon a time.

I’ve always cherished this photo of my grandmother (third row from the top, fourth girl from the left), taken when she was in grammar school, in a one-room classroom that still remains near my childhood home:


We sometimes forget that the very old were once young, too.

My mother purchased this figurine when I was an infant because I slept in exactly the same position, she told me:


And do you know what? Except for the thumb in my mouth, my adult sleeping position remains very much the same.

This is my spelling workbook from the second grade. The phonics system has served me well, it seems:


And, finally, these are the school medals I amassed throughout the years: long-distance swimming, French National Honor Society, National Honor Society, silver and gold Speech Society awards (for debate and original oration), and my American Legion scholarship and service award:


In fact, going though my mind right now is the mnemonic drill that Sister Agnes always rehearsed with us in French class:

“Me, te, se, nous, vous
devant le, la, les
devant lui, leur
devant y
devant en
devant le verb”
When I think about how much I have seen and experienced in my life thus far, I am humbled when I contemplate this mere handful of totemic objects that continue to define me.

And so life goes on ...

The Blogger At Four 


My preferred caption:
Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Proust Blogiversary 

What better way to celebrate my fourth blogiversary than by updating my 2005 and 2006 Proust Questionnaires?

At age 20, Marcel Proust (1871-1922) endeavored to place his own psyche under the microscope by composing a series of questions designed to reveal one’s innermost thoughts. More than a century later, the Proust Questionnaire continues to pierce, probe and scrutinize.

My latest Proustian revelations:

What is your most marked characteristic?
2005: Kindness towards, and acceptance of, almost anyone
2006: I still believe this is so.

2008: This is changing as my psychotherapy progresses. Now, I find that I am much more willing to speak my mind and call out incompetence whenever I encounter it. At the same time, I am learning to forgive, which is an extremely powerful feeling.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
2005: Piercing intelligence
2006: I admire a man who has been seemingly irretrievably broken and yet has somehow put himself back together again (and is piercingly intelligent, of course).

2008: What I said in 2006 is still – quite surprisingly – true. If you haven’t been broken, I’m not interested.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
2005: Piercing intelligence
2006: I admire a woman who has been seemingly irretrievably broken and yet has somehow put herself back together again (and is piercingly intelligent, of course).

2008: Kindness, steadfastness, and piercing intelligence. Women are such complex creatures that I can’t choose just one quality to admire.

What do you most value in your friends?
2005: Tenderness, kindness and generosity of spirit
2006: Oh, yes

2008: Yes, yes. I’d add steadfastness as well.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
2005: My predilection for self-denigration
2006: Alas, this trait persists.

2008: My self-doubt, which persists, but which I am also learning to conquer. I no longer hate (or deplore) myself, you see. In fact, on some days, I can actually believe I’m quite wonderful. So there.

What is your favorite occupation?
2005: Making love
2006: This year, a friend has taught me to appreciate the transformative beauty of music, in a way that no one has before.

2008: Digging in the earth, watching my birds, and taking time every day to be still. But I’m not becoming Crunchy Granola or anything remotely close to that. Leopard-print anything still rules!

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
2005: Unconditional love
2006: Yes

2008: Right here:



What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
2005: Hopelessness
2006: Yes. I still believe this to be true.

2008: Self-loathing. It resides at the heart of much of the destructive and hurtful behavior I have observed throughout the years.

In which country would you like to live?
2005: Either France or Poland
2006: Yes

2008: I’m happy to be right here, right now.

Who are your favorite writers?
2005: Chekhov, Saki, Kundera and Kazuo Ishiguro, but these choices are subject to change over time.
2006: All of the above, plus W.G. Sebald and Paul Auster

2008: Yes, indeed.

Who are your favorite poets?
2005: Baudelaire, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, Philip Larkin and Czesław Miłosz
2006: My love of poetry (and poets) is consistent, it seems.

2008: How could I forget Raymond Carver?

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
2005: Tomas from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being
2006: Ambros Adelwarth from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants

2008: Rattus rattus

Who is your favorite heroine of fiction?
2005:Madame
2006: Without a doubt, it is still Madame.

2008: Madame, Madame …

Who are your favorite painters?
2005: Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Schiele
2006: Yes

2008: Anyone who knows me will know what painters please me. Over time, I am less and less inclined to make lists of my artistic likes and dislikes. All art is beautiful and moving.

What are your favorite names?
2005: The simplest ones: John and Mary, in any language.
2006: My friends’ names are the most beautiful ones to me.

2008: I don’t think about this, actually.

What is it that you most dislike?
2005: At the moment, myself
2006: Bean sprouts

2008: Squirrels, perhaps?

Which talent would you most like to have?
2005: An exquisite singing voice
2006: To love myself, the greatest talent of all.

2008: The one I have, which is the professional writing I do every day. I have a peculiar genius, they tell me, for translating medical-ese and doctor-ese into clear, understandable language that helps many people throughout the world. The skillful use of metaphor helps considerably, of course.

How would you like to die?
2005: Beloved
2006: Oh, yes

2008: I am somewhat preoccupied with the fear of death lately. Let’s move on, shall we?

What is your current state of mind?
2005: It fluctuates continuously. At the moment, intense self-scrutiny
2006: The same

2008: I am at peace.

What is your motto?
2005: "That which does not kill us makes us stronger." ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
2006: "It is such a secret place, the land of tears." ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

2008: "He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed." ~ Albert Einstein

I began this blog exactly four years ago, approximately five months after experiencing a major depression and subsequent breakdown. I was in London, in an apartment on the King’s Road, wondering if I would ever become whole again.

I still struggle, I’m still in therapy, and I’m still medication-free. I left my longtime university job, my lifelong friend died unexpectedly, and I still regard my life as divided between then (before my breakdown) and now (after).

But I am at peace – finally – right here, right now. My next task is to learn how to love. I don’t think I’ve ever known how, strange as that may seem.

It’s a good blogiversary.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

I Can Haz Stilnez 

How I spent my weekend:


Here, in an eighteenth-century stone house by the river. It's all part of "learning to be still," you see. I think it's working ...

Friday, February 29, 2008

My Life In Hair 

I can’t get away from it. My hair continues to attract attention wherever I go – and this attention is intensifying over time. Go figure.

I first mentioned my hair in 2004, when I introduced the broad themes of my hair life in this somewhat bemused post:

…I’ve had the same haircut since 1989, when it was first created by my temperamental Italian barber. People don’t believe me when I tell them I go to a barbershop and pay a mere $16.00 for a trim, but it’s true. Fie on all chicy-chic salons – I discovered hair Nirvana long ago.

My haircut has mostly been described as a “
Louise Brooks” bob, but people with a knowledge of fashion history will look at me and gasp “Peggy Moffitt!” which is accurate too. Until last autumn, it was black, glossy, and perfectly sculpted, drawing comments even from jaded Goths I passed on the street. The Goth girls always commented on my color (vivid aubergine highlights, visible in direct sunlight), and I always loved to tell them that the color was one I acquired in Poland – a supermarket brand, no less, costing a mere $3.00.

My favorite hair encounter occurred with the actress Marcia Gay Harden on an LA-NY flight in March 2003. I settled in next to her, trying hard to master the I’m-so-cool-I-won’t-bother-you pose, but after several minutes of studiously ignoring one another, she turned to me and said ‘I love your haircut – it’s just like the one I wore in
Pollock.’ Indeed it was, and since I’d seen and liked the film, I was able to compliment her in return. Of course I told my barber about Marcia and he’s not yet stopped repeating the story.

Another favorite hair moment: I concluded an important presentation at a major academic conference in California and asked the audience for follow-up questions. I was apprehensive, hoping I’d be able to answer what I anticipated would be a fairly intense grilling. Immediately, a hand shot up in the rear. ‘There’s something I really need to know,’ said the questioner. I waited tensely. ‘Where do you get your hair done?’
I’ve also written about my hair in relation to hats and Louise Brooks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Brno in the Czech Republic. (Umm … and I forgot to mention when the dancer Mark Morris complimented my hair as we waited on line at the drugstore, which was a high point of this dance-lover’s life.)

I still have the same Italian barber whom I’ve visited faithfully every six weeks since 1989 (except during the worst periods of my breakdown, when I stopped washing and combing my hair for weeks at a time … ewww) and I still use the same Polish hair coloring product (which is now $5.00 and rising rapidly as the U.S. dollar plummets). It’s a perfectly sculpted glossy black bob with shiny aubergine highlights and nary a split end in sight.

And my hair phenomenon continues.

I was in a dark, smoky bar in Tucson, Arizona late last fall, seeking refuge from the unbearable heat, when I heard an unmistakably gay voice yell out, “OH MY GOD! I LOVE YOUR HAIR! LOOK! IT’S A DISCONNECTED BOB! DO YOU KNOW HOW DIFFICULT THAT IS TO DO?”

Me (doing my best Travis Bickle impersonation): “Are you talking to me, by any chance?”

Gay Voice: “OH MY GOD! CAN I TOUCH IT?”

Me (to myself, hearing my mother’s voice in my head): “Who knows where those hands have been?”

Me (aloud): “I don’t let people touch my head, thanks. But I appreciate your enthusiasm.”

GV: “I’m a hairdresser and my salon is further down the street. Look at the back of your head. That cut is fantastic. No one knows how to do a disconnected bob any more.”

Me (wiggling my eyebrows): “And you should see my barber – he’s a really cute Italian.”

GV: “OH MY GOD! I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE!”
Nor could I – so I left.

And there’s more. Last month, I was on an escalator, descending to Bloomingdale's main floor, when I heard a piercing Brooklyn-tinged scream emanating from the vicinity of the Chanel counter: “LOOK AT THAT HAIRCUT! I WANT THAT HAIRCUT!” And she pointed – at me. “Oh, shit,” I muttered under my breath. “A B&T hair encounter, no less.” I smiled, gave her the location of my barbershop, and told her no, she was not welcome to touch my hair. (Her nail art gave me the heebie-jeebies, yo.)

I dropped in to the Fresh cosmetics store recently, and a young saleswoman nearly attacked me at the door:

Saleswoman (shrieking): “Your hair! It’s so beautiful! Where do you get it colored?”

Me (cautiously): “I buy it in the supermarket in Warsaw. It’s very inexpensive.”

SW: “Warsaw? Where’s that
?”
Ba da bum. I’m outta here.

An encounter several weeks ago was especially confounding. A woman stopped me on the street while shaking her index finger in my face:

Finger Woman: “You’re the one … you’re that woman who … oh, you know. The one with the hair.”

Me (evilly): “Which one is that, ma’am?”

FW (staring): “You’re the one with the hair. Don’t mess with me. You’re that one.”

Me: “Yes, I am”

FW: “I knew it!”
How do famous people cope, I wonder?

But sometimes – just sometimes – a hair encounter can make me smile. Recently, I was visiting a relative in a nursing home and passed though the Alzheimer’s wing to reach his room. The hall was lined with wheelchairs, each containing a small, slumped body swathed in blankets. As I passed by one huddled form, I heard a faint, quavering voice say, “Look. A movie star is here. A movie star is visiting us.”

And yes, I let her touch my hair.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

From Cheeseburgers To Madeleines 

It all began when several friends forwarded the recent cheeseburger in a can link to me. “Would you eat it?” they asked. “Never mind – we already know the answer. Of course you would. You eat anything, don’t you?”

I know what they’re referring to – and it’s true. I do eat almost anything, thanks to the years I spent teaching and wandering in the wilds of post-Communist Eastern Europe. I’ve happily consumed golonka po staropolsku (pork knuckle in the old Polish style), flaczki (tripe soup), horse meat sautéed in a bubbling red wine sauce, and – my favorite – smalec, described as

“… a type of Polish lard created from rendered pork fat. Homemade smalec is typically imbued with pork cracklings, chopped and fried onion, marjoram, salt, pepper, and other seasonings. It is a classic peasant dish typically used as a substitute for the ‘rich man’s butter’ and is spread on bread. Approximately equal to one month’s supply of cholesterol on a single slice of bread.”
Bit it’s not simply the food that I recall with pleasure; rather, it’s my related sensory memories – Proustian, if you will – that provide a jolt of unexpected revelation:

Winter, 1997: I remember the cold gray train station in Katowice, Poland, where I sat at a rickety table on a cold plastic chair at 3:00 AM, eating a bowl of flaczki to keep warm. I recall the hiss and squeal of the arriving trains, the bright yellow bananas piled in the windows of the kiosks, the clouds of cigarette smoke that enveloped us, and the way my breath frosted the air between bites of my steaming flaczki and his golonka.

Autumn, 1998: It was my birthday and my friends planned a surprise party for me in Warsaw. Each guest brought a favorite Polish specialty and my interpreter, the Slav, surprised me with his homemade smalec. We all drank vodka, danced to Kroke, and devoured thick slices of coarse rye bread slathered with smalec. I even remember the black shift dress I wore that evening.

Such vivid sensory memories bring to mind Proust’s celebrated “episode of the madeleine”:

“No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of like had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory… I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal."
As Alain de Botton elaborates in How Proust Can Change Your Life,

“Like much of his life, the narrator’s childhood has grown rather vague in his mind since then, and what he does remember of it holds no particular charm or interest … and it is this failure that the madeleine now addresses. By a quirk of physiology, a cake that has not crossed his lips since childhood … has the ability to … introduc[e] him to a stream of rich and intimate memories. He recalls with newfound wonder the old gray house in which Aunt Léonie used to live, the streets along which he used to run errands, the parish church, the country roads, the flowers in Léonie’s garden, and the water lilies floating on the Vivonne River. And in so doing, he recognizes the worth of those memories…
Indeed those are worthy memories. And, just to be clear, I would so totally eat that Proustian cheeseburger in a can.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Truth 

“We all want to forget something, so we tell stories. It's easier that way.”
~ The Commoner,
Rashômon

“Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing.”
~ Akira Kurosawa,
Something Like an Autobiography

Akira Kurosawa’s philosophical and psychological masterpiece Rashômon, which synthesizes two separate short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is a devastating exploration of the nature of memory, the meaning of reality, and the impossibility of reconciling either with the complexities of human nature.

As the film opens, three characters seek shelter from a driving rainstorm beneath 11th century Kyoto’s ruined Rashômon gate. As they wait for the storm to pass, the priest, the woodcutter, and the commoner discuss a recent shocking crime: A noblewoman has been raped in the forest, her samurai husband is dead, and the notorious bandit Tajomaru is accused of the crime.

Through flashbacks and a nonlinear narrative, Kurosawa retells four versions of the crime, as related by the woodcutter, the bandit, the noblewoman, and the dead husband’s spirit, as conjured by a medium. Each retelling, however, is strikingly different from the others, and raises questions about the nature and relativity of truth and the inevitable subjectivity of memory. Are they unreliable narrators, or is human nature speaking to us from the depths of 11th century Japan?

The question of an “unreliable narrator” has always intrigued me, especially as employed by Kazuo Ishiguro, another Japanese master of ambiguity and multiple interpretation:

“Thus I turned, once again, to The Unconsoled, which has always been one of my favorite – albeit complex and difficult – novels to revisit. The hallmark of Ishiguro’s writing, for me, is his use of a narrator who is not as he or she appears to be. An unreliable narrator, as it were, who controls a steady drip-drip-drip of emotional seepage that eventually craves release. Most often, Ishiguro’s narrators tell a story that they appear to control, but which they in fact do not. Thus it is with me. I, too, am an unreliable narrator.”
When I first began my therapy, I told my doctor that I viewed it as a search for the objective truth about my past, my life, and myself. If I worked hard enough and burrowed deeply enough, I told him, this “truth,” as I called it then, would finally emerge and set me free.

Thus armed with this set of beliefs, I spent several emotionally wrenching years trying mightily to reconstruct the forgotten details of my childhood. It was when I asked my brother to fill in some missing details, however, that a curious non-synchronicity became evident, which film historian Stephen Prince calls the “Rashômon effect”:

“Rashômon has entered the common parlance of everyday culture to symbolize general notions about the relativity of truth and the unreliability, the inevitable subjectivity, of memory. In the legal realm, for example, lawyers and judges commonly speak of 'the Rashômon effect' when first-hand witnesses of crime confront them with contradictory testimony.”
Can there be such a thing as objective truth or objective reality? I asked myself. Why were our interpretations of key childhood events so widely divergent? Were we unreliable narrators or was something else – something deeply human – at work within our natures?

At times, I’d tell my doctor that I remembered an event perfectly, but when I’d describe it to him, he’d point out an inconsistency in my recollection, a detail that couldn’t possibly have happened as I related it. Gradually, with his help, I began to let go of the idea that memory was a videotape or an infallible construct. Indeed, my memories were as fragile and malleable as my deeply human nature.

Eventually, after several years of soul-searching, my doctor began asking me to tell him how my life would be different in the present if I could remember my past with the precision I sought. How would it change anything about you now? he’d ask. Such questions always gave me pause.

Well, I’d reply, I’d finally understand what is wrong with me and where and how the roots of my depression were formed. I’d understand why I am the way I am.

And how would that knowledge change anything for you right now? he’d repeat. It took a while for me to grasp his meaning – several months, in fact – but I finally understand: It’s much like trying to unravel the one true version of the crimes Kurosawa first unveiled in Rashômon.

It wouldn't change anything, of course ... and I’m all right with that.

Update: My prior Kurosawa reflection is here.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

To Live 

I’ve embarked upon a study of Akira Kurowasa’s body of work. My knowledge of the Master’s oeuvre is woefully inadequate and I quite enjoy self-directed cinematic study and full-bodied immersion.

I began with Ikiru (To Live) because the question it explores has always intrigued me: “What would you do if you knew you had only six months to live?”

Ikiru tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a mummified, middle-aged, shades-of-gray bureaucrat who has worked for thirty monotonous years at Tokyo City Hall, eventually rising to Section Chief of the Public Affairs Division. The only task that his job requires is to stamp each document that comes across his desk. Citizen complaints are never addressed and nothing is ever resolved – or accomplished.

After learning he has stomach cancer, Watanabe is haunted by the stark realization that his life thus far has been without meaning. Initially, he immerses himself for an evening into Tokyo’s cacophonous nightlife, but his despair and anomie persist. As Watanabe’s quest continues, he becomes entranced with his former employee Toyo Odagiri and believes it is she – a joyful and vibrant young woman – who possesses the key to a meaningful and joyous life:

You – just to look at you makes me feel better. You’re so incredibly alive. And me – that’s why I’m envious. Before I die I want to live one day just like you do. I won't be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do something. Only you can show me. I don't know what to do. I don't know how. Maybe you don't know either, but please – if you can – tell me how to be like you.
Toyo’s deceptively simple response brought tears to my eyes. She took a fluffy white toy rabbit from her purse, wound it up, and watched it hop across the table toward Watanabe as she said

But all I do is work and eat. That’s all. I mean it. All I do is make these little things. But even making these things is so much fun because I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan.
After enduring so many false starts and blind alleyways, I finally understood. Watanabe was right – Toyo did have the secret. She experienced pleasure in her simple daily tasks and required nothing else because the hum of being alive was quite enough for her. She was growing joyfully exactly where she was planted, as Watanabe (and I) came to understand.

I feel this joy in the here-and-now most intensely whenever I pick up my camera and make myself pay close attention to the life that swirls around me, much like my Gates-induced meditation about my blind photographer friend Jacek:

As the wind intensified, rustling the curtains overhead, my thoughts turned to my blind friend and interpreter Jacek, from Poland. What would he make of this, I wondered? Could this artistic experience affect him in some way, even though he couldn’t see it? I recalled that he and I had enacted a photographic experiment several years ago – an Eastern European version of the film Proof, in which a blind man photographs his surroundings as “proof” that the world really is as others describe it to him. Jacek and I wandered through his hometown until he'd approach a spot that evoked a particular sensation within him. “Stop!” he’d say. “Give me the camera. I want to take this photo.” “But there’s nothing there,” I’d reply. “But there is something there that speaks to me,” he’d respond, clicking the shutter with abandon. Passers-by gave us strange looks, and who could blame them? A blind man with a long white cane, taking photos? But Jacek had discerned something worth capturing, beyond the mere visual.
I feel it too, this thing that speaks to me right here, right now.

Last week, I managed to take what I think is the most expressive portrait of myself ever captured. It has it all: the girliness, the urban-ness, the split between my vibrant outer life and my very different inner world ... it's perfect:


And this mosaic in the Chambers Street station is exquisite and haunting, don't you think?


I was walking through Bryant Park at twilight and this group of buildings caught my eye as the late afternoon light danced on the Empire State Building just so:


Simplicity is never simple, is it?


When I saw those golden lights twinkling in the distance, it was as if I had discovered an urban Secret Garden ... shhhh:


Yes. Right here, right now – to live.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

What Maintenance Means 

I don’t give advice, especially advice about depression, medication, and/or therapy. I’m not a proselytizer, a mother figure, or a tough love advocate. I keep my own counsel and do my best to get through each day relatively unscathed.

Despite this surface equanimity, however, if someone dares to voice the “One day at a time” mantra in my presence, he or she will be rewarded with either my patented ocular death ray with lifted left eyebrow or penetrating thousand-yard stare, depending upon my familiarity with the feckless platitude profferer:


I know my course of treatment for my own major depression is not a common one. I take no medication and have relied solely upon talk therapy for many years now. I’m proud of my therapy and my hard-won progress, but I rarely speak about it, since mental illness is a topic that makes many people uncomfortable, it seems.

Still, there are times when I want to talk more openly about treating my depression without medication, especially today after reading this excellent post and the comment that followed:

“… Reading things like this is so valuable to me, because while I’m struggling to fight off the bad thinking and bad self-opinions, I’m also scared stiff at the idea of taking pills. Omega oil supplements is the closest I can come, I just can’t do St. Johns Wort etc - too much of an admission that there might be a problem. There was a wonderful blog on a woman academic who was fighting depression drug-free called Searchblog that seems to still be up, though posting has been slow since she achieved much recovery and had not yet decided what to do with the blog. Great stuff there on the struggle and the enlightenment of what is making it worse or how to make it much better.”
First of all, thank you. Thank you very much. I’m always astonished to learn that someone reads my blog, self-flagellating depressive that I am. I don’t know that I’ve “achieved much recovery,” however, since the struggle (or “maintenance,” as I now prefer to call it) is an eternal one, I believe.

Last week, I spent the day with a longtime friend, former university colleague, and fellow traveler through the thickets of depression, who still grapples with the unfortunate manner of her departure from academia. As we ate lunch in a funky café, she talked at length about her new job and a recent fraught meeting with a supervisor who appeared to question my friend’s professional integrity.

I listened carefully – I’m good at that – as my friend’s hands shook and her eyes filled with tears as she told her story. I didn’t interrupt or ask her to “try seeing things in a different light” until she said this about the aftermath of her supervisory meeting:

Friend: I was so upset and I know I acted out. I was crying and I hated myself for it. Then, when I was driving home, I could feel my panic and anger rising. I knew I was on the verge of road rage.

Me: So what did you do?

Friend: I called my psychiatrist right away and asked him to look into changing my medication. It obviously wasn’t right.

Me: And did he?

Friend: He asked me to come in and we’re experimenting with my dosage.

Me: You know I never give advice, but there’s something I want to say because I care about you. It seems counterintuitive, but hear me out, please?

Friend (looking apprehensive): OK.

Me: When something like that happens to me, and it still does from time to time, instead of trying to minimize or anesthetize those emotions, I now understand that emotional turmoil has tremendous therapeutic value. When I feel burning waves of self-hatred begin to engulf me, I know that I have to allow those emotions to pierce the core of my being in order to analyze, understand, and eventually extinguish them. That process – and only that process – is what has helped me. Grim, I know, but there you have it.

Friend: But I’m too afraid to feel my emotions that intensely. What will happen?

Me (smiling): You’ll probably start to get better. “Feeling better” and “getting better” are not synonymous, as I know you know. What I hear you saying is that you desperately want to get better. Medication, on its own, won’t help you do that.

Friend: But I’m so afraid to let those emotions out. When I try, I feel like my entire body is shutting down in protest.

Me: I know how hard it is to change lifetime patterns of thinking – and you’ll always be my friend, no matter what. Just … think about it, OK?

Friend (running her hands through her hair): OK.
And so it goes … and goes … and goes. It’s a lonely path sometimes, but when I write about it and experience it, I feel less lonely. I should learn to follow my own advice, shouldn’t I?

And I’m smiling now.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Just Resting 

I haven’t gone away. I’ve been deep in thought, trying to determine whether writing in my blog serves as a monumental distraction – or is deeply therapeutic. I care about these things, you see. I have to. When I didn’t pay such close attention, my mind quite thoroughly and swiftly deserted me.

And I’ve been photographing life. Whenever and wherever I roam with my camera, I find myself intensely focused on the present moment. I observe each leaf and sidewalk crack, loath to miss a millisecond of life’s cacophonous riches:

This overwhelming – yet peaceful – moment is forever fixed in my mind’s eye:


These shadows on a Central Park trellis never fail to draw me into their hypnotic vortex:


While my dear friend loves the heroic nature of this photo, I’m more attracted to the tiny speck of a bird (to the right of the building) soaring above our pedestrian lives:


I captured this Victorian rose in early November, on a brilliantly cold afternoon. We’re both late bloomers, you might say:


And I’ve always been drawn to mysterious, leafy paths to nowhere:


But even as I wander, I’m also learning to be still. I watch the chickadees and wrens outside my window. I listen to a favorite aria. I tend my roses. I write. She who stays in place endures, I remind myself. Stay. Endure.

Last week, I discovered a note I had written several months ago, after I learned that my friend had bequeathed her entire jewelry collection – hundreds of pieces – to me:

“What is a life? And when it’s over, what remains? And of that remainder, what do we keep – and what do we discard?”
It’s a difficult journey, this process of enduring – and discarding. But I remain.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things That Make Me Think 

It’s a shock, really, when one realizes that one is no longer depressed – but so it is. I find myself inhabiting the land of the living once again. I’m busy and occupied with work that I love, even though it frustrates me terribly at times.

I’ve come back, but I’ll always be coming back, I guess – one must forever be on guard against depression’s insidious creep. It also seems likely that my life will forever be divided into “before” and “after” my breakdown, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to be reminded of my fragility.

I’ve always been intellectually hyper-competitive and have always had tremendous difficulty accepting anything in myself that wasn’t outstanding, first-rate, supremely excellent, or transcendent, even. In therapy, however, such measured excellence – as in being the “best” therapy patient – isn’t possible, of course. All I can do is devote my considerable energies to becoming ever more precisely, particularly, frighteningly me. I’ve been humbled, certainly, but never bowed.

Still, one must never underestimate the terrible and omnivorous power of depression. Recently, I learned that a writer with whom I communicated in the past (before my breakdown) had been diagnosed with cancer. I wrote to express my caring and concern, saying that

I don't always understand why these things happen to we humans, but I know how tremendously restorative it is to finally emerge from the other side of whatever darkness we find ourselves grappling with. I know you’ll emerge too.
Her reply surprised me:

For what it’s worth, I would much rather have cancer than depression. There is nothing worse than depression …
And yesterday, my dear friend told me about an acquaintance with liver cancer and a pessimistic prognosis who said it was “a walk in the park” compared to depression. “The storms in the mind are the most terrible fate of all,” he always tells me, and I now understand that this is true.

I suppose it would be wise to abandon this journal now that I’ve reached the other side – to declare myself “cured” and never look back.

I suppose.

But something tells me to keep going, to keep telling my story, to demonstrate to a scornful and disbelieving public that it’s possible to become better without medication; that mental illness isn’t weakness; that there is joy to be found within painful, overwhelming sadness; that no one is beyond redemption.

I think I want to stay and tell that story.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Being Yellow: A Small Meditation 

“We’ve sustained damage, but we’re still able to maneuver.”
~ Spock to Captain Kirk


You Are a Yellow Crayon

You have a thoughtful and wise way about you. Some people might even consider you a genius. Charming and eloquent, you are able to get people to do things your way. While you seem spontaneous and free-wheeling, you are calculating to the extreme.

Your color wheel opposite is purple. You both are charismatic leaders, but purple people act as if you have no depth.
What Color Crayon Are You?

A yellow crayon describes my quotidian post-university life very well, it seems. I write professionally all day. I edit other writers’ work. I praise. I cajole. I try to make my writers become better than they think they can be.

Sometimes I surprise myself. I am a stern taskmaster, they tell me. Uncompromising. Difficult. Demanding. “And so?” I reply. “I want what I want. I want you to write this again because it’s not yet good enough.”

“You can do it,” I say. “I know you have it within you. Why are you settling?”

Sometimes, however, my writers become angry with me. “It’s good enough,” they reply. “What’s wrong with good enough?”

“It’s not good enough for me,” I answer. “Do it again, please.” Most often they will, but I know they’re cursing me throughout the process.

I want what I want, you see.

They don't know, however, how difficult this is for me, especially when I'm in the grip of depression or a self-hating moment. I’m often extremely anxious when I have to conduct such a conversation. I want them to like me.

But I know that’s not what will make me better. What will make me better is to keep my standards high. To ask for exactly what I want. To demand it, actually.

And so I do, even though it terrifies me. Because every time I don’t give in to the nine-year-old girl inside me who begs to be loved, I become – just a bit – better. But no one knows this. They think I’m strong and confident. "Good," my doctor says.

Still, I sometimes wonder if I should let “good enough” be good enough. Czesław Miłosz understood this, too:

I don’t need to write memos and letters every morning.
Others will take over, always with the same hope,
The one we know is senseless and devote our lives to…

So the Earth endures, in every petty matter
And in the lives of men, irreversible.
And it seems a relief. To win? To lose?
What for, if the world will forget us anyway.


~ Czeslaw Milosz
From Return to Krakow in 1880
Thank you, Late Bloomer.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Reflecting … 

Almost a year ago, I walked away from my life as I knew it and set out on yet another journey. I left the travel and the speechifying and the teaching and the writing and the high visibility behind in order to become a new person – or so I thought.

Everything stopped. I was alone with my words, my mind, my computers … and my depression. But – and here’s the surprise – my depression failed to engulf me. Now, whenever Self-Hatred clicks his fingernails against my psychic windowpane, I’m able to stand my ground, or, as my dear friend aptly describes it,

“The road back is not always so straight, and sometimes the ordinary stresses of life can trigger extraordinary responses. But I think you know you're getting better when the ‘off the wagon’ moments right themselves, when they no longer portend a backward spiraling.”
Am I happy? Yes, possibly. But I can’t tell you what "happiness" means, nor whether it’s even desirable. What I do feel, however, is – for want of a better term – integrated. My work is integrated with my life; my past, especially my childhood, is integrated with my present self; and all of this occurred without the benefit of medication. As my dear friend tells me, “You owe yourself your life. You did/are doing the work. And – I know – a hell of a lot of work it is.”

I don’t pray – I’ve never prayed throughout my psychological ordeal – but every morning, as soon as I open my eyes, the first thing I say to myself is this: “Being alive is a beautiful thing, W.”

I know I have a talent for simplifying/humanizing reams of arcane medical and ophthalmological terminology so that ordinary people – in other words, most of us – can comprehend it. My readers (not you, my dear readers, but my other web audience) tell me this with increasing frequency. Yet, despite my ability to make the complex comprehensible, I’m unable to describe the process, and experience, of rebuilding a mind that once was ravaged by depression and mental illness. That's how utterly devastating it is.

Whenever a patient writes to me, asking for help, I make it a point to answer immediately, if possible, because my doctor did the same for me when I first wrote to him four long years ago. I understand the frantic, desperate, and distorted thought processes underlying the belief that no one, in the entire world, can fix what has gone wrong. I also understand how it feels when someone listens and says, “I am here. You can talk to me. I want to help you.”

I’m so very grateful.
I’m so very fragile.
I’m so very grateful.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Amen 

There is an affecting recording of the elderly Copland rehearsing “Appalachian Spring” with the Columbia Chamber Ensemble. When he reaches the ending, an evocation of the American frontier in ageless majesty, his reedy, confident, Brooklyn voice turns sweet and sentimental: “Softer, sul tasto, misterioso, great mood here…. That’s my favorite place in the whole piece…. Organlike. It should have a very special quality, as if you weren’t moving your bows…. That sounds too timid…. It should sound rounder and more satisfying. Not distant. Quietly present. No diminuendos, like an organ sound. Take it freshly again, like an Amen.”
~ Alex Ross
Appalachian Autumn: Aaron Copland confronts the politics of the Cold War
The New Yorker, August 27, 2007
As I read the above passage, I could hear my dear, but puzzled, friend saying, “But W, why are you so drawn to Christian writers, yet could not bring yourself to attend Mass when you stayed at the convent? You’re pretty interesting.”

He’s referring to my stay in Ariano Irpino during my recent Warsaw-to-Naples-to-Warsaw magnum opus. Ariano is a small Italian village in the Apennine Mountains, centered between the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas. It’s also the site of the Mother House for a relatively obscure religious order known as the Silent Workers of the Cross Association.

I – utter heathen that I am – lived at the Mother House convent for a week, along with my Polish Catholic traveling companions. I was given my own room with floor-to-ceiling windows that opened on to this private patio:


... where I sat every afternoon and drank homemade wine before exploring the convent's magnificent mountaintop architecture and property:




After siesta, when we drove into town, we'd pass miles of vineyards and olive groves:


… and even the occasional cow (or two), which, I quickly learned, always had the right of way:


But I didn’t go to church, nor did I pray – not even once. As my dear friend astutely observed, I am indeed filled with contradictions; I prefer to think of myself as “containing multitudes,” however:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Amen, my dear friend …

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sadness 

On the first anniversary of my friend's death:

"And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth."


~ Raymond Carver
“Late Fragment”
Coda from A New Path to the Waterfall

William Wordsworth also comforts me today:

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.

~~~~~

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


~ William Wordsworth
From
536. Ode. Intimations of Immortality

Update:

But ... but ... but ...

I can't allow myself to end the day on such a somber note – my friend would be absolutely appalled. Instead, this is how she'd want to be remembered, methinks:


Yes – that’s it.
Good night, my friend.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Manxome Foe 

(With thanks to Lewis Carroll)

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy Rove
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the 'Bertogoves,
And the mome raths Abu Ghraib.

"Beware the JabberRove, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Dub-Dub bird, and shun
The Frumious Cheneysnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought –
So rested he by the Dem-Dem tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And, as in attorney-ish thought he stood,
The JabberRove, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the Plamey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went Libby-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And, has thou slain the JabberRove?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy Rove
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the 'Bertogoves,
And the mome raths Abu Ghraib.

(See also The Essential Rumy/i)

Monday, August 06, 2007

Rebirth 

Late last week I received the following note and photograph (at left) from my long-time friend and favorite Polish interpreter:

"Yesterday I was at the cmentarz (cemetery) to commemorate the 1 August Uprising. I try to visit every year and place flowers on the graves of those who fought for freedom. How do you like this photo I took for you? Nice shot, tak?"
Yes. It's a gorgeous shot, my friend – transcendent, even – and it’s from one of my favorite places in Poland: Cmentarz Powązkowski (Powązkowski Cemetery), a short tram ride from my apartment in downtown Warsaw.

I first visited Powązkowski in March 1996, shortly after the death of Krzysztof Kieślowski, whom I revered. I didn’t know my way around Warsaw then, but I knew I had to pay my last respects to the Master.

Although I shivered as I passed through the forbidding entrance gate:


… my trepidation quickly turned to fascination as I followed a sweeping gravel pathway:


… that traversed an exuberant jumble of headstones, crypts, and splendid statuary:



Kieślowski’s grave wasn’t difficult to find: It was covered with hundreds of flower arrangements (a Polish specialty) and located, as I later learned, in the highly visible and prestigious Plot 23, the final resting place for Poland’s literary, artistic, and intellectual elites:


But that was then. His makeshift – but heartfelt – birch cross has been replaced with a black marble sculpture that depicts the thumb and forefingers of two hands forming an oblong space: the classic director’s view through the camera lens:


I last visited Powązkowski in May, accompanying my interpreter as he lit a candle at the grave of “auntie,” his last surviving relative. “I am completely alone now,” he said. “I am the last one – an orphan, really. Do you have any idea how that feels?”

Afterward, I suggested we go across town and have an early dinner at Różana, a chic new restaurant in the old Polish style, nestled in a pre-war villa near Łazienki Park.

He: But this is very expensive.

Me: I know. But I want to pay.

He: But I am a male chauvinist pig. This makes me uncomfortable.

Me (laughing): I know. But I like to see you squirm. It makes me feel powerful.

He: Very well. But I wonder about this villa. Can it really be pre-war?
My interpreter has an impressive grasp of Warsaw's tortured history, and I’ve always savored our intense dawn-to-dusk architectural walks throughout the city. “Look there,” he’d say. “Do you see that Stalinist monstrosity? And do you see the decorative fragments still clinging to that building over there? Warsaw used to be known as the Paris of Eastern Europe at one time, you know.”

When we reached Różana, he paused and said, “It’s very beautiful, isn’t it? It makes me very happy to know that something this lovely and gracious somehow survived the war.”

It was indeed beautiful. The walkway beckoned:



… and the gardens enclosed our outdoor table in a lush urban cocoon:


“Do you know what this area used to look like after the war?” he asked. “Do you have any idea? Do you know how miraculous this rebirth truly is?” I couldn’t answer at the time, but I imagine the area looked something like this:


… or perhaps even this:


After dinner, we walked through Łazienki Park, where I spied this peacock posed just so above a stone lion:


“How wonderful it is that such rebirth is possible,” I said. “If peacocks can return to Warsaw, then there’s surely hope for all of us, yes?” He didn’t answer at the time, but his triumphant cemetery photo speaks volumes, I believe:


Isn't it marvelous to be alive in a world that contains such wonders?

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