I have to be careful to not say that I have a poor memory. I have memories like a collage that is reordered with every consideration. What falls into place behind me are like discrete lead fragments drawn to a magnet.

Though it isn’t often I look back. Dredging.

It’s odd though, how sometimes no matter where you turn—what (or whom) you were trying to avoid will find you: in a film that you slip into the DVD, hoping for a bit of an escape; in the book you take off the shelf, looking for distraction or comfort.

I sat down here to write about a book. I suppose that is why all these thoughts, all these memories are forming. Books have a way of collecting our webs of experience between two pieces of cardboard.

*

I believe I was 10. I remember the house well, because I lived there twice. They say you have to build memories, like maps, recollecting/re-collecting and tracing patterns of neurons in the brain. I can walk the layout of the house in my mind still today, running my fingers over the sticky, humid walls on Orange Drive.

Unlike the women in a lot of stories like mine, my mother didn’t have a revolving door when it came to men. But that one man she should have left for good, she returned to.

And when she did return—when we returned—there was another man living in our garage. He had a key to the front door so he could use our bathroom when he needed. He paid me to tidy his room once a week. To collect the beer cans, and neatly stack the Playboys. That was all. A harmless man. The men who seem to have all their ducks in a row: they’re generally the ones to worry about.

But I’m veering off, as memories lead us to do on occasion.

*

The book.

I bought it at a yard sale with my own money — ah, I see now why the digression: I owe my most prized possession to Budweiser and Playboy.

A Gift of Joy. The first owner stamped his name on the end page and the title page. David W. Jones. But it’s Helen Hayes’ autobiography. It is as much anthology as autobiography. It’s full of monologues and poems she loved to perform. She includes Hecuba’s speech from The Trojan Women, and describes performing it in a whisper for friends on the ruins of the stage at Epidaurus, Greece. Those pages are marked with the marginalia of my 16-year old self, who performed it in a classroom in a backwater high school in Kentucky.

I’m not sure if I’d known who Helen Hayes was when I bought the book. It’s possible. I had a sitter when I was six or so. She had season tickets to the local theater in L.A. And she had a player piano. I listened to roll after roll of show tunes, and I sang along until her own kids got home from school every day. In those days, I was sleeping on an army cot in a walk-in closet with love beads hanging in the doorway. We had black lights in the living room so the pot plants would thrive. But the sitter’s house had a manicured lawn beyond the big, sliding-glass doors. It had hard wood floors, and everything smelled crisp. I might have learned about Helen Hayes in the sitter’s living room. I might have held on to Ms. Hayes as a symbol of middle-class genteelness.

Then again, I might not have known anything about her. I might have picked up the book, read the first lines, and simply understood:

In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God,
And the Word was God.

*

There is no one left to ask who it was that read to me. But someone did. Someone must have held me close, and helped me make all those neural connections between books and comfort.

Books are the one, safe place to confront your fears. A book is a therapist office. A confessional. And the stories sprawled over the pages offer absolution for being human.

img_20161007_095640The Gift of Joy, with its warped and tattered cover, feels different from all the new and used books I have since sought out online, and had shipped overseas to read to my own children: books by Dr. Seuss, Judith Voigt. Although, I admit that I cried so much reading Charlotte’s Web to my first son, I couldn’t bring myself to choke through it with my second. (But that was E.B.White’s doing, not nostalgia.) Only a few years ago, I found on E-Bay the brown-marble covered Children’s Bible with the illustrations that had given me so many nightmares. The horned Satan hovering over the cliff.

The Gift of Joy is the only sacred relic in my library. It’s one of only two objects I have from my childhood: the machine-sewn quilt my grandmother made for me before her back gave out and she gave up sewing, and this book. Everything else is a cheap replica.

*

“And the Word was God.” And Helen Hayes explains how she misunderstood the lines from St. John. But I am not sure it is a misunderstanding. The Word is mysterious web: the dark forms and the shadows. It is Connection in Absence.

And what better definition is there for a truly unconditional love?

 


(This began as an attempt to write a prose piece for Silver Birch. But it got out of hand.)

As a puppy, no matter how hard I tried to coax her, Kiri would never lay at my feet under my desk while I was writing.

It was part of the image I had in my mind: The writer and her dog. The productive and warm, fuzzy mornings with a mug of coffee and a buzzing computer. The quiet afternoons of revision, before the kids tumbled in the front door finished with school. I would bake, and make nourishing dinners.

I tried that for a couple of years. It didn’t work out.

img_20151001_083944Now Kiri is well over 15, and lying beside me, on the small oriental rug here in my tiny library. But this is not what I imagined.

My children are grown, and have moved out.

And I’ve moved out. Started over again, first on my own, then with a new partner. I would say that nothing has gone according to plan, but the truth is there was never a plan, only an image.

The question I had put to myself all those years is what do you want to be? Rather than what are you going to do?

In some ways, I am grateful for that. For what spontaneity has added to my life. The unexpected is always an adventure. I think it has made me braver than I might otherwise have been. I learned lessons, some very hard (some very hard on the people in my life).

But regrets are a waste of time. Even in hindsight, one can never really know what the results would have been from having made a different choice, at any juncture.

Many years ago, my best friend bought me a print by the artist Brian Andreas:

“If you hold on to the handle, she said, it is easier to maintain the illusion of control. But it’s more fun if you just let the wind carry you.” – Brian Andreas

It is a philosophy I have only half-embraced. I’ve usually used it to comfort myself when I’m faced with my own failure to achieve that “image”–however fuzzy–I’ve had in the back of my mind.

It seems odds with the now-ubiquitous line from Mary Oliver’s poem  “The Sumer Day”:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

But these are only the final lines. There is more to the poem:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.

(from “The Summer Day”. Mary Oliver)

I never planned to pay attention. But, suddenly, this seems like a very good idea. Instead of dwelling on the past, looking to define lessons-learned and outline regrets, it might be smart to catch up with myself: to pay attention to the present.

Instead of stumbling backwards into the unexpected, to walk face-first with an open mind into the days.

I recently finished Diana Nyad‘s memoir Find a Way. She writes that with age and wisdom comes balance. I would guess this also means the balance between planning and achieving. Following the failure of her fourth attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida, she celebrates:

The journey has been inordinately worthwhile, the destination be dammed (for one night anyway). – Diana Nyad

Pick up. Learn from mistakes. Plan: then pay attention to every stroke, every moment.

There are so many things in life that are obviously not under our control. But where we put our attention is not one of them.

I finished the counselling courses in June, and was looking around for the next thing. But we made a pact this year that I won’t go back to school this year: It’s E.’s turn. (I’m not really envious, actually, he’s doing math-stuff).

But I need goals. It is how I operate. External deadlines.

This time, I bought myself some new trainers, and have booked tickets to Newcastle for the weekend of the 25th of February. I am going to run the Northumberland Trail Marathon.

This will be my second marathon. My first trail race.

For the record: I have no idea what my marathon time was 5 years ago. I made it in before the cut off. That was my only goal. I have never been a fast runner. 5 years ago, I was less than a year from haven taken up running again – after a 17-year hiatus. Back of the pack all the way. Shamelessly so.

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They don’t call it Dorking for nothing. 2011.

The Bacchus marathon in Dorking, England goes through vineyards and up a hill that wants to be a mountain. I loved the trail section up the hill. The mud, the view. I was slow enough through the fields to see the slow-worm, like the Norwegian stålorm, that I had no idea existed anywhere else.

The run was perfect. My friends were waiting for me at the finish line. (Though practically everyone else had gone.)

It was the experience I was after, not the competition. I have no interest in running through city streets.

Now I’m mid-pack on short runs around the lake. But I’m still aiming only to finish the course in February. Injury free.

I’ve been out of sorts since the biphasic sleeping experiment. I learned, too late perhaps, that bipolar people should probably not mess with sleep. My immune system crashed, and I have been fighting off infections since.

But tomorrow is a new day. Mid-week, nothing significant about the date: always a good jumping off point for a new adventure. 18 weeks, a 2 week warm-up, then the 16 week program I found here.

E. is training with me, and running with me. Well, probably not with me, though I suspect we’ll start at the same time — and meet at the castle.

This should get me through most of the darkness.

This is the edge of the light that comes just before spring.

(It is only 53% booked as of today, if you are interested in meeting up with us at the castle!)

It is true?

Is it kind?

It is necessary?

The New York Times’ columnist David Gelles suggests these questions as mindful guidelines for posting on Facebook.

At first glance, fair enough. But on second thought, at least in my case: stifling.

To tackle them one at a time, I will begin with is it true?

We live in a post-truth era, conscious of the fact that at any point the truth can be altered, in effect–or rather, with effect–so that consequences (sometimes global) derive directly from a perceived truth only.  We won’t give up even our simplest of stories: Van Gogh committed suicide, Gandhi is a positive role-model.

Though largely free from the constraints of an imposed dogma, we have truth as a populist construct(s). Our decisions are so often based on misinformation, that some facts are entirely, and literally, inconsequential in regard to the values we hold, the decisions we make.

I would argue that there is a difference between facts and truth. Some facts are omitted from the histories, and others are largely unknowable, glimpsed only on occasion, in hindsight and even then often obliquely from behind a veil (of the current) truth. The coastlines are flooding. The bees are dying. Not because of a lack of facts, but because of faith.

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Occupy Wall Street. 2011

We find our respective narratives. Stick with them.  Repeat them.

Buy the t-shirts.

Truth will always be a matter of faith.

The specific faith of those who write the history books.

Even on a personal scale: whose truth is the truth? Compare two people’s recollections of an event and there are two truths. Both would bet their lives on their version. Simple things, like who ate the last piece of cake all those years ago, that Saturday (or Friday) night when Aunt June came by drunk (or not), with the pink (or brown) bakery box.

And science? Which scientific truths would you bet your life on? In the 1800s “psychiatrists” could read the bumps on your head, and there would be real-world consequences. Bumps in the wrong places might land get you identified as a criminal and land you in an institution for “rehabilitation”.

There is the truth of blood-letting that falls in and out of fashion as a (carefully circumscribed) truth. Anti-depressants. Chemotherapy. Truth is dependent upon a timeline.

What is your measure of truth, should you choose to pronounce one on Facebook? Is it an obligation to correct misinformation? To challenge every person’s faith with facts? (While I doubt such a practice would be unkind, is would certainly be unpleasant).

What about opinions? Educated guesses? Ethical standpoints? Are these untenable as public posts? On Facebook, among “friends”? How do you learn if you limit yourself to making statements regarding what you already believe is true?

I am in no position to know all the truths. And uncertain where my threshold is for defending what I do have faith in.

I am obviously over-thinking this one. Maybe I am not ready for Facebook.

Is it kind? I will admit, I am not always kind. In fact, I am suspicious of people who are only kind, or silent. Silence can be manipulative. And cruel. “Cruel to be kind” is a cliché. And kind to be cruel is, in praxis, a common tactic.

Does this mean it’s not mindful practice to denounce that which one finds inhumane?  To denounce it in a way that doesn’t soft-pedal, or back-pedal, or tolerate what one believes should not be tolerated? Does “generous of spirit” have a limitation, an obligation to shut down in the face of… well… (perceived) evil? Or do you just throw your hands in the air in the face of multiple truths and say, “anything goes”?

Alain de Botton describes tolerance as leaving space for concepts we find incomprehensible. To coexist, parallel without the drive to convert or squash. This is generous. This is kind.

But incomprehensible is not the same as reprehensible.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”Edmund Burke 

There need not be a binary at work: not being kind is not necessarily being “unkind” (dictionary definition).

No, I don’t have a good grasp on the concept of being kind. Not yet. I don’t have faith in the absolute goodness of it.

Is it necessary?

I need a definition of necessary, as well. Because this seems like the easy one: the world will keep turning, and human beings will either continue on generation after generation, or destroy our own habitat and leave the earth to the beetles. In either case, I am not necessary.

I might be important to specific people, be able to make a slight difference here and their on a personal level, but still not necessary. At least, I am in no position to assume so.

Even if I subscribe to a faith that deems every person’s existence as integral and meaningful in a cosmic whole, it sort of follows that even worrying about the necessary-ness of things would be unnecessary.

Clearly, I need to find something better to do with my time.

I can’t function with Geller’s mindfulness guidelines. In my mind, to attempt to do so would be to accept a gross oversimplification of applied ethics. Perhaps Geller tried to boil things down to positive bullet points, which is helpful. But if I haven’t worked along through that process, the bullet points looks like platitudes to me.

So, grateful for Geller’s suggestion, I’m making up my own guidelines for mindful posting on Facebook: in positive and negative terms.

  1. Do I suspect this to be a lie, a distortion or oversimplification of what is likely true?
  2. Am I posting with a malicious or selfish motive?
  3. Is this noise, or do I believe it is useful contribution to a social discussion?

One of the things that keeps me on Facebook is the daily post from Frankie Zelnick. I believe that making people smile is probably one of the most useful things one can do in this world.

Me?

I’m still not sure I will ever post again.