Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Ethics of Storytelling

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, one of Rev. Dean's Lenten sermons got me thinking about stories. Sad to say, but I have been mulling it ever since. His contention was that storytelling--he privileged the oral form (now that is an unusual feat for the average 70s-born American)--was both rapidly dying and critical to human existence. His text for the day was Genesis, specifically the story of Abraham and Sarah which, he noted, isn't really about them at all so much as it is about human experience and wonder. Sharing of story and experience is critical to our humanity: "At the very least," remarks Barbara Brown Taylor in her An Altar in the World (a book I highly recommend), "most of us need someone to tell our stories to" (91).

Rev. Dean contends that one of the most significant pieces of evangelism is telling our stories, and he framed his sermon on Genesis in this manner. We tell stories to preserve history, to teach ethics, to confirm, to entertain, and for a host of other reasons. I would suggest--*gentle poke in the ribs* that we write stories for similar reasons. Nevertheless, to tell our own stories in any capacity involves a certain amount of exposure; we cannot control, once the story begins, where it will go and who will attack. So, often, we do not tell out stories--about faith, life, fear, joy, nor anything else. We simply close ourselves off.

In later conversation, he also noted that I tell my story more than almost anyone he knows (which suggests to me that he's not reading many blogs for I am a mere amateur, and I am not worthy of such a description), but that the Internet does afford a certain amount of safety. I don't, for instance, have to watch my audience and gauge how the story needs to flow in order to keep their interest or ensure their understanding of my points. I simply write and hope. And obsess--you'd not believe how often I read and re-read posts in order to remedy flaws...invariably after I post them (bad English major, but typical English major, too).

Like Rev. Dean, I think that telling our stories--in whatever form we have access to--is important. In order to capture and understand the spirit of a person, one needs to know his or her story. Consider the number of times you may have changed your view of someone, based on coming to know "the rest of the story" (thank you, Paul Harvey). When we hear another person's story, we acknowledge the humanity of the storyteller--and ourselves. But, only if we truly listen.

Time and again in my Lenten readings*, authors have pointed to the need to listen to the stories of others, to connect with our fellow human beings without incorporating these people into our own storylines. Taylor describes it thus: "At a deeper level, most of us need someone to help us forget ourselves, a little or a lot. The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed"(91). Chödrön says something similar in both books I read as a part of Lent, suggesting that we need to practice listening and to practice compassion as ways of getting outside our personal storylines (which differ from the stories themselves), which tend to be self-absorbed and prevent us from connecting with other humans. Even Warner got into the conversation, remarking that "I can't be happy if I make the people around me miserable under the mistaken impression that their misery is not intimately connected with mine" (208).

Practice: Listening without judgment, telling without judgment, and existing in the world as community, not individuals with little to no interconnection with one another.

Many of us will hedge when approached about our stories, claiming that we have no story or that the audience would merely be bored. Many of us assume failure with our stories and the connections that might be formed from them. I blog, but I seldom spoke up in AA (I've written about this before, but suffice to say that AA wasn't the space, place, or people I needed to survive sobriety--it does work, however, for a great many people and I strongly encourage anyone who is suffering the hell of addiction to find his or her way to one of the multitudinous AA, NA, etc meetings. Go online if you must, but find the space and share in the story). If you've never read the "Big Book," check it out though the link (used book stores often have copies, too); it is replete with stories of lives drunken and sober. Addicts are encouraged to share our stories (and the non-addicts around us are often baffled and annoyed by what appears to be a bizarre compulsion to talk about addiction, recovery, and sobriety). The telling of stories has a two-fold significance. One, it connects the addict to others by offering up a slice of humanity; other addicts may hear themselves in the story--or hear features that feel familiar.

"Sobriety was like living with a color TV with the volume turned all the way up at first, after having lived with a mute Black & White."

Yeah...totally got that metaphor when I heard it.

The second fundamental is a reminder. As Taylor remarks about the Desert Fathers, "The deeper reason they needed one another was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency" (90). Check. Addiction is, in part, a violation of community, a fleeing from shared experience into a pseudo-protective shell of addictive experience (that shell would be an example of a storyline as Chödrön describes them--"I'm safe so long as I drink. I'm happy so long as I have my junk, and so forth). So, not telling ones story--not confessing it--can too easily result in forgetting or dismissing or getting involved in the false storylines again. Granted, quite frankly, how wonderful it would be sometimes to forget those stories, to not be reminded of what and who and how and why and where and how many. For all the ways in which forgetting would help the ego and help me buy into a storyline in which I am perfect (not addict, not forgetful, not compulsive, not me), there is a savage grace to recollection. It hurts L.A.M.F., but such recollection also points toward redemption, hope, and promise of better days to come.

Classic redemption motif: sin-->confession-->penance-->absolution**

Confession, public or private is significant in this process. I suppose blogging is something of a mixed bag in the world of confessions; some readers (most, I would think) know me in my non-kitsch life, but there is a certain amount of anonymity involved nonetheless. However, I am far more likely to confess here than verbally--Rikki, for instance, came to know of my addictions in these pages, rather than in a day-to-day exchange, though I if I were forced to identify a family-confessor, she would undoubtedly be the one. Of course, I've still not really talked about the matter with her--so she might very well have figured it out long before, for all I know.

Now, here's the question, bringing it back to Rev. Dean...why is it easier to tell the story of addiction than the story of faith? Heh.

* I did finish the original 5, so I started Richard Wright's Black Boy, in which I see thousands of interconnections to the other readings. Book 7 (should there be a need) will be another Armstrong book, this one about the Crusades and the effect of that history on contemporary activity. I opted not to use Gravity's Rainbow after all...I mean I am already training for a marathon...I shouldn't engage in too much self-abuse.

**Assuming your author was so kind, of course. I mean some Fausts still get ripped apart limb-from-limb, after all.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Warner, Brad. Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. Novato: New World Library, 2009.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Academics and Assorted Musings on Mental Health

So, read this charming piece in the Chronicle today. It fairly well confirms one of my favorite descriptions of graduate school--that it isn't for the sane. Yes, indeed, studies indicate that graduate students are a mentally unhealthy bunch:

Social isolation, financial burdens, lack of structure, and the pressure to produce groundbreaking work can wear heavily on graduate students, especially those already vulnerable to mental-health disorders.

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place.
You think?

Before I left for graduate school, one of my profs sat gave me a piece of sage advice that I fear I took far too well. "Choose an addiction now," he said, "because every English professor has one, and usually at least three, of the following addictions: sugar, sex, alcohol, or narcotics. Pick your favorite and focus on it."

Now, I admit that I belonged to a fairly...um...unhealthy discipline. Comparatists are not known for their sanity, patience, nor humility. Generally, when I introduce myself as a comparatists, I get some form of the following reaction: Slow eye blink. "Oh. Wow." The remark is inevitably followed, depending on the relative experience of the speaker with either "That's a really demanding program," or "I'm sorry." The sorry, not incidentally, regards the atmosphere associated with most comp lit programs--we are often not exactly the most well-regarded department on campus. Troublemakers, every single one.

My fellow grad students and I observed (as grad students are wont to do) that most of us were given to depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental distress. In fact, academics in general seem to be drawn to academia precisely because it is one of the few places that tolerates our more unfortunate behavioral patterns. Take the classic "absent-minded professor" type; I've met several, and I can say with absolute seriousness that academia is the only place for them. I cannot imagine what happens to those who don't end up teaching. In any event, many of us are somewhat less than socially graceful, and as the article notes, a whole vat of us belong in therapy (as to whether we seek it or not...another story entirely). My dear former therapist, himself a retired prof, remarked once that he thought that a year of therapy should come with every PhD granting, seeing as how most of us are in dire mental straights by the time we finish.

Which suggests perhaps that the sane folks get the hell out of the program, right?

So, I'm wondering (thinking about Sixx' remark that I blogged on earlier this week), are we born academics? I don't mean anything regarding intelligence here (indeed, one might make an argument against the wisdom of those of us who choose, perfectly willingly, to submit to the whims and demands of other people who survived the whims and demands of their own professors and have chosen to take it out on students for the next 40 or so years); rather, I wonder about the type of personality that is driven into grad school...

What comes first: grad school or insanity?

Perhaps my prof was on to something about the nature of the addict, or, at least, of certain addictive personalities. Few career paths really celebrate the ability to obsess in great detail on a single subject that, quite potentially, no one else in the world really gives a damn about. Well...except at comp lit conferences, when minutiae become the stuff of the finest of cat fights. Seriously, though...could I function in an environment that wasn't friendly to odd behaviors and habits? An environment that was comfortable with the socially inept and the compulsive?

A for instance: one of the great complaints among faculty is that students don't read the course catalog and prepare themselves for advising. Leaving aside the fact that we no longer print catalogs, one of the images often used in such discussion is the "dog-eared" catalog that so many of us faculty carried around and read, highlighted, and memorized during our undergraduate years. It turns out, though, that the then proto-faculty were the weird ones, and we have a tough time seeing why normal folk don't obsess over which English track to follow or whether to take Milton or Advanced Grammar this semester, while we are taking that freaking Literary Criticism course. Our students aren't defective. Our students are normal.

We are obsessives.

So, are we born academics? Do we attract and protect the unstable...providing a sense of place for some and a sense of incredible stress and displacement for others? Other than the stresses of graduate programs, why is there a high incidence of mental illness in academia (because it doesn't magically disappear after grad school)?

You can tell I'm having one of those weekends, yes?

Friday, March 27, 2009

No Words

I have none at all. Laughing too hard....

The Loaded boys are at it again, this time in their new video for "Flatline." (the link to the video is at the bottom of the article.)

Watch. Enjoy. Laugh your ass off.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mötley Thoughts

I've been struggling all week to settle on a topic; I've even written parts of two other posts. Maybe I'll get around to them later--at least one of them is still germinating right now, so I need to have the patience to let the ideas bear fruit, preferably before I pulverize write them down.

Training is back on track, which is delightful, if a bit daunting. Those voices--the ones that tell me I have no business running a marathon--are pretty loud this week. I mean, really, who am I to convince myself to fly clear across to the Pacific Northwest for the specific purpose of running 26.2 miles? Well, I suppose I'm me, and thus the only person qualified to make such a demand of myself, but...gads. 26.2 miles.

Running a 10K on Saturday (Rikki's joining for the 5K). Here's to completing the 6.2 portion of the marathon, right? Yee gads. Go Rikki (who apparently will be far better dressed than I at this shindig).

So the topic du jour comes from Nikki Sixx' Heroin Diaries, which I am reading for the purpose (ostensibly) of writing an article on the subject of contemporary redemption narratives in the vain hopes of someday turning the product of the last marathon adventure of my life into a book. Got to start somewhere--pitch the article at a conference...perhaps a journal. See what kind of traction is there in the academic community.

She giggles just slightly at the notion of traction and academics. Something doesn't quite fit there, eh?

Let me first confess some hesitation with this particular book. If you aren't aware already, the primary text is a diary Sixx kept during one of the heights of his heroin (et. al.) addiction in 1987, during the recording of and touring for Girls, Girls, Girls.* The primary text is overlaid by a metatext of interviews, where Sixx and others respond to the diary entries and, occasionally, to one anothers responses, pointing out inconsistencies or differing accounts to an instance recounted in the diary or in the interview (I suppose the technique is fairly akin to marginalia of old, though it is clearly part of the story, not simply commentary or clarification). Snippets of various lyrics by Sixx appear, sprinkled liberally throughout the book, along with photos and drawings.

I grant that I am inclined to question the veracity of some the the claims that this is a relatively untouched series of diary entries. Some of the entries ring true...glimpses into touring life, the incredibly exuberance that he experienced in May 1987, as he kicked heroin, however temporarily (that section was visceral for me--I could feel the exultation on the page. I know that kind of elation...that feeling of freedom and unconquerablilty. I also know how easily it presages the next month, when maybe just a little won't really hurt...and the months that inevitably follow). And some of the repetition of theme too...I guess the part that makes it ring hollow is that he had read the diary before writing the commentary and tended to mimic the vocabulary and flow (which is quite lucid for the most part) of the entries in the metatext...which makes it feel a bit unreal, as if he were writing the entries from the point of view of 2007. The stories--about drugs, about peed in beds, about girls and music and boredom and a host of other complaints---none of those strike me as out of the ordinary for his context. 80s rockers did their finest to debuach the world--"lock up your daughters!". Just the phrasing.

At any rate, at one point he remarks (not that I can find the fucking remark right now) that he was born an addict...and perhaps that is why he never really fit in with the world, why he was always railing against it. I was quite struck by the remark...and I wonder how many addicts have seen genetic tendencies toward addiction in such a light-->not as a trigger waiting to be pulled (and which event will actually pull it?) but as a fact of existence that governed every action, even before the first foray into substance abuse. Maybe it was in light of Duff's last two SW blogs that I mulled this remark more than I might otherwise have. But, perhaps he is onto something--how does addiction make itself manifest before the initial intoxicating event? Is the best metaphor for such addiction a trigger (addiction could happen any time, but might not) or an avalanche (eventually the weight of the snow passes a point of no return...could be the first flake, could be the 9000th)? Or are both equally problematic?

In any case, it is an intriguing text. I'm getting to the part where GNR will join...so I know where the story goes from here. Straight on to OD.

*Look! I managed not to digress...sort of. Girls is an odd little album, which is understandable, given the predilections of it's primary composer and lyricist, Sixx himself. It has some of the most "Mötley" songs--the title track, "Wild Side," and "You're All I Need," but some of the most unlistenable and...corporate (?) as well. I always liked the album...it's more listenable than much of Theatre of Pain, for the most part...but it doesn't touch Too Fast, Shout, or Dr. Feelgood (I refuse to even discuss the releases of the 1990s).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Seriously Useless Emotions

I think the title fairly well sums me up right now; I should have recognized that my rather manic energy toward writing last week was the precursor to...well...this week, when I am too Sullen, Angry, and /or Depressed ™ to even muster up gratitudes for my list.

Something I would do well to return to, I imagine. Fake it 'til you make it and all that.

I finished Book Three in the Lenten Discipline readings--Karen Armstrong's Islam. Fabulous overview of Islamic history--a tad...preachy?...toward the end, but given her audience, I can see why she leaned in that direction. Finishing Islam means I got to start the Brad Warner book last night, which I've been looking forward to.

Mostly because I enjoy being insulted.

Kidding, of course. I do enjoy Warner's books and blog and various commentaries on life, punk, Zen, etc.

Reading his blog this morning, I ran across this rather wonderful description of the uselessness of anger:

Anger is energy. But it's not very useful. It squanders your resources and makes you behave stupidly. So it's best to avoid. It's energy the way eating Pixie Sticks or shooting speed is energy. If you're right and the other guy is wrong, you need to deal with that situation without anger -- if you're truly interested in resolving it and not just interested in proving yourself right. It's no good to be complacent in the face of a situation that calls for change. But it's no good to scream and yell because that just builds up the other person's anger and exacerbates the situation.

Call this a "terribly obvious point that needed to be made" or what you will, but I think he nails the problem with stewing in ones own juices....such as I am doing this week. As with an addiction to, oh lets go with alcohol, shall we?, an addiction to anger is an energy hog. Addictions of all variants sap the addict of strength for engaging in life. For me, this most often manifests as a malaise that stops me from writing and planning (did not get so far as not reading, thankfully). The addiction to stewing, to anger, to self-pity is at least as harmful as any substance addiction, at least psychologically, because it manifests similar problems: self-centeredness, feelings of isolation from the human enterprise surrounding us, contempt for humanity, and so forth. This addiction, like those to substances, can trigger depression in some people--even a suicidal or homicidal one (and, yes, I am speculating here; I have no hard evidence in support). And, as Warner observes, lashing out in anger only serves to make the world a more aggressive place. Of course, he also rightly points out--good punk that he is--that changes that we wish to see in the world must be confronted. Sitting on my duff (boy did that sound weird in the context of this blog!)...sitting around and stewing not being active in change is equally problematic.

Ah...it's that balance thing again, isn't it?

As to why I'm struggling with anger and energy releases: I can't run right now because I've injured my calf (mildly--it should be okay in a few days, I think--then back to action), so I've extra energy, all of which is being consumed by irritations: not being able to run, not being able to get the tickets to Seattle--or even be able to say I can go with confidence (situation out of my control and I lack the confidence that my wants and needs will be protected-->my temper tantrum self says "Dammit, I am going anyway"; my conciliatory side dictates that I will patiently await the decisions that must be made), and so forth...thus, anxiety and anger. And, rather than stewing in the anger, I need to redirect the energy to something useful. I'm not blowing my top thus far, but I don't want to end up in a rage caused by suppression, either.

And as I type this, a co-worker makes me laugh hysterically. Two blessings of thought in a single day. I do indeed have much to be grateful for....really need to work on giving voice to those.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Duff said it better than me: Have a read.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Heart Hard- Hearted, Nasty Bitch

Shocking though it may seem to some of my intrepid readers, there are a few subjects about which I do not blog (CD is currently trying to think of any, yes? Poor man is subjected to far too many of my neuroses.) One of those topics is steplife. Now, I do have places in which I can vent and find advice, but normally I don't blog about it because of the levels of complexity involved and because it includes people other than me who may not wish to appear in these musings.

That said, I am going to blog about it today, simply because I was provided with a gift last night in the form of a learning moment, where several strands of my Lenten discipline and my week's musings ran aground of one another. I had mentioned before that I had thought of writing a post with this title, but later abandoned it. Last night, however, brought the title back screaming.*

So, here we go.

As I mentioned earlier this week, Rev. Dean's sermon got me thinking about stories this week, and we discussed how telling our own stories in any capacity involves a certain amount of exposure; we cannot control, once the story begins, where it will go and who will attack. So, often, we do not tell out stories--about faith, life, fear, joy, nor anything else. We simply close ourselves off. Such a tendency is a hallmark of my steplife existence; rather than wade into the conflict between G. and his ex-wife, I try very hard to avoid it.

On the same day as the sermon, I read a few chapters in The Places that Scare You in which Chödrön discusses the need to "drop our storylines." Storylines are necessarily different than our "stories," thought they bear out some significant common features. Our storylines often temporarily (and falsely) protect us from suffering (at least when we aren't engaging in self-denigration) and they are more often than not simply internal (though, I'm sure you have met folks who insist on narrating their own lives...she says as she writes this *sigh*) monologues that we use to excuse and blame and otherwise fail to be compassionate, joyful, and balanced, rather than our history and ideas, which is the stuff of Rev's "stories."

When I started reading Chödrön's texts, I wondered how in the world I could possibly live up to the aims she lays out--particularly concerning compassion, forgiveness, and equanimity in certain areas of my life. I recalled a moment from many years ago in which a dear friend was talking to me about the relationship I was then in and the paralyzing depression I was then navigating. He remarked, sad and a bit angry, "What happened to the bitch I knew?" Without wandering through the world of "bitch" too much, suffice to say that I knew what he meant. Once upon a time I had been fairly demanding and uncompromising; while I was not, accordingly, the nicest person to deal with in many instances, I protected myself and I protected people I cared about. I often used aggressive techniques, including a rather sharp tongue, but I was disinclined to be trod upon.

That bitch had faded into the depression and she was not protecting me or anyone else. She's returned over the years, a softer, gentler bitch, who recognized the need for peace and consensus, rather than angry and aggressive tactics. This is not to say that I'm not capable of being an absolute nightmare--I am imminently so even in my awareness that I need to mitigate the bitchiness, but, as students and TG would probably attest, I have a line and it's pretty clear when it gets crossed. So, I wondered how I could use Chödrön's methods, because even in my "adult life"...I am rather hard-hearted on some matters and I do not forgive easily, both traits that might lead some to label me as "bitch."

Yeah, fine, whatever. Such labeling doesn't bother me, unless I really am being unnecessarily aggressive. One of the places I see my most "heart-hearted" moments is in steplife, where I find myself wildly unforgiving and anxious.

Now, I have told stories about steplife. I've blogged about my experiences as a stepchild, and Lord knows I've whined and complained and bragged and otherwise storied my life as a stepmother. Many of the stories are humorous, and more often than not, they have a central experiential kernel: the "truisms" of steplife. While our stories may have different characters and events, we can find common structures in the life of the American stepfamily.

I also have storylines that govern my participation in steplife (one of which is the above mentioned bitchiness). First and foremost is anxiety, unfortunately. I do not, for various reasons, get along particularly well with G.'s ex-wife, though it started out okay (then again, if you had asked me 7 years ago about steplife, I think the story would have been akin to those stick-sweet children's stories where princesses and princes and sweet little children frolic in meadows singing songs and gazing at fluffy clouds through rosy glasses and other such ilk). For several years now, I have simply tried to avoid confrontation of any variant, but especially the face-to-face variety. I detest the anxiety associated with every public event that demands that all of us be present; I make myself as scarce as possible as quickly as possible. Why? Because I am a coward. The storyline associated with my cowardice: I don't like confrontation; I can't trust them not to argue; I need to get out of this.

So, last night was one of those events and I tried something different; following Chödrön's suggestions, I tried to live within the anxiety, rather than escaping it. I noted that I was feeling anxious, but I tried not to associate any storylines with the anxiety (such a strange feeling, too)...I just let it be. This seemed to go well enough that I did not make my quick exit at the end of the evening, per normal habits. I did not engage in small talk (that not being one of my strong points in the best of days), but I did stay put. When moments for potential upheaval arose, I did not acknowledge them. Now, when I was in the car driving home, those little upheavals tried mightily to hang around and confirm the standard storyline. I did two things with the drive. One, since I was alone in the car, I turned up the music to drown out my thoughts (thank you Guns N' Roses, this was a most useful engagement of the tracks of Spaghetti Incident I chose to listen to). Now, I realize that drowning ones thoughts is not necessarily a positive thing to do, but it helped. The other thing I did was to use a meditation practice of labeling such thoughts as "thinking" and then letting them go without dwelling.

I have to say that it made for a far more relaxing evening in the long run, not mulling over the events and rehashing what might have been meant by this or that. I'm sure I could still be labeled "bitch" or "cold," based on the interactions, but I'm at peace with that--I cannot control the labels put on my by others, only my own actions and reactions. My favorite sign off--peace--is, after all, not about life without confrontation and strife, but a life that exists within confrontation and strife and still strives for balance. What will this mean for the hard-hearted, nasty bitch? I'm not sure...such attributes are useful at times...

I mulled this more as I ran this morning (4.5 miles--woohoo!), and I'm pretty comfortable with the outcome. So, we'll see where this can go from here.

ETA: *well, sort of. I apparently mistyped that. It was to be "Hard-Hearted"...now I can't decided which version is more apt.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Open Letter to Loaded


I am so very excited about your forthcoming full-length album, Sick, and your upcoming tour plans. Please be advised that I am dragging my butt to a marathon in your lovely Seattle in June and would be ever so delighted to discover that you are playing there that weekend. This would be the last weekend in June, if you need more specificity--for the Rock N' Roll Seattle Marathon.

See, it's perfect, no?

But, I know you have aspirations to hit the UK again and that you're planning to play at Download in mid-June (Faith No More?! Be still my heart!). Totally understandable, wish I could join. So, in case you won't be hanging around Seattle that weekend, you are more than welcome to, say, join Crüefest (since you have mentioned this tour as well) on the late August dates, where they will swing through the South (hey--you know, Atlanta would be fabulous!).

So, please, feel free to take any of the above suggestions. I won't mind. Really. I'd be grateful, thankful, eternally in your debt...whatever.

Begging aside (sort of...please?), best wishes to you. You guys totally rock.


Monday, March 9, 2009

Addiction Sources

Running update: Ran the 5K yesterday...did not reach my speed goal (yes, those hills on Saturday apparently did kick my butt significantly), but I did learn some valuable pieces, not the least of which is the hills in my neighborhood aren't so much hills as sweet little rises out of the earth and therefore unacceptable for "hill training." Also, wear sunscreen. I have brilliantly red arms right now, courtesy of that minor omission. But, I did finish and TG cheered me on in the end (he, of course, finished about 7 minutes before me), which was very dear of him. TG ran very well--finished 11th overall. Way to go, TG! We'll follow-up with a 5K at the end of the month which my cousin and partner-in-musical-crime, we'll call her Rikki (and she'll know why) has selected for our running adventuring.

Rikki also found out that Mötley Crüe is heading this way in the summer, so many kudos to her for finding race dates and for plotting summer music madness for us to attend to.

Now, on to the rest of the story*.

I read Pema Chödrön's When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times as part of my Lenten spiritual discipline**. I chose Chödrön's book because 1) I've been meaning to read it for some time now and haven't set aside the time to do so and 2) because the notions about which she writes, seeking to engage self and the world compassionately--even in times of strife--appeal to me.

In the margin of one of the early chapters, I found myself scrawling that I didn't quite buy her assessment of addiction and noting that I should blog on the comment, to see if I could work out my hesitations and concerns. So, here we are. I should note that by the time I finished the book last week, I had come around to what she was getting at, and I can see where the source of my hesitation was, too.

Interesting trick for me--finish the book BEFORE shooting my mouth (fingers?) off about it. I wonder if I could finish Gravity's Rainbow that way....Perhaps I'm finally listening to those Romantics I teach all the time--"spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," recollected in tranquility (Wordsworth). Yes, I know I'm not writing poetry here, but isn't blogging fundamentally similar? I mean, when I dash off whatever is vexing me, without careful consideration (or, often, editing), I often find that the post is less than satisfying...and difficult to read.

In fact, that was true of the original version of this post. Fortunately, I had the sense to stop and reflect and...yes...finish the book.

Unfortunately, I don't have Fall Apart in front of me at the moment, so I'll paraphrase now and update with the specific quote later. She remarks that in her mind the source of addiction is an unwillingness to remain in places that are at the edge and undefined and to deal with the world as it is. Now, part of my initial reaction was, I think, resistance to her overall premise about the world and its impermanence (which was a bit odd, as I do agree with it--at least intellectually). I've written before about what drove my addiction, sort of, and I've written about the relationship between fear and recovery. The other part of the response was precisely the topic about which she writes--the human tendency to avoid painful feelings and put up walls.

In reading further (and in reading another book of hers--mentioned in the notes below), I came closer to being able to face her intent. She considers addiction in a pretty wide range, including an addiction to avoiding pain and seeking pleasure (another way of stating her source, I think); for all addictions though, she cites the source as an unwillingness to experience the pain (or, in the end, pleasure) of real life. Initially, as I mentioned, I resisted this suggestion, thinking that this was not at all why I drank. Surely it wasn't avoidance. Upon reflection, and reading the posts from last year as I first publicly discussed my addiction, I realized that the terminology I used--"flattening" and "deadening" were not altogether different from what Chödrön was writing about.

I also recalled a remark made in Carolyn Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story, wherein Knapp realized that she was considering her problem backwards: rather than assuming that we drink because we are unhappy, what if we are unhappy because we drink (186)? I cannot articulate precisely the effect this remark had on me two years ago--it was like the cabinet slid open for the first time, allowing me to see that I was looking into a mirror and not into a dark void. Bang! I think I even said something profound like--"Holy shit." It seemed so obvious.

But, in all of this pondering, I never really examined the first part of the remark--why I drank. Nothing in the twelve steps, at least in my mind, really forced me to account for this. I suppose that Step 4 might have led me there, if handled differently, but it did not at the time. I tended to stick with the blame game in my lists--all of what I had done wrong, rather than including what had triggered the alcoholism in the first place.

So, Chödrön got me on task with such an inventory, so that I could examine my experiences against her assessments regarding the roots of addiction. While it is true that I have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, I was absolutely aware of that when I began drinking, so I tend to discount that as a "why," even if it perhaps made the situation more threatening. As I have mentioned before, I drank in high school--though not terribly often, as I was often the designated driver, so I didn't abuse that trust. I did tend to get wasted if I did drink--both in my teens and in my twenties. I can't really say why that was--I know I enjoyed the feeling of losing control because that remained a constant throughout (ah, the plight of the control freak). Certainly, as I have observed before, I was trying to slow my racing thoughts. I know that alcohol tended to become an obsession--when I wasn't drinking I was often thinking about alcohol, though I tended to imagine I was being intellectual about the whole thing, rather than craving (this, not incidentally, is a pattern for me. My pseudo-intellectual pursuits are often outlets for my various obsessions--imagine that, eh?).

What I came up with, in searching for what I was avoiding (now, that was a weird sentence) was the following. The words in bold are the main ideas of each:

I tend to crave control, but I also crave being freed from responsibility, and alcohol provided the license to do so;

I tend to be emotionally walled-in, often by choice and habit as much as anything else, and alcohol provided the means to pretend I was escaping those walls. In reality, of course, I was simply making the walls higher and stronger through deception. While I might appear to be more in touch with my emotional side when drinking, I was not. I was more likely whining or pretending to intellectualize some particular obsession; I was certainly not capable of making better emotional connections with other people. Indeed, alcohol exacerbated the problems I have to that end normally;

When I was bored, I drank. Boredom is serious problem for me because I can't easily redirect the mental monologue when I am bored. This doesn't mean I can't relax, by the way, I just have to have fairly directed relaxation--which is one of the reasons I read so much. Thus, the fact that my reading, writing, and musical pursuits taper off when drinking should be no surprise. Getting wasted is so much easier than learning and thinking--far less energy required (though, in the end, drinking takes up far more emotional, physical, and spiritual energy than anything else I engage in);

When I was manic, I drank. I'll use that term because I do think it fits best when describing the crescendo of my excitement levels, though the term is actually quite terrifying to me, as my mother is bi-polar, as was at least one of her siblings. Uncontrollable moods are my greatest fear, so I tend to make them worse by worrying.

When I was scared, I drank. Scared of the dissertation, scared of graduation, scared of gainful employment, scared of...well, you name it. So, in short, I was doing precisely what Chödrön discusses--I was avoiding the source of the fear by drowning it in false pleasure.

I often made conscious decisions, especially when angry (and, as we know, the root of anger is fear), to drink to excess. I would specifically purchase more wine than necessary for a single night in order to ensure access and become annoyed if the access was limited in some way. Outwardly, I lied about why I bought so much--oh, it's for the whole week/weekend/trip/party--whatever, but I always knew exactly what the plan was. Self-destruction 101.

The roots of the fears (and, anger) appear to be responsibility/control (even the mania...maybe boredom) and emotion (probably a fear of, what, exposure?--perhaps this is also a responsibility/control thing). It seems to me that having processed this list, the next stage is to figure out how to avoid repeating those steps--even when sober (because, as we have seen, I am imminently able to substitute addiction and obsession***), in order to live outside the fear...no, that's the wrong phrase. Live with the fear? Of course, knowing what the fear is/fears are would me helpful, so that will constitute the next phase. Fortunately, Chödrön has a number of meditative methods in her books to help that process.

Since I have more free time this week, I'll try to catch up on the Learning to Write posts a bit (need to clean up my tags too). I've got at least two more rolling about the brain right now--one on storytelling and one on some of Chödrön's other notions--including one post that I will likely title "Hard-Hearted Bitch," because it really was exactly what popped into my head when I considered my own responses to her suggestions.

*Homage to the late Paul Harvey and to Rev. Dean, whose sermon yesterday set me to thinking about storytelling. Perhaps later this week. It's Spring Break, so I have far more time than is healthy.

**As many of you know, I read very quickly, so I have five books in this list (I'm hoping those will take up the whole of Lent--if not, I'll need to find a pinch hitter for the last week). The others are Chödrön's The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times, Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History, Brad Warner's Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate, and Barbara Brown Taylor's An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. Places is for the same reason as the other Chödrön book, Armstrong is for intellectual expansion, and Warner is for two reasons: a) I really get a kick out of his books (not terribly in keeping with discipline, I realize), and b) reality check--I spend at least half the time arguing with him in the margins of the pages and I really like that experience, especially when I disagree with a particular premise but can accept that and keep moving, rather than rejecting his notions outright. He's linked at right--Hardcore Zen. The last book, Taylor's, is a follow up to her Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, which I read two years ago in the first sobriety gig and at Rev. Dean's suggestion. He was correct that the book (by an Episcopalian priest/professor) would speak to me--it did. I look forward to seeing how she maps her faith journey in this account, and I am especially intrigued by the sub-title to this one.

BTW, the sixth book would be the beast, GR, because, while it lacks the ideals of spiritual development, I do place a great deal of emphasis on intellectual development in the spiritual process and, dammit, I need to finish that book...it keeps popping up in the most nefarious of places in my mind. Must exorcise the Pynchon.

***And, as I have mentioned, I don't think that such substitutions are necessarily a bad thing. If I can accept--without judgment-- that I tend towards obsessive and compulsive behaviors, then this acceptance of myself is compassionate, and such compassion (I totally agree with Chödrön here) will help me to be more compassionate toward others. I don't see a need to change that trait, so long as it can be directed toward healthy endeavors--running, reading, writing, learning, etc., but I do have to be disciplined in staying directed, lest I get bored or anxious or overconfident in sobriety and do something foolish. Compassion and discipline must come hand in hand for me, and, I would have to say--for all of us.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Uphill Both Ways

I'm not sure how I managed, but I think I created a route that was indeed uphill both ways. Holy cow, this morning kicked my ass. Incidentally, I'm not kidding about the uphill part--a quirk of the particular route is that I spent the majority of my time gaining elevation.

I'll take today as a reminder from the marathon gods that I have 16 more weeks of training for a reason.

I'm fortunate that both my runs and TG's participation in NJROTC provide me with the opportunity to see the less expected sides of life around me. Running, for instance, introduced me to my occasional-buddy, the Three-Legged Dog. NJROTC, on the other hand, leads me into the terminally weird.

For reasons I have not yet been able to discern, all of TG's meets--Drill Team and Raiders, are held in far flung parts of the state, generally accessible by two-lane (and, in one memorable instance, dirt) highways. I have passed a "fly-in" neighborhood outside Griffin, GA, driven, as I mentioned, on dirt roads, and assorted other joys. Today's adventure took me to the North Georgia Mountains, where I passed this sign:

I had to stop to take a picture...I mean....WTF? All manner of possibilities occurred to me in my drive, so I did look the sucker up (I felt like going into the florist to ask would have been rude--because I'm sure I would have been both laughing and incredulous). But, the truth of the matter, it's a solar-powered (I guess) marker "opened" to the 23rd Psalm. A fine bit o'kitsch, I suppose.

Tomorrow's the 5K race--wish us well, please.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Tough Guy, Training, and Bonding

I'm really terrible about posting regularly on this...or, at least, I feel like I am.

Anyway, this week is 16.5 miles total--6 of which will be tomorrow (same as last Saturday); the big swings in Saturday runs begin next week. I'm almost looking forward to it, but I'm trying to be good and stick to the schedule, rather than trying to play superstar-suck-up student and get way ahead of the training...

...which would likely result in self-injury, so it's for the best.

So, 6 miles tomorrow. TG has a Drill Team Event for which he has to be at school at 6:30 am (so much for sleeping in). Getting up and leaving the house that early does present me with the option of different scenery for the morning run, which is good--and I may use that opportunity to scout out the places I have mapped for the really long runs in a few weeks.

I'm pretty excited about the training thus far (I'm in week 4, if anyone other than me is counting). I'm buying the tickets to Seattle this weekend, which makes it all kind of official...and very groovy.

TG and I are running in a 5K this weekend; he fully plans to leave me in the dust, having asked if he has to stay with me or if he can "just go." But, I think it will be a good experience for both of us--I have to say, though, I never thought I would bond with my son over running. Ever.

But, it is cool that we have. He's planning to run in a 50mile race next Spring (assuming he can at age 16--he's looking into it)--has to outdo Mom's marathon, I suppose; he's also thinking an Ironman Triathlon by the time he's 18.

Bless him, how did I raise such a one?

Monday, March 2, 2009


Greetings from the frozen South. Snow being a novel concept ‘round these parts, I thought I would share our fortune. (As you can see from the note at the bottom, this turned into a multi-day blogging effort.) Northerners, don’t laugh, this is a hell of a lot of snow down here. We are both excited and nervous. We are expecting between 2 & 4 inches by midnight and…honestly…I think we’ve already got that. And it’s only 5 pm. G. contends that we've gotten at least 1.5 inches in the last hour or so.

<--That was a Rosemary bush. Once upon a yesterday. Behind it are gardenias that were once 6 feet tall and remain about as high as the poor Rosemary bush in this picture. Plants are not happy right now. In all honesty, our adventure begins with TG, who has fashioned a snowboard from an ancient skateboard and built his own snow ramp. He is having a blast in the muck and is thoroughly convinced he will have a day off tomorrow (he was correct--will also have Tuesday off). Note that in this particular picture, the "snowboard" has gotten away from our intrepid teenboy, who was forced to repeatedly chase after it on foot. He commenced with the same this morning (Monday) and even built a ramp of sorts out of snow. Also skiied off over the retaining wall. Must have a word with TG, preferably prior to him breaking one of his limbs.

The adventure continued with yours truly, who had wisely decided that after running 6 miles in the rain Saturday and knowing Sunday was to be cold, to give myself a break by hitting the Y and the treadmill to continue training today, But, being in the South and being, in consequence, adversely affected in the areas of intellect when it comes to the wet white precipitation, I was overwhelmed (and also convinced the Y would be closed due to weather) and ran 2.5 miles in the 2.5 inches of accumulated road slush. Check out the hat afterward:

Yes, it is a Ravenclaw hat. Shut up.

Remember, I was RUNNING and this was the accumulation. Oddly, though it felt like my legs were moving through ice flows (which, in fact, they were—or at least my feet were), my time was not adversely affected which suggests that either the trudging wasn’t as difficult as I felt that it was or that I am so slow anyway that even slush can’t really slow me down further. I do believe I’ll go with the first of those. The power is intermittent*, so I’ll leave this post. More soon.


*shortly after I typed that fateful sentence, the power went out and remained out for 26 hours. Oi. So, the posting of this is a tad late...We ended up with almost 7 inches of snow. Wet snow + pine trees=bad news for power lines.