Monday, August 29, 2011

Catastrophic Thinking

I’m watching the neighbor’s two dogs run loose in the neighborhood. The tall golden one with tail lifted like a flag trots ahead, footloose and fancy-free, while the short-legged corgi-type scampers along like a caboose. They seem to be enjoying this lovely summer morning while we neighbors fret about them. One neighbor has corralled them once already and returned them to their back yard. She and my husband confer when the dogs free themselves again: What to do? No one is home at the dogs’ house and obviously the back yard cannot contain them.

People here care about their neighbors. My observant, friendly husband walks our dogs every morning and garners news or dispenses advice. I wonder if anyone has noticed we have a new housemate. Our 18-year-old granddaughter has moved into my daughter’s old bedroom to work and attend the local community college.

This has wrought a monumental change in our methodology. That bedroom was the bedroom of our two foundling kitties for the past two years. It was where we sequestered them to keep them safe from the dangerous outdoors when the doggie door was open for the beagles. I wanted indoor kitties when we adopted them because we once lost a cat to a predator, we think, and we once had a cat mauled. By this time, the young cats know their room, and they gallop into it with tails high at night, or whenever enticed by shaking a tin filled with cat food.

Since the advent of Lalas, as we call our granddaughter, the cats’ material goods have been moved into our room, and the cats are confused. They dash to the closed door of what used to be their habitat, and stare at it. At night, they wander our bedroom, wreaking havoc, opening cupboard doors, climbing the blinds, terrorizing the beagles, generally creating mayhem that keeps us awake and grouchy.

Twice last night in the dark I tripped over a frightened beagle who didn’t know which way to run: away from the cats, or away from the human feet. So she froze and was tripped over with great cusswords. By midnight, I was considering divorce. I’m a catastrophic thinker.

Thank God the weekend brought an AA convention to our area. At least for pockets of time I was not crazy. The Friday night speaker, Cliff R. from Southern California, gave me food for thought. He quoted Mother Teresa, and I wrote part of the quote on the back of my name tag:

“The fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.” (Mother Teresa)

I suspended my plans for divorce this morning and made a date with a newcomer to meet her at an AA meeting today. I want some peace in my life, and the only peace I’ve ever found from my catastrophic thinking is in the oddly wrapped gift that is Alcoholics Anonymous.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

War Wounds

In a crowded garden like mine, flowers are bruised by the leaves of their neighbors as they jostle in the evening breeze. A stiff hairy leaf, like a sunflower’s, will rub bald spots on a dahlia bloom. I hate that.

I still pick the flowers, though, then patiently give them little haircuts and put in them in vases, disguising the bald spots with greenery and other flowers. To the uncritical eye, they are still beautiful.

My left inner wrist is a mass of scars: eighteen of them, 2 to 2.5 inches long, running lengthwise up my forearm, across the width of my wrist. I made them with an Exacto knife 24 years ago. Some are thicker than others. I forget they’re there. Then I’ll put out my hand to somebody for some reason, look down, see them, and I feel nothing. Most people say nothing. Neither do I.

It was a bad night. I was 34. I worked on it for a couple of hours. Got drunk and got blood all over the kitchen. Had a young child sleeping in a bedroom. Made a call finally, somebody came and wrapped my wrist in cotton gauze. Two days later, I went to a psychiatric hospital for a couple of weeks. I got better. Two years later, I got sober.

Five years ago, I asked my husband of 14 years to hide the Exacto knives because I heard them calling. He had only known me sober. He had no idea I had been drinking in the garage during that winter. But he knew my scars, and he was scared. So he hid the knives. I got honest and sober again a few months later, but the knives are still in hiding. I asked for one last year to do a project. He couldn’t find it.

In a meeting recently, a guy said he was allergic to alcohol, and when he drinks he breaks out in handcuffs and IVs. I laughed. I break out too, in other things. That’s the back story for this poem:

Wounded Flowers

Flowers speak for me. They say
a leaf is a dangerous thing
a petal, too vulnerable for words.
that leaf is a razor
how it has sliced
that petal.
when I was young
I could not bear the world.
My blood flowed
with the razors
of other people’s leaves.

Flowers speak for me. They say
is imperfect.
how my wrists
work in tandem with
the scars that line them
as I snip the razored petals
of the injured
how pretty
in their vases
are the wounded.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How I Try to Save Polar Bears

I'm regularly assigned by a local magazine publisher to write of things I know nothing about. Thank God for Google and Wikipedia.

I know next to nothing about polar bears, except what I read in newspapers and National Geographic. They tell me it won’t be long before two-thirds of the world’s polar bears die off because of the shrinking Arctic ice. Within 40 years the bears will have lost nearly half of the range they need to live in.

Figures like that depress the crap out of me. One of my assignments was to uncover small things that helpless, depressed people like myself can do to reduce global warming. Here’s one factoid I found, although I don't remember its source: If every U.S. family replaced one regular light bulb with a fluorescent one, we’d eliminate 90 billion pounds of greenhouse gases, the same as taking 7.5 million cars off the road. We replaced three light bulbs. It may be pathetic, such baby steps. But better baby steps than no steps at all.

For this week's Poetry Jam, we are asked for poems that attempt to make a difference. I'd like to make a difference for the polar bears.

Song of the Arctic

The Arctic is screaming
a scientist said
The blanket of ice
on top of the earth
is fraying so fast
some summer soon
the walrus and wolf
the white bear and seal
will have no ice
to wander

They are not walkers on water.
They are not Christ.
They cannot redeem the world.
They cannot make ice.

We read this in the paper
sipping lattes on Sunday
take note for a moment
like a twinge in a tooth
It passes and we forget
we are a bowling ball
hurtling down the lane
at a bevy of pins
we soon will shatter
and they are living beings
screaming in the Arctic

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Navel Gazing in the Extreme

I saw myself in a book one day when I was 36. Drugs and alcohol had driven me into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, and there, in what we call the Big Book, the text of AA, on page 62, I read this:

“Selfishness—self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate.”

It was an aha moment for me. I recognized myself, my essential problem with life. My role as a victim ended that day. Not long ago, I read a comment on a blog and it sparked a poem about what my life could have become had I never set foot in AA.

How to Be Invisible

Her vaguely alarming
binocular soul-searching
was tedious to her friends
of whom there were few
and fewer still as the years
trudged onward
and her lenses fixed
ever more inward.
By the time she shuffled
off this mortal coil
she was minute, a mote
of dust on a microscopic
lens, and her soul
had vanished.

This is a Friday Flash 55. Go visit the G-Man for more tales in 55 words.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Fear Is the Mind-Killer

Fear used to rule my life, but not this week. I put on my journalist's hat today, driving way the hell-and-gone out into the country to interview an elderly man about his pioneering family. Not so long ago, I struggled with intense anxiety to do such a simple thing as calling to make the interview appointment. Days of agony attended a simple interview.

They make pills to manage anxiety like that, but I can't take them. If I do, my mind says I need 10 pills because dontcha know I have a high tolerance. I would rather battle anxiety than tempt such a monster.

In five years, I've gone from not being able to leave the house without my husband to cheerfully undertaking a half-hour drive through the country to find a man I do not know and help him feel comfortable telling me his family stories. It's been a bare-knuckled fight, accompanied by visits to my therapist and calls to my AA sponsor, not to mention prayer and gritted teeth. Mostly gritted teeth, if I'm honest.

I don't know how many times I have (mis)quoted Mr. Nietzsche in this private war against the debilitation of anxiety disorder, which is officially a member of my mental diagnoses. The accurate quote is "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger," but "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger" is my mantra. Saying it didn't help me drive my car when anxiety ruled my world or make any number of forays outside my comfort zone for a long time. But saying it gave me, over time, the ability to look my fear in the face and say SOMETHING to it instead of "Yes, master."

Fear is the mind-killer, I remember reading in Dune years and years ago when that book came out. That line has helped me, too. I see fear for what it is: a slayer of all that is good in the human psyche. Funny, how violent is the verbiage of courage for me.

I learned a gentler, softer language in AA. "Fear is the wind that snuffs the candle in the mind" was one thing I grabbed onto. Another was: "Courage is not the absence of fear; it is taking action in spite of fear." And finally, it still comes down to this one for me: "The battle does not have to be won today, only the first skirmish." I've boiled it down to this: Just take the first indicated step; let the rest wait until tomorrow.

I've done many things in spite of anxiety, that four-syllabled sister of fear, of which I am enormously proud today. I've read my poems to crowds in auditoriums. I have gone to visit my mother, locked in the morass of Alzheimer's, and found her doing things that broke my heart but did not break me. I have spoken in city meetings. I have driven hundreds of miles by myself to attend conferences. I've talked myself down from panic attacks. Well, let me rephrase that. I have prayed myself through all those things. Even Nietzsche is a prayer.

Once, four years ago, I allowed myself, with my sponsor's go-ahead, to take anti-anxiety medication to fly across the country on vacation. All it did was make me a loaded anxious person. After that experience, I flew stone cold sober, preferring prayer to my own stupidity.

My struggles with anxiety are assets today when I talk with women who are dealing with fear. Without fear, there would be no need for faith. Fear can be a faith builder, just as fear can be a mind killer. Everything has a shadow. Fear's shadow is courage. Every time I take that first fearful step, I prove to myself I can be more than I am afraid I am.

I know there is a God because I know freedom today. A woman who couldn't leave her home five years ago is free today. Shaking a little inside, sometimes. But walking out, nevertheless.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August Night

Twilight falls on an August evening. A sprinkler waters a neighbor's lawn with a cha cha cha shewwww cha cha cha shewwww. A thousand crickets begin their orchestra in the darkened park.

I have to go put on long pants and slippers, the air is so unusually cool. A quick tour of the garden earlier, after we came home from a friend's dinner party, shows some of the dahlia buds have begun breaking into flower on plants that haven't yet bloomed. It's been a strange summer in this usually hot neck of the woods. The garden looks like a midsummer garden, vigorous and full of life.

Four years ago, in the dog days of summer, I sat on a bench in the park next to my house and wrote a poem about the sad state of the garden. It was a different kind of August then, the unrelenting heat speeding the cycle of life and death.

The Poetry Jam prompt for Monday is "evening," and I thought of that poem. It surprises me how great the sense of loss is, when life cycle winds down and plants turn to the production of seed. Seed is a promise of resurrection, but it doesn't arouse hope in me in August. In early spring, yes. In August, seed is an ending, a reason to lament.

The Garden of Dry Bones

The long warm light of an August evening
strikes the black petals of a blown red rose.
Leaves of the dahlias droop; flowers rot
where they have fallen.
Dust drifts in the still yellow air.
Even the ground is tired.

All the bright blooms have faded.
In wild abandon, the sunflowers
throw back their heads, dripping seed.
The herbs, pungent and robust a month ago,
spend their straggling selves on seed.
Seed is the coin of late summer.

Seeds, and more seeds, fall from the
carcasses of flowers, like dry bones.
The golden light of August slants
through the graveyard of the garden.
Bereft, the gardener picks dry leaves
from the hollyhock.

In the waning light of August
the earth falls silent slowly,
the fading note of a violin.
Onward plows the cycle.
Downward bows the rose.
This is how love leaves you
one dead flower at a time.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Chaos Theory in Relationships

I’m thinking hard about chaos. It is not just a theory. It is people! It is relationships with people!

What a messy business!

Chaos: a state of complete disorder and confusion.

Chaos Theory: a theory that complex natural systems obey rules but are so sensitive that small initial changes can cause unexpected final results, thus giving an impression of randomness.

Relational Chaos: I tell Myra that I like Joan’s new haircut. Myra tells Joan I think she’s cute. Joan tells my boyfriend that I’m gay. He ditches me and moves to Arkansas with Joan.

Relational Chaos Theory: While I sit around thinking broken-hearted thoughts about Joan and my boyfriend, none of this would have happened if I hadn’t opened my mouth.

While I was busy wringing my hands recently about relational chaos, here’s what I could have read in the little “Twenty-Four Hours a Day” book if I’d opened it like I should have done before starting my day in the chaotic world of people and relationships:

“He who made the ordered world out of chaos and set the stars in their courses and made each plant to know its season, He can bring peace and order out of your private chaos if you will let Him. God is watching over you, too, to bless you and care for you. Out of the darkness He is leading you to light, out of unrest to rest, out of disorder to order, out of faults and failure to success. You belong to God and your affairs are His affairs and can be ordered by Him if you are willing.”
So this is why I pick up that little book, I thought when I read it today. And now, this is what my little soul looks like:


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I Can't Stop Myself!

My days revolve around my flowers, which is a helluva lot better than revolving around economic tumult. The dahlias are coming into their own, in all shapes: balls, anenomes, cactus, decorative, lacinated, collarette, waterlily. In the photo above, in a wonderful vase I bought in New Mexico, are an anenome dahlia, "Lucky Ducky," a waterlily named "Giraffe," a couple of ball dahlias, "Ruskin Gypsy," and a pair of anenomes named "Riverboat."

Life isn't all about flowers. It's about having courage and faith in the winter seasons, when life hands you killing frosts and death and other creepy things. It's about having faith in the future and being willing do the work required today. Here's the same vase a few days earlier, with the ball dahlia and a lacinated dahlia, "Pinelands Pam."

I must like the red palette, or else they happen to be strong varieties that thrive for me, because here are some more of a different type:

With some of my prize money from the regional fair's floral competition, I hunt down vases in thrift stores. Here, in a vase I found at Goodwill, are a red waterlily dahlia and a pink semi-cactus, "Heather Marie."

Most of my dahlias are three to four inches, a size I like for flower arranging. But a few larger varieties are blooming now. Here, in a tall pilsner-shaped vase from a local thrift shop, are "Spartacus," an informal decorative dahlia, "Grand Finale," a semi-cactus, and "Curly Que," an incurved cactus.

As I tend the garden and mess around with the flowers, I think about how courageous are some of the people I know. I see a lot of hope and resilience. I think about grace and mercy, how they keep marriages intact and help us all forgive each other. I think about the nature of faith; I've been told it's an active verb. I think about shit: did I use too much? not enough? Funny how shit is a word we use for fertilizer, which is a good thing, and for lousy things that assail us. Then I hum a few bars of some unidentifiable tune, and there's my day: part shit, part grace, and full of flowers.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Set Free

My mother died a year ago this week. I’ve commemorated the final four days I spent with her in several different ways, alone and in the company of friends and family, starting with flowers on her grave. Her headstone makes me smile; it’s a note she jotted on her way home, ending with her initials.

And then there’s the odd little poem that came to me on Wednesday. It’s an elegy of sorts, for this week’s Poetry Jam prompt, and a Friday Flash 55. May your weekend bless you.

Freedom, In Other Words

To celebrate my mother’s death
one year ago today
I went to a shop and tried on
tight dresses
imagining myself
reading poems
to Pablo Neruda in his dotage
would he want me
and my poems
to stay the night
if I were
wearing this?
Something about my mother
being gone
has turned me