Rolling Rocks 

It seems like every post in this silly blog is, one way or another, is about how depressed I am. Yes, it's true. I am depressed and, like solving a puzzle that is missing a key piece, it seems that I am trying to figure something out that isn't going to show itself. The last page in the book is missing, the puzzle piece is lost, the song is missing the chorus. I am plagued with the mystery about the depth of my own problems and the solutions I need to get back on my feet.

And so, the challenge seems to be to try and figure out how to be okay with not knowing how to fix "it." Of course, this is easier said than done. I wonder how Sisyphus must feel knowing that the boulder he is pushing up that hill will never get to the top. He'd love to get to the top because then he could stop pushing that stupid boulder and be himself again. Job done! Mission accomplished, right But, that ain't going to happen, and being a clever guy, I am sure he's figured that out. Being eternity, I am sure he's spent more than his share of time being absolutely disgusted by the fact that he's been cursed and damned to do something so pointless and frustrating. But, then what? Does he change his thinking about his task?

Knowing that he is cursed, does he try to enjoy the moment of the boulder rolling down the hill? The rolling of the rock is his moment to rest and watch the quick energy of the boulder tumble along the earth to reach the bottom. Does the tumbling become its own reward and bottom, for Sisyphus, become satisfaction? And why keep pushing the boulder at all for that matter? Why not sit on top of the rock at the bottom of the hill and enjoy the view: watch the sun cresting over the hill, feel the breeze weave itself around in the grass, and enjoy the shade on the cool side of the rock when the sun is too warm.

In a sense, this is what I think I am trying to do. I am trying to convince myself to enjoy being denied the top of the hill, which in my case, is a life without the ogres of depression. Maybe I should just enjoy the rolling of the rock, all those pleasant moments when they happen; and when I have my shoulder to the stone, maybe I should just remember that there pleasant moments will occur again in the future and leave it at that. Is this the wrong approach? Isn't it fatalism to say failure is the new goal, bottom, the new top?

The answer seems to be: sometimes yes, and sometimes no. There isn't a rule, and thus, I spend most of the day in bed either asleep as a way to avoid pushing my rocks of depression around, or I am awake trying to figure out how to be okay with it rolling down the hill.

By way of report (to myself) more than anything, I am doing a little better about getting to sleep earlier and getting my internal clock back on track. I have also drawn a little as a way to ease myself back into the old routines that kept the engine of my daily life going. I want to do a little more of that, especially as I have a lot of work that I need to do. I think I can change the current track of things, but it is hard, and that, apparently, goes without saying. My inability to get on track thus far is evidence of that.

29 January 2009

Burning Memory 

I suppose one of the more interesting things about being depressed about life and your future is that you spend an awful lot of time thinking about the past. In essence, when you're not trying to numb yourself to the unbidden thoughts that are causing you your present anguish, you're spending much of your mental life in the past and reviewing how things went and thinking about how you ended up the way you did. You past becomes a puzzle in where you try to find the answer of "now."

Of course, you would naturally think that the painful thoughts of the present come from painful memories of the past, but this is not necessarily true. In fact, you can form fairly negative thoughts about past positive experiences by merely saying to yourself (in one emotional form or another), "just look at what I've achieved. It is such a shame I'll never get there again, will never have a positive experience like it." Sometimes, in your better moments, you can recognize those thoughts as irrational and wrong. Seen through the filter of depression, everything tends to turn into those bitter cold shades of blue.

Sometimes though, if you're being perfectly honest with yourself, you will remember positive moments in your life and will be absolutely correct if you said that those moments will never happen again. Yet, the mistake here is thinking about the "past specific" and turning it into the "future general." You would be right if you said that one specific moment of happiness in the past won't happen again, but that doesn't mean that there won't be happy moments like it in the future. that other happy moments that spring from places you didn't or couldn't consider at the time.

With all this is in mind, I would like to visit one of these positive moments. I will try not to make too many judgments about it. I just want to present it as I remember it.

- - - - - - -

My high school graduation was an awkward affair. I assume that most students are excited and happy to graduate, if only to finally be out of the various personal hells high school seems to create. I definitely was looking forward to high school being over, but unlike most students, I certainly wasn't excited. In fact, I was a bit anxious and depressed. I hated almost every aspect of school, and the ritual of the graduation ceremony was just one more thing about high school that I didn't want to be a part of. So while all of those other students seemed happy to parade before their parents and extended family, I was glum and depressed.

I sat rather forlornly in a cheap plastic chair, in a graduation gown that felt ridiculous to wear, on the football field with the rest of the graduating class. I looked miserably towards the bleachers where the parents and most of the teachers sat and tried not to worry about the future.

I had spent much of high school being the outsider, the weirdo, the loner, or whatever the modern trope is of the quiet student who looks glum and reads books all day. Instead of socializing with some group of friends, I sat in the hallway or library reading some book or another counting the minutes until I could go home. I guess was that kind of student until the bitter end.

By contrast, the valedictorian spent much of her speech talking about how great high school was, but as far as I could see, she only spoke for herself or a few friends. Being the studious and devoted daughter of the principal, I imagine her belief that high school was "the greatest part of our young lives" was somewhat natural conclusion for her to make, even if the rest of us were wondering what the hell she was talking about.

But eventually, the ceremony was over, and I was left to consider what to do with my life. College appeared to be out of the question since money was always an issue. I went home and thought.

But, in the most improbable move of my life, I shortly found myself traveling in a beaten up R.V. with people my own age, going to different towns and giving talks and presentations about World Peace. Actually, most of the so-called talks and presentations were us singing songs in public and doing small community service projects for a day or two. We would spend a week or two in a town before moving on to the next one. I spent nearly two years doing this.

I had some natural skills at organization, and although I intensely hated telling people what to do, these "kids" seemed to rely on me in the practical areas of daily life. They needed someone to figure when dinner was or where it was coming from so they had the time to focus on being spiritual.

Most of us were the children of hippie parents, and I suppose I was as well, although to a smaller extent. My mother was definitely a product of her generation, the late sixties and early seventies, but poverty and the various emergencies of her young life meant that she was more grounded that the stereotypical hippie. She wasn't the spoiled flower child who disguised her consumerism and self centered interests as high minded cultural and spiritual change. She belonged more to the genuinely spiritual and idealistic wing of the hippies who actually tried to change the world for the better, who believed that the world was, at some point, really going change for the better, and that it was partly her job to change it. Poverty can be a kind of purifying fire that burns way the silliness of "theories" to leave behind the pure gold of practicality.

This was one thing that poverty gave me as well: an ability to practically assess a situation and determine what might be the best thing that needs to happen. Whether that thing might be dinner, might be a time table for showers, or a day off to recharge our batteries.

There is much about this period of my life that I probably will never be able to adequately put into words. It was life times ten, life speeded up. Although we often made mistakes, both personally and as a larger group, I probably learned more about myself in that period than I ever did during my time in middle and high school.

So, with all that as background, here is the memory that I would to recall: I am on this "team" of fellow "kids." The oldest of us is in our early twenties, the youngest is just 18. We have already done quite a bit of traveling. Most of our time was spent in the suburban farm areas of our state, the wet forests and farmland ares I grew up in. But, we had just finished a week living in an artist community, a town of nearly 500 people in the extreme eastern, desert part of the state. It could have been a different country altogether as far as I felt. The familiar tall fir trees and various sloping hills that were often buried in fog and clouds had long given way to the rolling brown and yellow hills and sage covered stark plateaus of the desert.

Cramped in an old R.V., an R.V. old enough to still have the factory original 8-track cassette player in the dash, we drove to our next destination somewhere further along the high desert highway we were on. It was dark and very late, and we had already been on the road for a couple of hours. Some of my friends had individually succumbed to sleep as the hours grew later and the night longer. Someone was snoring in the bunk above the the drivers seat, the attic as it was called. The driver stared tiredly at the monotonous road stripes as they flashed in the headlights and quickly passed by the windshield.

One of my friends, someone to whom I was closer (emotionally) than the others, was reading a book at the breakfast nook at the back of the van. Much like a circular booth in a restaurant, the breakfast nook consisted of a cushioned bench seat that swept around a hard table anchored to the floor by a long metal pole. Behind the seat was the large rear windshield that framed his head against the dark. My friend sat in the middle of the back at this table, and I sat listened quietly to whispered reading.

As I gazed out of the window into the darkness, I saw what I imagined to be the last gleam of the setting sun. It took several moments for me to realize that the sun did not set in the north. I sat up intense interest and tried to get a better look out of the side window. I noticed several things all at once: the driver, my friend, the darkness, the road. But above all of these things, I began to take greater notice of the fact that there was nearly no-one else on the road. I had initially assumed that the absence of vehicles was because we were in a relatively remote part of the state. This was not a main highway and towns were few and far between. But I began to suspect the lack of other cars was due to another reason. I scanned the light along the top of the dark silhouetted hills trying to make out the silhouetted tree line at top.

It was then I saw that the light was not behind the trees, but coming from them. The trees were on fire. The fire appeared to be some distance away, perhaps twenty or thirty miles, but the flames, and now some of the trees, were clearly visible. I pointed this out to my friends who were awake.

We then took note of the red moon. The moon was the reddest I had ever seen in life then or since, perhaps due to the all of the smoke in the air. The driver turned on the radio to try and get a station. He managed to tune in one of the country stations that we could occasionally get to play for just a handful of minutes before drifting back into static. A news bulletin solved the mystery of no other vehicles on the road; shortly after we had begun our trip that afternoon, the state had closed the highway. No further traffic was allowed in either direction.

With the illusion of immortality clouding our young minds as it does most youth, we decided to pull over and watch the flames as they grew brighter against the deepening dark. The distance, one we thought considerable, made it feel safe to do so.

The fire took on an important and spiritual meaning that we all struggled to apprehend individually. Our chatter about the fire slowly died out and the excitement of this event was somewhat transformed into a stilled awe as we gazed at the flames. Our lives, in a sense, had just begun. The newness of our lives seemed connected to the fire somehow. We shared some unexplained kinship.

The destruction was both terrible and awesome to see, yet beautiful under the reddening moon. When I looked closely, I discerned tall trees, trees which I assumed had already lived for decades, explode in a sudden bloom of yellow and red. The sap inside the trunk had boiled until, like a piece of pop-corn, the entire tree burst in sudden brief intensity, the light from the explosion quickly fading back into and among the other yellows.

Silently, we stared at the forest fire, taking in the stunning vision for several long and quiet minutes. Then, somehow chastened in spirit, we climbed back aboard the R.V. to think about all we had seen and puzzle out the spiritual mystery that seemed to presented before us.

- - - - - - -

This memory of the trip through the darkness, the forest fire, and the exploding tree is what I wanted to examine again. There is still a mystery in there, both beautiful and frightening to look at, but of course, less important, less intense now that eighteen years has passed. I cannot explain the connection that we felt, but I can only affirm that we - - or rather, I, perhaps- - felt it.

There was a power in that may remain out of reach forever. In some ways, the forest fire I witnessed then makes me want to be a better person, a person who actively lives his life rather than let life flow over him like a flowing stream, pushing him around until he winds up in some strange puddle, slowly evaporating in an afternoon sun. In some ways, I do not want to figure out the mystery of the fire at all. I want to let it burn like the fire, work in the darkness, and feel that strange magic that I felt back then, when the world seemed to hold the promise of new discoveries, the chance for a life well lived and beautifully felt for decades to come.

26 January 2009

A Couple of Dreams 

Lately, I have been trying to get to sleep earlier each night as a way of incrementally forcing myself into a more normal sleeping schedule. I do not want to stay up all night staring at my computer screen trying to not think about my myriad personal problems; unfortunately, I have found this is more difficult to put into practice than I had initially expected. It is far too easy for me to focus on the emotional set-backs I have experienced in the past couple of years, to dwell on what seem to be missed opportunities to improve my lot, and to float blithely on the stagnating ponds of introspection. To exert the effort to recognize these "default" negative thoughts and counter them can be particularly difficult, especially if my energy is low, and my emotional guard (sometimes exhausted) is down. Still, I am trying. What else can I do? There is a noble struggle in moving forward, even if it doesn't seem like you're going to succeed.

This has been the main concern in my life, especially these past few weeks: getting back on track and pulling myself together in spite of what appear to be depressing odds. If you were to see me, just assume that this thought is working itself around the many dark and electrical parts of my brain. I may be feeding the cats, a task that can take as long as twenty minutes, but my mind is continually singing verses of failure from shadowy and soul seducing songs. I'm fighting them most of the time. This isn't anything new, really. If you have read the past posts of this blog, you can read these various verses from those songs of failure.

However, sometimes, with all of the thinking that I am doing. I do come across some personal avenues that do not make much outward sense to me. These are the personal things that I find fascinating. At times, I think that perhaps the recognition of these points of confusion is actually a sign of progress because it highlights a place to start getting better or it illustrates a problem I haven't yet considered. Maybe, I say to myself, "this is another stepping stone on the path of healing."

One of these avenues that do not make much outward sense to me is my dreams. Admittedly, this is a small aspect of both my personality and my problems, but maybe, I hope to myself, these dreams will lead to the clarity I seem to be seeking so much of the time.

Recently, I have had a couple of dreams that have stayed with me. The reason for the dreaming is very probably due to my poor sleeping habits. However, the thematic message or the meaning of the dreams are much, much less clear. I feel that dreams have an emotional logic. If you can figure out the progression of emotions that are hidden inside your dreams, often hidden by symbolic imagery, you will have discovered an insight about yourself and will have gained a key to unlocking that part of your unconscious thoughts and motivations.

Here is an example of one of my dreams: It is dark outside and very cold, but the inside of the cabin is being kept warm. The cabin is somewhat rustic, and the low ceilings make it feel very small, despite the amount of people crowded inside. The walls are bathed in low yellow and orange light, almost as if the rooms are lighted by oil lanterns. The biggest room in the cabin is the dining hall, if it can be called that, but even as the biggest, it is only the size of a small living room in a cottage of some kind. The people cramped inside the hall are mostly teenagers, and they are sitting on long benches around wooden tables having tea and desserts. The furnishings are notable for their elegance and simplicity. The knick-knacks on the buffet and various small tables lining the wall are all obviously antiques of humble yet dignified quality. The hostess of this cabin, a late middle-aged British woman, is remarking on how delicious the tea is that evening, evidently pleased with it considering how quickly it had been made.

Suddenly, I walk in. I am a tall man, dressed in blue old fashioned breeches, large white billowy shirt, and paisley waist-coat. I silently put my great coat down on a table and sternly stride away from my officers in the tiny foyer into the dining hall to do a sudden inspection. The teenagers, mostly men as far as I can tell, all stand up at attention. I am irritated with this group for some reason. It may have to do with their lack of discipline, but I say nothing. I prefer to let them see my anger burn out slowly from underneath my furrowed brows. My stern manner does not dampen my ultimate duty towards them though. Ultimately, I know these people to be under my care and protection. I am doing my best to instill a sense of discipline in them, a discipline that they can feel bloom out from their co-fellows as a fireplace at home will slowly warm the hearth stones.

In another dream, I am journalist making contact with a college educated Afghani woman in her country. We have agreed to meet at a small town bazaar. Her country is in great turmoil, and she is not too happy with me because, to her, I represent all of the "Western" values and behaviors that she despises. However, her great desire is to tell "her side of the story," so she somewhat petulantly grants the interview. The interview in unusual, because as designed, it is more of a documentary than a one on one, back and forth, asking and answering of questions. Over the next few days, she will be showing me her life and the way she has to live it in the world of turmoil around her.

I am so grateful for her having agreed to this, I do everything that she asks. I ignore her thinly disguised contempt of me and contempt of everything that she believes I stand for, and I do my best to assimilate, however temporarily, into her society. I even adopt the local manner of dress to better fit in. Mostly, I commit myself to following her meekly around, drinking up everything she says with my ears, devouring everything I see with my eyes.

As we leave the relative safety of the indoor bazaar, I note the parking garage across the street is nearly engulfed in flames. Despite this, there are three or so men on various levels patrolling with rocket launchers, ready to shoot anything and everything they want. Their bodies burn in the flames, but they are unconcerned. Slowly, they pace back and forth on their respective levels as dark smoke rolls out from the top of the building. I cannot help but ask about the fire or the burning soldiers, but the Afghani woman expresses that very same contemptuous irritation that she had shown before in the bazaar. She considers me naive for not knowing just how much her country is in turmoil.

Both dreams have more to them, more parts that I have since forgotten. I can't remember the full dreams. In any case, I will probably dream again tonight as I have pulled another "all-nighter" that I didn't intend. Like I mentioned before, I hope to get back on a better sleep schedule soon. Still, blog posts will be few and far between. That may change when I start feeling better, but then again, I have a lot of other projects that need doing to that are suffering from my inability to pull it together. I guess we shall see when I am able to post next.

25 January 2009

Getting Stuck 

Back when my future seemed to hold more promise for me than it does now, I planned on becoming an English instructor. I envisioned myself in some tiny office grading essays, with a window overlooking a nondescript University library made pleasant to look at by both familiarity and a handful of oaks below "shhhsh-ing" in a lukewarm breeze. I had thought I wasn't harboring any foolish illusions about this future fantasy because I paid keen attention to the warnings of my professors, listened to various academic experts, and read all of the advice - - by both expert and laymen - - I could find about a life in academia.

Thus, I planned on having a substantial amount of student loan debt, a tiny apartment (maybe even into my sunset years), and the aggravation of endless committee meetings with the attendant academic politics. Yet, even with those expected problems, the life of an English Instructor held out a modest hope of enjoyment. I liked to read. I liked discovering the history of ideas as humanity moved obliviously through time. I liked analyzing complex or interwoven themes in stories. And, I liked to write. English professors could be overworked and frustrated by a life in academia, but it might be a life of modest dignity and a way of supporting myself without relying on external help any more. Could I even dare to hope that I would earn enough money doing something I liked and was moderately good at to provide for a family and a home of my own? Those were thoughts that I quickly banished. The superstitious fears of my unconscious whispered that thinking such things might prevent them from becoming true.

After the seasonal excitement of filling out various college applications and writing hopeful essays, after the adventure of figuring out how and where to take the GRE's, I was accepted to a State College. I thought I knew the risks, and having had accepted them, I allowed myself to feel some excitement for the future.

And yet, as realistic as I thought I was being, I hadn't planned on my personal life causing so many problems as to prevent me from focusing on getting necessary work done. At the worst point, it took all of my effort to maintain the barest threads of my emotional reserve. So, when life made even the simplest and smallest of demands, I couldn't meet them. Checking my mail in the boxes outside, normally something so mundane as to not even be noteworthy, became a major accomplishment. Eventually, after days, and then months, of lying in bed or on my couch - - after masterfully stretching out every last chance I had with the college through pleading with various departments - - the University finally "invited" me to leave with a brief form letter. This ultimate outcome did not come as even the tiniest of surprises. Still, reading it fell like falling down a small embankment towards a cold and dirty creek. Just that month, the weather had been warming into spring, and I began feeling strong enough to develop a plan of action. I felt on the verge of turning it all around and regaining my footing. Until, the letter. I do remember thinking, in that pivotal, horrible moment (letter in hand held against the back of the envelope), how it was somewhat ironic that even with countless writing experts at the college, this final letter could be so poorly written.

What I did not know at the time was that my past history, my childhood even, laid the foundations for this crushing failure. Either through a series of bad choices or a substantial defect in my emotional makeup, my "being" was somehow trained for being derailed by problems. Almost every setback I experienced felt like a final puzzle piece completing an obvious, but as yet, unforeseen picture.

"Yes," my heart screams to my head, "you are indeed a failure. You are destined to be thwarted at your every turn. Life will not be enjoyable for you, and it is useless for your to try and make it better. Poverty will make it so you will not have the same chances as some. 'You can be anything you want with hard work and effort' is a bitter lie meant to make common people feel better about being brutalized by the system. Ad infinitum." This thought process appears to have been true since my early childhood, gaining new eloquence, new levels of complexity and certainity as I get older.

So, I get depressed and do nothing. Intellectually, I feel the duty of what needs to be done in life. "Yes, life may be horrible," but it is that way for everyone. The only moral choice one ever has is to live life steadily and grow beyond its terrible grasp, to not let the unpleasant things in life become strong swells that threaten to sink the ship of self. But knowing what must be done, I still can't seem to motivate myself to do it. The depressed part of my mind, that shadow devouring monster, dismisses the intellectuality of moving on by calling my mind's attention to the riveting pain of now. The future is meaningless in the face of the pain of "now."

In spite of all of the above, I think I could respond more to kind words and genuine encouragement, but most of it feels rote and false somehow. I don't know why. This could be the "bug," the error, the mistake. The "un-knowing" of the problem or how to fix it. I run through all of the code, analyzing the data to find the blank spot, the problem, but even if I find it, I do not have a clue about what to put there. So, I get stuck. I feel overwhelmed and get lost before even knowing where to begin.

12 January 2009