Ruminant With A View
by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
“From where/a red tomato/lies rotting/I am only/a few steps away.”—a tanka by Saito Mokichi (1882-1953)
After completing the manuscript of her last (posthumously published) novel, Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf fell into a depression similar to that which she had earlier experienced. The onset of World War Two, the destruction of her London home during the Blitz, and the cool reception given to her biography of her late friend Roger Fry all worsened her condition until she was unable to work. On 28 March 1941, Woolf put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, and walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned herself. In her last note to her husband she wrote: “Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ‘til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V[irginia].”—Source: Wikipedia
TEANECK New Jersey—(Weekly Hubris)—11/28/11—Too soon, you may say. It’s waaaay too soon to be writing about a suicide attempt a week and four days old (as though one could, should, speak of such an event, or aborted event, as though it were a newborn; something cooing and gurgling in its crib).
But, given my proclivities, perhaps it is, instead, high time. Perhaps there is not enough time left to write this column. My odds, at 60, with (now) four serious suicide attempts behind me—roughly one every decade; one coinciding pretty neatly with a major death in my no-longer extant family-of-origin—are not good: I’ve studied the actuarial tables. I’m more than a bit like the San Andreas Fault, or Mount Saint Helens, or the Santorini volcano: not a place near which to vacation.
AND I have given up—long, long, long given up, on “talk therapy.” The only child of a therapist, I cut my teeth on Freud (Sigmund und Anna), Jung, Adler, Horney, Reich, Erickson, Fromm et al, et al, et al, world without end. I’ve had about thrice as many shrinks as husbands, and those of you who know me well will realize that’s quite an integer.
The paramedic who collected me from my all-but-Roman-bath (I’ll spare you most of the details) told me, earnestly, “But, there’s so much to live for.”
I squeezed his hand and said, “I was lying on the analysand’s couch decades before you were born, My Dear. Now, Hush.”
I’d like to have said, “Now, Hush, before I slap you silly, You Babbling Infant!” but he was a darling, yarmulka-ed youth, barely possessed of a beard. Why should HE have to know some salmon never make it upstream, never even clear the shallowest rapids, but beat their iridescent heads to pieces on the rocks? Perhaps he will never know, and that will be a great good thing.
The quotes I’m using in this piece come, for the most part, from the grandest congeries of essays I know that deal with Depression, and her more malevolent half-sibling, Bi-Polar Disorder. I am most assuredly a Unipolar Bear, with a great dollop of ADD not diagnosed until this very year. (Just my luck to be surfing the very cusp of psychopharmacological knowledge, a tad ahead of the stuff that might have kept my board better glued together.)
You’d think SOMEONE might have noticed that I’d begun seven fully funded (plus T.A.’s) Ph.D. programs—two of them requiring a scant two years of residency—AND an M.D., but completed none of them; felled, each time, by Depression and, unbeknownst to me, A.D.D. How I ever wrote 14 books is beyond me. I only, after 59 years, got my office organized—truly immaculately organized after some genius (and I am NOT being ironic) got me on Focalin this past spring. Then, I finished the novel I’d been laboring over for a decade in two and a half weeks.
Think what I might have done had I been on Prozac and Focalin from age eleven, which is when my Depression first unequivocally announced its existence. In fact, I’d had night terrors—pavor noctis—since three, but the death wish came at eleven. I was at Ephesus, with my parents, and knew, without a doubt, that everyone I knew, and I, myself, were mortal; and that they, whom I loved best, would be the first to go.
I was inconsolable.
As writer Russell Banks phrases it: “ . . . in my view the world is such that any other response to it than sadness and anger would be inappropriate.”
Most of the time, that’s true, Russell; most of the time. And the times of enormous joy, seemingly relentless creativity, and body-blistering passion only serve to show up the true depth of the troughs of misery, despair, boredom, ennui, and what have you in between the little peaks.
The human landscape. It sucks. Big time.
And my own stretch of it has truly sucked. I could list the deaths, the illnesses, the losses, the denials, the dashed dreams—the particularly sucky stuff of my particular life—but I’ve written memoirs covering most of it already.
This latest descent I chalk up to Post-Partum-Ness, in that I wrote this glorious novel in under a month’s time, after wrangling it like a brahma bull in a convenience store for well over ten years. The Focalin—two tiny doses a day—made me able to sit and write for eight-hour stretches: Voila! Novel accomplished.
Then came the crushing wave of grief. WHY THE F%$K HADN’T SOME EARLIER GENIUS NOTICED I HAD ADD 30 YEARS AGO?????!!!!!!!
The waste. The loss. The irretrievable years.
It took a while to hit me, and then, like quakes and tsunamis, one always following the other, like alpha and beta, a second shock sent me spiraling. I went to Greece—my other homeland—in September, with a terrible sense of foreboding . . . and found innocent, guileless friends and a former-still-belovéd-lover and the whole damn country going over the falls like that benighted priest in “The Mission”—vilified, bankrupted, nailed to a cross and assigned an impossible penance.
Too much for this salmon. Too many leaps of faith. Too much attrition.
My 60th birthday came and went in hell; hell being Greece, the most beautiful and now economically ruined little former democracy on the planet.
One good friend told me a story kept out of the news so as not to affect Cretan tourism. A group of some 40 or 50 men, women and children, ruined by the new austerity measures (read: ruinous cuts in pensions; absurd reassessments by the Greek IRS; lay-offs; skyrocketing fuel and food prices) went quietly to a distant island forest, and set themselves—and their children—on fire.
But, Hush! Can’t tell the tourists such stuff. They’re the only source of incoming euros now.
I came back “home” in a state of shock. Not only had my own creative and professional life been blighted by a simply-treated disorder we’ve all known about for 40 years; but my beautiful Greece, the land I’ve loved since age nine, when I first went there, was circling the toilet of Europe—which dumped it there in the first place.
I’ll give it to the Germans, the Russians and the French: they never really lose, do they?
So . . . please don’t blame me if I felt like opening my veins AND downing about 50 Clonazepam at a time when I believed no one would be coming home to rescue me from reality.
I’ve had it, is what I’m trying to say. When I was 21, and my father died at 57, I took a great many pills and was hospitalized for about a week. I wrote, on a sheet of paper on that hideous psych ward, one sentence that has stood me fairly well all these decades: “Today is not tomorrow.”
There’s just a shred, a glint, of light in that sentence, and it was enough to get me out of there and going again. But now, I’m not so sure.
As the Spanish Proverb states: “I don’t want the cheese. I just want out of the trap.”
Obviously, I have to get OUT of the cheese-and-trap-circuit quickly, but how, and where might that elsewhere, that cheeseless, trapless elsewhere, be?
I tried to tell my broken-up husband that it was not his fault; that it had nothing to do with him. I believe suicidal spouses have been singing this same refrain since long, long before Virginia wrote and left behind her famous note for Leonard Woolf.
I tried to tell him that I am tired of living in a house with a swamp in the basement, a pack of ogres in the attic, nails on every surface, and ceilings so low I bang my head wherever I turn: in other words, I am tired of living in my own MIND.
To quote Nancy Mairs: “Life [is] a ramshackle structure, and I [am] such a painstaking architect with outraged sensibilities.”
There’s no happy ending to this piece, Dear Reader.
There’s only this. Having poisoned me with Haldol at the Holy Name Hospital ER and, thus, having precluded my re-starting my Focalin for several weeks’ time, I am suspending my disbelief till I can once again ingest the substance that brought this aged Sleeping Beauty to life in the first place.
I will abide in this ramshackle structure that much longer.
But, I do have to tell you, today looked exactly like yesterday; and I don’t hold out much hope of tomorrow not being today . . . in every detail.
Still and all . . .
“In the middle of the journey of our life/I found myself in a dark wood./for I had lost the right path.”—Dante, “The Inferno”
“And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.”—Dante, AFTER “The Inferno”
PS: In my usual tradition of going on, after debacle, as though there had been none-to-speak-of, whistling in the dark, as it were, I began making our annual holiday cards days after leaving the hospital. The photograph on the cards spells out the word, “Courage,” in Modern Greek; the following quotes and short poem accompany the image:
Even in these terrible times, we must continue learning to love; hoping to believe in our better selves. These are my few rays of “found light” shared in the dark winter of 2011, Dearest Ones . . . EB-H
“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d like to see you in better living conditions.” – Hafiz
“We all carry within us our places of exile, our crimes, our ravages. Our task is not to unleash them on the world; it is to transform them in ourselves and others.” – Albert Camus
“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.” – Jack Kornfield
“The truth is we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free.” – Nelson Mandela
“True love is not for the faint-hearted.” – Meher Baba
“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because someday you will have been all of these.” – George Washington Carver
“The outer work will never be puny if the inner work is great.” – Meister Eckhart
“Be modest now, like a thing/ripened until it is real,/so that he [she] who began it all/can feel for you when he [she] reaches for you – Rilke
“Are you looking for the Holy One? I am in the next seat. My shoulder is against yours.” – Kabir
“Do you know what astonished me most in the world? The inability of force to create anything. In the long run, the sword is always beaten by the spirit.” – Napoleon Bonaparte, upon dying
“If one is to do good, it must be done in the particulars. General good is the plea of the hypocrite, the flatterer, the scoundrel.” – William Blake
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do children as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller
“The secret of human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results.” – Bhagavad Gita
“No seed ever sees the flower.” – Zen Teaching
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” – Dame Julian of Norwich
“May I and all beings be filled with lovingkindess. May I and all beings be safe from inner and outer dangers. May I and all beings be well in body and mind. May I and all beings be happy and free.” – The Buddha
“The earth-colored glass/makes everything seem diverse,/but that glass eventually shatters./Your lamp was lit from another lamp./All God wants is your gratitude for that./Lend, is the divine command./Make God a loan of your existence.” – Rumi
“Don’t you sense me, ready to break/into being at your touch? – Rilke
“The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.” – Sri Nisargadatta
“As you press on for justice, be sure to move with dignity and discipline, using only the weapons of love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Out beyond wrong doing and right doing is a field of luminous consciousness. I’ll meet you there.” – Rumi
“Compassion is a verb.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
“You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves . . .” – Mary Oliver
Maranatha, Namaste, Shalom, Peace, Love, Agape, Hope, Suspension of Disbelief, Elizabeth
“For Greece, Winter 2011”
by Elizabeth Boleman-Herring
The fragile, gritty pumice
of Santorini has survived
millennia: floating above the
wine-dark storm like sea-foam
incarnate; and, like your soul,
lighter, more buoyant than you know.
Float now, above the black abyss,
above grim Tartarus: light, weightless, ageless.
You were meant for
some safe, simple harbor.
Come to rest there, a testament on black sand.