It was not a morning for fanfare. My left eye opened to a dark cave beneath quilt’s edge, the other narrowed against blurred weak light beyond its edge. Instead, a morning made of sinking thoughts, remnants of dreams, a signalling of more rain at the window. It is February, and although there are crocuses, snowdrops, camellias and even daffodils showing off their happy faces, mine wanted to stay hidden. Melded with the gloom. Why bother to jump up and get going?
It was not the first morning such as this lately. I think it is not even the rain, that easiest of scapegoats around here, as the rain and I tend to be amiable cohabitants in this valley nestled between Cascades and Coastal Ranges. Rainfall’s virtues include: tenderizing moisture for skin of creatures and plants; life-giving nourishment for same; misty landscapes with palettes of gentled hues; musical accompaniment day and night; mild temperatures that stave off any frostbite. Though I begin to long for the unveiling of spring’s enchantments about now, I can’t place the primary burden on rain.
It’s just me. It’s a final flick of the tail end of the holiday season with everyone (children, grandchildren, other family, friends) back to old routines of work and school. It’s the resonant echoes of death, both my sister and brother-in-law; the heart disease of a brother and a cousin who just pulled through emergency operations. It is the stale rumination about life’s battles and how close we live to the edge of the precipice. I live, that is, with crazy heart arrhythmias and two stent implants so far– the fact that this family disease just keeps cutting us down. And, alright, perhaps it doesn’t help to greet more tedium of rain and dour, heavy clouds. Perhaps, as well, the apparent ruinous state of the world that doesn’t improve with worry.
Usually it is a competition between me and arrows of negativity piercing my brain: I like to win, so I take on the current perceived threat to my well-being with that intention. Soon, the hour and then the day or night improve bit by bit. After turning on the TV for a half hour as I ate my bagel and drank my chamomile tea in a futile attempt to redirect my mental state, I gave up and sought more help. First prayer (I sometimes forget when caught by self-denigration), then reading for distraction, then–aha!
That nice black, mostly empty journal on my messy desk.
I had given up personal journals years ago as being self-indulgent, a dumping ground that turned into rot. Not that keeping a journal didn’t hold some value during trying times over the decades–nothing like speaking to something that cannot talk back, or using language skills to help decipher an impenetrable problem. But I had systematically burned or shredded every one I had a kept boxed far too long. Looking back at the well-trod trail wasn’t a temptation. It wasn’t art. They took up room. I was done.
But I have always kept various-sized notebooks in which to jot down ideas or book titles or music recordings to refer to later. Song lyrics when I was songwriting. Quick poems dashed off when there wasn’t time to work on them. And I used to paint and draw more often in sketchbooks that had stared back at me when I was looking for something else. I considered the pleasure that could occur if I began a new journal, some jottings mixed with visuals, like scrapbooks I had as a kid but not like the current rage of scrap booking. I didn’t need fancy or expensive. Just a place to let off a little creative steam or release my brain of some miscellaneous meanderings.
It took a long time to find the right one, don’t ask me why, I simply had an idea in mind and it wouldn’t do to start with a journal less than what I wanted. In fact, all at once I found three that might do the trick. Yet they remained on my desk, unopened and gathering a thin veneer of dust.I knew it would not hold me deepest secrets, nor would it be a testament to any talent I may or may not have for visual art. I just wanted to have a spot to park ideas and set down a few drawings or paste a few collages together for fun and relaxation.
Then, on such a day as today, when I was restless but didn’t know what for, and couldn’t shake the doldrums well, I got it out and started to write. It was pleasant. A page of words, a page of drawings. Fill up empty paper, see them change.
So today, when overshadowed by what is not right in the world and in my life, I took up pencil and scrapbook aka journal and a folder of cut out pictures and other remnants, then got my art toolbox. And I settled down to find what came of my mopey doodling and scribbling. What arose was the importance of choice coupled with power of imagination. I could think/meditate/create my way into a more hopeful and fruitful state as I have done countless times.
I have spent some time in emotional prisons (and other literal confinement) of my own and others’ making and because of that, I learned early how vital it is to be able to flee from them. If the cage was fear, then safety had to be envisioned and sought. If it was sorrow, then a glimmer of joy was recreated. If it was pain of a physical or mental sort, then a refuge was constructed of healing peace. If confusion made of secrets and lies prevailed, then clarity came from a focus on the smallest bits I found. If life was torn apart, then the bloody pieces had to be gathered and placed together so the picture was mended and emerged whole again, even if not the one I needed or wanted yet.
When I was just fifteen a therapist kept telling me: “You are not your thoughts or beliefs but your feelings. You are what you feel, not what you think.”
That certainty coupled with intelligence was a bit intimidating but I didn’t like her much. I felt she lacked…imagination. I managed to sit composed in her dungeon office. Gazed out the small window above her head. If that was true, I almost replied, I was truly doomed, because feelings are difficult, changeable, intense, more powerful than many things in life, and they caused considerable embarrassment to my well known family back home, as well.
Not to say, alarm, at times. I had acted on reckless emotion–not foolishly, but out of anguish and anger–and so, was being given a break. As they were given, too, from me. I was sent to a private, big city psychiatric ward.
“No,” I asserted, “I am what I think. What and how I think of myself and life is what shapes me, my life. My emotions…are part of it but they come and go. How I think triggers emotions, it seems to me. I have to change my thoughts somehow and learn how to live with my difficult and pesky emotions.”
She was not amused. She tapped her pen on a clipboard of papers. I had not said the right thing. I may have been a bit precocious, she said, but I was the patient, was I not? The next visits she repeated the same things and eventually I understood I should agree. She was pleased. I sat on that ward and watched those who seemed no longer able to think, who rocked back and forth after daily doses of potent medications that manged symptoms but also their entire lives. Many stared mutely into space, had lost the freedom to speak up, to make different choices. To get better–because they had forgotten or never knew they were worthy of happy lives. Their stories were unheard now and who would witness their suffering? I took out my notebook and wrote of it, the seeming waste of those human lives and the grief of it and, too, the fledgling hope that took hold of me once more despite unabated loneliness and longing. I knew I would walk out that door. I would think it through, find my way, discover how to live without so much fallout. Creating that life would come from within me and could not be denied me.
This was long before a gradual but important shift began to occur in the mental health movement. It leaned more and more toward the idea that people are, in truth, what they think, that we can make progress even by thinking good thoughts, that we can visualize our goals and this will help manifest our dreams, even greatness if that is what we truly desire. We can imagine and participate in each step and move closer to who we determine we want to be. The fact is, there is truth to all this. People decide they want things to happen; they plan for it and then practice change both in their thinking and behaviors and it works. Powerful things happen when there is commitment. I have witnessed it myself.
In the late 1970s, the Transtheorectical Model was developed by Carlo DiClemente and J.O. Prochaska when trying to figure out what would help smokers to give up the habit. They discovered that there were five stages through which people moved while striving to make lasting changes: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and finally, maintenance of new habits. This has been applied to a diversity of problematic behaviors, including addictions of all sorts. When people realize they can have doubts amidst certainty and hope as well as misgivings, they can begin to accept the situation better–and then determine the success of their own lives. This is taking responsibility. It has the effect of real energy applied to mass: action happens.
So, back to my spot at the dining room table this morning. I was ready to change my day (I have low tolerance for feeling poorly when I can mange to feel better, even if a little.) I already had the will to improve the tenor of things. I started with the idea of elevating both mood and productivity, considered my options, then gave it movement.
I opened the journal and took up my favorite mechanical pencil. I wrote:
Even though the senses are indispensable avenues by which to explore and experience, they are not complete–not without imagination. If I can think it, emotions can be roused by the conjuring and I can choose how to respond to them as well as the contemplation. I don’t initially have to be or do anything other than bring forth an idea, an image, in my mind. No, it is not a tangible thing, not three-dimensional unless I choose to make it so. And the world likes something to have physical properties, something that can be studied and designated as thus and so.
But the human imagination, ubiquitous, amorphous and vast, is within reach of anyone, anytime. It has the ineffable power to transform my thinking and my world. Where possibilities are acknowledged, there is choice and with choice there is change. There is freedom and when that happens, a life unfurls into a glorious journey despite the hardships which leave scars to mark our survival. We find our way because we hope, believe; we envision and act and undergo metamorphosis. How malleable we are as humans, and how little it can take to help bring about our better selves.
And so I continued another twenty minutes until two pages were full enough. I felt lighter but needed more. Out came the pictures and colored pencils, the paste and paint. I didn’t have a clear plan, only that I wanted color and form, life given shape without my words awhile. I soon stopped pondering and let simple creative impulses direct my hands. Random magazine pictures and other odds and ends were trimmed and positioned; paints and colored pencils were applied. The extra pages developed into lively scenes with their own stories. No one was going to give me a prize but I had made internal progress in a short while.
As I tossed unusable scraps and put away the art toolbox, I felt…good, calm, right with myself again.
The day has flown, after all. The murky daylight has become a quiet nightfall. The fantastic dragon of life has entered repose, put at ease again. I am about to put on the kettle for more tea and root around for some dinner, then pick up Marc from the airport. I won’t be shouldering a dark cloud. Imagination has saved me once more and I am feeling a little glee.