Living Life Amid Passing Shadows

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16
Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson 9/16

There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.

The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.

But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.

That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.

Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)

Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.

I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.

If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.

If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)

Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?

I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.

So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.

Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.

We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.

When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I  don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.

But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.

I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.

Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.

How to Infuse Mopiness with Good Thoughts

Spring coming 078

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.