The wor(l)d in a grain

Grain

I got nothing. Or do I?

I have several hours (to kill or not to kill), two palms, endless grains of sand, and once I step outside again, I no doubt will encounter at least a few wild flowers. All that remains is for me to remove the scales of metaphorical sleep from my eyes and to hold my palms still for long enough not to keep letting the grains of truth slip away.

One of my favourite stories is somewhat relevant. As re-told by J. Krishanmurti:

“You may remember the story of how the devil and a friend of his were walking down the street, when they saw ahead of them a man stoop down and pick up something from the ground, look at it, and put it away in his pocket. The friend said to the devil, “What did that man pick up?” “He picked up a piece of Truth,” said the devil. “That is a very bad business for you, then,” said his friend. “Oh, not at all,” the devil replied, “I am going to let him organize it.”

A second favourite story is the Snow Queen, which is for me like a re-telling of Blake’s poem. Some of the splinters from the shattered troll-mirror are no larger than a grain of sand. One of these splinter’s is lodged in Kai’s eye, and yet the challenge given him by the Snow Queen is to form the word ‘eternity’ from pieces of ice, much like the one lodged in his eye and that have turned his heart equally cold. The Snow Queen’s ‘mirror of reason’, though, is as much of a fun-house mirror as the one belonging to the trolls. It is only through the splinters of ice being caught up in the dance of Kai and Gerda that the word ‘eternity’ can finally be spelled.

So to mash-up two favourite songs: I got no diamonds, got no pearls…but I got the sun in the morning, and the moon at night, and I got rhythm. If I can teach my palms to dance, then you can imagine the rest. I won’t need to try to keep reasoning away or together the needed alchemy of Blake. I can become the dancing tigger (intentional) burning bright. The blessed symmetry will happen when I can shake off the false immortality of splintered eyes.

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Don’t phase me, bro

Phase

A second nod to Bob Dylan (see Confoundin ): I have to believe that the (my) times are a’ changin. I may not ever qualify as an ageing hippie, unless I truly become a hippie before I age. I’m afraid that the beginning phrases of my recounting of ways that I’ve come close would sound more like some lines from Prufrock.

I once expressed frustration to a philosophy professor that I was feeling trapped in a kind of existential Zeno’s paradox, and that forward movement in my life was seeming to prove inherently impossible. (Any fans of Douglas Hofstadter out there?). The prof offered to sit me down and explain in the space of an hour the simple way out of the original paradox, but he wasn’t speaking my language, as much as we had a mutual respect. I often turned to him when I just needed to vent, but looking back, I think it’s fair to say that he looked upon all of my frustrations and challenges as just phases that I was going through.

The moon goes through phases. Observers from earth never see the far side of it, something to do with how the duration of orbit is the same as the duration of its rotation — and/or something to do with ‘tidal locking’. But although the far side of the moon has been photographed from space, no human being has ever stood on that side of it. In some ways, the Earth’s movement is like the moon’s but on a larger scale. The Earth and its inhabitants also go through phases. Back to Hofstadter, I’d like to think we can choose whether to focus on the recurrent patterns or on the possibility and freedom to change.

Before encountering today’s prompt, I had already planned on musing on my simultaneous cravings for stability and freedom, for ritual habit and variety. Of course these do not represent a paradox and they are not mutually exclusive. But it does feel that way at times. Likewise, I would like to believe that my struggles with depression and other mental health issues are just phases, as are my current challenges to find steady and gainful employment more than 5 years after completing 8 years of post-secondary education. And yet at the same time, there seems to be something inherently impossible about getting from point A to point B.

I’d like to believe that my life can be about the journey, not the destination, so that there really is no ‘point B’ for me to achieve. In which case, I could also dispense with the false destinations that are ‘half-way there’.

I’ve written elsewhere about the difference between historical thinking and becoming trapped by the belief that the patterns of history are inevitable. We’re seeing this debate play out in the current American election (disclaimer: I don’t pretend to have more than an outsider’s perspective, and my particular sympathies for one candidate are only circumstantial), between the opposing theories of incremental and revolutionary change. If I could persuade political candidates of all countries and parties to read Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’, and then of course all of Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher and Bach, I am convinced the world would be a better place.

I have to believe that change is possible, for myself and for the world, despite the recurring phases (or pendulum swings) that our global villages endure, and despite that I have been going through some of my own phases recurrently since childhood. I WILL find a way out of my existential and mental habits. At the same time:

At their most docile setting, phasers (and phases) are set to stun. Don’t phase me, bro. Even if I were to receive a diagnosis of bi-polar disorder, and even if even the best medications could only offset the extreme symptoms so that I was still destined to go back and forth in my mood swings, I would still be searching for real forward movement.

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Of Carts and Horses

This is also partially in response to some comments and questions I have received to my other posts; it is a public journal reflection, thus inviting further feedback; it is a contribution to the swirling pensieve that I referred to before; mostly it is just an attempt to clarify my thoughts for my own selfish purposes.

What do I want, what do I think the steps are to achieve my goals, and which of those steps am I willing/feeling able to take? Another aspect of motivational interviewing is the ‘ready-willing-able’ equation: if someone is feeling incapable of performing a certain task, it may come across as unwillingness or as a general lack of motivation. One may argue the standard line that willingness to try should come first, but bear with me. Just as musical abilities are achieved through several methodical steps – the 95% perspiration is accurate but is still a vague and useless admonition if one doesn’t know ‘how’ to do the workouts — there are ways in which the pop-psych admonitions, and even some of the respected self-help manuals are putting too many carts before horses, taking far too much for granted in the readers’ understanding of how to proceed with that self-help.

Here is a partial wish list for my life, along with thoughts on what I’m trying to do to address the wishes; it is un-ordered at this stage. I would like some relief from the internal chaos of my mind. Aside from the present writing process to try to order my reflections, aside from the current brand of medication, and aside from appointments I’ve been making and keeping with doctors and therapists, I know there are two practical steps I have yet to take: one is to engage in some more constructive physical exercise. I now have a bicycle and am awaiting a helmet. I would love to find a tennis partner who is also an enthusiastic and mediocre beginner, but that just opens up a whole new series of steps I have to take, and it really will represent a tangent for now, as relevant as it is. The second practical step to deal with mental chaos is one I keep coming back to: an active program of meditation. I need a different mental angle from which to approach the process of just getting started. To the people who say “don’t sweat it. Just focus on your breathing”, my response is: If you told me you wanted to learn to play piano and I gave you a series of steps that I consider simple, but you still couldn’t understand what I meant, would I accuse you of not listening or not making the attempt? There is definitely a cart in front of the horse for me here. But if I knew how to explain why I can’t even sit still for more than 2 minutes being aware of my breath before the anxiety kicks in and I have to get up and do something, I probably wouldn’t need to keep brainstorming on new angles, let alone invite new feedback.

I would like to find a day job that I can feel competent at, even if it only pays minimum wage. Please don’t yell at me when I say I can’t even multitask sufficiently to work at a gas station or Tim Horton’s. Please don’t yell at me and say I’m unmotivated. If you looked at my resume, you’ll see all of the jobs I’ve been willing to try. Getting my hands dirty is no problem. Heavy lifting is no problem, as long as you don’t trust me with anything fragile or that will be easily scratched. Standing for long periods is not a problem. I have 8 1/2 years of post-secondary education, resulting in an MA in Religious Studies and a Bachelor of Social Work. My brain started hurting before I finished the MA, and my training in Social Work made things worse, because it was all about intellectually analyzing what was wrong with the world rather than the hands-on skills of how to work with clients.
I made an attempt recently to find a career counsellor, and was told ‘Come back when you know what job you want to do’. Seriously. But that’s not the end of my story. Aside from using the present writing process, aside from hoping that when I start to achieve some mental clarity, that I’ll be able to sort out what kind of day job I’d really like to have, I know that one step I have yet to take is to start engaging in more conversations with people about the jobs they have so that I can do some more constructive brainstorming on what I would or wouldn’t like/be good at in such jobs. But aside from engaging in another tangent about my social phobias/shyness (introversion is not a precise enough word for my personality issues), I’m in search of some metaphorical horses here as well in terms of getting started with those conversations.

My musical wishes are the biggest example of carts and horses. I have dreamed of being a successful musician, but have long realized that first I need to become a more competent one. But the ironies abound. I have spent my life being a big fish in small ponds — partly because I become overwhelmed by large centres, partly because of other social and artistic self-doubts. I have a certain number of musical skills that are in high demand precisely because they are apparently rare. I have been told that I have innate ‘gifts’, and it doesn’t matter how much I beg to differ and insist that all of my skills result from having had some of the best teachers in my childhood and youth. I can still do things as a musician that other professional musicians and educators marvel at. I have had no shortage of successful gigs in my life, both solo and ensemble. And yet there are other practical skills that I lack. There are a number of high-paying musical contexts that I am simply not capable of going for because of the particular gaps in my abilities. But before you yell at me, please be aware of two things: first, the steps I need to take to fill these gaps are steps that I AM taking, notwithstanding the obstacles presented by my mood swings and attention span issues. Every chance I get, I’m working to build my skills. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe that it’s worthwhile, or that I am capable of achieving my goals.
Second, though, please know that this is not just artistic self-doubt. The skills that I do have, the ones that impress even the seasoned professionals, are in demand but are not sufficient to get me the kind of money I need to survive. The key word I need to add is “yet”. I will get there.

But having spent the last few years trying to grow as a competent musician, I do ask myself if being a full-time musician is really what I want. I’d be happy for the combination of being a damned good Saturday night musician and having the day job I can be proud of. People have yelled at me not to give up day jobs that I often never had in the first place. They thought I was being stubborn, but the fact is that for long periods of my life, music is all I have really understood. Far more than Religious Studies or Social Work, neither of whose content I could ever really retain. I can promise I’ve forgotten more of my education than I learned. I do know that I don’t want to take on more than a handful of students. I do know that there are certain ‘dream jobs’ out there for me as a musician that I’m already qualified for. I do know that I’m actually really close to living and not just chasing the dream of being a full-time musician. I know that I can get the rest of the way if I keep going. But my craving of a traditional day job is not just because of the occasional artistic doubts. It’s also because:

I mentioned in another post the issue of my loneliness. It is connected to my life as a musical artist, but I am willing to address it separately in terms of the steps I need to take. Although I’ve actively reached out on dating sites, this opens up a couple of paradoxes. First, before I can find someone to be with, I have to learn to be happy being alone. It’s not like I don’t know this. Second, I refuse to be dishonest on these dating sites, or in any other social context, about how chaotic my life is. I might be more attractive to a potential partner if I didn’t put all my cards (and my dramas) on the table, but what would be the point of dating someone who had false hopes about me having my life together? I don’t drive, I’m living in virtual poverty, I have two part-time jobs as a musician and scattered gigs, I haven’t been able to build my business as a music teacher, and my mental health is in ruins. Strangely, my physical health is actually pretty good, notwithstanding that I need to exercise more.
But before you yell at me, I’m just trying to address my loneliness from opposing angles: first, by working on all of the things above, I’m trying to find inner peace and happiness based on what I can achieve as a more humane human being. I’m also doing my best to reach out to kindred spirits (I’m often sad that I find more kindred spirits online and 1000 miles away than I do in real life, but there have been marvellous exceptions). Again, though, please understand not just the obstacles but also the issue of carts and horses involved in my very attempts to reach out for new friendships. If I were to wish for one result of therapy that would alter my entire destiny, it would be to overcome my shyness. Please don’t yell at me about all of the books and programs that are ‘out there’ to help with this. You might as well be trying to teach me how to understand sailing or nuclear physics.
I do believe that finding a day job that I would at least enjoy getting up in the morning to go to — as I said, even if it only pays minimum wage — would help with so many other aspects of my life, very much including being an antidote to the loneliness. Going home alone at night is still one of the most depressing banes of my existence, but I have always slept better when I know I’m looking forward to getting up in the morning.

The rest of my wish list is really secondary to the above. There is an old book called ‘Games People Play’. One of the games is called ‘waiting for Santa’. I would hope that I’ve talked enough about the steps that I’m trying to take instead of waiting for the fairy godmother to change my life, although a bit of deus ex machina is not something I would turn away.

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Perchance to dream

Dream

Yes, the title is a bit tired, and so is the implied play on words in the previous clause. But like the nature of my dreams — three kinds: daydreams, night dreams, and the ones I’m trying to chase — I’ll just meander a bit in this post until I arrive at an alternative title, although the opening one will stand.

In a previous post, I mused on the paradox of the examined life and the conclusions one draws about its worthiness, and this is a partial reply of sorts to one of the beautiful comments I received in response. It’s very true that it would probably be only an incomplete examination of one’s life that would lead someone to the conclusion that it’s not worth living. There are a couple primary streams of thought behind my original statement. First, the part where I examine my own life and wonder what the point has been; the second is the idea that life is so much easier if we can avoid the trap of self-examination in the first place. I can’t address either of these points in any depth in this post, but the second may be the most relevant for what I think I’m trying to say.

This morning, in the midst of an overwhelming sense of particular anxieties and generalized dread, I found myself wondering what it is that I really imagine as the ‘release’ that I anticipate as a result of ending my life. If I follow the idea that there is an afterlife, I can’t presume that I will end up in a place of peace rather than in one of eternal damnation. This morning I was more of a mind that what would follow my death would be nothingness, in which case I would not be ‘around’ to even be aware of having been released from my pain or from the feelings of dread. I found myself wondering about whether there would be a difference in consciousness of that release between a sudden accidental death and a long-planned suicide involving a slow fading off into the never-ending sleep. I don’t have answers to that of course; interestingly, my curiosity in the matter is what may likely save me rather than lead me into careless experimentation. Although I don’t think that imagining Sisyphus as happy is an effective antidote against suicide, I would wish my readers to recognize this post as a sign of hope rather than despair.

So, I did come to the conclusion at least that suicide would not bring me the particular form of release that I’m craving, namely the conscious experience of a lasting inner peace. I mean the kind that is not dependent upon external circumstances, although it would be really close to the feeling of being in a lover’s arms. Before anyone guesses that I’m missing the point on a lot of things — like whether we as humans are meant to experience more than passing moments of such transcendent peace, or the means we should be using to achieve it, such as prayer or transcendental meditation, for instance — I’ll just refer readers back to what I wrote before: although I do hope for a diagnosis of adult ADHD just so that I might finally get a more effective medication so that I can sit still long enough to start meditating, the bottom line is that between my new daily writing regimen, and the fact that my musical practice is starting to take shape again, I may find my own route to the needed beginner’s mantra.

Days like today, I just wanted to fade off into a blissful sleep never to have to wake again. To sleep, and not just perchance to dream. Because even some of my bad dreams are more peaceful than the waking dread. But in addition to reinforcing the point that I’ve come to the conclusion that I want this experience of peace to be conscious, and therefore neither suicide nor opiates are effective means to achieve it, there are the other kinds of dreams that I haven’t addressed.

I dream of being the change I want to see in the world. This is actually a bit less lofty of a goal than my dream of eking out a modest but comfortable existence as a musician, and of having a lover to share that existence with. Following my dreams as an artist is only a double-edged sword because a) I’m not convinced (yet) that I have enough talent or ambition to overcome years of neglect. Yes, I’ve spent the last few years trying to take responsibility for compensating for the neglect through intense practice, and it has started to pay off, until I allowed external and internal obstacles to get in the way, such as b) if anything is going to kill me, it’s going to be the extreme loneliness of going home alone after a successful gig. Going home alone after an unsuccessful gig is actually easier, because I can escape with thoughts of seeking the new day job that will bring me release from the tortures of chasing my musical dreams when I know that I’m not yet good enough to be discovered. When I know that I’m taking responsibility to improve, though, I still don’t deal very well with the solitude. My practice is solitary, as it should be, and that never gets me down. I’m primarily a solo musician, and to some degree, I know I won’t meet the musicians I really crave to work with until I overcome the hurdles of my lingering mediocrity. So close and yet so far away.

Some days I just really do want to go to sleep and dream of being a competent and gainfully employed musician. And then wake up and have a day job that I can be proud of.

I haven’t really answered my reader’s comment about the incompleteness of the ways in which I’ve examined my life. I’m going to claim the fifth amendment here, as I’ve just had to delete a great deal of extraneous information, as if the above isn’t already tmi. But: I’ve been told that my thoughts are a kind of balm for others who are going through similar or at least parallel ordeals. I’m still here, and it gives me great hope to know that you are too. Let’s keep talking. And dreaming. To make the impossible dream a reality.

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To Sing a life worthy of the Sagas

Saga

Sing

I have frequently mused — to myself and others — that I would like to live a life worthy of being called Shakespearian; whether tragic, comedic, or both. Such thoughts have been in reaction against headlines on dating profiles which proudly proclaim ‘no drama’. Although I have often empathized with the intent in some cases — it’s like wanting to start a relationship fresh and free from the burden of the historical — the baggage of past relationships, for instance — as well as free from the burdens of the present. And part of me also likes the idea of travelling light in general.

But in terms of life and/or relationships, I also like keeping things real. For me that means a life filled with drama. Although the word ‘saga’ has a very specific literary application, it implies to me a very long tale of neverending battles, which are not always won by the protagonist — the race is not always to the swift. The protagonist does not always do the right thing, and the immortal/heavenly/divine/etc beings are just as foolish and errant as humans.

If it is often painful to attract people into my world who are so full of their own drama that they are neither free nor otherwise capable of giving more than a tiny fraction of self or existence to a relationship — yes, part of my own drama is that I can be a very needy soul — much of this pain has to do with not fully living and trusting in the drama that is my own destiny.

The last verse of a song that makes me cry as often as I sing it runs:

‘How then am I so different from the first men through this way?
Like them, I left a settled life, and threw it all away;
To seek a Northwest Passage at the call of many men,
To find there but the road back home again’

I have written previously of going south to find myself as well as to find and confront the antagonist in the sage of my search for happiness. The tears provoked by the song are at the realization that I’m also seeking the northwest passage, perhaps travelling in the wrong direction, longing for the road home but perhaps never to find it, whether I die en route or whether I just spend aeons trapped in the ice (and I do mean aeons — several lifetimes, perhaps).

So I keep singing the song, because the tears are therapeutic. I also sing it as a kind of mating call, because I know that the only lover I will keep for life is the one whose own life is a mirror of my saga, and therefore we will always be alternating between going south and seeking northwest passages, and not always together, even if my dream is to find a lover to live the sagas side by side — sometimes gazing into each others’ eyes, sometimes standing and gazing together at the antagonists ahead.

I want a love life to be a saga of battles and other bard-worthy dramas. Sometimes this means that we will live separate lives, as another song says. But when I find my lover, I know our love will go down in history. It should be no other way.

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The Brick Whisperer

Brick

I alluded in my last post to motivational interviewing. I’ve dealt with the experience of talking to brick walls far more often in my daily life than in my previous social work career. But to be fair: sometimes when people don’t respond, it’s because my own ideas are too much like half-baked blocks of clay to earn a response. If the converse seems true, that my listeners just seem too fully ‘baked’ to absorb anything I’ve said, the truth is probably often that they are just not motivated to respond with anything in particular.

And as I’ve mentioned, motivation is interpersonal.

So my aspiration (and this word implies that I have to be fully capable of breathing life into myself before sharing – or wasting – my breath with others) is to become someone who is capable of learning the language of bricks (and the walls from which they are built).

Maybe Reagan was a brick-whisperer.

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Pensi(e)ve

Pensive

It has now been just over a month on a new medication to jointly help with moods, anxieties and attention-span. I am at least certain that there has been more than just a placebo affect. Of course no medication is going to solve my problems, to be the ‘magic pill’ to help get my mind and life in order. When a life has become as chaotic as mine, though, radical means are essential.

What have I been hoping for? A relief from the sieve that is my mind, but also the new sieve into which to place my thoughts so that they can be later sorted. Of course, you might say along with me, ‘Well, why didn’t you just use wordpress as that sieve ages ago?” I think if I could take a year doing nothing else but emptying my thoughts onto pages on this site, I might find the release and relief from the weight of my own thoughts and cares. And yes, I believe the daily prompts and other challenges will prove therapeutic. But without the medication, I wouldn’t be able to sit still long enough to write as much. The next step is sitting still long enough to meditate.

But here are my dilemmas: I’m also trying to pursue excellence as a musician. One reason that I’ve resorted to medication is that my distractability had become so severe that I wasn’t even accomplishing my goals of practice. The fact that I’m sitting down to write more often is the result of partially giving up on the attempts to be sitting at a piano, but I have no choice but to hope this is temporary. I take my music seriously (as a dance instructor tells her students, we take our art seriously so we don’t have to take ourselves seriously — a fine line or a good remedy, and it may answer one of my later questions).

Here’s another question: the unexamined life was said to be not worth living. But why is it that it is only those who examine the worth of their lives who risk reaching the conclusion that their examined life is not worth living, and choose to end it all? Or at least think about that frequently? (And I hope I can be honest about this without someone rushing to the conclusion that this is a cry for help. I’ve cried for help elsewhere, and this is a much more constructive and hopeful alternative). I think the answer to being overly pensive is to have the pensieve. If one is to examine one’s own life, one must be able to dispense of ones thoughts afterwards so that they don’t weigh one down.

I have dreamed of being a Harry Potter, and of course eventually a Dumbledore. We’ve all got our scars. As a ginger, though, I would be happy to have Ron’s blend of courage and loyalty. Of such things is magic truly made.

So thank you to WordPress, a thanks to my like-ers and followers, to whom I have not had the attention span as of yet to respond adequately to their comments and support. One of my favourite texts on motivation says that it is an interpersonal phenomenon. The daily prompts help channel my motivation to write. But it is the responses and the journeys of others that construct my pensieve, and help me to be pensive about examined lives that are not my own.

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