The Wild Muse

wildness, wonder, and the spirit of place


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Everything Grief Demands

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“…he knew even then
he would leave us. Black trees, black vines spilling
across tarmac. The promise of disappearance,
the deepest breath.”

from Still Life with Damnosa Hereditas and Dark Constellations, Sandra Meek

I lost my father two weeks ago at the age of 62. It was unexpected and left my siblings and me reeling, trying to grapple with the reality of the sudden death.

Bargaining is of course one of the most predictable stages of grief, but I couldn’t help but want to strike a deal with the universe. My dad had finally started to come into himself, to soften, to connect with loved ones and the life he wished he had led.

I am sad and sorry he didn’t get to backpack the Uinta Mountains again or make that promised road trip to the West.

The author Haruki Marakami said, “In a sense our lives are nothing more than a series of stages to help use get used to loneliness.” I think that is one of the truest statements on what aging feels like, and I have felt the impact of this unavoidable progression since I was young.

The longer one lives, the more acutely intimate she is with the ultimate truth of life, its essential aloneness. When we lose others we are reminded of the final and most important act of aloneness, dying.

In that, I hope those who die young are spared some of the ache of loneliness. Some folks don’t take to it well, and my dad wouldn’t have been one who did.

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Until You Fall

When people I love die, I dream of them falling. I never know where they are falling to, or into, or out of…but they fall. I try to catch them. They sometimes beg me to, but I cannot.

When they look at me, begging and falling…all I can do is watch.

I think death, or at least the initial departure, must feel like falling through unseen territory. Some welcome the fall, relieved to be weightless and free, some struggle. Maybe they always secretly preferred the earth to the sky.

I am certain I would be one to struggle. The ocean frightens me with its overwhelming and infinite waves – and the thought of free-falling through air is terrifying – nothing like angels or birds with their soft promise, just a dull stone hurdling into darkness.

I have always been an earth beneath my feet woman. Dry earth, rock, root, flesh and bone…things to cling to…none of this ethereal business. You can keep your heavens and waterworlds.

The Thing About Walking

I got up at twilight and headed out on one of my favorite trails, right in the heart of the city. It runs through a corridor of the North Mountains and creates a sense of wildness – even in an epicenter of 4 million.

Walking is myimg_3076 way of coping with hard times. Movement is my therapy, particularly when I am stuck in anger, and I have been angry since my father died. Some reasons are personal; some are sadly becoming more universal.

You see, my dad stopped taking his medications because he couldn’t afford them. He worked in public service for years, but retired without a pension or any savings. He opted for paying his bills over taking care of his health. To think of this makes me enraged. No one should be forced to choose debt over their health.

My rage, in part, is that I find myself in a similar situation: how can I afford insurance; how can I NOT afford insurance? People who work very hard all of their lives end up penniless and desperate. This happens all of the time and no one likes to think of it unless it comes down like a fist upon them.

I pondered these injustices up on that ridge. During this time, I watched as a bulldozer edged the semi-wild, yet most precious terrain, heralding another new housing development.

It is so like us to be plowed under, obedient…

Being here, among city sprawl and the busy lives of busy people, I am reminded of the land around me and all that has been lost…all that modernity has buried.

This culture has bulldozed its apathy upon us. And it is only when our own heart is breaking and the anger demands answers, do we feel the scrape of the blade cactus face (1 of 1) and grieve for everything that has been lost.

Into Another Life

That was not the story I wanted to write. I am tired of writing about poverty and death, the loss of land and clean water, the indignity of making the “lesser of evils” choices.

I would rather tell a story of women washing auburn hair in a cold creek, or one of children with full bellies and the ability to sleep peacefully; of firefly illumined fields and hollows.

But, I am not a believer of fate. Any wreck you pass, there was a cause and an effect. The stars do not conspire against your happiness any more than mine.

While this anger hastens, it is the story I write – it is what I must walk and sing and offer up. That is the burden and release of grief, to bring us down to the last ember.

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On the Tiger’s Back: Addiction, Society, and Uncertainty

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** An excerpt

 

The alarm goes off. How many days have I missed work now? My blue room has shadows and in the shadows, I see the summer sun waiting for me. I have been in this room for several days. I don’t sleep, only suffer with my eyes closed. My pets draw in closer to me. Their looks of wonder and perhaps sadness reflect the reality of my life. I cling to them, these innocent fur-bearers, as if they were my very life.

And they were.

Their need kept me alive.

Rolling out of bed was like moving stones. One leg over the side – then the other. Dead tree limbs for arms, winter in my eyes. I make my way to the bathroom to vomit again, wash my face, feed the cats and the dog. Life just keeps tunneling into this darkness, blaring its ugly horn in my silence. I pour a drink and lie down on the carpet, wondering if I have lost my mind finally; wondering what life can allow, what edges I can push against until the sharpness bleeds me entirely.

*******

Throughout my life, I have dealt with alcoholism. From the first drink, it was everything to me. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to be courageous, brave… comfortable. You see, I was never comfortable. I was the girl who tried but never succeeded, the one who barely touched the center of any group. I was always out coaxing wild creatures from hiding or creating fantasylands where I was someone else. There was music, art, and the beasts of the forests. These kept me, held me. In poems, I was the caustic blaze of a city on fire. I was a queen to the tapestry of unicorns and other mythic beasts. I was the mad gin-drinking wanton with a revolver strapped to her thigh. I was many things. I was so many, in fact, I drifted far away from the girl who tried.

There are many theories and opinions about addiction, addiction treatment or recovery philosophies. I do know that no animal willingly chooses annihilation without being completely insane or seeing annihilation as something other than death. For the mad, life is worse than death. Addiction is the antithesis of life. Addiction is a rabid animal set loose in the mind, body, and spirit that convinces itself that annihilation can be life.

Like creativity or genius, we tend to view the realm of addiction as fantastic, extraordinary. We make shows about it. We spend billions of dollars on it in jails, courts, institutions, and treatment centers. We have “programs” and pathways out for those “willing” enough to accept the rainbow at the end of the clouds. We have so many portraits of addiction, we have lost sight of the complexity of its enormity, its anonymity. I have friends who – despite everything I have lost or done over the years – continue to deny my addiction. It would be painful to accept. It would prompt them to ask their own hard, troubling questions – to view behaviors better kept locked behind closed doors, in cars, in the mind.

In my pursuit of sobriety, I have come to realize that there’s really no way for me to speak about my own experiences without weaving in a societal portrait of recovery. Likewise, I cannot write about recovery without relying on my intuition and perception, having been in rehabs and “holistic” treatment centers and having participated as a Kool-Aid drinking member of AA and other programs.

When you ask most clinicians about treatment options for addiction, twelve-step programs are the go-to suggestion. Not that their rates of success are particularly good – they just propagandize society’s agenda of compliance, lack of personal power, group buy-in, reliance on outside forces, and a steady push to return the individual to “normality.” And while AA and these programs work for some people  – and I do not wish to diminish their effectiveness with those who benefit – I know twelve-step programs don’t work for all. I certainly don’t believe that those who deviate from this model of recovery are doomed.

I have lost friends to this disease. Friends who did all the right recovery things – some of them in programs for years, only to fall into severe and ultimately fatal relapse. I have grown all too tired of hearing, “Oh, if they only didn’t stop doing their program,” or “If only they had gotten a program,” etc. When I suggest that perhaps the program alone wasn’t enough or perhaps it was a combination of events that kept the person sober and a combination of events that led them to the end, I am usually ignored or seen as pugilistic, rather than as someone who sincerely wants to understand this disease. To this I ask, why not question our options?

I think there’s always more to the story…

I do not believe in an addictive type or personality. I believe addiction is cultural, a societal make-up easing us into carefully formed facades that serve the root of addiction. Secrets are titillating. We grow up with a predilection for lying. We assume roles – encouraged roles – and play out our secret lives and desires in ways that often lead to addiction or self-destructive or abusive behaviors. I do not believe in a defective individual; I believe we are made to believe that lies and hidden desires are better options than self-awareness, courage, and bold honesty.

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We humans like a tidy explanation. Empires and religions are built upon this internal compulsion for reason and logic. And when these fail us, we fall back on the particular recipe of faith we were given. Those who walk outside of these lines and live a little too fully or differently are dangerous – not just to society but to self. Arguably, the alcoholic/addict is a pariah not unlike criminals and madmen. Recovery – the industry of – does little to move away from this otherness.

Recovery-based paradigms encourage the “strange terrain” that embodies addiction, the fatal flaw, for example, that set some up for a life of addiction and do little to critique a culture that encourages the formula for this pathology. Otherness is irrational. Otherness is dangerous. Recovery paradigms have less to do with morality and more to do with conformity. Case in point: it is more socially acceptable to be a corporate thief than it is to be a black dealer. Take a look at any prison and one cannot deny this truth. If society truly cared for morality, and not simply “falling into one’s place,” the spectrum of justice would reflect this.

Recovery – if it is to be effective, meaningful, and lasting – must include this dialogue.

 

The last night
with him, lying down,
he places his hand
on the space
where my ribs furl
back like wings.

To steady
me, to keep me
from rising.
– Nancy Mitchell, The Leaving

 

From the top of the slick rock, I hear the last song cascade down through the stadium, echoing off of the canyon rocks. I have been drinking since noon. The wind whips my hair and dress as I walk along, between couples, between vendors selling t-shirts and other merchandise. Some are packing up. I watch the skyline dim – the corners of the night have become an indigo stain, a broken pen. No stars pierce the clouds. 

*******

As to my own journey, healing and recovery must involve purging habits and rituals, illusions and expectations. In a broader, more effective discourse, we must understand the concepts of recovery that society wants us to purchase. We must understand the touch we thought would bring salvation or balm. We must understand and embrace the ache that demands something to be filled, attained. Burning the desire itself for normal responses to abnormal society is catharsis. To question whether being found or walking a certain path is what is intuitively right for oneself is essential. Recovery must involve honoring one’s deep feeling ways or views, sensitivities and persuasions.

Recovery or healing is borne from realizing that the flame that shines so luminously in what we want – the fairytale or medicine – exists within. It is in knowing that the answers cannot be constricted to one path, but in many roads of exploration, questioning, and wise uncertainty.

 

** This is an excerpt from a complete article to be published in July 2014.

 

 


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The End: Honoring Death, Pain, Disease and Decay

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)

Over the past year, I have been faced with some disheartening news about my cat Freckles, my sole consistent companion since I was in college. He was diagnosed with kidney disease and has been relatively healthy up until about a month ago. Since then, I have watched him lose weight, his coat become oily and unkempt and his insistence upon water out of a dripping faucet much more physical in urgency. Most days, he sleeps in the bathtub, possibly to be closer to water and the promise thereof.

While he continues to eat and enjoy attention, I see his movement toward the inevitable end and have found myself avoiding talking or thinking about it. Being such a vet-phobic and nervous kitty, frequent trips to the clinic produce additional stress on his compromised system and result in him not eating for a day, staying well hidden until he realizes I am not taking him anywhere again. At 16 years, he has aged into the upper level of life expectancy – a senior boy who has had a great life. So why is it so hard to accept his mortality?

While the veterinarian continues to recommend IV therapy, it is costly and would add more stress on Freckles, who is otherwise still purring and getting around. Yes, it might buy him a few more months, weeks or days, but for whom? I wonder if our insistence on extending the lifespan of our pets, despite their pain and lack of quality of life, is simply a reflection of our intense fear of death and decay, of loneliness and release.

Pain is a necessary aspect of being alive. While spending billions every year on prescribed pain and mood management drugs, cosmetics, legal and illegal mind-altering substances, surgeries and other therapies, we have lost touch with the necessity of being aware of our body and our health. I am not advocating for a return to the pre-anesthesia medical model or denying ourselves the treatment of diseases; however, I am advocating that a little bit of pain during emotional hurt, loss and the disease and death process is actually good for us and for those witness to these processes.

Without pain and discomfort, we lose the opportunity to strengthen sinew and spirit. We lose our evolutionary advantage of adaptability. We weaken ourselves mentally because we become used to being in a maintained “false state” where we are not under any sort of perceived threat, even though we are, of course, really susceptible to our own demise. This delusion of mastery over age, health and life is carefully managed through our current medical and behavioral health models.

When we hurt, naturally we want to take action to remove or relieve the cause of hurt. We learn something about our physical being, our surroundings and the threat that caused the hurt. We may internalize this as a lesson and avoid such situations in the future. We may even pass something on to our children, resulting in the next generation acquiring more information for survival. We gain an understanding of what we like and what feels good by these elements being juxtaposed against what we do not like, what is dangerous or what feels bad.la loba

By synthesizing pleasure and anesthetizing pain, how far will we go to strike a perpetual state of feeling good? And, will our willingness to adapt, grow and act as our own teacher and advocate against those who are managing our pleasure and pain states wane? As animals, we function best when we are fully engaged in controlling our bodies, minds and emotions. When we subvert our survival instincts – if by only even minute levels – we allow the state and corporations to take away our right to experience and express pain through illness, disease, aging and death.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional… er, sorry – also inevitable.

In most Eastern religions, suffering is seen as something akin to the human condition. Even the sages and bodhisattvas experience some suffering. Through meditation and study, reducing our human tendency to form attachments and expectations encourages a reduction in the frequency in and severity of suffering. Generally speaking, suffering is perceived as a given state of being aware of and in resistance to a life that will most certainly end.

Suffering can be a part of the human experience that enhances our life – after all, if we did not greatly grieve the loss of a loved one, how might our depth of love be altered? Is the fact of finality not an aspect of intense love, pleasure, communion and affection that allows us to have these feelings?

I was raised in a Baptist church and as a child I recall being intensely frightened of the idea that when I died, I would go to Heaven – you know, Paradise – where I would live FOREVER. I remember thinking about the enormity of what would never end, what would be an unending amount of time, drifting in an Elysian Field never to arrive at any destination – just eternally blissed out. That scared the hell out of me! How can something never end, I thought. It went against what my body knew as truth. How boring, to live forever in the same state. I like an ending to anything, even orgasmic rapture. I consider that child, so afraid of manufactured happiness, to hold the key.

If we are always avoiding pain, nullifying our aches and using any means (including enlightenment) to subdue the reality of our demise, what will we miss as individuals, families and societies? Where will our rites go, and how will we recognize a life well lived  if there is a struggle to maintain a baseline of absolute balance?

Dying is painful. The body decays and then shuts down, but not without discomfort. Is this an abhorrent thought? Learning to let go to the transition of any loss and fully experience that ache is the fulfillment of the life cycle. Even if we personally seek to avoid pain, what are we denying our peers to witness, honor and move through to cultivate their own wisdom and understanding?

The bodies of the ill are sequestered away in institutions where we sterilize and anesthetize. While machines hum and bland art hangs on ultra-white walls – where everyone speaks in hushed tones with serious looks and padded shoes, we fall to sickness and death. When we die, we are dressed in suits we loathed to wear in life, made up with rouge that would offend Dolly Parton and are propivped in silk, posed like some fly pinned beneath glass. When my grandfather died, I thought he looked like a stranger. Where was the garden dirt, the disheveled hair, and why did he smell like baby powder and not tobacco and sweat? This was a man of the earth, not the air, to be pomp and pretense. This was a very real man, not to be belittled and made into some digestible piece of fiction. He died, and we gathered in denial of what is so difficult for the living to accept.

Life is alive on the nerve endings, on the shallow breath of  fight or flight and the mating call and mourning song. Being fully aware is frightening. A broken limb or a gash to the skin, and we cannot escape our body-limitations. Pain can be a teacher. Pain makes us soft to the hearts of others, aware of our own sweetness and fragility. In addiction, watch how that light dims. The addict is a perfect example of pain avoidance. We penalize the addict for doing the very thing we want to do: anesthetize.

My old cat may be in pain. He still holds a fire in his eyes, a curiosity and enjoyment of sitting by the window watching birds. To deny him his life / death process would be vanity and selfishness. It hurts to watch our loved ones transition and experience pain, but pain is in itself not bad. I have watched animals take their last few breaths, with broken bones along desolate, winter highways. Still, there was nothing in them that said they’d prefer to be dead before that last breath was ready to leave them. As living creatures, we want to live. Mercy killing is insulting and unjust. Life leaves the body when it is ready. We spare others and ourselves the experience of transition and a reverence for the dying process by intervening prematurely.

The last time I visited Indiana, I spent some time talking to my grandfather and other ancestors at their grave sites near a beautiful cornfield lined by oak trees. In my hand, I held the written prayers of wind, dirt and laughter – seeds I threw into the June windstorm. I know their transitions – some of them painful, some of them prolonged – were beautiful aspects of their life narratives. Their endings, the way they transitioned and even the diseases that facilitated the end to their lives, all comprised the next generation and what we have to learn – to struggle against – and to embrace. Ultimately, I live the song of suffering as much as the song of happiness. I wish no less for you.


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Healthcare, the Poor and the High Cost of Fear: A Very Personal Essay

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Author’s warning: this post contains no statistics, data or maps.

Sometime in the early 1980s I was outside with my brother, who was around six years of age. As with many young boys, something in him beckoned a challenge, so he decided to ride his tricycle with his eyes closed. Three steps and one emergency room trip later, my family was back at home, sitting around the kitchen table discussing how they were going to pay for the hospital visit, stitches and return doctor’s office trip to remove those stitches. This was my first recollection of the US healthcare system and the problems the uninsured face.

You see, both of my parents worked. Both worked a lot of long hours, but they didn’t make enough to support the five children they had. Some will immediately find fault in the quantity of children. In our lofty, problem-solving middle-class minds, we like to determine how many kids the poor are allowed to have, how many snack foods they are allowed to purchase, or whether or not they should buy any form of entertainment. We quickly find fault in the decisions of the poor because we are conditioned to believe that the poor somehow made bad choices to end up with such a fate. On the flip side, we are conditioned to believe that the wealthy worked very hard and deserve everything they have. I know firsthand it isn’t that simple.

As a child, I can remember going to the doctor only in the most severe of cases (after all of the obligatory vaccination years, of course). I went to the dentist two-three times in 18 years. My friends, on the other hand, who were lucky enough to come from families whose employers provided insurance, seemed to be chronically ill, always on one antibiotic or another, allergic to a myriad of things I didn’t even know grew in the area and pathologically addicted to the indoors. My brothers and sisters and I, growing up in the country, spent all our time outside, usually building forts, skinning knees, camping with our tick-laden basset hounds, swimming in dirty ponds and absorbing bacteria by the tons. Somehow, we escaped these strange plagues our wealthier friends continually battled. We were lucky to have fresh air and forests as good medicine, because I later learned that most of our childhood was spent without any form of medical insurance.

As I grew up, went to school and eventually joined the workforce, I was careful to select jobs that provided insurance. I did all of the right things – or so I thought. Yet, up until about three years ago, I was still paying off a ten year old hospital bill from a procedure that * check the fine print * wasn’t entirely covered by my Aetna policy. Percentage becomes extremely important when dealing with price tags in the thousands. And, no, this was not some cosmetic job – it was surgery to remove growing, painful fibroids.

Not long after the surgery, I moved to Canada. Like most programmed Americans, I was suspicious of free healthcare. First, because it isn’t free – not really. Canadian income taxes are higher in order to provide healthcare for all. Second, I was taught to believe that “you get what you pay for”, as if that’s a healthy concept. I expected outrageous waiting times, grossly unequipped hospitals and negligent doctors (since, naturally, all of the good doctors would have left for the States). I ate some serious crow the first year. My eyes were opened. So THIS is what it is like to not have to worry about fine print, employers without insurance options and preexisting condition loopholes?!  Even my experience with minor surgery there was incredibly uncomplicated, my surgeon – top notch, and aftercare, thorough. Yes, my income tax was higher during those years, but I had the satisfaction of knowing – if seriously ill – I wouldn’t need to worry about getting the treatment I needed or a huge bill waiting in my mailbox. Even better, I had a clear conscience knowing even the poorest person would get the treatment they need. Now, of course some of you are screaming out, “But the rich get better medical treatment there, too!” Well, yes. Such is the world – the rich do have access to more and better. But the key difference in Canada (and in most developed countries) is this: all are cared for.

This is just my own picture of healthcare in Canada versus the States. When I returned in 2008, I was met with the same old dilemma of finding a job with good insurance and attempting to understand jargon designed to confuse a person right out of coverage, and when they need it most. My venom-spitting, anti-universal healthcare colleagues were still at it – still maligning countries they have never visited much less received treatment in. 

I have many friends whose situations have been far grimmer than my own. One friend of mine, who is dealing with a serious illness, has been in tremendous peril as the drugs that keep him alive have been delayed or caught in some bureaucratic loophole. Any time he moves out of state, he has to reapply to even get into the system in order to – again – prove a need for assistance. Each state has its own system and set of requirements (often exceptionally hard to navigate) for those who qualify for assistance out of financial need. These programs are the very ones some wealth-pandering politicos would love to axe. Those who are ill and low income are under constant and pervading stress simply trying to access social / health services – and we know what stress does to an already compromised immune system.

Other friends have refused lifesaving cancer treatments – if they were even offered them – because, if they succumbed to the disease, their family would be left with the debt. These are real decisions… Do I allow myself to die in order to save my family from medical debt? How many of us have opted not to check off the insurance form box to pay more, in the event of a serious illness, such as cancer, for better treatment that otherwise wouldn’t be covered? WAIT A MINUTE… I won’t get the best treatment unless I pay additional money to the insurance company that is already getting a big portion of my annual income!

Why aren’t we outraged?

Now – thanks to our current climate of extreme conservatism – poor women are being forced to undergo violations of body and mind simply to get on the pill to prevent pregnancies! The pregnancies the wealthy accuse the poor of having too many of! Irony? And, community health centers continue to close their doors as state funding for low-income clinics are slashed.

What I hear from those opposed to universal healthcare – other than ignorant misconceptions about “lack of choice” and fear mongering around socialism – is that they do not want government to handle what should be a free market matter. But whom is this supposed free market serving? There are numerous middle- and upper-middle class individuals who go through their savings paying for overpriced pharmaceuticals and pricey treatments for the increasing number of cancers and “lifestyle” diseases debilitating this country.

Perhaps there are some things that the market cannot and should not have domain over. Perhaps there are some things – so precious and important – that a bottom line driven sector should never be in control. Air quality, water quality, food, natural resources… all have been nefariously misused by the great free market. That’s precisely why we have federal regulations. Healthcare should be no different. It isn’t a luxury.

The poor should not be denied a life because they are poor. The poor should not have to justify their existence. I believe there are things no human should be denied – no matter what their situation – and these things are clean water, clean air, open spaces to play and move in, food that is not laden with toxins, affordable housing and access to healthcare. Are these extreme demands?

What I would like to see is a new set of questions developed, when arguing the case for universal healthcare, that take the focus off of why poor people are sick or poor or have kids … I want to know why such a small number of people are so incredibly wealthy when such a high percentage of individuals are facing poverty in this country? I want to know why some people feel they work harder than the working class because they’ve made more money? I’d like to know why we call ourselves a great nation when we are so willing to sacrifice many of our citizens? And, why we are so fearful of providing basic healthcare to everyone but rejoice at going into trillion dollar debt over wars that have NO positive results (other than making a few men rich)?

Our healthcare system is slave to a corrupt and criminal insurance industry and a government that serves them. We live in terrible fear that poor people are somehow the cause of our worries. Look around. Think it through. How much have we lost over the past 50 years and to what? How much have you lost over the past few years and to whom? Trace it back.

A compassionate, strong and truly great nation takes care of its people. Until we stop serving the few, we will remain but a mirage dissipating with time.