Heart Surgery, Who Me?

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Lying on the gurney next to the echocardiogram technician, I watched the images of my heart pumping, the feathery valves opening and closing with the pulsing sound of my own heartbeat.  As the technician worked with the instruments to record every side of my heart, including marking various measurements and other activities, he commented more than once about how hard my heart was having to work.

I was struck for the first time about how my life literally depends on how well this tiny pulsing thing, slightly bigger than my fist, works.  Obviously, I had always understood that in theory, but now it was in stark focus. I felt equal parts fear and awe, thinking about what now seemed like a very fragile thing.  I had always taken it for granted, rarely ever even thought about it.  I didn’t have that luxury anymore: I silently asked my heart to forgive me and thanked it for working so hard.

Last February, when my doctor referred me to a cardiologist due to an irregular heartbeat and upon a series of tests, I was diagnosed with a heart condition that my cardiologist said was due to a birth defect.  He explained that my condition had slowly worsened over the course of my life and was now approaching severity.  I learned new terms:  “Persistent atrial fibrillation, mitral regurgitation, tricuspid valve insufficiency, ascending aortic aneurysm.”  In plain English: all four of my valves leak, especially the left side of my heart, and I was at high risk for a stroke or heart attack.

My doctor’s treatment plan at the time included starting me on various medications and ongoing monitoring.  He said he would repeat some tests every six months to determine whether my heart condition was worsening.  At some point he told me I would definitely need surgery, but perhaps they could put it off for a time, provided that there was no significant deterioration.  The first of the follow up tests were scheduled in July, which occurred late last week.

The diagnosis?  Enough deterioration had occurred since February that my cardiologist recommended we do the surgery now.  While the exact date is to be determined after I meet with my surgeons and have a few more tests, it looks like my surgery will be scheduled for October.  While he patiently explained all aspects of what would occur, I sat quietly, letting it all sink in.

My first reaction was fear, of course.  The thought of my chest being opened up and arguably the most important organ in my body being cut into is not something I can wrap my head around very easily.  It took me a few days to work through the shock of it.  I was on a roller coaster of emotion, including some depression and sadness.  Eventually, however, I started to concentrate on the benefits this surgery would provide and how grateful I was that they caught this before it worsened.  I have had fatigue, shortness of breath, and other symptoms for awhile and the doctor said I would no longer have those symptoms after the surgery.

I also have excellent medical care here — obviously, since they found a birth defect I never even knew I had.  It could have gone on undetected, causing more damage to my heart, and worse yet, could have resulted in a debilitating stroke or heart attack that could kill or seriously impair me.  I feel very fortunate.

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It is said that our bodies, especially our vital organs, reflect in physical form an underlying emotional or spiritual condition.  I know this borders on the mystical, but I believe it.  Of course, how we eat and exercise and genetic factors will contribute to the physical aspects of any condition or disease, but equally, and some even say more affecting is the ability to manage stress, our temperament, environment, and personal choices.

Specifically, I have always known that I feel things very deeply and partly as a result of my difficult and very chaotic childhood, I’ve always been an anxious person.  While I have learned to manage it better over the years and it has given me some gifts, such as the motivation to set and achieve goals, work hard at my job and a desire to be the best person  I can be, it has a downside.  I can also be high strung and edgy, I have a perfectionistic tendency which causes me to be too hard on myself, and I worry far too much about circumstances and the people I care about (most of which falls under the category of “things I have no control over”).  All of this is very hard on my body, especially my heart.

These are some of the things I will need to change so as to reduce my stress levels and live a more healthy lifestyle.  “My heart issues” are, in other words, certainly wholistic in cause: one part genetic and structural, and one part spiritual. The “mind-body” connection I have almost nonchalantly referred to my entire life has now become real and very serious.  But it is also a portal and an opportunity for change that I am very lucky to have.

Most importantly, I have reached out to family and friends, and will continue to, as my relationships are the most important thing to me.  I had some very touching conversations with my sons and my daughter (who are my rock), and talks with my sister and other family and friends.  My boss has been really supportive and I have family nearby to help when the time comes. All of this gives me strength and courage, just as it always has.  For those I have not spoken with yet, it is not because you aren’t important to me, you are. But this seemed the best way for me to get the news out there, so please forgive me while I get my mind around all of this and I will reach out to you soon.

I will also write more in future blog posts, but for now – please wish me luck. (And send a few prayers my way, if you are so inclined).  Cheers!

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The Duality of the Storm

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I have had some great feedback from a few people who wonder how my more positive posts can actually qualify as “writing from the shadow.” One way or another, the general gist of the conversation goes something like this: “Life is not all positive. In fact, for myself and others it is the exact opposite. ‘Life sucks and then you die,’ and there is nothing you can do about that.” This is how they see the “shadow” metaphor playing out.

I completely understand where they are coming from. But here’s another way of looking at this:

In a philosophy class I took a few years ago, entitled “Optimimism and Pessimism: A Philosophical Inquiry,” this topic was tackled in studying what a historical span of various philosophers and thinkers had to say on this dichotomy. At the beginning of the class, we were asked to identify which camp we fell into (or whether we were a mixture of the two).  What I found the most interesting was how several people identified themselves as optimists precisely because they were natural pessimists. As one student said, who was prone to depression: “If I didn’t choose to be optimistic, I would put a gun to my head.” For him, optimism was a choice he made to deal with the difficulties in his life, but it was not based on “hiding his head in the sand”  pretending that these difficulties didn’t exist.

One of the thinkers we studied during the class was Dr. Viktor Frankl, who built his life’s work around a similar idea.  Dr. Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist living in Vienna at the time of World War II.  Dr. Frankl was imprisoned in Auschwitz and endured incredible suffering, including the deaths of his wife, his parents, and most of his family. Based on these experiences, Dr. Frankl called himself a “tragic optimist,” – one who is well aware of the darkness of life but who has chosen to transcend it by finding meaning and purpose in it.  (To learn more about Dr. Frankl, see my earlier blog post about him from last spring).

While I have thankfully not suffered anywhere near what Dr. Frankl has, I have experienced other kinds of hardships, including a difficult childhood that left its mark on my psyche, and almost losing one of my children from a childhood illness that left her with a complex seizure disorder and lifelong developmental disabilities.  Yet I have also seen beauty and meaning come from these experiences, and that is what this blog is about: a reflection of both aspects of life—the difficult and the transcendent.  To find meaning in hardship is not easy. However I am compelled to try, most often from and with the strength of love, in all its many forms.  I am also compelled to do it because my soul and spirit fought to transcend it, often inexplicably, in spite of my own emotions and inclination to despair. Even within my own nature, I find this duality wage its war.

The storm picture used to illustrate the meaning of this blog (pictured above and to the right) also symbolize the dual aspects of life:  the churning waves crashing against the bench on one side, while giving way to the calm waters on the other side. And likewise, the black storm clouds on the left begin to break on the right, revealing the sunlight as the storm is abating.

This is what I write about in this blog. I write not only to find the sun in the storm, but the gifts hidden within it – within me – within us all, as we are faced with making sense of our lives and the responses we need to make in facing its very real challenges. I also do it to lift myself from the logical despair that can come from experiencing tragedy or other difficulties that make no sense at all at the time (and perhaps never will).  I also do it in case it might help someone else, just as other people have helped me when writing of their own suffering.

I truly understand where those who gave their feedback are coming from. I actually have felt the way they do at times. Yet my , but my soul and art continually compel me to find meaning in those experiences and perhaps transcend them.  It is that which fuels my life, art, and purpose.  And most of all, it is how I find healing and meaning in it.

Please share your thoughts on this subject: I would love to hear from you.

Photo of storm clouds and waves image used above and in the Blog header is the work of photographer Jason Swain, and is used by permission. To see more of Jason’s excellent work, click on the link below: http://www.jasonswain.co.uk/.

The Extraordinary in the Ordinary

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“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”      ~ C.S. Lewis

 I love this quote, but I think it is a love I gained in retrospect rather than in the moment of hardship.  There have been many in my life, and some prolonged.  But when I look back, I see all the extraordinary moments that were being built, though I didn’t see it at the time.  Despite how many times I have seen miracles happen, I still often fail to remember those possibilities when I am in the thick of pain or struggle.  Just when I think I am “going down for the count,” something happens to redeem the struggle. It doesn’t take it away completely, of course: What is done is done, or what is lost is lost.  But there is often some kind of hidden purpose–a grit, a grace, a gift that comes in spite of it, and maybe even because of it. But it does come . . . eventually.

Gandhi_thinking_mood_1931Man often becomes what he believes himself to be. If I keep on saying to myself that I cannot do a certain thing, it is possible that I may end by really becoming incapable of doing it. On the contrary, if I have the belief that I can do it, I shall surely acquire the capacity to do it even if I may not have it at the beginning.”  ~ Mahatma Ghandi

I also love the above quote.  And since we all know what Ghandi ultimately experienced, his words above we know to be true.  It was not wishful thinking, nor did he put blinders on to the dark side of life. He was speaking about something far more substantial than that – yet so practical and so . . . possible  . . . even for ordinary people like me or you, or most of us.  He knew the dark side of life fully, and fought it with enormous courage — and with nothing more than his willingness to try.  From these humble and ordinary beginnings, he did extraordinary things.

I don’t have to rise to the magnitude of what Ghandi did to experience his truth in my life – none of us do; that is what makes this all so extraordinary.  I matter — and everything I have struggled with in my life matters.  It all matters because we matter.  Each moment we experience has meaning and purpose.  It just takes time to find it sometimes.  Hardships often hold the substance of destiny. We are the alchemist of those possibilities, with grace and love to light the way.

The Most Important Critic is You: Thoughts on the Nature of Criticism

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“I have spent a good many years since―too many, I think―being ashamed about what I write. I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction or poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

“[A] writer’s most powerful weapon, his true strength, was his intuition, and regardless of whether he had any talent, if the critics combined to discredit an author’s nose for things, he would be reduced to a fearful creature who took a mistakenly guarded, absurdly cautious approach to his work, which would end up stifling his latent genius.”

Félix J. Palma, The Map of Time

“Still the voices of your critics. Listen intently to your own voice, to the person who knows you best. Then answer these questions: Do you think you should move ahead? How will you feel if you quit pursuing this thing you want to do? And what does your best self advise? What you hear may change your life.”

Steve Goodier


I used Goya’s painting of “Saturn devouring his sons” to symbolize the adverse effects of toxic criticism on the creative process.  In an earlier post on this subject, I used the image of a Dementor from the Harry Potter books, but the message is similar: certain kinds of criticism devour rather than inform or inspire.  While some criticism is necessary and valuable, even crucial to our development as writers, how does one differentiate between helpful and toxic criticism?

While the following provides a few general thoughts, I know there are more.  Please share some of your own in the comments below. I would love to hear what you all think on this subject.  I have been surprised at how many of us struggle with this area. There is also the truth that sometimes we can be our own worst critic, too.

  • Constructive criticism gives specific, practical advice about how to improve your writing, while honoring the creative process itself and the ideas you are trying to convey (even when the critic disagrees with your ideas).  There is a sincere, or at least objective desire to help you become a better writer, while providing possible alternative viewpoints.
  • Non-constructive criticism on the other hand, often comes in the form of a general, non-specific, or blanket rejection of your writing and your ideas.  This form of criticism confuses rejection of your ideas with your writing style or technique. There is no intent to help you improve as a writer, but rather to belittle or discourage.

I don’t mean to imply that tough criticism always has such a negative intent, of course.  If I want to improve, I have to be willing to receive feedback and constructive criticism. However, the main thing to discern is, “Why is this person saying this to me?  What is their intent?  Is there anything I can take from these comments that serves me?”  While I always prefer constructive criticism over the negative kind, there is usually something I can learn from any type of criticism.

For one thing, it has taught me to detach, toughen up, and use criticism more effectively.  I learned to ignore it in some cases, and in other instances to stop being so defensive and at least hear what my critics had to say.  I even learned to ask them questions and find out why they felt the way that they did. Conversely, I also learned to balance that openness with the importance of being true to myself first. I learned that while I can always improve my technical skills or how I communicate my ideas, I won’t change the bedrock of what I believe or write just to please other people.  As Raymond Carver once said about what his favorite professor taught him (who also was a tough but caring critic):  “If the words and sentiments [of a writer] are dishonest, the author is faking it, writing about things he or she does not care about or believe in, and the result is that nobody else will ever care anything about it either.”  This is what the best of my writing teachers and critics taught me as well.

Graphic though the above Goya painting may be, I think it is a good illustration of what happens to our self-confidence and to the creative process when we allow negative criticism to affect us adversely.  That is when criticism turns toxic.  As Eleanor Roosevelt once advised:  “No one can make you inferior without your consent.”   As writers and artists, we must always refuse to give our consent. Instead, to choose to believe in who we are and what we are moved to voice or create.  If we don’t, no one else will.  And, at the end of the day, isn’t our opinion about who we are and what we want to say the most important one anyway?

Question:  How many critics do we remember?  Mostly likely none.  How many great and innovative thinkers, writers, and artists do we remember?  And the latter always had more than their fair share of critics.  We are the richer that those great minds being criticized weren’t afraid to shake things up and neither should we.

Art, Literature, Poetry, and Connectedness

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“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”   – James Baldwin

When I read a book, hear a poem, or write — I feel connected to a world where things make sense.  Real life, on the other hand, can sometimes seem the opposite.  In addition to its other gifts of beauty, literature, art, and music help me better understand life.  Like James Baldwin, I don’t feel alone, yet it also puts my one small life into perspective.  Regardless of whether we are one voice among many, it doesn’t mean that the one voice is any less valuable or meaningful to the whole.  Reading or observing any art form is like hearing another human being’s cry in the wilderness as it mingles with our own.  Art connects us — not only to ourselves– but to each other.

I get a similar feeling when I look up and see a starlit sky, painted with an endless stretch of tiny brilliant sparkling lights, thousands of miles away, seemingly unreachable.  But then I find myself focusing only on one tiny speck of light–one unique star amongst a galaxy of trillions. Yet that one star doesn’t seem any less miraculous because it is only one in a billion trillion others.  We are like those tiny individual stars, each of us but one in the eons of other human beings who have lived on this Planet.  Yet each one is individual and unique, suspended in the common sky we call the human condition. If that seems paradoxical, it is; because that is the nature of being human: reconciling all these aspects of ourselves with life and finding our place in it.

While such an awareness only increases my awe, it also keeps me from taking myself too seriously in the vast “Scheme of Things.” I am aware that I am not alone and that I matter, and so does everyone else.  People–past and present–have experienced all that I have or most likely ever will.  The circumstances may be different, but we are equal and one in the larger and continually evolving mosaic of what it means to be human.  When we read, create, play, listen, love — we connect ourselves to all that has ever been and all that will ever be, and find our spot in the ancient constellation of life.

Death, Anger, Grief and Acceptance

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Anger and grief often go together. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief, and one of the first ones she lists is the anger stage. She is quick to point out, however, that the stages don’t always appear in the order she prescribed.  Rather, it is simply a roadmap for what we experience in grieving our own death or the death of someone we love.  These stages can also be applied to other types of losses:  divorce, loss of a job or a business, etc.  If we look at anger as one the stages, experts often say that anger is usually not the primary emotion.  What underlies anger is most often fear.  As C.S. Lewis once wrote after the death of his wife, “No one told me that grief would feel so much like fear.”

Along that line of reasoning, what do we fear about grief and loss?  What makes us angry about it?  The first thing I think of is the pain of it:  the pain of separation and the  irrevocable loss of someone we love and have built our life around.  Anger can also arise from a sense of injustice – when something seems wrong or senseless.  The latter occurs most often when someone is young, or otherwise dies “before their time.”  It also hits home when someone is a victim of an act of violence or as a result of some other wrongdoing or error.  Regardless, however, I am not sure if death is something that we readily “accept,” but rather we just learn to live with it.  As my cousin said after losing a beloved family member:  “I just learn to live around this gaping hole in my life.”

It is this latter approach that Edna St. Vincent Millay takes in her excellent poem entitled “Dirge Without Music” (reproduced below).  She wrote this poem as a relatively young woman, and I have often wondered whether she came to any kind of resolution to the questions she raises in her poem before she herself died.  I don’t know, but wish I did.  What I do know is that she took the subject on unflinchingly, covering the gamut of emotion in the verses: grief certainly, but also anger, and definitely not acceptance.  There is also just a tinge of despair at what she perceives is death’s meaninglessness and finality; yet she never fully gives in to it.

It is these honest feelings that strike at the heart of what it means to be human.  How we make sense of it is what we all must do, in one way or another.  As a writer, I don’t want to shy away from any of this, even though I really don’t know how to always answer these questions.  As another poet, Rainier Marie Rilke wrote:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

And so I do – writing through the questions in hopes of finding an answer to what it means to be human: in loving, living, and yes – dying.  Isn’t that what all artists do, in one way or another?   Millay certainly did.  And while I believe there is life beyond the finality of what she calls “the shutting away of loving hearts into the hard ground,” I can still understand her feelings about the senselessness of it, of wanting to fight against the loss of someone I love.   Perhaps that very instinct — that awareness — is why we find death so hard to accept.  It is proof of what lasts, what lives on, and what gives our lives meaning.  It is what we live for, we often fight for, and in some cases even die for.  In light of that, acceptance never really has a place.

What are your thoughts?   I would love to hear from you.

Dirge Without Music
BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Source: Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958)

Image:  © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licencehttp://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2314150

The Writing Oasis

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I never realized how difficult it is to blog regularly.  I know that we bloggers are advised to write regularly and often–all for very smart reasons.  For me, though, it is more a “quality rather than quantity” equation:  I just don’t feel I have anything of import to say that merits posting so frequently.  My mind is constantly thinking, of course, so it isn’t the problem of having nothing to think on or ponder about. Life certainly supplies a fresh batch of ideas every day even if my internal reflections aren’t exactly acting the muse.

On the face of it, that’s nothing to worry about.  There is a lot of life to live, and if a writer is out experiencing it rather than chained to their laptop, I think it makes us happier and healthier, or at least more balanced.  On the other hand (as I’ve written here before), if there are too many distractions taking you away from writing, that’s an imbalance too.  A writer who is not consistently writing is an unhappy person.  There’s also the discipline of it — a workout to your soul that is similar to the benefits brought to your body by physical workouts.

I need to remind myself about this by analogy – just as a walk around the block is better than nothing at all when it comes to physical exercise, writing something, no matter how small, has the same benefits to my mind and heart.  This daily writing exercise is something that most successful writers say they had to train themselves to do. Perhaps if I did that, I would open up the floodgates and brilliant pieces of writing would rush out … okay, maybe not.  But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t experience some benefit.

However, this post is not just about repeating advice that most writers have heard a dozen times.  I wanted to add another take on this subject.  It is not simply that I have avoided the discipline of daily writing because I don’t want to write or embrace my ADD and refuse to focus on anything for more than two minutes.  The main reason I inexplicably avoid something I really love to do is: I run.   I run from writing because I am not ready to go that deep into what I am thinking.  It essentially is running from myself.

It isn’t that I am frightened of what I will find, but because it is just a bad habit.  Writing takes up a lot of time, and while I love it —  it requires me to open up my heart, my mind, my life, and my soul.  It requires me sacrificing other things I would rather do so that I don’t have to dig deep.  It requires that I discipline myself to step away from all the things I worry and think about on a regular basis.  It is much easier to switch on the TV, watch a movie, or find a million other distractions.  But all that is a substitute for thinking and creating, and not nearly as satisfying.  You would think the choice would be a “no-brainer,” but it is not that easy for me.

So the point I am trying to make throughout all of this is … there are times to get out and experience all that life has to offer, to be with the people we love, and to feel the sun on our face and move our bodies out in the wilds of nature, or the urban jungle, wherever your playground is.  But there is a time to quiet the distractions and come home to your writer-self.  There’s an oasis there that is just as important to find as anything else we seek.  In fact, wandering aimlessly in the desert of distraction can run your soul and heart dry.  It’s time to replenish and find out what the waters of the writer-self has in mind — and it never fails to surprise me how little I know about me.   It’s time to stop running and start writing.

Image credit (royalty free): http://www.dreamtime.com

Abraham Lincoln

“Air held his breath; trees with the spell,

Seemed sorrowing angels round,

Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell

Upon the listening ground.”

~ An excerpt of a poem written by Abraham Lincoln 

I have always been a fan of President Lincoln.  While I admire him for the great statesman and brilliant leader he was, I love him for his humanity.  He is also one of the greatest writers ever to grace the craft: a poet and a philosopher with the ability to shape the consciousness of a nation.  As strange as the following may sound, every time I visit the Lincoln Memorial I feel as if I am dropping in on an old friend. He has this pathos of fatherly gentleness that once led my 10 year old brother to remark (when seeing the Lincoln Memorial for the first time):  “I wish I could climb up there and sit on his knee.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk writes about this same connection–a connection so profound it led him to do the years of research behind his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Here is how he describes it:

 What drew me to the story of Lincoln’s melancholy at the start was a sense of connection to him as a person. This man whom I had grown up to think of as a marble statue came alive for me when I first learned about how he suffered, and how he talked about it. I wanted to learn the full story and share it with other people. [1]

Unknown Like him, I find Lincoln’s greatness all the more remarkable precisely because of his struggles, and the fact that his life began so unremarkably. While his gifts are extraordinary—even legendary–Lincoln never saw himself as, well, Lincoln. Joshua Shenk tackles this fact head-on, telling us that Lincoln actually suffered from a lifelong melancholia that at times erupted into debilitating bouts of depression. His most severe struggles with it occurred in his late twenties and early thirties as a young lawyer first building his career. His despair was then so deep and unrelenting he was driven to the brink of suicide.  His closest friends recalled this time as one in which they all watched him closely for fear he would take his own life.

During that time, Lincoln wrote his law partner a letter wherein he said:

I am now the most miserable man living.  If what I felt were distributed to the whole human family there would not be one happy face on the earth.  I must die or be better it appears to me.  I awfully forebode I shall not.  The matter you speak of on my account you may attend to as you see fit, as I fear I shall be unable to attend to business.  If I could be myself, I would rather stay here with Judge Logan.  I can write no more.

Far from a histrionic sentiment (he was never prone to that), the above was a very realistic statement as to his state of mind in pondering his life up to that point. He was contemplating very rationally the meaning of life in the face of unrelenting suffering, and at the time, no one knew what his conclusion would be.

There were other factors contributing to Lincoln’s despair during this time of his life, some of which Shenk poses as possible contributing factors.  One was the documented tendency to depression that ran in Lincoln family, and the deaths of several key people in his life.  But the book tackles bigger questions than identifiable causes to a momentary struggle.  Rather, he overarching point Shenk makes is that Lincoln’s melancholy–this “fearful gift,” (see below)–though at times severely testing him (and something that continued to be a part of his nature his entire life) also held the seeds of his greatness.

The book begins this discussion by comparing what we call “depression” today and what was called “melancholia” in the nineteenth-century:

The big difference is that today we often hear the disease of depression is entirely distinct from the ordinary experience of being sad or in the dumps. But in the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, these were part of the same overall picture. A person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with both an awful burden and what Byron called ‘a fearful gift.’ The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth, wisdom—even genius.[2]

Lincoln did eventually come through that time of despair and made the choice to live, but live for something that would, as he said “redound to the benefit of my fellow man.”  He somehow found meaning in that time of darkness and came out the other side with a renewed purpose. I think what is so remarkable about this is that his story is not merely a mythic re-telling or a calculated political spin we have too much of these days.  Rather, it is the bedrock truth of an iconic man with a fragile humanity, who experienced a despair so profound he contemplated death.  Despite this (and Shenk argues that even because of it) Lincoln came out the other side of that personal abyss and rose to greatness, just when his country sorely needed him.

abraham-lincoln-memorial-281124_640

I find this all so comforting, so touching and inspiring that I am drawn to him, human to human: seeing him as a friend, so intimately imbedded in my personal consciousness that I feel as I if I know him.  Perhaps this is what it means to share the human condition, bound as we are to each other by the same life decisions we must all make.

While there is much more to say on this book and Lincoln’s life, I conclude with those of Joshua Wolf Shenk:

A key feature of Lincoln’s story is that in this middle stage [of choosing to move forward in spite of his depression and despair] while his labors were picayune, he kept sight of a grand potential. “It is much for the young to know,” he said in his eulogy to Zachary Taylor in 1850, “that treading the hard path of duty, as he trod it, will be noticed, and will lead to high places.”  Lincoln said this at a time when his own faith had been sorely tested—for all he knew, his dreams would come to nothing. But the faith itself led him to tread the hard path with a sense of purpose, adjusting to reality but never quite settling. He feared that he would not, but trusted that he would, finally find his way. When he did, everything he had lived through had its purpose. [3]

[1] Joshua Wolf Shenk, Lincoln’s Melancholia, pp. 211-212.

[2] Ibid, p. 27.

[3] Ibid, p. 215.

Photo Sources (In order of appearance):

Photographer: Unknown. http://www.upi.com/News_Photos/Features/Abraham-Lincoln-Artifacts/fp/1518/

Book Cover, Lincoln’s Melancholyhttp://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/readers_guides/shenk_lincoln.shtml

Photographer: Mike Thomas. https://www.flickr/com/phohtos/mthomas/6785379

Photographer: Gage Skidmore. https://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore

The Untold Story Within You

Maya Angelou says “there is no greater agony than bearing an untold story within you.”  I wonder how many of us feel this way.  The time to write never seems to come easily, and so many other things come at me, demanding my time and attention.  I have come to realize in my mid-life that time to write is so important, I must fight for it.  Otherwise, I know full well how deeply it can get buried under the silt of years and the dust of other things.  At the end of my life, this would be my deepest regret; and putting it this way, agony doesn’t seem like too strong a word.

Of course we all have lives outside of writing–jobs to go to and people we love and want to spend time with.  I get it.  You might be saying what I tell myself all the time:  “I can’t just write anytime I feel like it.”   But if we don’t fight to at least write sometimes and regularly, years can go by before we’ve been able to write anything at all of substance.  I know from experience this can have a hugely detrimental effect.  It may take the form of restlessness, or a vague sense of emptiness, chronic irritability, anxiety, or even depression.  Whatever form it takes, these symptoms can be a calibrator of sorts, perhaps informing us that something needs balancing within.  It may be the voice of your soul calling, to come home, to listen to your innermost being.

Returning to the discussion of writing in particular, Madeleine L’Engle put it this way:  “You must write the book that wants to be written.”  She makes this statement as if a book has a life of its own and decides that it must be written, rather than the other way around; and in some ways, I am mystical enough to believe that.  It feels that way sometimes: I am having labor pains and there is this baby that must be born, if only I would allow it.

Metaphysical discussion aside, I think we are all restless to accomplish something that gives us purpose and meaning in life.  I think it has, at its core, a compelling desire to simply be who we really are, and create something that is an outward testament to that which gives us life.  There are so many roles we play, many of which are out of necessity, of course.  But the opportunity to take time and uncover ourselves at the very heart of who we are and what makes us truly feel alive, that is another thing entirely.

And so this deep business of our soul – this conversation about who we are and what we want from life, including what we want to create and express, is a discussion we must first have with ourselves before we can truly share it with anyone else.  We may get valuable input from others, but at the end of the day, this calling we have is cemented in the silence of coming home to ourselves.  It is here that we listen to whatever “untold story” there may be inside of us and learn what it is that needs to be said.  If we ignore having that conversation (and I have for a time), an agony does come:  the pain and grief of not being true to one’s self.

Image Source:

Artist: Pith the Explorer.  http://piththeexplorer.deviantart.com/art/Myst-HD-Myst-Linking-Book-Open-319247853

A Story From My Own Shadow

When I was twelve years old, I wrote my first story.  It was about a girl named Sherry who had a crazy mother.  It was autobiographical of course.  I loved writing that story.  I created a world where I could escape to but at the same time manage what was going on around me.  I still recall some of the words I wrote:

“Sherry looked outside the window of her house at their perfect green lawn, the rain running soft currents down the glass as if the house were crying.  Outside the world went by, but it didn’t see what was going on inside.”

Sherry’s best friend was an old maple tree that sat on the corner of the high school lawn, a few blocks from her house.  Its huge branches were like arms, holding her small body as she looked down through the thick leaves at the high school students walking by.  She felt loved by the giant old tree, and she often wondered as she put her ear to the bark if she could hear it speaking to her.”

I wrote in my story every day, looking forward to it much like a coveted appointment with a best friend.  I carefully hid it where I thought it wouldn’t be found.  But it was.  I came home from school one day and found it ripped up in the downstairs bathroom waste can.

My mother was home ill from work that day (something that almost never happened).  I heard her voice calling me sharply from her upstairs bedroom.  I felt a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I ran up the stairs to find her.  I only remember stammering somewhat incoherently: “The story isn’t about you!  The story isn’t about you!”  (This was a lie, but I was doing a preemptive strike to ward off what I was sure would be the usual retribution when displeasing or irritating her in any way; her moods were unpredictable).  I simply recall her snapping back in that cold, barely constrained rage that was so characteristic of her at the time:  “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about.  Now go clean your room.”

On one hand, I was relieved that I had apparently escaped a beating (usually by a belt or the hard plastic of the vacuum cleaner wand; or sometimes just her hands: slapping me or pulling clumps of my hair until I screamed; but what I hated the most were her vicious verbal tirades).  However, my story being destroyed and her cold dismissal of my concern felt in some ways worse than those things.  Her response left me reeling, as if I had just gotten off a spinning carnival ride and everything was a bit off kilter.  There was no solid point of reference to help me understand any of it.  If she hadn’t ripped it up, then who?  (I hadn’t really gotten to the “why” yet).  Of course, I knew logically there couldn’t be anyone else.  I doubted one of my siblings could have done it.  And so I internalized all of it, because that’s what writers do–especially when they are children with a crazy mother.

After that, I still wrote–but never as freely; and I almost always destroyed everything I wrote.  Although I did keep a childhood diary, a Christmas gift from my Grandmother.  It was one of those pre-printed types with a page for each day of the year.  I would write a few lines of what I did during the day, such as: “I went to school today and we learned about polar bears,” or “today I went to the bookmobile and checked out two books.”  It was the writing equivalent to coloring within the lines. It is very telling in what I left out:  I didn’t want to go too deep.

As a teenager, I rebelled and fought back.  And as much as I paid emotionally and physically for that needed defiance, I was just trying to survive.  That survival effort also had an additional price: my writing went increasingly underground, and my shadow was hidden (like everything else) behind the 1970s suburban image we were expected to uphold.

It took me years later when I had children of my own to fully understand what had happened to me as a child and the destruction of my childhood creative work. I couldn’t imagine doing that to any of my children — ever.  I treasure everything they have created and still have boxes of those creations from their childhood years that I guard like the precious and priceless gold it is. While I realize with adult compassion that my mother was sick and suffering from her own unvoiced shadow, the damage was done.  While my resulting denial was a needed survival mechanism then, it adversely affected my writing for years to come.  So much of that was unconscious of course, but in those days I felt as if I was fighting myself every time I tried to put words on paper–and of course, I was.

As a result of my crazy childhood, I spent years in and out of depression.  The shadow within was making itself known, and as counterintuitive as this may be, acknowledgement of the shadow is the pathway to light and healing.  As I wrote about in a prior post, The Inner Critic, I recovered my writing when I was hospitalized in my early 30s for depression.  It was during this time that I finally let myself feel the shadow emotions I had so long ago repressed and had once tried so faithfully to express as a 12 year old.  I finally gave my bruised and battered childhood a voice and a lot came pouring out.  From that point forward, I have kept almost everything I have ever written, two decades worth in several boxes and on a variety of old computer media.  It doesn’t even matter if any of it is any good– just that it lives.

In closing, here’s a note to my childhood alter-ego Sherry:  You wrote from the shadow and you did it beautifully.  Now put on a red dress and dance: there’s nothing there to stop you now.  :)

Photo Source: 

Photographer: Wendy Cutler.  http://www.fotopedia.com/items/flickr-2577188984