Thursday, May 26, 2016

Oily Words in a Watery World

American bookshelves of the twenty-first century describe fractiousness, reduction, hurt . . . There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption. Richard Rodriguez

Growing up in a liberal county, in a conservative community, has made me overly aware of the contradiction it is and the contradictions in me.

I live in a private community, home to a Christian Camp and Conference Center. Since childhood, it has always felt the reverse: a Christian Camp and Conference Center that is also a private community.

“Christian” does not inevitably mean conservative. It just feels that way. Evangelical is the same. The camp is “non-denominational,” but generally non-denominational churches, organizations, et al lean to the right. In this county, evangelical Christianity almost inevitably tends to the right.

I live in a reactionary community and county. Students versus authority. Sacred versus secular. Evolution versus creation. Us versus them. You versus me. Everyone has a patent on The Truth. It’s, well, stupid: we somehow fly between extremes instead of experiencing the whole pendulum swing. In skipping the ride, we don’t note all the ground in between.

And this is where I feel caught with my writing. A “liberal” mind with a de facto “conservative” religion. Sacred subject matter punctuated with secular language. And vice-versa. It isn’t like this everywhere. But here in this county? Worse, in this community?

The church does not approve of my language. Or my habit of addressing mental heath with brazen, uninhibited emotions screaming towards God, dismissing the Bible, and chiding Jesus, as if I know something. I find myself self-identifying as a heretic, for reasons Barbara Brown Taylor best describes:

. . . the issue is that [self-described heretics] believe more than Jesus. Having beheld his glory, they find themselves better equipped to recognize God’s glory all over the place, including places where Christian doctrine says that it should not be.

The county, the secular, is okay with my conversation on mental health. The shame and stigma has shrunk. But not so with religion. I find it almost necessary to preface my writing with an apology for religious content. And then apologize for “secular” content.

Forgive me, atheists and liberals, for I have sinned: I believe the Jesus-shit.

Forgive me, Christians, for I have sinned: I have sworn, “taken the Lord’s name in vain” (as if you really know what that means), mocked you, mocked the Bible, hated God, and embraced the forbidden fruit of the “secular” and “liberal” and loved it.

Forgive me, world, for I have sinned: I agree with Madeleine L’Engle that, really, “in the garden of Eden there was no separation of sacred and secular; separation is one of the triumphs of the devil.”

So where do I belong? How can my writing exist and flourish outside of Eden? No. It can’t, not really. It has no place in the bookstore or library; there are no tags for online data-bases to classify and sort this confusion and pain.

There is no shelf for bitterness. No shelf for redemption.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Severe Something

My counselor suggested that I write about hypomania. You know, about what it is, rather than my tongue-in-cheek “what it's not.” Perhaps I don’t write about it because I’m still in denial of the fact that I experience it.

Fine. I’ll try. Because I do experience hypomania and I am bipolar II. And because it’s not the funny bullshit I make it out to be. Rather, it can be a hell of a lot of things. It can look like anxiety, nothing, recklessness, irritability . . . it can shake: face, hands, legs.

When it looks like nothing, it feels like a shit-load of something worse than anxiety: skin-crawling, insides churning, heart crushing yet exploding . . . I. Just. Can’t. Get. Out.

Out of what? I don’t know. That’s just it. The pulsing and crawling and insanity are incomprehensible, without explanation, without, so far as I can tell, cure.

One Ativan, two. Two Ativan, three. Three Ativan, four. Four Ativan . . . fuck, I’m almost out. I guess it wasn’t anxiety. Phone a friend. And cry your bloody eyes out without explaining or expressing a comprehensible word. Phone a therapist. Leave a message. Walk, if you can. Eat ice cream with a friend, if you can. Wait to hear from your therapist, if you can. Go to Urgent Care. “Take more Ativan,” Doc says. (Looks like anxiety.) Five Ativan, six. Six Ativan . . . all gone.

Then, somehow, at some point, it all morphs into a deep nothing. Nothing. Empty exhaustion.

But are you sure that’s hypomania? Or was it just an out-of-control anxiety attack? And real hypomania is you signing up for 18 units and sleeping five or less hours a night and having your hands shake so violently you cannot hold a coffee cup and going on fidgeting madly?

Both. Grandiose thinking, reckless behavior, little need for sleep, shaking, and . . . fidgeting? Well. Fidgeting is a small scale  representation of the invisible physical maladies described above. It’s rubbing your hands raw because your skin is in the way. Or scratching your face until scabs form under your eyes.

What is hypomania? Little mania? It’s not psychosis, and it’s not hallucinating. I know that. I know, that it is severe. A severe . . . something. Otherwise, go ask a psychiatrist. I’m no expert.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Accommodating Joy

My new aesthetic struggle is to accommodate joy as a part of my literary enterprise, but I still tend to be a gloomy and serotonin challenged bitch. Mary Karr

My life does not have the shitty memoir-esque past that excludes joy, but I find myself in a similar position.

I have never been a chipper individual. When I was young my brother teased about my “look of death”: that being my dark scowl. My first email address was scowlingkiwi. Something inside has always tended towards the shadows. I’m sure the family sarcasm only cultivated my dark humor. The scowl and negativity made for an excellent mask for a sensitive child. It protected me from biting sarcasm that I took all too literally and cruel peers. The anger was often accompanied by tears, though. It took until junior high for the my own sarcasm and cynicism to harden, and for my demeanor to grumble and sigh a series of fucks: fuck you, fuck school, and mostly, the general fuck it. My face had to say what my clean mouth would not. And it said it well. A teacher once asked why I was so jaded. I wasn’t even in his class. Shut. Up.

Some things haven’t changed. In customer service, I’m pleasant enough—well, as pleasant as possible. But a sigh and eye-roll is always around the corner. I’ve gotten better at hiding said exasperation; a co-worker commented that I was a “bubbly introvert.” I think she was high.)

The depressive and hypomanic and anxiety episodes as well as pain from the past have been my writing material. It’s easy. Well. As easy as writing can be. (Which means its terribly difficult.) No one wants to go back there. It hurts to remember and it’s hard to share. In some ways, I have to re-live moment, each frame.

But it is retrievable. It isn’t locked up, not anymore. Thanks to therapy, I feel the pain of the past.

But joy? “Accommodate joy.” How does a gloomy person do that? I reach into the past, and while joy exists, it’s often foggy. I try to be present. But present-dwelling in search of joy is more difficult than searching the past for stories and sentiments relevant to someone, anyone. I see truth in “courting the darkness,” something “that makes some people see the truth in raw twisted ways, as though they were shining a black light on life to illuminate the absurdity of it all.” (Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix, 4) It may be truth-telling, but it can forget joy.

Joy. Well, I’m not sure what it is. That is the first problem. Then, what I qualify as joy seems all too simplistic. I can’t write a piece on bread, cheese, and wine with friends. Maybe a paragraph. It seems to require narrative, and the conversation I remember, naturally, is that loaded with feeling, negative feeling. Any positive narrative, any feelings I can recall that are, perhaps, joyful, become nondescript in my attempts to put them to words. Hurt is what I bank in my memory. It is the bricks and mortar for my wall of protection.

“Accommodate joy.” It’s more than a challenge from Karr to herself. It needs to be challenge for all aspiring memoirists and writers who aspire to tell the truth. Pain is only half  the story. Even if it feels/looks like 99.9% of life. “Life is suffering, Princess.” Is it, though? Or is it the proverbial (and cliché) mustard seed, but instead of faith, it’s of joy. The fight is to note its presence. It’s there. Somewhere.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Keeping Jesus Out of My Writing

At the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing, Christian Wiman noted that Jesus is nary mentioned in poetry and prose. God, sure, but Jesus? Nope. Perhaps it is because Jesus is a difficult character to define with his wholly human, wholly divine crap. And his wholly indecipherable riddles for which he lays into his disciples for not understanding. What a self-righteous turd.

Or maybe, maybe, like me, other writers are afraid of being relegated to the religious section of the bookstore, under “Christianity.” I sure as hell don’t want that. Put me next to Karr or Rodriguez, not Wild at Heart.

Not many peruse the religious section. That’s what Christian bookstores are for. The religious section is for books that aren’t Christian (i.e. clean, evangelical, theological, anti-secular, etc.) enough to be stocked next to classics such as My Heart Christ’s Home or “culturally relevant” stories and devotionals such as Undaunted or Jesus Calling.

There’s nothing wrong with the classics. And I can’t speak for the “culturally relevant.” I don’t read that stuff. But it’s a limited audience. And if you don’t fit that limited audience, but do mention Jesus, you’re all the more limited, because few in secular-landia are interested in hearing about Jesus, even in passing. It’s a financially unstable place to be: in the public bookstore’s or library’s “Christianity” section. (Frankly, I don’t know where Nadia Bolz-Weber hangs out, but she’s done a kick-ass job. And if she’s not to be found in memoir, she’s doing a favor for the suffering Christian writer, proving, hell yes, we can write—and swear.)

Even so, Jesus doesn’t tend to be a flashy term in Christian-memoirists’ works. It’s God we’re talking about. Jesus is a footnote. Heck, my therapist, chose to say “the son of God” over “Jesus.” It’s safer. It’s back to that wholly human/wholly divine issue. What business do we have analyzing another human? It’s a little against the memoir rule book, actually. Speak for yourself, not others. And divinity is slippery. Claiming Jesus as divine shouts “I’M A CHRISTIAN.” Claiming God to be an asshole sighs, “yeah, I believe. Obviously. Now bug off.” The cranky choice is to believe in God. The daring, and dangerous, choice is to declare Jesus as someone of consequence outside of the schism between Judaism and Christianity.

I don’t say Jesus in my prayers. (Well, I don’t “say” anything in my prayers. I write my prayers.) I don’t think Jesus. I don’t feel towards Jesus. The heart with the seven daggers representing the Seven Sorrows of Mary evokes more emotion and reverence in me than the cross or crucifix. Jesus is too churchy, too Sunday School-esque: “Jesus loves me this I know.” “Jesus loves the little children.” Maybe if we sang about Jesus clearing the temple, I’d be a little more comfortable with his “humanity.” But sweet, merciful Jesus is a little bit creepy to me. Sweet Jesus, backed by God-who-grants-forgiveness-most-high, and somehow connected to who knows shit about the holy spirit. Merciful Jesus. Powerful God. All-seeing Spirit. I don’t like it.

Maybe I don’t like “merciful Jesus,” and thus Jesus in general, because I don’t want “tender mercies.” I want justice. “Justified by grace.” I don’t want justice by grace. I want harsh, real, human justice. Retribution. That’s why Jesus doesn’t work in my writing. There is hardly a place for even Nadia Bolz-Weber’s God, whose mercy is “a blunt instrument.” Yeah, so God and Jesus are one. Just not in my mind. In my mind, we have justice and grace. They don’t cooperate very well. So I nix one: goodbye, grace.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Lucky 13: One Psalm at a Time

The Psalms played a small role in my religious upbringing. Sure, we memorized a handful of verses here and there in Sunday school for stickers on the chart, but never a full Psalm. And our Baptist church certainly didn’t have Psalters.

In 2000, I was gifted a fancy, personalized Bible by the church, words of Christ in red letters, gold-trimmed pages and all. It has been opened perhaps a dozen times and is mark free.

In 2009, I encountered my first Psalter in a Christian Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Somewhere between 2012-2013, I was introduced to Psalm 13 in its entirety. I had been familiar with 13:5-6, but not the reality of 13:1-4. I had never prayed a Psalm until then. We, or better said, the professor, prayed 1-4 for me and petitioned for the existence of 5-6.

In 2013, I took Psalms and Wisdom Literature as well as 16th century British Literature, and finally flipped through various versions of the Psalms. I wrote papers on them. I researched the hell out of them. I studied the Sydney Psalter and penitential psalms.

It’s been sixteen years since I received that Bible. Four since I was introduced to Psalm 13. Days since I was reminded that someone, thousands of years ago, shared the frustration and desperation I have felt.

The Psalms are irrevocably important; belief in any part of or the full Trinity is irrelevant. It is a book of poetry. (No wonder some traditions eschew their importance—aside from Psalm 23. They, the Psalms, are too encouraging of intellectual engagement. Too raw. Too messy. Too full off complicated feelings and accusations and passion.) Love of God is not requisite to appreciate religious poetry. I tend towards hate and unforgiveness.

In a bipolar/depression group I occasion, we close by reading the Sunday school favorite: Psalm 23. But not because it is a religious group. Not because it praises God. But because our leader wants us to be able to carry something with us when inpatient care comes calling. I may not feel that “the Lord is my shepherd,” and especially not when mental health is out of control, but the imagery is comforting.

The best poets don’t demand belief, but rather invite observation, entrance, and companionship of sorts. I’m not at 13:5-6. The comfort and joy of which it speaks is borderline annoying. That is work well done. Vss. 1-4? Hell yes. I get it.

“How long, oh Lord?” For. Fucking. Ever.

Whoever wrote that Psalm did a fine job.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Neon Signs

In sixth grade I was tortured by the majority of my class: socially, emotionally, psychologically. I was hurt. And that is a gross understatement. The pain and bullying followed me through ninth grade. Three years later, the little bastards remembered me as a priggish snitch—they still hadn’t “forgiven” me my honesty. All I had done was to tell the truth to an equally bastard-like teacher. And it ruined me. There was no support from authority or peers. I haven’t forgotten. And I certainly have not forgiven.

In eighth grade, a boy asked me, “why do you have fuck-off written on your forehead?”
Well. Because.
Proper response, “Why don’t you take hint, dumb ass?” (Except I didn’t swear back then.)
Honest response: “Well, Kyle, you see, I’m still bitter about sixth grade. I’ve grown sharp, locust tree-like. To keep bastards like you out.”
Actual response: “Um, I don’t?”

I was taken aback by his question, but not hurt the way I would have had I let go of sixth grade. If I had let go, his obtuse question would have been a fresh wound, a shocking, pain. Instead, it was like an allergy shot: a little sting, a little swelling and itching and redness, but useful in building an immunity.

Obviously haven’t forgotten that one either. To the extent that I regularly refer to the neon fuck-off sign on my forehead. Sure, I’ve forgiven his stupidity. Junior high boys aren’t known for their intelligence. If anything, I thank the memory for providing a description of the less than pleasant demeanor that occasions my being.

. . .

In 2011, I went to Spain with a group of students; I stayed with a family of the Protestant persuasion. My family was rich. And modern. Muy moderno. And I thought they were the cat’s meow: muy preciosas y amables. But what became most “preciosa” about this family was how well I didn’t fit.

It’s that fuck-off sign. Or perhaps el hecho de que I didn’t talk much. I was “too mature.” 
“Act your age.” 
“You’re twenty not thirty.”

These hard-core protestants hadn’t a place for a doubting, introverted, mute twenty-year-old with some Asperger’s traits: conversation-making difficulties, eye-contact difficulties, easily over-stimulated. All these are death sentences in Spain, an out-going, excitable culture of parties and loudness and never sleeping. I was failing socially. I said I’d try harder to engage.

Mistake. The fallout from this living situation was all the more worse for my efforts. Great. The woman (my Spanish mamá for about fifteen more minutes) was yelling at me, accusing of being so many things: “Manipulative, conniving ingrate. Incapable, false, low.” Mostly, I couldn’t understand her. She was speaking in anger, not Spanish. Her husband, to calm her down, said I wasn’t worth their time. Nope. I wasn’t. And their protestant love wasn’t worth mine.

Did I mention I walked into this situation with low serotonin? Hell. I was born that way. Puberty with low serotonin and social misery made me fragile. Accusations of worthlessness in Spain, after a semester of hypomania, hit that low serotonin into depression.

My fuck-off sign went into flickers.

I don’t forgive Alicia, the Spanish “mamá,” for that.

. . .

Spain ended in a puddle of tears in the Madrid Bajares transit station and then in the Madrid Airport. Tears don’t exactly say “fuck-off, world.” But they make me angry, their presence. I’m not supposed to cry. I have not forgiven myself for crying in so public a place. (Since brain-chemistry problems are obviously my fault.)

Fast forward a month: I met my first (well, fine, my third) therapist, Bethany. She diagnosed me quickly: socially isolated and unable to feel, to identify emotions. We, no, she, had a mission.

Bethany taught me how to feel. For that, I do not forgive her.

. . .

Those—sixth grade and Spain—are the lower points in my life. Not for lack of forgiveness, either. I would not repeat sixth grade or Spain for anything. I would rather become suicidal yet again. I would rather spend a day being evaluated for inpatient care, again. I cannot forgive and therefore will not forget. “[Love] keeps no record of wrongs.” Sorry, Paul. But I am not Love.