On Self Help

A t some point in life, we will get lost.  We might blame others, the economy, our health, a job; whatever the source, we’re inevitably left with the same resource.  Namely, we’re left alone.  Given the quantity of self-help literature out there, we’re clearly looking for guides, advice, tools or secrets to getting unlost.  But the quality of what we’re given -character as an industry, quick fix miracles, 30 day cures and serenity diets – is cheap, shallow, and rings hollow.  We want to be successful, patient, strong, honest, effective; but there is often a gap between who we are and who it is we think we should or want to be.

Lost, I went looking for something.  I devoured self-help and personality development literature, I sat with Buddhists and Quakers.  I read the classics and the tabloids and I grew more and more desperate.  Clearly, the book I needed didn’t exist.  I realized I would have to write what I need my own self.

The failure of most growth or lifestyle philosophies prompts me to look for something more meaningful.  I want more honesty in the world.

Honestly, finding our way isn’t easy.

Life is hard.  There is no book that will change your life or vitamin that will make everything easier.  There is no quick fix for your lack of stick-to-it-iveness or struggle to both make a career and have a life.  No one gets out of here without a broken heart and a stess worn face.

But the need is real: personal growth is a billion dollar industry because people are looking for something.  The essays offered here are not offered as dogma or proof or sales gizmo.  They’re simply ways that I’ve muddled through.  A calling has been defined as the intersection of your greatest joy with the world’s greatest need.  I wouldn’t be so coy as to say I’ve been called to save the world.  But I will say I’ve heard it crying and sick.  The need is clear.  And while writing is my joy, it’s also my crutch and my vulnerability and the best way I’ve found to understand the world, to come to it and lay my palms down on it, to know what the hell it is that I am and I need.  What the hell it is that I’m touching.  I couldn’t find a book that saved my life, the poem that made it all better, or ‘the way’ that made life easy or a completely good thing.  But I sent what I wrote to a girl friend and she said ‘share this.  This isn’t yours to keep.  This is what you needed to read while you were getting sober.  This is the voice you needed to hear when you were leaving abuse and trying to heal.  This is the stuff I needed to hear at so many different times in my life.  You need to give this away,” she said, “this isn’t yours to keep”.

And I think that that is True.

I want to find an image of humanity I can be proud of.  That is the journey.  This, what’s written here, is the map.  Forgive the coffeestains.

As far as being human goes, I’m not much of a specimen.  I’m prone to laziness and envy and being selfish.  I don’t have the face that I want and I probably never will.  I choose pizza over exercise and I shop at Wal-Mart while bitching about the state of the world.  I don’t have Answers.  But I do have some honesty.  I’m an alcoholic, a woman, a survivor of abuse.  A barmaid and a journalist and an anthropologist.  I have shame, and I have made mistakes, and I am not everything that I should be.  If I leave those things to be secrets or shame inside of me, they’re nothing but gutrot.  If, though, I turn it outward and give it with some spirit of mutuality and good-will, my history becomes the most precious thing I have.

Whiskey I don’t remember the first time I took a drink.  I remember first times.  I remember a friend’s father teaching me to drive a pickup truck and giving me a bottle of whiskey to pull at.  I remember it’s burn.  I remember that eventually it didn’t burn anymore.  I remember sitting in the dugout of a municipal baseball park, it must have been july; black flies buzzed in the heavy air.  I drank blueberry schnapps until I threw up on my shoes.

Years later, I knew all the questions that doctors and self assessments ask about alcohol and drug use.  Do you ever drink alone?  Do you ever lie or minimize how much you drink to family or friends?  Have you ever had a blackout?  Do you ever feel guilty? I would have answered yes to any one of them.  Yes I sometimes drink more than I planned.  Yes I’ve had family worried about how much I drink.  Yes I drink alone, I live alone for godssake.  Yes.  I feel guilty.  But I would not have said I was an alcoholic.

My problem was depression.   Or I was  angry.  Or I was just a tough girl who learned how to party, early, and stay, late.  I had bad relationships.  I had this problem with my landlord, my job.  You name it.

The most odious thing about alcoholism is it’s denial.  I knew I was hurting, that I had failed, that I was embarrassed and life – just plain life – seemed harder for me than for everybody else.  But I wasn’t able to connect cause with effect.  I hurt because I drank.  I failed because I drank.  I was embarrassed and life was hard.  And I drank.

As I got sober, I needed help.  I needed information and support.  The essays here deal with the questions, fears, and successes alcoholics and addicts face.  They are written not only for alcoholics, but for those close to them. Not everyone goes through the process of recovery, but it does touch on some universals.  An addict asks the same questions everyone asks.  An alcoholic struggles the same way everyone else does.  An alcoholic may need to fail more loudly and more disastrously than others, but the process of loneliness and finding wholeness again are things that everyone at some point feels.  The recovery process is like the human condition, seen through a telescope.

Whiskey is a potent thing.  It can burn holes right through you and make you think you were having a good time.

And Porn

Porn, too, is a potent thing.  I don’t even know if it’s a good or a bad thing.  In my poem, I referred to sex and love as porn: I commodified it, got caustic and cheap and vulgar.  But the point is it’s sarcasm: I want to believe in love, and in sex, and I want to believe that I, as a woman, have just as much power and opportunity in the world as anyone else.

If there’s a dirth of honesty in speaking about alcoholism, there’s a positive taboo when it comes to women.  It’s a viral taboo and insidious: we think we’ve talked about it too much, we’ve beat the thing to death.  Women who go around talking about women’s issues (rape, domestic violence, poverty, relationships, international affairs) are suspected of having some dark secret to tell or, worse, being ball breaking feminists.

I don’t know that I want to be a feminist.  But feminist I am.  

Gloria Steinham wrote about an experience she had in Japan: she felt unafraid, strong, and confidant.  It was only noticing how powerfully this feeling came to her that she was able to recognize what it meant: she spent most of her life feeling afraid, vulnerable, and intimidated.  She realized this feeling came from being, for the first time in her life, taller than almost all of the men on the street.  Elsewhere in her book, she says it hurt to realize that “even I had barriers to self esteem”.

It hurts to realize I have to be a feminist.

I had an experience similar to Steinham’s, also on the street.  A male friend and I were making our way down a crowded Manhattan Street, both of us carrying heavy loads.  In order to move best, he fell a few steps behind me.  When we arrived at our destination, set the boxes  down, straightened to dust off our shirt fronts he suddenly said he was sorry.  He’d heard the number of things that were said to me within our four or five block hike, and he’d realized how real sexism is.  “I didn’t know,” he said; “I am so sorry”.  I don’t recall there being anything particularly bad about the cat calls or invites or look-sees that came that day, but he’d made his point.  It is a mistake to think the experience of moving through the world as a woman is the same as that experience as lived by a man.  Women are vulnerable because they are women.  Even though we’ve talked about it, changed laws, burned bras and rebelled against the burning by slipping them back on again and just asking for our own lives back, it hasn’t changed.

Still, there is this difficulty in talking about it.  If we could end violence against women, my ex husband said, we’d be able to end war.  I think that he was right.  Why, and how, should we talk about a thing that seems as old as humanity itself, why get all hot and bothered if this is just the way things are?

Because futility and self-pity are sick, venomous things.  The alternative is love, respect, and responsibility.  The responsible thing to do is not feel sorry for myself, but to give someone else the chance I missed, the information I needed, the support I wanted and grew cold waiting for.

The fact is, my life has been altered and shaped by the fact of my gender.  I have been sexually assaulted.  So has my sister, and my mother.  I’m still godawful ashamed of my body most days and have terrible fears about aging and motherhood, or choosing not to be a mother.  One in three women have experienced violence at the hands of a partner, and one is raped every four seconds.  Across the globe women are stoned over rumors or have their ceremonially have their clitoris cut out when they are twelve.  Closer to home, 13% of American women live in poverty.  Poverty rates for males and females are the same throughout childhood, but increase for women during their childbearing years and again in old age. Women still don’t earn a dollar to the man’s and have to jump through legal and ethical hoops to make choices about her own body.  Though the numbers of girls pursuing education has improved, the number of those who finish remains low, and most of them finish with lowered self esteem, changed majors, and altered career plans.  

I worked as a domestic violence advocate for a number of years, but I also worked as a barmaid who danced for her tips.  I’ve struggled to not orient my life according to the men in it. I’ve realized that I’m not very afraid of dying, but I do have issues about becoming an old woman.  I remember my rapes.  I have felt alone.  I have been afraid of mentioning certain things around women acquaintances and frustrated with men’s inability to understand. I lost a child, I’ve aborted others.  I’ve carried any number of things in the cage of my chest thinking nobody knows this, ever; this one goes with me to the grave.  Because of those things, I realize that those statistics, those news reports, those tabloids and those women in burkhas, are asking a question of my own life.

These aren’t simply “women’s issues”: they affect men as well as women, hit rich and poor, influence race and politics and culture and industry.  I’ve begun to realize that questions are being asked of your life, too.

Sadly, domestic violence is more prevalent than we care to see in our everyday lives.  Domestic Violence and Abusive Love will focus on these and other issues.  All the essays are my own; the information, statistics, and ideas are often borrowed from professional training, extensive research, interviews, or agencies that work with women and children.

For Everyone (Yoga, Creativity, and guides to life for Thinking People)

Yoga and Meditation Yoga saved my life.  I don’t want to get evangelical about it, but I know dozens of other people who have said the same thing.  It isn’t a physical workout, a tradition going back 5000 years, or an alternative to religion.  Of course, it is all of those things.  I don’t understand what yoga is, only that it meets you exactly where you are, and doesn’t leave you where it found you.   

Yoga changes things.  It changed me physically, emotionally, and in my gut.  If you want yoga to help you with stress, it will do that.  If you want it to heal your injuries, it will do that too.  Yes it will help you lose weight and gain confidence and accomplish goals.  You can begin anywhere, everything is a doorway in: some people come to yoga for health, some for spirituality, some to deal with stress.  Once you begin, though, you get more than what you came in for.  Yoga is also a system of ethics, a way of making decisions, the ability to show up when you say you will.

Yoga has exploded in our culture and will continue to do so.  Yoga and Meditation focus on the practice, philosophy, and study of yoga.  The Bhakti (devotion) diaries will be a compilation of meditations, an important part of my practice at this point.  I hope the essays will be a window or pathway into your own practice, whether you are familiar with yoga or (like me) think the whole things a little new-agey and weird.

Creativity and Writing We are, each of us, alone and apart and in some existential way we come to deal with that.  If we are artists, or people who feel drawn to exploring and expressing their experience, than we sooner or later realize that we create alone, too.

Writing is a demanding, often grueling, committed endeavor.  If we stay by ourselves, we’ll go mad.  We simply couldn’t sustain it.  What’s more, if you’re writing simply and solely for yourself, you’re not engaged in art at all but indulging in navel gazing hubris.

Art, though, is generous.  The urge to create is the same as the religious urge, I think; and both are attempts to communicate and connect.  Language, what Emily Dickenson called “philology”, is at the center of what makes us human.  What makes us human is, in fact, love, and other human beings.

I’m not saying we do it perfectly, or even very well.

But that is what we’ve come here to do.  Artists need support, fuel, crutches.  Nature, maybe, or coffee, or wild love affairs waiting in the wings.  Other writers.  Other writers are support, fuel, and crutches all at once.  Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were close and prolific friends.  When Woolf was in the depths of one of her depressions, Mansfield was known to send her comfort and writer’s aids in the form of chocolate and packages of cigarettes.  

When Mansfield died, Woolf wrote “Katherine has died.  There is no longer a reason to write”.  Say these essays are something like those love letters, boxes of chocolates, and packages of ciggs sent parcel post.  There is, in creativity, something magic and bigger than ourselves.  But there is also much that we know about creativity, how to work, how to keep working, and what slows us down.  There is a place for ‘genius’ and ‘talent’ I suppose, but either we all have it or none of us do, and craft seems to go a lot further.

Katherine Mansfield

Greatness consists in trying to be great.  There is no other way.  -Camus Self Help for Thinking People Self-mastery and enlightenment have been the goal for about as long as we’ve been human.  That goal is probably part of being human.  The paths folks have taken to get there are at times witty, poignant, bizarre, pathetic.  We need reasons for living and most of the time we know what the reasons are; our family, for instance, or the achievement of a personal goal.  The getting of a job.  But there are times when the reasons fail.  The family member dies.  The goal is lost.  Or we simply get tired.

You can take any one of those witty, poignant, bizarre, pathetic routes up.  You can study up on your personal growth or professional development.  Get a therapist.  Find Christ, if that helps.  The path doesn’t matter.  Most self-help is pretty patronizing, and none are absolute.  If you think about it, you’re likely to be disaffected.

Band-aids don’t work for heart attacks, is what I’m saying.  And like cosmetic surgery, the effects are superficial.

There is no cure or quick fix because that’s simply not the way it works.  None of us are fully actualized, none of us enlightened, and if we were we might disappear in a cloud of smoke.  What we are, what is true, is the human right now ness of it all.  The fact that transformation isn’t something that happens to us, but something we do.  The fact that how you choose to change your life doesn’t matter so much as your conscious effort and committment to change.  I’ve had to stop looking for Truth and start looking for what will hold me together for the moment, to listen, as some poet had it, to ‘everyday’s most quiet need’.

The reason we haven’t been able to find the magical x that marks the spot is probably because we’ve been standing on it.  This is it.  This is the only shot you’ve got.  What I’ve got to offer here is not profitability or guarantee or 30 day plans.  I’ve just got little practices on being a better and better human.  That’s how we do it, I guess.  Great things never happen as great things, but as small and patient movements.  Great things start not with ideals but with smaller commitments.

Start. Anywhere.

Don’t buy anything that promises to change you or teach you mastery.  Be a little more honest, a little more brave, and start figuring out where it is you are.