Have Yourself a Serotonin Christmas

huge pile of giftsI know, I know, Christmas is over, but it led me to thinking.

The Christmas trees in my sister Georgia’s family look like the picture above. My immediate family, on the other hand, gives one gift each or, by agreement, none at all. I give my daughter and her husband calendars. She gives me her best wishes. I gave my older grandson a new-born check up for an African baby and the younger one a money order.

True, I give Georgia and my niece more because they shower me with seven or eight gifts. This year, I managed to hit a home-run by giving an indigo-blue Turkish robe to Georgia. This was a milestone. The first gift I ever bought at age six was a China teacup and saucer with a lovely rose pattern. My mother wished aloud I had bought her stockings.

My sister and I had the same early conditioning about gift-giving at Christmas. We got a stocking with an orange and hard candy, one main gift, such as new ski pants or sweater and something small if it had been a prosperous year. Most were not and most years, my mother suffered torment, trying to stretch the money. She would wander the department store in despair.

Georgia was a single mother and yet, it was an article of faith with her that her girls had a big spread at Christmas. Our children, in a family with two employed,had to make do with a stocking, a main gift, an article of clothes and a book.

What is it, I wondered, that makes us so different now in spite of similar incomes. Were brain chemicals responsible?

It had been my good fortune to meet Dr. Brown, a UCLA psychiatric professor, who casually threw out the information that prescribing psychoactive medication was simple. You had to write a script for whichever brain chemical was missing.

Gamblers, for example, need dopamine. It is associated with anticipation or striving to achieve a goal and acts as a helping hand in such success. It triggers the reward centre and is associated with exuberance and desire, producing an excitable and talkative state. It enables a stressed out body to feel good. Chemically, it is a precursor to adrenaline as well as epinephrine and noreprinephrine. This last enables vigilant concentration and the fight or flight response, with a corresponding effect on the sympathetic nervous system. A serious deficit of dopamine can cause Parkinson’s Disease

Alcoholics, shopaholics, chocaholics need serotonin, the happiness drug, 80% of which is found in the gut. It enables nuerotransmission. It is triggered by feeling important and confident in the self. It falls off in the presence of loss and increases when we win.Too much serotonin can lead to “A powerful mix of intestinal and mental symptoms”, including hallucinations. (io9) I experienced this myself before the carcinoid in my ascending colon was diagnosed. The slow growing tumour produced high levels of the hormone. Whenever I lay down to sleep, I was racked by anxiety and nightmares, both of which cleared up after surgery. For the past 13 years, I have done a yearly test of my serotonin levels, with no evidence they are elevated.

Gaba is a chemical messenger, an inhibitory aid that reduces activity in the neurons the way brakes slow down a car. It acts the same as benzodiazepines, like librium, valium, lorazepam klonapin or atavin. It seems like just the thing for those who suffer anxiety. (I may be wrong. ) Oolong tea, meditating and yoga can achieve similar effects, we are told. Having tried, I say, “Tell it to the Marines.”

Finally, endorphins, another happiness chemical, is opiate-like and produced in the pituitary gland. It is triggered by physical actions, including exercise, and produces a feeling of euphoria or pleasure. Even seriously depressed people feel better for a long hike in nature. Obsessive compulsive behaviour may result from too few endorphins. One site muses that OCD people may never have been praised for achievement.

Happiness involves the presence of dopamine, serotonin, endorphins and oxycotin. The last is that wonderful drug that kicks in for most new mothers, establishing a bond with the baby. Some new mothers, doubting their own abilities, are astonished to feel this kick in.

At Christmas, Georgia and her family give themselves a license to shop. Unselfishly. Therefore serotonin. When they choose the right gift, often as a result of carefully listening to the recipient all year, they feel the dopamine of achievement. Thinking about those they are shopping for increases their oxytocin. If they actually walked the malls, I suppose, they might get a shot of endorphins, but probably someone will figure out that eBay serves a similar function. Then, of course, there is the oxytocin high of watching loved ones open the gifts.

Psychology Today says that happiness is a neurochemical spurt. Merry Christmases and Happy New Years ease us into winter here north of the equator. Now that I understand a little more, I hope can accept the generous bounty showered on me and let it carry me through to spring.

 

 

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The Hallowed Eve of All Saints Day at the Centre of the World

snow cloud mountain(Hallowe’en is the evening before All Saints Day, the day those in heaven are remembered. All Souls Day, Nov. 2 is the day to pray for all the dead, in heaven or not.)

Darkness fell suddenly at the house in the pines. I sprang up from the dinner table.

“it’s okay,” I said. “It will be lighter when I get out of the woods.”

I flung my various bags onto the golf cart and sped away – at 10 miles an hour. I turned right to where the daylight should be. The  aspens were florescent yellow against the grey sky, but the sun had gone and the mountains on either side loomed ominously. Over rocky Mount Pinos, a rack of black cloud hung and over the San Emigdio Mountains, grey and black cumulus promised a storm.

I hit the dusty trail on the edge of the golf course where I usually go very slowly, but the night-on-bald-mountain atmosphere made me forget. At the paved school bus stop, I passed a couple with two children on their way to the Hallowe’en party at the club house and waved. Now I had to hit the dark streets again.

It’s perfectly legal to drive a golf cart on the village streets because this is a private village, but not entirely advisable to drive an unlighted one after dark. Well, at least, my cart was white. I wouldn’t be making the trip on Saturday and by Sunday, Standard time would solve the problem.

One hundred percent chance of rain by 11 p.m. We had been talking about it all day. Apart from a downpour in July, it hadn’t rained a drop here in drought stricken Centre of the World (according to Chumash legend) for 6 months.

As I fell asleep deep thunder began to roll in from the west. Eventually, I heard what was either a high wind in the trees or rain. Too tired to care. Two very close and very loud thunder claps tried to wake me without success.

I woke up late, after 9 a.m.

“That wasn’t much rain,” said Clara, my house mate, as she stepped out on the porch. “Look,” she cried. “Snow.”

Sure enough the highest range of mountains was  covered with snow.

snow(Okay, you knew all along. The time change means it gets dark an hour earlier.)

Autumn Equinox: heaven’s wheel turns

earth at solsticehttp://www.universetoday.com/104998/electro-ls-fully-lit-view-of-planet-earth-at-the-autmnal-equinox/

I know, I know, I come late to the equinox. Perhaps it’s the equinox’s fault. All hell broke loose when I should have been sitting down to ponder its significance. Fortunately, the sun positioned itself directly over the equator at right angles to Earth and showered its light equally on both hemispheres without my help. The Russian weather satellite Electro L also got on without me and took this picture of the earth as it can be seen only at the equinox. If I think about this hard enough, I may actually figure out why. (Usually part of it would be in shadow?) But you’re better off if I don’t try to explain that, given my ignorance.

This happened on Sunday, September 22, 2013 around 4:45 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time. Coincidentally, the moon had been full three days before and was particularly beautiful from my front porch.

There are four heavenly events that we still note: the vernal equinox around March 21st, the first day of spring when day and night are of equal length; the summer solstice around June 21st, Midsummer Night, the longest day of the year, and the first day of summer after which the days start to shorten; the autumnal equinox around September 21st, the first day of fall when darkness and light are once again equal; and the winter solstice around December 21st, the first day of winter when day begins to lengthen and night to grow shorter. These changes amount to only a minute or two a day, so that spring creeps northward at that daily rate.

The autumn equinox is the festival of Mabon, an early Cornish saint, according to some internet sources. That would be a pagan or Wiccan saint. Some accounts assert that she is female while others say he is male. They all see the festival as a celebration of the second harvest, the first harvest presumably was in July. But whether female or male, the deity is about to descend into the underworld, just as the energy of nature withdraws and disappears from sight in winter.

We feel this in our own bodies and we may even wonder out loud if we really can survive another winter. Chances of such complaining probably relate to how far north we live and how old we are. Me, old and here at 43.7 ° N. But I have observed that those living at 34° N and much younger also dread winter.

To cope with these fears, we have used narrative. Mabon, Persephone or Ianna goes into the underworld sometimes as the bride of Hades. The yearly King Must Die as Mary Renault recounted and Joseph Conrad alluded to in Heart of Darkness. The Green Man is sacrificed. The Straw Man is burned.

On October 31, the third harvest is celebrated, as Samhain, the Celtic New Year. So why do I get so irritated by the appearance of Hallowe’en costumes and God help us- Happy Hallowe’en cards- in stores in September? It’s just humanity acclimatizing to the death of the god, preparing to embrace the darkness by mocking it in scarey costumes and forays into the night in pursuit of sweet solace. November 1st, the Christian church designates as All Saints Day, a day to remember all the dead.

Our goal is to get through to the goddess’s or god’s rebirth, the emergence from the underworld or womb at the festival of light at winter solstice. We hang lights -much too early- and bring evergreens and holly, red with berries, into our houses to assure ourselves that eventually divine forces will bring back the energy of growth and expansion at the spring equinox.

Since I am almost as old as Mabon, I have a 75 year-old memory of one autumn equinox that I recount in Never Tell: recovered memories of a daughter of the Knights Templar. (115journals.com)

On September 21, 1934, I was a 2 year-old, seated in a horse drawn buggy between my mother and my grandmother on my way to the church hall in Hereford, Quebec on the Vermont border. There was going to be a chicken pie supper and dance. The pies under the seat were ready to be reheated in the hall stove. They smelled delicious. I never made it. “The wind took my breath away.” Don’t ask. I heard my mother say that. Evidently, the wind was very strong and I couldn’t breathe. So I found myself unceremoniously  dumped back home in the care of my great grandmother and mentally challenged cousin. They did their best to comfort me, setting up my little table with tea for my dolls and me, but I was sore aggrieved.

Later that evening, I woke up to an incredible hullabloo, a great wind hammering at the isolated hilltop farm house, my caregivers pushing furniture against the windows, which were bulging inward. My great grammy fell down. She wouldn’t get up. My cousin started screaming. When I went near her, she pushed me away and shouted at me. Things went downhill from there.

By the time my father arrived next day, having chopped his way back up hill from the church hall, I was truly traumatized, Grammy had suffered a stroke from which she never fully recovered and my clever little mind had decided to forget the whole thing. It never happened.

Exactly what never happened, I didn’t figure out for 60 years. It was the Great New England Hurricane which whaled up the eastern seaboard without warning. It killed 680 people, destroyed 9000 buildings as well as damns, bridges, roads, and harbours. It leveled whole forests. It did $20,000,000,000 damage in today’s terms. Only one of the great white pines that stood on the road down the hill was left. Although I didn’t remember the event, I loved that tree with inexplicable intensity.

So here we are just past the autumn equinox. The days grow short, but no hurricane is knocking at the door and fortunately, our stories light our way.

Easter Retrospective

I love Easter as a time of rebirth, a resurrection of life. When I was a child, there was always a new outfit, hand-sewn and often cut down and reworked from other garments, new white shoes and a new hat, usually white straw with flowers, chilly to wear when Easter was early as it was this year. To me, it was an unparalleled celebration of light, a miracle – like finding the horse radish root pushing green up out of the newly thawed soil.

In those days, I hadn’t heard about the Easter bunny. He didn’t come to the hills where my family farmed hardscrabble soil. But the hens had started laying eggs again by then and they were served in abundance on Easter Sunday breakfast. It wasn’t unheard of for a farmer like my father to polish off a dozen when he came in from milking and before we all set off for church.

Once we moved to town there were still new clothes at Easter and our growing family might even present itself at church, but that was a special occasion. I would have been the only family member who went for all the Sundays in Lent and right the way through, I would have been looking forward to the exuberance of Easter Sunday.

My love for the Anglican liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible were enough to keep my child self coming  back for more.

This past Easter Sunday, I revisited some of that poetry as I drove north to Barrie, Ontario for brunch. I fired up my iPhone and listened to the second part of Handel’s “Messiah”, beginning just before the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Handel took the passages from the Bible and set them to his stirring music. One of my favourite pieces is the soprano aira, “I know that my redeemer liveth”, (Job XIX, 25-26) which ends with “And tho’ worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God”. The remaining songs are taken from Psalms and the writings of the Apostle Paul, mostly the 1st Epistle to the Corinthians.

I have been lucky in my religious education. I listened to the beautiful King James Bible being read aloud in church and at my grandmother’s, daily in the latter case. I went to church religiously: I sang in the children’s choir. And the university I went to was affiliated with the Baptist Church still when I attended it. Not my church and at the time, I was not happy with the mandatory religious studies, but it gave me a ‘grown-up’ perspective on the New Testament, especially on Paul.

As I listened to “The Messiah” – and drove northward, I remembered reading Tim Harpur’s book The Pagan Christ at Easter in 2004 and I got to thinking about Paul’s letters to the early Christian church. The Apostle’s letters are actually the earliest writings in the New Testament and are “virtually” silent “on the whole subject of a historical Jesus of Nazareth” (Harpur, 166). Paul’s writing predates the earliest gospel, that of Mark, by about 20 years. First Corinthians probably dates from 55 A.D. “Paul was a mystic and he knew only the mystical ‘Christos’, Christ not ‘after the flesh’ but after the spirit. As he says, ‘The Lord is that spirit’.” (Harpur, 172) Paul does not talk about Jesus Christ as a personal saviour, in other words, he talks about redemption through the Christ within. It was the next generation of writers, working from an oral tradition, who wrote about a historical Jesus who died 70 years before.

Harpur, like other scholars before him, noted the similarity between the story of Jesus and the stories of other divine sons of God like the Egyptian, Horus.  He concluded, after much research and soul searching, that the Gospel stories were “true myths” but not meant to be taken literally. This was not an easy conclusion for him to come to. It had unsettled him badly at first, but ultimately, it lent depth to his faith. It meant that he as an individual was responsible for his own salvation, the Bible having shown the way. Jesus Christ had to be born in the cave of his own heart. The stone had to be rolled away from the tomb of his own deadness, the oblivion of being incarnated in flesh, so that the Christ within would be resurrected and true spiritual consciousness be attained.

By the time I read The Pagan Christ, I did not find the idea surprising. I had worked my way around to a similar position reading Buddhist and Taoist writing. It seems to me that all religions come around to that idea. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, speaks of the ecstatic union with the Friend as a sort of drunken abandon. My Aunt Mae dwelt in great joy with her best buddy Jesus. You could hear her singing His praises as you walked up to her isolated, tiny house. I do not doubt that she saw heaven on earth.

At such festivals, I find myself reworking meaning, sorting out the literal from the metaphorical. But in the end, I do not doubt that “my redeemer liveth… and in my flesh shall I see God”.

Sage Baby: Bad Titles follow-up

A couple of posts ago, I ruminated about titles that get outdated by time, including George Orwell’s 1984 and my blog 115journals. I imagined that the three journals I have written since are seriously put out and I rashly promised journal 118 that I would mollify it by posting its highlights. Today I reached page 215, the last page. Journal 118 started on July 8th is now retired from active duty.

Let’s see what’s there.

Oh. My. Goodness. Anais Nin would have relegated its first part to her diary of pain. When she was mortally ill in Big Sur, as I remember, she divided her journal in two and kept the unpleasant stuff separate. I haste to add that my “pain” was more mundane and much alleviated by simple means such as a new regimen of supplements to replace the minerals I was short of.

Then I come to a dream I had in which I was a young doctor just beginning my residency when I learned that I was pregnant. The dream was suffused with love, warm, nourishing love for and from my husband, and a quickening sexual desire. I went out for a walk by myself on a rainy Sunday evening to relish this feeling. Oddly, I came upon my actual/ non-dream-life son in the course of this walk. He was working as a blacksmith -not of course in real life -outside his forge and raised his head only briefly to ask if I had written another book.

I seemed to be living an alternative past and seeing an alternative future.

When I looked at what the dream meant, I saw that I was dreaming of healing myself. The Sunday night walk could be seen as a sign I was now complete enough in myself to do so. Someone I told the dream to said I was dreaming about my “sage baby”, that gestation is a symbol of spiritual cultivation.

So I looked on the internet for “sage baby’ and found it was the name of a company that produces baby blankets, a name given to both boy and girl babies and the name of a musician. Not helpful. I imagined people sitting in a shamanic circle fashioning tiny doll babies out of sage leaves. Then I finally realized she meant “wise” baby.

Ah, a familiar idea. One of western civilizations most important festivals centres on the wise or sage baby, born in a manger. But it has seemed to me for some time that this is better understood as the birth of the Christ in the cave of the heart, in other words, our own soul discovering itself and knowing it is one with the divine creative spirit.

A book is another kind of sage baby and my real son was/is fashioning his own sage baby, in iron with fire.

So there you go, Journal 118. That is surely your highlight, an actual insight.

Isn’t it curious that in our dreams, we can be any age, possibly because we are not actually age-specific.

How’s your sage baby coming on?

The Hungry Ghosts: Chinese All Souls Festival

As we approach the temple building in Chinatown, we can see smoke rising from the tiny courtyard, smell strong incense and feel a fine spray on our faces. Through the filagree of the metal fence we catch glimpses of red-robed figures and hear their chanting. My friend peels off at this point, allergic to such strong incense and smoke. Entering by a side gate, I come upon other chanters in light blue robes, coming down from the temple on the third floor.

Inside the tiny office area, I am pointed toward the English list. The Chinese list looks to be more sizeable. The man before me is busy adding a folded package containing a paper sports jacket, paper dress shoes and a paper cell phone to his bag of paper money. I know these customs having attended a Chinese funeral, although the deceased also received genuine Scotch whiskey to help her on her way. When it is my turn, I am greeted happily. “We didn’t know you would be here to burn your own!” But I eschew extras. I am sending only these ersatz silver and gold bars to my parents.

For weeks, we have been rolling this paper money at our tai chi club and sending it down here in huge green plastic bags. The money has been redistributed into the small parcels, such as the one I hold with my parents’ names and their memorial plaque number on the label.

“You know what to do?” asks the volunteer in charge of the English list and she proceeds to remind me, but I do know what to do. This is the sixth year that I have burned an offering.

“Why don’t you do it for Aunt Mae?” Georgia has asked me. Aunt Mae got us through our tough young lives.

“Aunt Mae doesn’t need any help,” I reply.

Perhaps our mother doesn’t either, for when she left, she never looked back. She went so completely and utterly that her leaving left me questioning my beliefs, questioning them all the way to a two-week hospital stay.

My father, on the other hand, hung around, offering, for example, financial advice: buy lottery tickets. Those who have read my memoir, Never Tell, will understand that he was the sort of parent, one is better off without.

I climb to the third floor, clutching my paper sack. Through the door to the temple I can see more blue-robed chanters moving about among what surely must be “graven images” of the Quan Yin and Confucius and other Buddist, Taoist and Confucian “saints” or holy beings. They are large and colourful and delight me, but today my business is in the anteroom where the memorial plaques are posted. Mine is #588 and easily found.

I stand gazing at this innocuous slip of yellow paper, bearing my parents’ names and the name of their native town -Hereford. How strange to see it here, amid these gaudy red and gold trappings, above this altar covered in dishes of food: fruit, pastries, rice, tea, pots with many sticks of incense, and beautiful flowers. Hereford of rolling green hills and low mountains, Hereford Hill that lies under slope-shouldered Hereford mountain and looks down over the Indian and Connecticut Rivers, a wooded place that is turning its back on cultivation now, turning back to dark and tangled forest.

I bow, the parcel tucked awkwardly under my arm. I choose a joss stick, light it on a candle, bow and stick it in the sand of an incense pot. I bow again. I don’t want to leave.

I am 76 years-old, but I am also 2 and 4 and 5. I am living through the Great New England hurricane and watching my parents build a load on the hay wagon and walking the dirt road with my mother and fishing the trout stream with my father.

If they were alive my mother would be 95. Her mother lived to that age. And my father, 98. But they have been gone for 44 and 24 years. Most of the family is profoundly grateful and it certainly has made life easier. No one else, Georgia or my visiting brother, wants to be here with me.

Downstairs, I am waved toward the back parking lot where a small iron burner stands ready. Two of my favourite instructors are there to feed the fire. They are my age, perhaps, although their wiry small bodies are in such good shape, it’s hard to tell and they are teaching another Chinese man how to do the tor yu as one of them pokes my bundle into flames.

I stand watching it burn, leaping up in bright gold and red flames, dying back to black ash and leaping into flame again. My eyes are watering. Must be the smokey wind.

I am feeding the hungry ghosts, my father who waited his whole life for a windfall, my mother who loved beautiful things -cranberry glass, cow pitchers (!), my father who sought some adrenaline high to fill the emptiness of his orphaned heart, my mother who sought solace, a gift to soothe her battered soul. And my own. My ghost is still more or less grounded here for the time being, but I know its tendency to wander, howling in the wilderness.

It’s all about me as usual.

Measured against the forests and the granite, the myriad lakes and waters, the un-reckonable ages, I am just a flame. These steadfastnesses support me, not I them. I can flicker and go out and reignite. I owe my life to Something greater.

When the fire has died down to black, I thank the men and walk through the back gate to my car, which still has a lot of time on the meter.

Easter/Passover and Journal 108

Every Easter, my mother outfitted me in new clothes, a coat she had made, a new hat, new shoes. Not to do so, in spite of our poverty, would have been shameful. Eventually, this led to a good deal of work as the family expanded. The clothes were to be worn to church of course. Today she would have shuffled us off to Walmart no doubt, but the closest she could get to that bazaar of economic necessity was the catalogue. That’s where the hat and shoes came from.

For Easter breakfast, she would fry up a dozen eggs and my father would tackle the lot.  The hens had started laying again by then, whether Easter was early or late.

Quaint customs that indicate advanced age.

We moved away from that rural community and found ourselves more or less lost in a city. The rest of the family gave church up, but I kept on, partly because they didn’t. I sang in the children’s choir in a long black skirt and a brilliant white surplus that had to be washed and ironed far too often. On Good Friday, I went to the somber morning service and on Easter Sunday, I rejoiced at all three services, Matins at 8 a.m., Eucharist at 11 and Evensong at 7. I found the experience beautiful, calming and comforting. Little by little, I found myself thoroughly assimilating the traditions of the “high” Anglican church I attended.

At a certain point, I stopped attending church. It was shortly after my children were born and baptized. My husband had started tutoring on Sunday morning and could no longer do childcare.

Yet the habits of that background persisted: Good Friday inevitably lead me to self-examination and grief over my shortcomings, while Easter Sunday was filled with light and grace.

Time moved on. The family grew, broke in pieces, reformed, grew again.

Some years, I found myself at a table where we were asked,”How is this night different from all other nights? I listened to the Passover story, which was not entirely new to a Bible reader after all, but now I was seeing it from inside, so to speak. And eating different food.

One year, when I was on my own, I read Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ in which he documents the parallels between Christ and the pagan sun gods to urge us to regard the story in a more metaphorical way. Toward the end of the book, he mused that we will never be more dead than we are now. By that, he meant here in what we call life, we are so thoroughly emersed in the material world that we are deeply alienated from our spiritual selves.

This is a time when we instinctively ponder questions of death and resurrection if only because nature is modeling the latter. (Well, not the poor magnolias here in TO. They got carried away by early March warmth, burst into bud and then got frozen by a cold night. The fruit trees ,however, are setting a blooming example.)

I don’t consider myself an Anglican nor even a Christian at this point, much as I respect the tradition. Buddhism and Taoism also seem to have much to teach, as does Rumi, the great 13th century Sufi poet. But the Easter child lurks within and wants the holiday honored.

This year, oh my goodness, the odd bits of family we can still gather has chosen to gather on Friday. A party on Good Friday! What would Aunt Mae say? Actually, she’d probably say she wouldn’t mind a bit of that brandy and settle down to enjoy herself.

So this leaves me rattling around by myself on the big day. What to do? Last year, journal 108 tells me I went for a walk down through the park to the river and then cooked up a rack of lamb and asparagus. This year, I will take myself out in my best duds to my favorite restaurant for an early dinner.

And eat chocolate.