Winter Blues

“Pile Driver Blues” was an a cappella opus, I made up one weekend when I found myself trapped in a San Fransisco airport hotel during construction. I sang it to a two year-old as I pushed him in a stroller around the concrete. Next door was the infernal, 12 hour a day, ground-shaking pile driver. It was not my last encounter with the blues. January seems to breed them.

Does it pay to examine their origin closely? Holiday hangover? Weather fallout? Economic downturn? Legitimate grief? Fatigue? All of the above? Information is always useful, I suppose, and may provide perspective.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, the treatise on ancient Chinese medicine, sees it as a good and necessary way to slow us down in winter so that we get enough rest to consolidate our strength.

Early this morning, my sister Georgia, alerted to my winter blues, phoned to prescribe Northrop Frye’s Double Vision Chpt. 3. I was taken aback, to say the least. I was on my way to a tai chi class, however, so I tabled the suggestion.

Two hours later, I was back home, stretched and invigorated, but bluer than ever. I tried a nap and woke up ready to try her idea. I found Double Vision on-line and began reading. What do you know, she might be onto something.

Chapter 3 is called “The Double Vision of Time” and begins with a description of the tragedy of time. “It seems probable that the basis for consciousness … is the awareness that the uneasy pact between body and soul will dissolve sooner or later..”  The body’s drive to survive makes us suppress our consciousness of this as much as possible or, at the very least, to convince ourselves that we are not going to die at once. The result, however, is a “subdued anxiety”, or quiet desperation, according to Frye, scholar, critic, a fellow Torontonian, and 78 years-old when he wrote that (1912-1991).

Ordinarily, we see time as horizontal and linear, comprised of past, present and future, although all attempts to grasp “Now” prove illusive. It barely emerges from the past before it vanishes into the future. Moreover, its progress involves a kind of repetition which Frye describes as parabolic as is clearly demonstrated in Shakespeare’s seven stages of man, beginning and ending in helplessness. (“All the world’s a stage..” As You Like It II, vii) “Thus the tragic aspect of time in which every moment brings us toward death.” The double vision of time involves superimposing a vertical dimension, in which all time exists at once.

In practical terms, we can free ourselves from time by “genuine achievement” in everything that matters and that can be accomplished by the building of habit through “incessant practice”. Practicing the piano, for example, repetitively playing scales and practice pieces eventually allows us to break through to the freedom of accomplishment. Thus we come to an “enlarged sense of the present moment”. Experience and awareness are one. Now we are in the “Now”. This intensity is spiritual connection, the vertical dimension, enlightenment.

Right. I think I get it. I do have a number of practices: tai chi, journal writing, cooking, blogging. If I just keep at them, with intention, I’ll break through to a timeless moment? And such a moment will surely be free of the Blues.

Blue Now – how not to be

The designer of the website for my book, sent me an email headed, “Blue Now”. My first response was how does he know. What he meant was that he had done some html magic so that the links on the “Buy” page showed up blue. My mood had nothing to do with it.

In fact, my mood began to lift after I got my nephew who is a WordPress genius to help me with irresolvable problems, irresolvable by me that is. I had actually found the solutions to most of my problems in “Help”, but either I couldn’t understand them or I couldn’t implement them. I am, after all, the woman who had to try 8 times to get her pressure cooker to work. (See “Hapless Human vs Pressure Cooker” posted May 22) I began to climb back up out of that pit of low self-esteem that not being able to centre a picture or single-space poetry had dumped me into. I know -too sensitive for my own good.

Later I spent an hour or more with the delightful people at my satellite company rebooting my PVR so that it would actually record instead of just telling me it was doing so.

The rejection of my appeal of my income tax is not so easily handled and has to go down under the category of “things I cannot change.”  I can, however, rejoice that I had the wisdom to know the difference.

Meanwhile, I received in the mail a new shipment of supplements from Endomet in Arizona and the report based on a hair sample I had sent them. The report confirmed what I had begun to suspect that the blues can be primarily physical -tired adrenals, sluggish thyroid, poor metabolism of nutrients. As it turns out I had won a trifecta of low scores. I got much advice among other things to eat more protein and less sugar. Not sure I am up for 12 oz. steaks and giving up maple syrup on porridge may put me off brekkie, but I promise to try. In addition, they tell me that the supplements they sent may make me feel tired. They are intended to get me to slow down. There’s a slower gear!!!!

Nevertheless, I had already decided to incorporate relaxation in my recovery program. One of the advantages of age is that you’ve already done most workshops, including the one where you learned to relax. It has been a stressful 6 months in our family, but things are settling down now and it’s time to let go of constant vigilance. That strategy seems promising. It will lead to a more comfortable life.

I think that these strategies added to the techniques I usually use -reading Rumi, listening to music-rock, classical and jazz (where does she get the time?), walking in the woods, having flowers about the place, counting my blessings- will make the persistent inner editor who tells me how flawed I am and how I have failed myself financially and in so many other ways just shut the you-know-what up.

The Void Again: Something out of Nothing

A friend of mine beset by ill health and economic downturn, bewailed the fact that at 50, she has nothing. Her business is being sold. Her house is under water (over mortgaged in the failed housing market). She has no pension and she has used up her savings.

Ah, yes, the void again, the great emptiness.

Here we go, my dear, my answer to you: like me you have made you living by talking to others. It was the principal way you helped them heal. All those generous and compassionate words took wing and settled in their minds. They carried your words away and gradually understood them. They became better and better people for it. There is no way to see or measure this effect.

This week, Charlie Rose interviewed Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe and the producer and director of As You LIke It which is being presented in Central Park this month. Lily Rabe, who plays Rosalind, said that she never feels as alive as when she is playing Shakespeare. There is something about just saying the lines over and over that improves her mental health.

I know that feeling from years of reading his plays aloud and listening to students read them and listening to them go out the door still speaking in iambic pentameter without the slightest idea they were doing so. The very cadence and rhythm of the poetry change your brain waves. Behind that, lies Shakespeare’s deep understanding of feeling and his brilliant logic and insight into life. A bracing stimulant like a cool Perrier mist in a tropical bar above a deep blue lagoon.

All that talk just seems to vanish, like my grandmother Gladys’s deep throated story-telling and her great laughter of, for example, the time her French cleaning lady came running downstairs crying, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” Indeed the house was on fire and subsequently burned to the ground, but fifty years later, Gladys rocked with laughter. After 96 years and 2 burned-out houses, Gladys is gone and only memory can hold that treasure now.

But it is real no matter how invisible.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews XI, 1). Now faith is a slippery thing. As best as I can see it is the light of our looking and the sound of our listening. It isn’t some dread effort of will. The important idea in Paul’s words is that what is invisible can have substance, can indeed be evidence.

So we could count up what you really have accomplished substantially and visibly, mention, for example, two brilliant male off-spring and a soul mate. Or we could have faith that much more is going on here, the love that people bear you in their hearts is your Pulitzer, your Nobel Prize, your pearl of great price.

This is, after all, only an imitation of defeat and not a very good one at that.

A Poem a Day Keeps Blues Away: Dickinson and Amherst

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer house than prose –

Emily Dickinson

It was a family wedding that took me to Amherst Mass. last weekend. I had never been there before although I felt as if I had because I had read so much about its famous poet, Emily Dickinson. She is the one who wrote those enigmatic four line stanzas beginning with such lines as “A narrow fellow in the grass” or “Because I could not stop for death” or “I taste a liquor never brewed”. Her poems turn up in high school and college anthologies and seem at first glance simple enough, but they are full of surprising insight. The lines I have just quoted, have a hopeful sweep upward at first glance. Ok, it’s a dull day, rain forecast, I’ve got that emotional hangover from a glorious event, but -look- here is a little poem that reminds me that the “prose” of this morning is not the whole picture, that I too can “dwell in Possibilty”. (Yes, grammar check, I do want a capital “P”.) Dwelling is not visiting.

Dickinson goes on to describe the beautiful house that Possibility gives with its fairer windows, more numerous doors, and gambrelled roofs that the ordinary house of prose cannot provide. She is talking about poetry, of course, but you don’t need to know that at first. You may figure it out after a few readings but you don’t have to.

Dickinson didn’t title her poems. An early editor Mabel Loomis Todd, did put titles on them and “corrected” the quirky punctuation -dashes- We don’t approve of that now, we Dickinson aficionados, and in modern texts, we have to look up poems by their first lines. The “right” books of her poetry are published by Harvard University. Amherst College has many of the original manuscripts, but Harvard holds the copyright.

We made the long drive -almost 10 hours, what with traffic- from Toronto to Amherst while others were flying in from the west coast, Texas, Arkansas and the Yukon or just skimming up the throughway from NYC, arriving on Friday night. The wedding was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. What now? Five of us met for breakfast in the Lone Wolf, across the road, more or less, from the Dickinson museum. What to do became obvious.

The docent led us to past the dining room to the library.”Isn’t this where Austin used to meet Mabel..” I began enthusiastically and bit my tongue. It was too late. The docent pegged me for a know-it-all who was spoiling her story by getting to the scandal too soon. Dickinson’s brother, who lived with his wife in the Evergreens next door, met his mistress here in the house where his sisters lived. Since he supported both houses, he presumed such rights apparently.

As our little group followed the leader from room to room listening to her stories, she kept throwing questions at me. Did I know that the Dickinsons had lived in another house in Amherst as well? I nodded.  They fell on hard times early on, she said, but bought this house back eventually. At least, she didn’t demand an answer from me. Later the others laughed at that. I was too busy melting into the background to care at the time. When we came to the last room with its display of how Emily experimented with different words -“gables of the sky” for example, instead of “gambrels”, the docent asked one of us to volunteer to read the poem posted on the wall. Silence fell. Well, it needed to be read aloud. “I will,” I said. What have I done, I wondered. I have no idea what this poem means. I began and the most surprising thing happened. “I dwell in Possibility,” I began and the poem read itself through my mouth until it closed with “spreading wide my narrow Hands/ to gather Paradise”.

Here’s an idea: read a poem. If there’s no book of poems beside your bed – an excellent sleep aid -it’s easy enough to find one on the internet. Better yet, read it aloud. Better yet, read an Emily Dickinson poem aloud. It will surprise and delight you.

Report back.