What I want to say is that every few days, you dip into bleakness. And while the bleakness has taken various forms throughout your life, I want to applaud your ability to function. First, you have remained stunningly functional, still making lists and getting things done. We have to air out your vices in order to examine them, too. We need to be honest about your penchant, this time around, for stockpiling in small but noticeable amounts, items you think might be necessary after a societal collapse: canned goods (but not enough to actually keep a family alive for an extended period); the crank-operated radio and cell-phone charger (good, but you’re assuming there would still be a signal); cash (and as your husband wisely noted, $200 will not get you far). These are nods in the right direction and also candles of mourning.
The happy thing for me this month is that I am celebrating the release of my essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. University of Nebraska Press continues to be a fantastic home for books, and I’m so glad to get to work with them. And I am glad to get these essays out into the world because they are so strange, and departing from a larger coherent narrative nonfiction structure is such a welcome respite–especially on the topic of pain.
I gave a talk last week at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference on the reasons why writing about pain made me run screaming from a linear narrative. I have told the story of my onset and symptoms of rheumatoid disease and other conditions to so many doctors, and it’s a mystery story that doesn’t have a convenient resolution. The narrative gives me no answers. It tells of my ability to adapt, to contain pain, but that is not what doctors want to hear. I once went into doctors’ offices furiously and desperately hoping for a cure, but I have slowly adapted to the idea that that is not in the cards for me. I have become a non-narrative, non-linear creature when it comes to pain. For that reason, I have let in all the weirdness, which was fantastic and fun.
Normally with a new book I would do a book tour, and I do have some dates scheduled over the next few months. However, with this topic–and with my body in general the way it is–I am thinking about how to reach people who don’t travel much or for whom getting out of the house in the evening and out to a bookstore is either an ordeal or impossible.
The question is: how can I do a reading for other people like me? Maybe I could do a reading in a mattress store where everyone could lie down. (That probably won’t happen but it sounds amazing). Or maybe–and this I’m considering more seriously–I could do a reading on YouTube live so people could tune in?
One cool thing I am participating in in April is an online workshop on Writing Chronic Pain through the “Survive and Thrive” conference on narrative medicine. I am excited to learn more about this as it seems like an awesome model for accessibility.
Let me know what you think–especially if you are a Pain Person. I am also open to Skype or FaceTime meetings with chronic pain support groups. I know there has to be a way to use technology to connect and do a form of reading that is accessible to people like me.
Though I am a Buddhist these days, I suppose nobody gets out of Catholicism easily–or ever. I was raised a Catholic, and I have been obsessed with the image of the Sacred Heart for as long as I can remember. The Sacred Heart is in my mind and heart now every day–it reminds me that I have to go into the world with a broken heart, a heart brimming with too much, and that the living with one’s heart outside one’s chest is life itself.
My grandmother, who emigrated from Germany to Arkansas with her family in the 1920s, brought with her a strong faith. In her house in Subiaco, Arkansas, she stocked up on all kinds of Catholic figurines–St. Christopher riding on the dashboard of her car, tiny metal Madonna and Child peeking from every pocket, saint cards stuck in every birthday card. Disembodied praying hands on top of the television set. A scary rolly-eyed Jesus on the cross seemed to hang in every room, such an agonizing figure that I wanted to take him down and tuck him in somewhere next to my stuffed animals. I suppose that was the point.
But maybe because of the crucified agony, the figure I loved was the Jesus with a Mona Lisa smile, two fingers up, and the Sacred Heart bursting out of his blue robes.This Sacred-Heart Jesus figure was, I think, a larger one in plaster, and he might have been located in the back hall of my grandmother’s house, near the phone. This Jesus was not agonized, even though it seemed someone had started open-heart surgery and then walked away.
Other times the Sacred Heart appeared just by itself, red-orange and full, sometimes surrounded with barbed wire, on prayer cards or amulets. What I loved about the Sacred Heart was first what terrified me about it. At first it seemed super-gross; a freaking organ. I remain staunch in my belief that Catholicism is a little much for imaginative children, for whom someone should offer early explanation of the symbols. But as an adult I have more and more come to love that the heart is not bleeding, not in crisis. It just is. Jesus is just chilling out there with his heart outside his body.
Of course this would resonate with me much more after I had a child, who is now a 13-year-old constantly inventing new ways to smash himself up. The other day I watched him roll down the street on his skateboard and thought, “My heart wears a helmet and knows how to ollie. My heart grinds the curbs and rocks Independent trucks.”
My heart. Of course, it’s outside my body these days, as yours might be. I get up in the morning and the first feeling I have is the heart-catch of diagonal free-fall, the second you realize you are falling down a flight of stairs and it’s too late to grab ahold, yet too early for impact.
The Sacred Heart reminds me, too, of what I have learned in Buddhism as an adult. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche writes in his book It’s Up To You: “In both Western and Tibetan cultures, having a big heart is associated with generosity, kindness, warmth, and compassion. In Tibetan culture, a person with a big heart is also someone with the ability and courage to hold even the most painful truths in his or her heart without becoming despondent. During difficult times, my mother used to say, ‘You need to make your heart big enough to hold a race horse inside.'”
I think this is the hard but necessary thing–now but also all the time: the challenge to not shut down in the face of the awfulness. Although it’s important to take care of ourselves and rest, there’s also courage in witnessing, and in being present. It’s so tempting to cocoon against the awfulness of the world. Hell, I do it all the time, but I then get lonely and isolated and sad.
Once I would have said that though there were concepts from the world of faith useful for social justice work, there was nothing in faith for me to fill myself back up in the face of severe challenges. But now I am just googling “sacred heart” and looking at an amazing collection of Sacred Heart images on Pinterest, looking and looking at those beauties like fruit that remind me, there is pain, and bearing pain is more than just shutting down and muscling through. There is something in letting pain touch us, being open like that plaster Jesus, like the medallion my grandmother gave me with one heart actually stabbed through with a sword (ouch). And so much like the Sacred Heart, I have a postcard that hangs in my own hallway that says, “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of A Fist. Keep Loving, Keep Fighting,” a slogan used often in social justice work.
And maybe I get it, Grandmother. (Yeah, I actually called her Grandmother. She was kind of fierce, not the kind you’d snuggle up to with a nickname like Gammie!). I get that sometimes when life feels like daggers, you need images that remind you– deeper than words– that there is a way to bear pain and to feel pain and yet to also remain open, willing to consider the world and to consider hope, like Jesus just chilling with his very red-orange organ on fire and wrapped in barbed wire. He’s not bothered. Or like a Tibetan teacher who has a racehorse inside of his heart.
And that there’s nothing to hold onto. My grandmother’s sacred heart medal is actually disappearing, worn almost flat from contact with her skin so long ago. There’s nothing to hold onto these days in our country, it seems, but I keep remembering that we are not alone, and that so many before us found the need and the images to pull themselves forward with their hearts outside of their chests and on fire.
Paul Ryan Says Free School Lunches Give Kids “An Empty Soul.” (Time Magazine)
Paul Ryan, Expert on Living Without a Soul, Says Free School Lunches Give Kids “An Empty Soul”
Paul Ryan Says Free School Lunches Give Kids “An Empty Soul,” Wins Final Round of Dehumanization of Poor People Challenge and Claims 2016 Gingrich Cup
Free School Lunches Give Paul Ryan a Beat-Down
Kids Receiving Free School Lunches Cook Paul Ryan in a Stir-Fry
Paul Ryan’s Soul Commits Suicide and His Body Continues as a Speaker of House Zombie Feeding on Reagan-Era Ketchup Packets
Paul Ryan’s Soul Leaves Paul Ryan’s Body in Protest, Takes Up Residence in Chest Cavity of Turkey Carcass Mostly Stripped by Maggots
Maggots in Vicinity of Paul Ryan’s Soul Depart Turkey Carcass and Run for Congress
Empty Souls’ Union Rejects Paul Ryan’s Membership Bid Due to Member Outrage
Paul Ryan Says Free School Lunches Give Kids “An Empty Soul,” and then Jesus Runs At Paul Ryan Full Speed and Kicks Him in the Chest, Launching Paul Ryan’s Heart Out of the Back of Paul Ryan’s Soulless Chest Cavity
I am trying to knit myself back into a world that is not so much changed as noir. The contrast is way up, a black-and-white movie of the previous life. The villains belong to my childhood, so 1980s with their Cold War mentalities and their penchants for Reaganesque excess and their truly reprehensible hair. In some ways it feels time is sliding backward, and this is not helpful, because so much of my forward motion has been wrapped up in a sense of getting past early difficult days. I am haunted by a sense that time has folded at the apex and will now circle back to the beginning, Protozoan. The caterpillar deciding to fold back into the chrysalis; an abomination.
I think of myself four weeks ago and swiftly turn away, wincing at that hopeful woman who nonetheless feared in the pit of her stomach what has come to pass. At the same time, this brave woman lived in a blue state and yet–importantly, essentially–was afraid to put a Hillary sticker on her car. That means something deep and big, and I will suck the peach pit of that true knowledge until my tongue is raw. Nothing can take away the stone of my understanding or its noir whorls of light and dark. I will not surrender the stone of my understanding to anyone who tries to shame me into believing we deserved this. I will use this new stone to navigate, a pole star. I have gained a hard round thing that fits under my tongue, and any organization I join will have to take this stone and seriously consider it as true, to form its theories around this stone of what my gut knew.
Now, on good days, I am able to complete things on my To-Do list. On good days I put things that I need to do to take care of my body and basic responsibilities on that list. Today I add “Feed Spogs” (the bearded dragon lizard in my son’s room) and “Walk on the treadmill” because I need exercise to feel better than I do. To regain, for another hour, the sense of sequential time.
Every email that appears in my inbox seems to hang out there from a great distance as if it is performing an act of satire. Let us imagine that your mind is capable of completing tasks without laughing at the absurdity of how working sequentially is just another turn on the hamster wheel.
I have signed a thousand online petitions to stop the pipeline and to hold Congress accountable. I have called my representatives and other people’s representatives in states across the country. I have felt every tiny additional injury–the daily struggles of needing four new tires, the receipt to be submitted for some healthcare thing, the argument at home or the illness–to be massive ice floes. I question my own ability to navigate. I question my own ability to metaphor: look, ice floes–an artifact that may soon be of the past.
I feel the need to offer to myself and others a semblance of the peach stone we have gained, and all I can do is think in colors. I am hanging onto the number of votes for HRC–as a talisman that good people are everywhere. I am hanging onto the sense that the stone under my tongue will tell me where to go.
“Yes, I know, she was not perfect.” This ache–this is what we have to do. We have to bow down in this new world and say this constantly about ourselves. “Yes, I know, we are so flawed.” Noir, eighties, Gunny Sax dresses and big hair and the Brat Pack. My sense of a Midwestern winter that would never end.
I cannot think sequentially, these days. I am using my to-do list as a ladder. I am crying as an errand because it is a way to reconnect to my heart. I am done with being somebody else’s idea of a revolutionary and am willing to discover what my own vision looks like. I am noir, I am edged in dark, I have the peach pit under my tongue, I will not take it from any direction. I have the peach pit now, and I will guard it, and it will tell me where to go.
Hi. Listen, I know you are feeling confused and maybe a little nauseous. I don’t know what your trigger was for realizing something was wrong, but I want to applaud the sense of independence in you that led you to pull back and reassess.
I wanted to first say that you are not a pariah. I don’t believe anyone should be if they are willing to examine their choices. And I believe there are many like you, and that you have an important role to play in the health and survival of everything we believe in about this country. You are going through something that’s profoundly disorienting, and I want you to know that you are not alone. The solution is not to avoid politics. Here are some things to consider and to do to help you take stock, and then to help you feel better and help other people:
- Know that you were duped by a news machine that extends into the community where you live. The 20th century notion of journalism is that news is “impartial” and “objective,” but it turns out that so much news is subtle propaganda–paid for and sometimes even published on news sites that have political agendas. That’s a scary thing to think about, but it’s true.
- Admit your feelings first to yourself and then to one other live person. This will help all of us. This will help you make amends to people you’ve never met. The ripple effect of thousands of Trump voters admitting this instead of hiding in shame or stuffing the feeling into denial will be very powerful. It’s a hard thing, but do it. The response you hear back may very well be, “Yeah, me too.”
- Find a group that is an unbiased protector of human rights. Some good ones include the Southern Poverty Law Center or the American Civil Liberties Union. I know, you have probably heard terrible things about one or the other. But all they do is to track infringement of rights and lobby for people to be treated fairly. Look through the sites and maybe give $20. Or give to some other place, whatever looks right. Just google “Human Rights.” This is for your sake. It will help you feel like you are doing something, and that will give you momentum and also help you feel better about yourself.
- The major undertaking for the next year is going to be a personal media cleanse. You might have been surrounded by Fox News. Literally, it is on wherever you go. Bar, restaurant, hair dresser, friend’s houses. The first thing to do is to turn it off in your own home. You can watch another channel, or even local network news. But not Fox. It does not present things in an unbiased way; it tends to whip up fear which then is channeled into anger against specific groups that are supposedly to “blame” for a problem.
- The next thing to do is to gather the strength to ask someone in a business like a bar if they would change the channel when Fox News is on. The reason for this is that it is seeping into not only your consciousness but the minds and hearts of everyone around you. You turn it off for even five minutes, and there’s five minutes of peace. I know this is a big deal, as I come from a place where Fox News is blaring all the time. Be proud of yourself if you do this, regardless of the effect.
- Subscribe to a major newspaper that is available in your area. USA Today is fine. Anything is fine. Read it.
- One of the scary trends that has been well-documented is the number of hate crimes that have taken place in the few weeks since the election. I know, I know–you’re not burning crosses on anyone’s lawn. You might consider racism to have multiple forms, as I’ve written about here. But even if you’re not yet ready for that, one simple thing you can do is that when you hear someone making a racist statement, just stand up. I mean literally just plant your feet on the ground, get up from your chair, and take a step toward that person. Just make eye contact and look at them. I think that’s enough as a first step. You don’t have to make a big confrontation until you are ready. Just move your body, and then walk away.
- Do a faith audit. How’s your pastor or priest? How’s your congregation, and were they part of the deciding factor in your choice to vote? Did you hear politics coming from the pulpit that equated Hillary with the devil or Trump with the way of the faithful? I know you might have been in this congregation since birth along with all of your friends. But there are a bunch of churches out there. You might just commit to visiting another church one Sunday a month. Keep going to your own if you’d like, but see what else is out there.
- Pray and reconnect with whatever spiritual values you have. If you haven’t actually read the text of your faith tradition in a while, go back to the source and delve in. It will give you sustenance. In some ways this is a great spiritual journey that will make you a stronger person who is more connected to the tenets of your faith. If you are in an evangelical congregation, you can consider getting support by reading something by Jim Wallis or other progressive evangelicals. A magazine like Sojourners might be a good support. If you are Catholic, there are a number of progressive Catholic congregations and supports for progressive Catholics–including our current Pope. Check out Call to Action.
- When you see people getting angry at anyone who has been targeted as the “enemy”–liberals, disabled people, the poor, those who receive food stamps, professors, immigrants, Black people, Mexican people, Muslims, the population of the Middle East, women, Hillary, Hillary voters, socialists, union members–stop and just tell yourself that you are witnessing anger. Reflect and pray on where that anger might come from. This is a huge open spiritual question.
- The culture that supported Trump has pockets of violence that you might not have been exposed to, as they tend to target only those who disagree with them. But be prepared for the fact that once you admit what you are thinking, you will be targeted with scorn and the same condemnation they have reserved for all the other “out” groups. This will be profoundly unsettling, but know that you have many many allies–everyone else who has been targeted.
- Contact your local representatives to urge them to stand up for decency and democracy.
- Consider, during the next election, whether you should choose a candidate based on their stances about multiple issues rather than a “hot button” issue like abortion, which has been used for decades to manipulate people of faith into voting for unsavory candidates, and whether you might re-evaluate the criteria by which you vote.
People make mistakes. Your faith and my faith all teach that mistakes can be recovered and redressed, but action is important. We are happy to welcome you into the fold of people who want to protect and rebuild the country.
Tonight, Trump let forth another outrageous tweet, one that actually is an insult both to reality and the basic democratic institutions of our country. He claimed that millions of votes were “illegal,” and that without those votes, he’d be ahead in the popular vote instead of behind by 2 million. The problems with this are huge and many and will be analyzed on every imaginable news outlet. The tweet implies that there are “illegals” out there infiltrating our democratic institutions–a cue for his racist fear-mongers–and that voting is somehow not already difficult enough for many.