Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Perils of Perfectionism

Note: To those who subscribe to this blog, kindly subscribe to my new blog, which is now hosted on my newly redesigned web site. For the next month or so, I'll continue to cross-post here as well.

Something curious this week happened with my music. Frustrated with the MP3 player provided by Amazon, I decided to give Google Play a try, and somehow—and I’ve really no idea how this happened—my entire music catalog appeared on my smartphone. I never uploaded the music stored on my computer to any kind of Google cloud storage, so I’ve absolutely no idea how every single piece of music I own is now on my phone.

But I’m not complaining, and instead delighted by the accident, as when I saw the covers of my two albums, I decided to give them a listen after years of not hearing a single song. In fact, I dare say I’ve not listened to the entire disc of My Life of Crime since it was completed in 2002, as back then, my perfectionism caused me such agony that I couldn’t bare to sit with it, as all I heard were its shortcomings.

I thought it so flawed, in fact, that I remember sobbing to my friend one night on the phone, knowing that I’d reached the end of my budget, which was way overblown already, and thus would have to live with what was, no matter the outcome. In short, I was heartbroken, feeling that years of work had basically been wasted. It was an epic fail, and that was that.

In the ensuing years, even the thought of the album caused me pain, so for all this time, it has basically sat on the shelf. I did promote it somewhat shortly after its release, but illness soon set in, which in a weird way got me off the hook, as I didn’t believe in it as much as Daddy’s Little Girl (1997). I was relieved.

This all brings me to this week, when the sight of the cover on my phone prompted me to hit “play,” and I have to admit, I’m flabbergasted. I can’t even remember what I thought so wrong with it all those years ago, and instead heard nothing but clear, striking songs; lush arrangements; crisp production; and a shocking amount of talent from all the musicians who lent their gifts to the project.

I dare say the latter is what struck me the most, leaving me humbled and honored that people of this caliber made it affordable for me to hire them. Of course, they wouldn’t have sounded so wonderful without the gifts of the engineers involved, too, who recorded tracks that could go head to head with anything put out by a major label.

And so I’ve been listening this week not as a heartbroken perfectionist, but as a fan, as a huge part of me feels like I didn’t even write these songs. To this day, I feel like they came through me, from some source I can’t explain. I simply had to be patient for the song’s arrival, upon which it was my job to peel back the onion layers, under which was a beautiful baby song…bright, shiny, innocent, and perfect.

As my new web site doesn’t have a jukebox, as my old site did, I’m loading my songs onto ReverbNation for the time being, so that I have a place to direct people in case they want to hear my work online.

I’m so thrilled that for the first time since its completion, I can share My Life of Crime as my pride and baby who has been patiently waiting in the wings for me to come around. I can’t believe it sat under wraps all this time.

I’m slowly building my ReverbNation page here. Five songs have been uploaded so far.

All of my songs are available on iTunes.


Thursday, May 17, 2012

Six...No, Two...Degrees of Donna Summer

I just heard the sad news about the untimely passing of Donna Summer, the disco queen of the 1970s and early '80s, whose career took off in 1975 after meeting producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the duo that wrote so many of her hits, such as "Hot Stuff," "I Feel Love" and "Love to Love You Baby," among so many others.

When I read the details of her passing today in the New York Times and saw Mr. Bellotte's name, my mind quickly flashed back to 1998 and an email I received from him soon after the release of my first disc, Daddy's Little Girl. Without saying who he was, he very kindly inquired about getting a copy of the album, noting that he was having no luck finding it in England, where he lived and worked.

Donna Summer in 1970.
As a lot of press and music people were asking for promos back then, I immediately wrote back saying that I'd be happy to send him a copy, but asked how he'd heard about me, as I was surprised that I was getting an inquiry from the U.K.

He replied saying that he'd heard about me from a stateside producer, Keith Forsey, who apparently had told him that Daddy's Little Girl was a "must-have." Having no idea who Forsey was either, I started googling, and was startled to learn not only about Bellotte's impressive credentials, but also those of Forsey, who penned the hit "Don't You Forget About Me" by Simple Minds (the theme song of The Breakfast Club), as well as Flashdance's "What a Feeling," for which he'd won an Oscar.

As I was so astonished that anyone at all knew about my music, let alone such successful producers and songwriters on both sides of the pond, I couldn't help but express a girlish, squealing enthusiasm in my next email, noting that as only a few hundred discs were in circulation at the time, it was somewhat mind-boggling that anyone knew about me at all.

Pete must have found this amusing, because he went on to say that not only had he heard about me from Forsey, but also from Don Henley.

When I received that particular missive, I recall staring at the computer screen for a few moments, reading the name "Don Henley" over and over, as I couldn't quite get it to register.

"Don Henley?" I wrote back. "You mean...from the Eagles?????" (And yes, I did insert that many question marks.)

Pete replied, "Yes. The last time I was in Los Angeles, I read an interview with Don in Mix Magazine, and he was talking about what a wonderful singer you were. So I jotted down your name in my date book, to remind myself to look you up. Then I heard about you again from Keith, and then from Jackson Browne."

What the...???

Again, I just stared at the email. Jackson Browne? Of...Jackson Browne?????

As I'd already used up my question mark quotient for the day, and because I didn't want to sound like a complete numnut, I didn't ask how in God's name Jackson Browne had heard of me. I also think I was just saturated by absolute astonishment at everything that had occurred in a matter of about ten minutes. So I just let the whole thing drop, but not before I went in search of that article in Mix Magazine.

Unfortunately, I was to learn that there were actually three Mix Magazines at the time, all spelled differently, each with a different numbers of "x's", so I was never able to find that Don Henley article (nor did I ever figure out why my music seemed to resonate with '70s rock gods). I did write to each publication, but no one ever replied, and that was that.

Pete and I stayed in close touch that year, and at one point he even played around with my song "A Better Haircut" in his computer, deleting the intro and speeding up the tempo. He also added some drum tracks to the single "Daddy's Little Girl," all just for fun, just to see what I thought of what he considered could be some improvements.

We continued to check in with one another every once in awhile over the ensuring years, but eventually we stopped writing. I seem to recall him struggling with some serious complications in his life, possibly an illness (I can't quite recall), and, of course, I went on to have the most hellish decade of my life, struggling with my own illness, during which my music became a minor footnote in my life.

But what a fond memory of someone I never even met in person. I was struggling so hard in those days to get my music heard, and with a few clicks of his "send" button, Pete provided me with the validation I needed to keep going, as he proved to me that my music could generate that all important "word of mouth" that every artist dreams of.

Of course, how I wish that could have happened on a much grander scale, but the sadness I feel about a music career unfulfilled in no way diminishes the sheer delight I feel each and every time I hear the name Pete Bellotte. I'm so sorry you lost your friend today, Pete. But I'm so happy that, at least for a little while, you were mine.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Revenge of the Invisible

Young geniuses are everywhere. This week, New York Magazine announced the arrival a 25-year-old female showrunner for HBO's new show, Girls, with a spectacular cover story. I read the article today, right on the heels of watching Oprah's interview with Lady Gaga, another astonishing 25-year-old who's accomplished more in the last five years than I feel like I have in my entire life.

Why these occurrences should feel like such a punch in the chest mystifies me, as I certainly have a lot to be proud of, but it's most likely because I'm now at the tender age of 53, which in this culture threatens a development most foul, and one every woman dreads with the passing of each decade--that one day soon I'll be completely and utterly invisible, and my dear-to-my-heart work will be irrelevant. To whom? To 18- to 39-year-olds, of course, that hallowed demographic that's the motor behind just about every media decision that's made.

Of course, invisibility and irrelevance is what I fear, and it's up to me to not buy into the bullshit of 17-year-olds selling wrinkle creams or magazines that basically ignore anyone over 40. But man, it's tough, as I feel just so bombarded. Even if I were to turn off the TV for good, this youth frenzy is still all over the internet, and even at the grocery store checkout, where magazine covers routinely celebrate incredibly young males and females for basically doing very little.

Beatrix Ost. Obviously,
she could care less.
I can't seem to get away from the fact that the media simply isn't paying attention to me anymore, unless it has to do with things like menopausal hot flashes or Lifestyle Lifts, the latter of which, ironically enough, promises to make you relevant again by ripping off portions of skin attached to your face and throwing it in the trash. Yes, this makes me feel so very valued indeed.

This fascination with youth is nothing new, of course, as feminists have been railing against it for decades. But what's new to me is how personally affected I've become by it. There's a new type of ache that I've been carrying around lately that has entirely to do with the world in which I live and how it treats women my age. It's not a pain that comes from my history or my fears or my insecurities. It comes from the media, and I'm reminded of that old feminist chestnut that the personal IS the political.

At some point in a woman's life, how she feels is directly related to how her world treats her, whether it has to do with abortion, family planning, fair pay or media images, among other things. In my own case, I can no longer escape the chilling exclusion of women in certain areas of our society simply because we're not young anymore, and it hurts. It hurts bad.

Sure...there are 50-something female journalists still working, and Meryl Streep did win the Oscar this year. But they're more the exception than the rule, and nine times out of ten these gals have been to the plastic surgeon more than once to achieve that fresh face.

I admit that I've thought of plastic surgery myself, not that I can afford it, but then I'm reminded of the plastic surgery disasters that end up making the women look so much older, and thus pathetic. We're in a no-win situation, we ladies, damned if we look old, but damned to hell if we resort to plastic surgery that doesn't quite work out.

So what's a girl to do? How do I grab the reins of my consciousness and blast out the bullshit?

For one thing, I'm going to give myself permission to wear whatever I damn well please as I get older, "age-appropriateness" be damned. So what if I look like a crackpot. No one is looking at me anyway. I may as well enjoy my platforms.

Second, I have to constantly remind myself that I'm actually okay with growing older. I'm not mad I'm aging; I'm mad that I'm not respected for it...for my wisdom, for my compassion, and yes, even for my beauty, which exists with any age. Sometimes I look at my mom and am so moved by how cute she is, and no, it's not just because I love her. It's because she has an incredibly cute face that hasn't changed much since she was a kid. And when she puts a little makeup on, she absolutely sparkles. She never bought into the old lady style of dressing, either. She sports a Land's End look, which she's been wearing her whole life.

And third, I need to seek out role models of older women who are living fabulously and fashionably, who wouldn't be caught dead near a plastic surgeon's office. I recently created a Pinterest board called "Fabulous Seniors," which can be seen here. I think they're stunning, and I'm not just saying that in some kind of P.C. way. They really do look fantastic.

I probably also need to accept that I am going to hurt about all this for awhile, because my culture isn't going to change anytime soon, and I'm going to need time to find my platforms, 'natch.

Featured item from my Etsy Shop: the Brooks Locket.
The whole shop: maryannfarley.


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Pain for Sale

I've been away from my blog for so long because in August, I relaunched my Etsy shop (an online site that sells handmade goods from all over the world), which had been sitting dormant since 2007. And every day since...I kid you not...I've been putting in a good eight hours a day, sometimes more. I'd no idea what a gargantuan...and satisfying...task this would be.

I owe it all to quitting smoking exactly one year ago (March 22, 2011), which unleashed a shocking amount of creativity. Yes, the smoking was obviously bad for my already fragile health, but as I was obsessing about it so much, it was also bad for my mental health, as the guilt trips were apparently eating me alive. Once I stopped smoking, it was as if there was nothing to think about anymore. I was free in a brave new world that didn't include lighting up, and I was positively shocked at just how much mental real estate the guilt had devoured.

At first my creativity exploded all over the place. I was painting again, writing songs again, I even made a YouTube video. I was also painting furniture and doing crafts like making paper roses, even creating bouquets that I would then give away. (!?) In short, even though I was still in pain, I was excited about everything, but soon realized that I was on my way to becoming the jack of all trades, master of nothing.

So I whittled it down to this: I need money, so which of these pursuits is the most likely to bring in some much-needed cash?

The answer was to use my art to create all kinds of funky items to sell in my Etsy shop, and with that decision, I've yet to look back. In the seven months I've been doing this, I've made over 170 items, which include art originals, art prints, pendants, lockets, rings, journals, with even more items in the pipeline.

Since the relaunch in August, it's indeed been a curious time, as certain days I feel like my old self again, so full of joy and excitement, literally bouncing out of bed in the morning, eager to start my day. But it's also been a period of alarming increasing pain in my face, which has required an increase in my pain medication. I've no idea what's going on, but obviously the necrosis in the bone is spreading, and I'll need to get more surgery...and soon.

Aside from the pain, which is excruciating, I'm just so afraid of this condition getting worse overall. I read recently that it can even spread to other bones in my body, not just my face, which is info I did NOT need to hear. I worry enough as it is.

I was going to start a new blog that focused just on my art and my Etsy shop, but I'm not sure I can split myself like that, as my art and my pain, and even the shop, are all so intertwined. So I'll start combining things and see what happens.

My concern is that I don't want to seem like I'm using my pain to hawk my wares, as that would indeed be tasteless. On my bad days, I can write those suicidal-type posts, where I'm pouring my heart out to my readers, literally in tears. "But by the way...have you seen this week's featured necklace...ON SALE?" That would be crass, right?

Actually, this week's featured item is a giclee print, below...just $15! Grab it while you can! (sigh...)

New 8" x 10" print: "Sahara"
The shop: maryannfarley


Tuesday, November 01, 2011

My Occupy Photos Set to a Groovy Tune!

I took these pictures at the Oct. 5 OWS march to Zuccotti Park in New York. Then my dear friend Dean set them to my song, My Life of Crime, which I wrote about ten years ago when I was so ill but had no health insurance.

I would get tests, knowing full well I couldn't pay for them, then would throw the bills in the trash, which of course made me feel like a criminal. I truly felt guilty, to the extent that a song came through (my songs always come from my subconscious--I never summon my creativity).

What the song ended up teaching me is that the true criminals were the ones charging such exorbitant fees, for both insurance and the tests themselves, not me, who was just trying to get what I needed in order to actually live. After I wrote it, I realized I'd written a song about revolution. Here's the video and pix (I'm the one holding the sign). Footnote: The pix at the end aren't mine; they're the Wall St. bankers mocking the protesters with their champagne toasts:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How I Quit Smoking (6 months and counting...)

OK, I've been waiting to write about this because I didn't know if it was gonna stick. But it has, and so here is the announcement: I quit smoking. As of March 22, 2011, I have been a non-smoker, although I do confess, I have been seen occasionally slipping behind a dumpster for a drag with some shady characters, but been very few and far between. Essentially, I am smoke-free, but what has shocked me even more is how free I've become in general--a development I DID NOT anticipate.

First, I'll explain how I did it. After years of trying every quitting technique out there--Chantix (psychosis-inducing drug), Smokenders (very expensive), hyponosis (multiple sessions), homeopathy, plus some other methods I can no longer recall--I'd become completely despondent that anything would work for me, despite a very real desire to quit. With the exception of the morning and evening cigarette, I didn't even like smoking anymore. (I had just passed the half-a-pack-a-day mark when I quit.)

But then an intervention of sorts happened. I awoke in the middle of the night one evening to see a commercial on TV about yet another magic homeopathic elixir that would supposedly make me stop instantaneously. Thinking this was God speaking to me, I scribbled the web site down on a napkin, only to find out the next day via reviews on the web that the potion was a total scam.

Just as I was imagining the Great Spirit enjoying a knee-slapping "Gotcha!", I then discovered the real reason I'd been directed to the internet. Via some other reviews, all positive, I landed on Amazon, where I discovered over 800 four- and five-star reviews for a book titled "The Easy Way to Stop Smoking," written by a man named Allen Carr, who at his height was smoking five packs a day. As the book was just $8.99 (brand new!), I ordered it overnight and I kid you not...I received it at 5 p.m. on a Monday evening, read it twice, and by 6 p.m. Tuesday I'd smoked my last cigarette.

What was it about this book that was so different from everything else? How I wish I could answer that in some simple way. I was so astounded that his techniques were working every time I wanted to light up that I actually began obsessing over this strange mind control, which I guess was better than obsessing over cigarettes.

Of course, it did take some mental stamina those first three or four weeks to rid myself of the habit, but Carr anticipates every single thought, feeling and situation that will come up during this period and gives you the tools to, well...just say no. And he somehow makes it all a joyous experience!

I was going to write an essay here about the surprising emotional liberation that occurred after I quit, but I'll save that for my next post.

The truth is that, before this book, quitting smoking was extremely difficult for me, as it is for any nicotine addict, so I'm ecstatic to report that I found a way to be liberated from the evil cigarette.

But before sharing this wonderful news with my fellow bloggers, I obviously wanted to be sure the quit had stuck. I can tell you that it has (despite the occasional sneak...and I know! I'm playing with fire! I'll stop!), and I can't begin to tell you how much my life has changed.

If you're a smoker yourself and you truly want to stop, for the price of a pack you can buy this book and give yourself a true fighting chance against the odds that have been stacked against you for years by the tobacco companies, and by your own human vulnerability. It worked for me. I hope it works for you.


Saturday, May 28, 2011

I Seem to Have Misplaced My Life

Lady Gaga is everywhere. When I scan the channels there she is--in yet another interview, another video, another performance, another commercial. And I admit, I can't get enough of it.

But while I'm enjoying the ride, there's a lingering malaise that's sitting in the pit of my stomach like an undigested dessert, and I'm getting a tummyache.

It's strange listening to Gaga, because her music has reignited a love of pop that I haven't felt in a long time, and I feel something like a teenager again, when music was the sustenance of my existence. But here's the rub: I'm not a teenager anymore--far from it, in fact--and all that went with my love of music in those days is long gone.

For example, when I listened to pop music as a young person, it stoked the dreams of me doing that myself one day, and so much of what I chose to do was put towards making those dreams a reality. As a kid, I dutifully took my music lessons, and as I got older, I joined bands, developed my songwriting and performing abilities, put my own band together, and hit the road. I recorded and released two CDs, was a critics' darling, and came close to publishing and record label deals, which always ended up falling through.

Undeterred, I kept at it, but as the years began to pass, an eerie feeling soon emerged, which was this: If my dreams don't come true, if I don't end up a truly professional singer/songwriter (who no longer needs the day job), then what will happen to me? Who will I be without my dreams, or worse, without those dreams fulfilled?

For years, even decades, I didn't allow those worries in, because like any good young person, I thought I would live forever. And I believed, perhaps naively, that provided my heart was in my work, as long as I didn’t sell out, then everything would turn out fine. There was nothing to be concerned about. I worked hard, my music was good, and I was committed. What could go wrong?

Well, what went wrong far exceeded anything that I could have imagined in my wildest dreams, as my health, which was never very good in the first place, took a dive in 2004 that brought me to a full stop. And just like that, it was all over.

While I’ve pursued other creative interests during this time, like writing and painting, and even dance for awhile, music will always be my first love as songwriting is what I do best. But when I became so ill and was racked with such unrelenting pain, there just wasn’t anything to write about anymore, and I knew I was done for a very very long time, maybe for good.

Whether it was creative exhaustion or the inability to put physical suffering into a song lyric (or a combination of both), I knew that my music days, for the most part, were behind me, but I was just too sick at the time to grieve over it, as most of the time, I was just trying to stay alive.

But in the last few months, I’ve noticed that my spirits have picked up, which has led me to picking up my guitar again, right around the same time Lady Gaga began promoting the release of her new disc. While her songs inspire me so, I painfully realize that I’m no longer the teenager who can fantasize that I’ll be like her one day. And frankly, I don’t know what to do with these feelings.

In short, I feel like crying all the time it seems, despite my rebounding spirits, because the days of dreaming about a music career are over. Let’s face it: No record company is looking to hire a 52-year-old pop star.

Some have suggested that I get back into the game as simply a songwriter, but even that takes money (to record demos), hence the realization of another grim reality: I’m flat broke. This illness has wiped me out so completely that I live in a Section 8 HUD apartment, am on Social Security disability, and am in chronic pain most of the time. This is NOT how I expected my life to turn out.

So when I see Lady Gaga in all her glory, talking about how she “stuck to it” to achieve her dreams, I think of the millions and millions of other aspiring performers who also gave it their all, sometimes for their entire lives, and have ended up with absolutely nothing, other than some wonderful songs that no one knows or cares about.

On a positive note, I’m so skilled as a songwriter that I no longer have to hone my craft for a lifetime in order to pen a tune. Instead of dreaming about it, I can pick up the guitar or sit at the piano and just do it, provided the inspiration is there, which is a BIG proviso, by the way. Without inspiration, I’m no better than a no-talent hack with nothing to say.

But the negative note seems to be ruling the day, it seems, for at least this day. I just heard a passing car blasting Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” which is an edge I sat on for a very long time. The scales just never tipped my way, and there’s a giant ache now where my dreams used to be.

Maybe it’s time to grieve for them, as I gave up everything to have them…marriage, children, and careers in other fields. I went for it 100 percent without a net, and now I’m splat on the ground after having fallen off the wire.

I don’t regret it—not a bit. But I feel just so so sad.


Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Weight of Encroaching Ice

I had a strange dream last night in which glaciers were beginning to form all around New York and I could see the ice getting higher and higher, climbing ever closer to my apartment window, which meant that I'd soon be encased in ice. I knew that my car was parked on higher ground, but I couldn't find it anywhere, which meant that I couldn't flee the city and that I'd soon lose everything.

I suppose that's what my life feels like, that my world is getting smaller and smaller, and ever the more dangerous, as this pain drags on, offering little hope that I can ever flee to a better place. That's the thing with pain. You can't decide to just take a break from it. In fact, you basically lose all control over your own circumstances, and your decisions are no longer yours, just like any catastrophe, like a new ice age, where everything you've ever done will be devoured and destroyed, and all you're left with is yourself in your own skin, wondering how you'll ever navigate is this unsettling new world, where all rules of society and civility will have to be rewritten.

In the dream, I remember looking at my paintings on my walls, wondering if I could take them with me, as I knew if I'd left them, they'd be destroyed by the water and ice. I realized that there were just too many and so they'd have to be left behind, and it made me sad to think that so little would be left of me, so few remnants to remind anyone that I was ever here.

That's what my life feels like right now, as I find that I'm just sleeping the days away. My mom suggested that I maybe go back on antidepressants, but they never really lifted the sadness over the shrinking contours of my life. After awhile, they were just another drug in my system, and the point lately is to get the chemicals out, to get back to something I've been reaching for ever since this all began--back to a lightness of being, back to a happier state, back to hope.

As I sit here writing, my body feels like a ten-ton weight, and I'm not even sure what I want to say, other than these periods of extreme heaviness seem to crush all motivation to do anything useful or fun. At times, they can lift somewhat, and I can make my way to the gym, or spend time with family and friends, but today, everything is just getting smaller and smaller, as the ice and water get ever closer to encasing me for good. It's days like this that the will to go on wavers, as when I look ahead, I just don't see any solutions.

I am going to a new doctor, who has me on a nutrition regimen that is supposed to reduce acidity in the body (as acidity is supposedly a huge coponent of chronic pain), and I've spoken with my previous oral surgeon about possibly trying surgery again. But I'm so at the end of my rope. I'm not sure I could withstand any more disappointments. But I'm not sure how much longer of this I can stand either.

My friend Lynda theorized yesterday during her visit that these new supplements are perhaps detoxing my body, which may account for the sluggishness, and surely there's a lot to detox. These daily doses of morphine can't be good for my health, and I sometimes think of just going to a drug detox center to see what will happen, to see if I can stand the pain without all the drugs. But that requires making a plan, something I can't stand to think about at the moment.

I suppose what makes me the most sad is that my life has come to feel like such a waste. It's a waste in terms of any good that I could be contributing to the world, and a waste for me personally, as it's become nothing more, it seems, than a study in endurance.

Sometimes I've thought of turning these writings into a book of essays about a life in chronic pain, but along the way, I've always hoped that I'd have something inspirational to offer--that I'd land on some softer sand, which could maybe be a map for others as to how they could better cope with the unthinkable.

But here I am, over two years later, with little more to offer than when I started. It seems that for some, cruel twists of fate stay cruel, and I've no explanation for it, no words of wisdom, no path leading the way out. It's a mean existence for sure, and the day may come when I just won't want to do it anymore. I hope those who love me will be able to forgive me.


Monday, January 31, 2011

Who is God?

When I first started this blog over two years ago, the biggest issue I grappled with, other than the chronic pain, was whether or not God existed. My suffering was so great that my vision of the world became incredibly narrow, and it seemed that all I saw was suffering all around me. I couldn’t understand how God, if he existed, could let it happen.

I’ve been revisiting this question again in recent weeks as I find myself praying more, something I never thought I’d ever do again, and I’m wondering what has changed. Have I forgiven God for my state, or has my understanding of a greater power changed?

Yesterday I was doing some research, and I revisited the Amazon listing of When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner, a rabbi who lost his son to the premature aging disease, and was intrigued by the reader reviews. Many people gave the book five stars, thanking the good rabbi for restoring their faith in God again, but many also gave the book just one star, as they found themselves depressed by his belief in an impotent god—a god who suffers with us when we suffer, but who is powerless to intervene on our behalf.

Many readers had obviously suffered terrible tragedies in their lives, like losing a child, and they just couldn’t accept the notion of a supreme being not being able to step in with a miracle. One bereaved mother sadly said of her life, “I will never believe in God again.”

I remember having these exact feelings about my own life and about the book as well, as an impotent god seems about as good as having no god at all. While Kushner’s writing is beautiful, and his story is heartbreaking, I remember feeling sad when I first read his book, as perhaps back then I just didn’t want to believe that we live in such a random world.

Yet when I stop and think about it, I think the rabbi and I have come to similar conclusions about life and suffering—first, that random things do happen in this world, and second, that what we can count in terms of the divine is compassion, for ourselves and others.

Yet where we differ is perhaps the notion of God himself. The rabbi believes that he does indeed exist, and in his book I got the feeling that he just didn’t want to let go of the god of the Old Testament—the father figure sitting majestically in Heaven, overseeing us all in our daily lives. But what I’ve come to believe, I think, is that God is more of a force—something that moves within each of us, and manifests in the form of all good things, like truth, compassion, art and love.

While it’s true I suffer day in and day out (today was a very bad day, in fact), I have to remind myself that there are countless researchers and scientists out there who are uncovering the mysteries of pain every day, many of whom no doubt witnessed a loved one in their own lives who suffered with relentless pain.

They are motivated by compassion and love, as are all those who start research foundations to find cures for diseases. So many of these organizations are named for those who lost the fight, and it’s the loved ones left behind who become determined to right the wrong, so to speak, by not letting their loved ones die in vain. They are moved by compassion not to see other families similarly destroyed, and so they take up arms to raise money, to organize walkathons, to stimulate research.

When I pray these days, I find myself talking to the “Great Spirit,” and I’ve no idea why that particular name has surfaced. For one thing, it’s genderless in my mind, and I feel it almost like the wind—something I can’t see but that I know is there. It’s the source of all goodness, and when I speak to it, I can sometimes feel its love for me, as strange as that may sound. It’s more of a sense that it’s a force that is on my side, that is there to guide me through this treacherous minefield of life, and when I take the time to surrender my questions, I do indeed get answers, and this often startles me.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve by no means figured anything out, and I doubt anyone ever will. There’s simply no way any of us will ever figure out the mysteries of the universe, no matter how deep science may delve into the matter. All we have to go on is the proof as it arises, and the proof for me are these answers I seem to get when I take the time to look deeply into my heart and humbly ask for guidance.

Do I think this is God? Whatever it is, I’m grateful for its appearance, but I’m not suffering any the less because of it. In fact, most days still blur in this lingering malaise, and I do ask frequently why I, or anyone, have had to suffer at all.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, if there is indeed an afterlife, my life on this planet will truly seem like a fraction of a second when one thinks about how long our universe has been around. And maybe then I’ll understand why I had to suffer so during this particular tenure of my life on Earth.

Does that understanding of things help me right now? A little—for the moment, anyway.

Today I watched a History Channel show about the blood diamonds in Sierra Leone, and saw suffering on such a grand scale. It was an interesting juxtaposition to watch the horrors depicted in the show interspersed with commercials that reflect the beautiful lives we enjoy in our own culture. It made me want to do something, other than just sit and watch in horror, as I know just how frightening and harrowing life can be. I thought that perhaps I should look for a job with one of these organizations and put my writing skills to better use than just as a means to pay my bills.

Perhaps that’s the god force working within me—the tangible manifestation of compassion born out of the terrible suffering of my own. Maybe that’s who and what God really is, and maybe that’s enough—for now, anyway. It’s all rather new.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

But for the grace of God go I

For my birthday last week, my dear friend Janet gave me the book The Power, which is the much-anticipated follow-up to the bestseller The Secret by Rhonda Byrne.

Even though I never read The Secret, a number of years ago, Janet and I were big fans of the Law of Attraction (LOA) after our discovery of the writings of Florence Scovel Shinn, who wrote about the phenomenon during the 1920s.

As anyone who is a fan of these books can attest, when you first learn about the Law of Attraction, you can feel quite excited, as suddenly you’re given this road map to life that actually has hard and fast rules to live by—rules that if supposedly followed will bring limitless joy and prosperity into your life.

What I always loved about Shinn’s work was that she didn’t just write about the LOA; she actually gave you exercises to do to activate it in your life. And what was so exciting was that when I began to employ her ideas, I did indeed see my life begin to change. I began to practice gratitude, I did my daily affirmations, I envisioned a better life for myself and I have to say, it began to be something of a heady experience—to live by these guidelines and have them produce an actual result in my life, for never had I felt so joyous and free, so in tune with a power that was greater than myself.

So why then when I read The Power this week did I feel like punching Rhonda Byrne?

The book is filled will relentless optimism, basically saying that when we activate love (which is “the power” of which she speaks), everything will change, and if we can activate it enough, we’re guaranteed a blissful existence beyond our wildest dreams. She peppers the book with extraordinary tales about ordinary men and women who made simple attitude adjustments and then found themselves in the midst of a miracle, be it a reinvigoration of a marriage, restored health or gargantuan amounts of money.

While few could argue that a positive attitude in life generally produces more positivity, what has come to frustrate me about the Law of Attraction is that it can create a false sense of security, so that when life throws in a random catastrophe, the believer is then left wondering what he or she did wrong to attract this horrific event, and frankly, I find this cruel.

This was certainly true of me in 2004, when a series of unbelievable health traumas left me in this state of chronic pain. When I look back on that year, I was probably living one of the happiest periods of my life, and I see now that I was living with a type of hubris that set me up for the fall. I was a full believer that my whirlwind of positive energy had me encased inside a type of protective shield, and I wonder now if I thought I was just a little bit better than the next guy as my belief system seemed to be working so well. Like the evangelical Christian who believes God is on his side, I was so in touch with “the universe” that I wonder now if I was holding my head just a little too high.

In that sense, I suppose I’m grateful for the fall, which are words I never thought I’d hear myself say. I’ve since let go of my absolute beliefs in the Law of Attraction, realizing now that anything good happening in my life back then was the result of positive thinking, for sure, but also just a streak of good luck. I was feeling healthy and robust after a few years of stressful health issues, and frankly, I was probably a bit manic as well, which is when mental pathology feels good for once. I seemed to have limitless energy, endless creative ideas, and bottomless motivation to make those ideas come to fruition.

While I’ll continue to employ the helpful aspects of the LOA, never again will I believe that there are no accidents in life, as I know now just how dangerous that thinking can be.

We all want to feel safe in our worlds, and the Law of Attraction can lead us astray in thinking that we’re safer than we really are. If we can blame ourselves for every bad thing that happens to us (that gossip session yesterday brought on today’s headache, that fear of not having enough money brought on today’s arrival of a huge bill—these examples are detailed in The Power), then life doesn’t seem so random, so strange, so frightening.

But the truth is that sometimes, life IS random, strange and frightening, and instead of causing a panic attack, a full-on acceptance of this uncomfortable truth ignites something far deeper and more beautiful, and that’s compassion.

The affirmation that comes to mind right now is “But for the grace of God go I,” which means that as we look around us, we bear witness to the awful suffering human beings can go through day in and day out, and we recognize that any one of us is just inches away from befalling a similar fate.

Instead of looking at our brothers and sisters with judgment, that they somehow attracted these horrendous events into their lives with their erroneous and negative thinking and is thus their own fault, we see them instead as children of the universe who truly are sometimes just the hapless victim who deserve our love and deepest sympathy.

I missed all that when I believed too deeply in the Law of Attraction.

The bottom line is that sometimes, bad things do indeed happen to good people, and there’s no sense to it at all. What a relief.

While we’re certainly responsible for our own happiness, finding that happiness is harder for some than for others, and it’s not their fault at all. There are all kinds of horrors in this life—third-world poverty, abusive homes, dying children, murderous rampages, falling skyscrapers, to name but a few, and most victims are just at the wrong place at the wrong time, and that's about as deep as it goes.

But for the grace of God go I.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

You're going to do WHAT?

When the bad days erupt, they can feel like a slow controlled explosion, with each passing hour feeling worse than the one that just came before.

This past week, I’ve been trying to reduce my morphine dose, as I’m seeing a new holistic doctor in New York City, who has put me on a nutritional regimen that is suppose to reduce my pain. But I’m still on a hefty dose of the stuff, which combined with all these new vitamins he has me on, landed me in the hospital the other night with a case of constipation that was literally off the charts.

As embarrassing as telling this tale might be, it’s a grim and somewhat common reality that anyone who takes opiates, whether by choice or not, must deal with the sometimes extreme irregularity it causes, and Saturday night at 3 a.m. will go down in the annals of my life as yet another indignity my poor body has suffered as a result of this unrelenting pain.

It’s happened before—this extreme constipation, indelicately called fecal impaction—but somehow I was always able to, er…well, push through. You would think that one would be able to tackle the problem with some basic laxatives long before it would get to these end stages, but for some reason, it often can happen hard and fast (oh, these puns), with little warning that a huge amount of cement is building up where it ain’t supposed to be.

Each time it’s happened, I’ve sworn that it would be the last time, that I would do whatever it took to prevent these occurrences, but the new supplements must have been my undoing this week, for when the clock struck around 3 a.m. Saturday morning, and all measures I’d been employing for the previous eight hours or so had failed, I intuitively knew I’d been beaten and that this time, I’d have to go to the emergency room, as even waiting until morning could make this dangerous case even more perilous to my health. Plus, having a brick sitting in your bowel feels like, well…a brick sitting in your bowel, and you want it out as quickly as humanly possible.

I did get myself to the emergency room, and luckily I didn’t have to wait too long for a young male doctor to come in and remedy the situation, which was basically sticking his finger up my ass in order to break up and pull out the offending material a little at a time. But oh, the indignity…and the discomfort! I can’t believe that we can put a man on the moon, but the best we can come up with when it comes to a clogged pipe is manual dexterity.

Before he took the plunge, I asked in astonishment if there was any other way, if there was any magic potion they could shoot up there to break things up, but he said somewhat curtly, “Nope. I just have to get in there, and it’s nasty.”

He then told me to take down my pants and roll over, as a nurse stood by, pan in hand, ready for the rocks. Before I knew it, he’d put on two pairs of rubber gloves, greased up, then plunged in with such ferocity that I grabbed onto the side of the bed for dear life, fearing that my poor anus was being ripped from its moorings.

He wasn’t in there for even a minute when the intercom clicked in, saying he had a phone call. “Excuse me,“ he said, removing the gloves, “but I have to get this.” “What?” I whimpered, shocked that any phone call could be more important than stopping in the middle of a procedure such as this. As one might imagine, a patient in this position wants the entire matter over as quickly as possible, and it felt like an hour for him to return as my poor butt was throbbing, even though it was probably just a few minutes.

It gave me just enough time to ponder how awful it was going to feel all over again when he returned, and my imagination didn’t disappoint. He was just as vigorous the second time around, to which I grunted, “How long is this going to take?” “Oh, a few more minutes,” he said, which inspired such fear in me that I gave a mighty push, and well, the matter resolved itself from then on in just a few seconds to the surprise of both him and the nurse. They both acted like a baby was coming as they rushed to get the pan underneath me, realizing that nature was taking its course in a way I just couldn’t control.

And just like that it was all over, and before I knew it, I was back in my apartment, back in bed tending to my severe case of bronchitis and fever, which felt like kids’ play compared to what I’d just been through.

Since then, I’ve been trying to reduce my morphine even more, and I’ve been staying away from the supplements for now, but frankly, I’m miserable. The pain in my face is too fierce right now to reduce the morphine any more, and I was in tears most of the afternoon, wondering how in god’s name my life has come to this—that I’m on so much pain medication that I actually needed an emergency room doctor this week to pull a brick out of my butt with his bare, if gloved, hands.

The poor guy didn’t even stick around for me to thank him. I did thank the nurse though, who was left with the grunt work, ‘natch, of throwing out my poop. I told her I was sorry that I’d come in with such an unpleasant task, but she couldn’t have been nicer, shrugging off the whole ordeal with, “Honey, this is what we’re here for. We’re here to help, and it’s not just you…this happens to people all the time.”

And with that I walked out a little easier than I walked in, if a little bowlegged.


Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Bust-Out Power of Journalling

I'd forgotten how dazzling, exciting and soothing daily journal writing can be.

After the holidays had ended, I was feeling such a terrible void, which isn't that unusual, I suppose, at this time of year, but the whole season seemed to have a void to it, despite how busy I was. On the surface, I probably looked happy. My online Etsy shop--filled with all kinds of my art-related goodies--was doing well, and I was commissioned by six clients to do a pet portrait. And my pain level was holding steady, kept in check by a moderate daily morphine dose.

There really didn't seem to be any overt reason for me to feeling such a deep malaise, during the holidays or after, but there it was, grinding away at me day in and day out, and yet I couldn't even cry about it, which was really strange for me, as weeks earlier, it seemed I couldn't turn off the daily waterworks.

Very early in the season, I was so tearful that when an old friend, who I hadn't seen in about 15 years, came over to pick up her pet portrait, the tears came out in an embarrassing flood when she asked me the simple question as to how I was doing. I knew the dreaded words were coming while she was catching me up on her own life (with me laughing and smiling the whole time), and I kept saying to myself, "Please don't ask me how I'm doing. Please don't ask me how I'm doing." She did, of course, and the more I tried to regain my composure as I spoke, the more the explosion built up steam.

It all turned out fine, as she's as much a dear now as she was then, but I was indeed perplexed by my post-holiday numbness, and decided it must be the morphine, which only added to my malaise, as right now, it's just something I can't live without.

I don't know what made me do it, but I decided on New Year's Eve to seek out my journal and just start writing automatically, not to make any discoveries necessarily, but just to break the logjam of my feelings, which had come to a full halt. And what a break I made.

It's amazing what feelings lurk inside us when we just stop for 20 minutes or so, and really let them surface. At first, I wrote that I should go off the morphine at all costs, as I just couldn't stand the blankness of my life anymore, but suddenly, little glimmers of other matters began to appear. The first entry gently percolated with what family gatherings do to my feelings of self-worth, especially when I'm sick and in pain, and I found myself praying on paper for guidance, as I was so at a loss as to what to do next.

I ended with, "I need a miracle," and sure enough, the next day while talking to Glori, my therapist, while telling her that I just can't cry anymore, that the morphine has put me out of touch with any and all feeling, a few sniffles suddenly turned into a flood of tears about how yet another year has passed with me being in pain, and the sorrow I felt about it was overwhelming.

"My dear," she said. "I believe you are in touch with your feelings just fine."

Since then, I've made the effort to write every day, and the results have been unusually soothing, as any good purge of emotion usually is. Unlike my blogging, which is more controlled and meant for others to read, my journal writing is often splashes of sentences that only I can understand, filled with run-on phrases, misspellings, and deeply private feelings meant for my eyes alone.

While I'm as honest as possible in my blog, my journal writing is really honest, where I can vent and reach into the darkest corners of my soul, often with some trepidation, but always rewarded, as even if I don't discover an answer, I do always end with a prayer to the Great Spirit, asking for guidance, courage or whatever else I might feel I'm lacking at the moment, and the hope those words bring is always reassuring.

Perhaps the greatest discovery, which came from my session with Glori that day, was something I've let lapse, and that's been writing here.

At one point, Glori and I were doing an updated treatment plan (I see her at a clinic), and she asked me what I hoped to achieve with our sessions in the coming months. At first, my answers were very self-centered, as I seemed to answer by rote, with the old chestnuts like, "I'd like to be happier," "I'd like to become more social," "I'd like to feel less anxious," etc.

And then she asked me about my writing, which I've always felt has helped not just me, but others as well. When I started this blog well over two years ago, it was at first a way to give meaning to a harrowing experience simply by expressing it. But in time, as certain comments were made, I saw that the sharing of the experience had a reverberating effect that went far deeper than I'd ever anticipated when I started.

I haven't had to offer any answers here, or any deep insights, or even clever writing. I've just had to be honest, even when that honesty reveals that I just spent three days in my pajamas and I feel like crap. It's those entries that sometimes resonate most of all for others suffering similarly, and this has caught me completely by surprise.

When Glori reminded me that thinking of others will come back to me a thousandfold, I knew what I had to do, which is coming back to my blog and continuing the chronicling of this bizarre journey.

And that's what some simple journal writing has led to. In the search to find answers, the answer is simply to be honest and continue the search, and perhaps most important, to share the experience with others, for it's in the sharing of the journey that the healing truly begins.


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curious Effect of Vincent D'Onofrio

Fellow OSer Beth Mann made an interesting comment in my last post about my marathon viewing of Law & Order: Criminal Intent during a stretch of bad pain. She said, “If you're going to go for a Law and Order marathon, try not to make it Criminal Intent. Vincent D'Onofrio has a strange effect on me over time.”
Even though she didn’t get into specifics, I knew exactly what she meant. There is indeed something odd about Vincent D’Onofrio, and I understood her warnings about him on a visceral level.
No one would argue that he’s a talented actor, and I can remember feeling excited when it was first announced that he was joining the Criminal Intent cast, as I’d always been a fan, as far back as his first Hollywood role as the overweight, unbalanced recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, for which he’d gained 70 pounds.
Yet what makes a constant diet of him so troubling, as Beth so keenly observed?
When he first made his appearance as Det. Robert Goren on Law & Order: CI, he was all ticks and twitches, bending this way and that as he interrogated suspects, clearly attempting to carve out a memorable character who was the quirky genius with odd habits and a knack for solving the case.
The ticks bothered me, but as with all new and promising shows, I try to give them a little time to find their stride, and in time, D’Onofrio did seem to tone down the affectations and get more to the heart of the character, especially when the writers began to explore his history with his schizophrenic mother and drug-addled brother.
It wasn’t until close to the end of his tenure with the series, however, that these more human elements entered the show, so for years, we watched him play Goren as the quirky detective guru—attractive and brilliant, but somehow inhuman, and therein lies the rub.
Whenever I’ve seen Vincent D’Onofrio in any television show or film, there is a strange lack of heart, and thus a peculiar hollowness seems to permeate every character. He’s there but he’s not there, and he’s certainly not interacting with his cohorts, who I imagine must find him a challenge to work with. I once heard Antonio Banderas comment that Angelina Jolie was one of the most generous actresses he’d ever worked with, yet I can’t imagine anyone saying this about D’Onofrio.
While he says his lines to perfection, and his characters are keenly observed (he’s been called “an actor’s actor"), it’s as though he’s playing to himself in each and every role; it doesn’t seem to matter whether anyone else is in the room or not. Even when he played the romantic lead with Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, the chemistry just wasn’t there, and this was with a woman he supposedly had a real-life affair with.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his characters are nearly all attractive loners, and Beth is right. A steady diet of these people, be them on TV or in real life, are a danger to those psyches that seek out connection, for while the loner can seem the strong, silent type, very often he’s just too afraid to speak the truth about himself, and cowardice is frustrating indeed. He wants to draw you in for company and amusement, perhaps even adoration, but he doesn’t really want to give anything in return, and he certainly doesn’t want you to get to know him.
When D’Onofrio began to withdraw from Criminal Intent, sharing the lead duties with actor Chris Noth, it was obvious that his stifled soul was beginning to devour him, exemplified by all he began to devour. As the years passed, the sleek movie star slowly turned into a pasty, overweight, tortured version of his former self, which the writers cleverly worked into the script, a development I’d like to think helped him work through some of these demons.
As for myself, I have to question what draws me to these characters, and to people like this in real life, as I’ve become involved with them at my own peril. Early on, I suppose there was the part of me that thought I could save them, until I began to realize that many of them don’t want to be saved. They prefer to remain distant, resting on the laurels of their talent, there for you to admire but never really know, comfortable on their pedestals that are always just a little bit above you.
But if these loners have any soul at all, the artifice just can’t last, and they do end up paying a high price for the costly walls they build around themselves. In D’Onofrio’s case, aside from the loss of his Hollywood luster, he succumbed to what the press said was “exhaustion,” and he slowly had to retreat from the show. I suppose we’ll never know whose idea that was, his or the show’s producers.
I’ve seen it happen to other creative types, too. John McCrea, the lead singer-songwriter of the rock band Cake—who could write killer melodies and clever lyrics galore in the late ‘90s—got so deeply mired in irony that by the time he wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, it was too late. Old fans like myself had become weary of the hipper-than-thou stance, to the extent that by the time he’d realized his mistake, we were long gone.
Years ago, a friend handed me a magazine article about D’Onofrio, and I’ll never forget the strange reaction I had to it. There it was…a full feature on him, along with a one-page photograph, and for some reason, it actually felt awkward to hold the piece, as if it was the strangest thing in the world that there would be an article about Vincent D’Onofrio. I just couldn’t imagine him wanting to ever do something like that, and it was as though I could feel the hostility in just holding the paper in my hands.
My drummer friend, Jagoda, was there to witness the moment, and mentioned how he couldn’t stand the guy. Apparently, he had been in a theater house band for an off-Broadway show that D’Onofrio was starring in, and he said it was a completely forgettable endeavor until the last night of the show’s run, when the understudy took over the lead role. Jagoda said that the understudy completely transformed not just the role, but the whole show, bringing a humanity to the character that D’Onofrio had completely missed.
I didn’t bother to read the article, but for some reason, I’m still hooked on the Criminal Intent reruns. The show may be committed to film, but that doesn’t stop me from hoping that maybe something will change, that maybe Det. Goren, and by extension Vincent D’Onofrio, will expose his soul after all.
So close do guys like him keep their cards to the vest that even saying something like that sounds like heresy. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Another Day in My Pajamas

Make no mistake—no matter how much one thinks he or she has accepted being in a state of chronic pain, the bad days cause reflection on those that were better, before the unacceptable occurred and we were unalterably changed forever. 
And it’s on those days that I realize that at my core, I’m still just so profoundly sad about it all. While being in pain has unquestionably deepened my compassion for all living things and has perhaps made me more human in many ways, I’m still just so fucking angry that this is how my life has turned out, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change—certainly not in the short run.
Maybe I’m blue because I’ve undergone yet another change in my pain medication regimen, and I sometimes feel like I’m sleeping around the clock. Even though I’ve attempted in the last month or so to take steps back out into the world—like joining a gym, joining an internet dating site, painting up a storm in preparation for an exhibit and going back into therapy—the bulk of recent weeks has been spent in front of the TV set, where I get to watch other people have lives, which in turns reminds me of who I used to be before this trial set in.
I suppose my gentle forays out into the world haven’t been going so well, which is just adding to my frustration. At the gym, it can feel like a herculean effort to do just 30 minutes walking on the treadmill, I rarely check the dating site as I just can’t imagine myself being the flirty girl anymore, and my painting has hit a creative wall. And as for therapy, I’m experiencing something I've never experienced before with previous professionals, as this new therapist has an extremely spiritual bent.
On the one hand, I could say that she’s a perfect pairing for me, as the reason for my crippling depression when the pain struck in ’04 was complete spiritual devastation and the total unraveling of my faith. But such a statement would imply that somewhere deep within I believe some type of magic is at work—that this person has come into my life for a reason and that there are no accidents.
That’s certainly what Glori (my therapist) believes, and at times I find myself getting angry at her for such crazy statements. The old arguments erupt—like why would any loving creator allow such suffering in the world, not just mine, but anyone's?—but I suppose I’m tired of hearing those tapes run in my head, which is a lucky break for Glori, as I’m more open now to hearing what she has to say than I would have been, say, three years ago.
Oddly enough, my reasons for entering therapy again have had nothing to do with spirituality, but rather have been an attempt to get to the core of my intimacy issues with men. It’s a complete coincidence that Glori has this spiritual slant to her work, which seems to have superseded my original intentions, at least for the time being.
She’s an extraordinary woman who speaks five languages fluently, has studied the kabala for over 30 years, and is well read on nearly every religion that exists, so when she speaks, her words carry a certain love and authority that can be soothing, even if I don’t necessarily believe them.
Glori believes that in order to deepen our humanity, we must go through these trials, and the further down they go, the further we will ultimately rise. This is life’s cycle, she says, and if it didn’t happen, we would become stagnant. In a sense, I can tell she believes that my pain is a type of gift, in that I now can connect with all suffering in the world and thus be a force for good, should I accept the assignment.
It’s certainly a nice thought, but hard to comprehend during the days I feel so utterly useless. Today, for example, is yet another day I’ve yet to get out of my pajamas. This new medication is so strong that I woke up with a borderline migraine headache and nausea. I’ve been taking considerably less today, which means the pain is greater, all while I watch a Law & Order: Criminal Intent marathon.
The only way I can think of to make use of today’s particular trial is to write about it here, in the hopes that someone else who is suffering will read it and not feel so terribly alone.
I see Glori again on Tuesday. As I write about her, I’m reminded of the positive affirmations she gives me to say, none of which I’ve done.
I do have a favorite though, which comes from the Hawaiian HoOponopono religion, and it’s one we’re supposed to say to our creator as a way to take responsibility for our lives. It goes like this:
“I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.”
When I feel lazy, useless, jealous, or whatever, it does have a certain power to it that soothes me. Maybe I’ll pull out her affirmations tonight and give them a spin, although my exhaustion level makes even the utterance of words feel like lifting weights.
I’ve got to try, even though I’m so fucking sick of trying. Maybe what I need is just a good cry.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Smashing the Bell Jar, Once and for All

I recently saw a 2009 interview with the stunningly talented pop sensation Lady Gaga and was aghast, not only because of her genius and creativity, but because this poised, wise, already-an-icon diva is just 23 years old—basically at the beginning stages of her career, with something like 15 million album sales already to her credit.

As Gaga would be the first to probably tell you, the number means nothing, as music is her religion--something she would create regardless of whether or not she succeeded. Instead, she says, it’s the spirituality of her pursuits, and the creative and joyous outlets that go with it that provide her with the necessary inspiration for continuing—the writing, the recording, the videos, the live shows, and most important, the fans.

Years ago, I might have felt envious of this startling young woman, as I, too, was a performing songwriter in the mid-90s and early 2000s, right up until the time I became too ill to continue, and thus had little to say in the form of a pop song anymore.

With the tens of thousands of talented musicians out there hoping to make it in the music business, I suppose I didn’t fare too badly during my heyday, although my career didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the commercial success of Lady Gaga. I've talked about my former career in other posts and so won't repeat myself here, but the upshot is that while I carry no sadness or disappointment about my songs not finding a home in the earthly catalog (and thus on people’s MP3 players), I do feel a type of ache when I witness the vitality of artists who come from a happy home. If I envy anything, it’s the abundance of unencumbered fun they have in bravely expressing their true essence in all they do, having a type of faith that their creativity and love from others will provide a bedrock of strength and a cushion of comfort when life's challenges erupt.

When I think back on when I was 23 years old (I’m now 51), I remember that as the year that I first went into therapy. It happened out of absolute necessity, as the band-aids that had been holding my psyche together since college completely collapsed after my reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which believe it or not, sent me into a freefall of anxiety and depression so bad that I remember telling my mother one night while sitting on the edge of my bed that I literally could no longer move.

I was frozen solid in position, so paralyzed by the constant criticisms of my father over the course of my entire life that the moment had finally arrived that I just no longer knew which way to turn. I didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but now I see it. And so did my therapist that very first day I sat in her office, who told me at the end of the session that my issues were with my dad, an opinion I completely disagreed with at the time, as everyone knew he was a great guy, and the problem was my insane brain, not him.

I’m not sure what drove Sylvia Plath, but we both obviously ended up in the same place, and the image of being stuck in the bell jar terrified me. I saw myself as a carnival sideshow--a creepy deformed contortion of a human being, as if someone had placed me in the jar as a baby and left me there to grow within in it, ultimately becoming too large to ever get out of the jar's small opening on my own. Even though the image was just a metaphor, it felt strikingly real, and a seething claustrophobia set in, gripping me with such terror that I ultimately became paralyzed on that bed, drained of all energy by absolute, suffocating fear.

What also terrified me was that Plath's book was no ordinary book--it was the beginning of the end, in a sense, in that the issues she so beautifully dealt with in her novel, the issues I so readily identified with, were the exact issues that were to kill her off years later when she took her own life. Talk about being freaked out.

To compare that 23-year-old person with today’s 23-year-old Lady Gaga is a study indeed on the influence of our parents, which was made all the more clear by Gaga’s endearing comments on the wonderful relationship she has with her own father, who supports literally everything she does, as does her mother. “He gets me,” she says, and if there was ever a thing about her that I would envy, that would be it right there.

It took me a full two years to admit to my therapist that what I wanted to be in life was a musician, and took another ten pick up a guitar and begin writing music in earnest. When it came, it poured out of me with a creative zeal and necessity that Gaga has most likely been feeling nearly all of her young life. It took me 12 years to pick up that guitar, and took many more to feel worthy of just being alive.

I realize that the job of any artist is to document his or her journey, no matter what it may be, and I’ve done that to the best of my ability. What a waste, though, to have had to do so much work just to get to Level Zero, to get to the blank canvas on which to begin creating.

But is “waste” the right word? Nothing is wasted if you can use it somehow to help others. I used to feel a certain bitterness about the added weight I knew I was carrying around that others weren’t, but to indulge in that feeling would be the real waste. Years ago, my depression wouldn’t have allowed me the choice to give up a negative feeling. But I have that choice now, and I’m grateful.

Even as this chronic pain continues as I write (no doubt the lingering scar from my stressful past), I feel happy for and inspired by Lady Gaga, thrilled that I’m so completely out of the bell jar that I’m even able to be inspired. I still can’t muster up a new song, but I am painting and writing, and excited to start flamenco classes again in September (if I can afford it).

When I first entered therapy with those terrifying visions of being so trapped in the jar, I wondered how in the world I’d ever get out of it. It never once occurred to me back then that there were those out there who would have compassion for me, who would help me get out of it, who would do whatever it took to break the glass to set me free.

How wonderful for the Lady Gagas of the world who know that compassion from Day One. They know they can count on it as they embark on their life’s journey.

I’m still a bit suspect, but enough already. This lack of faith is starting to get old, frankly. Evidence is presenting itself everywhere these days that it's time to begin trusting again. While the bell jar glass has been shattered, it's up to ME to step out of its remains and begin walking the earth.

For years, I was so afraid to move. Thanks Gaga, for inspiring me to dance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Faith, Art and Power Ball

It’s been so long since I’ve made an entry. In re-reading my last post, it’s inspiring to report that my apparent acceptance of this chronic pain has had a lasting effect, one that has produced a stretch of creativity I haven’t had in years.

My new apartment is exploding in colors, with the walls recently painted purple and light moss green, and new paintings hanging everywhere. I’ve also been experimenting with a new painting technique, whereby I stencil antique lace patterns on a canvas, then embellish them with images and pastels that work within the shapes. And I’ve been creating dozens of my baseball card-sized paintings that feature my little glamour girlies as exercises in color and composition.

I’m even getting up at the crack of dawn, excited about the day, and about the morning in particular, when all is quiet, except for my cat, who is beyond excited herself at the prospect of her favorite wet food so early in the day.

Yet the pain persists, and during the past few days has been worse than it’s been all spring and summer. The other day I was helping my friends move and I forgot to take my second dose of daily pain medication, which perhaps was the mistake that set off this new round of trouble. When one suffers with pain, it’s important to stay ahead of it by taking the meds before the pain seriously sets in, as once it starts, it’s much harder to bring down.

Yet something has decidedly changed in my response to chronic pain, and I’m a little baffled by it. During the past few years, a new round of screeching pain would have sent me reeling in sadness and a sense of defeat, but something in me has indeed changed as I find myself annoyed by it, of course, but somehow unperturbed by its relentless pursuit of my soul, which is what it felt like for so long.

I’d like to say I’m not letting it in anymore, but that would be lying a bit, as the fear pain brings on is very real—the fear of what’s really happening in my face and jaw (is the bottom-line condition getting worse?), the fear of what all these medications are doing to my body (can my compromised liver handle them?), and the fear that, well, I somehow may die of all this, and I’ve no idea why I fear that, frankly. If there’s an afterlife, great, and if not, well then I won’t know about it, will I?

There are still moments in the day, too, where exhaustion overcomes me, probably due to the meds, and my life can continue to feel like an endurance test. I also wonder if this creativity burst is a true personal achievement, or the result of me recently cutting my Zoloft in half, in which case I could be experiencing a touch of hypomania (which has occurred in the past) instead of a divine insight that has produced a creativity spurt.

While antidepressants can be lifesavers when our brain chemistry results in profound depression, they can also tend to trim off ALL extremes—not just the lows but the highs as well. And they can affect our mojo, which is why I can’t remember the last time I had a sexual thought. I must confess that’s been the real reason I’ve decided to go off Zoloft, as how in the world will I find romance in my life if a bowl of ice cream seems more exciting than a passionate kiss?

Yet the decrease in Zoloft can’t account for the slow return of my faith, which has perhaps surprised me most of all in recent months, particularly since the whole notion of God as I understood him for so many years has had nothing to do with it.

When my life fell apart in 2004, I now wonder if my sense of shattered faith was really just the beginnings of a long grieving process for a loss I just couldn’t accept—the loss of a pain-free, healthy body. As I was raised to be so damn perfect, even an imperfect body was so unacceptable to me, as I could no longer be the achievement-oriented Mary Ann, who defined herself so completely by her accomplishments.

Pain has been a cruel teacher, but the lesson has nevertheless been learned that accomplishment should be the by-product of a life well-lived, not the goal. There’s certainly nothing new about that insight, but it’s new to me, and also liberating, as finally it’s just okay to enjoy the day for no damn purpose at all.

One of my biggest pleasures in life now is going to the dollar store with my mom and loading up on gifts for my 3- and 5-year-old nieces, who think us the greatest nana and aunt of all time, due to our apparent bottomless treasure chest of water pistols, angel wings, and beautiful jewelry sets, all compliments of Dollar Daze house of goodies.

What I love, too, during these outings with my mom is our hilarious bickering, which is much like that of comedienne Kathy Griffin and her mom Maggie on My Life on the D List. My nutty mother simply can’t resist telling me that a stop sign is coming up, to which I’ll reply, “You mean that red octagon shape with the letters S-T-O-P on it?” It goes on like this during our travels to the food store, post office, and of course, the liquor store, where much like Maggie, my mom buys the cheapest white wine on the shelf, not because it’s a bargain, but because that’s the one she likes.

If anyone had told me 15 years ago that these are the things that would bring me the most happiness in my life, I might have looked at them with a befuddled stare, as the ambitious Mary Ann back then was the destined-for-greatness singer/songwriter, which I now know had about as much chance of success as me winning the multi-state Power Ball.

Tens of thousands are called in the entertainment field, but few are anointed for that kind of accomplishment. In no other field is sheer damn luck such a component of whether or not one succeeds. If you’re an attorney and you work hard, you’ll do well. But even if you write the greatest songs of all time, whether or not anyone hears them on a large scale is largely out of your hands, no matter how hard you work at it.

Am I proud of my songs? You bet. But do I care that they didn’t land on the top of the charts? I care only in the sense that I believe my songs would have been a good and true addition to the pop canon--something that would have made people happy. But like all things, to dust, too, they will return, just like all the hit singles and albums that did make the charts, and I’m fine with that.

I’m fine with a lot these days, it seems, no doubt fueled by this wonderful creative phase. Nothing makes me happier than to feel like painting is a way to goof off--a naughty thing I’m doing when I should be doing something more serious, like earning money, of which I have none, by the way. Never in my life have I been this broke, but never in my life have I felt this curiously content, pain and all.

Geez, I hope this isn’t hypomania. Every morning I say a prayer I learned from the teachings of Florence Scovel Shinn, a woman who wrote in the 1920s with such incredible wisdom. I pray, “I give thanks for my perfect health, my perfect wealth, my perfect love and my perfect self-expression, under grace, in divine ways.”

The first part is said in the present tense as a way to feel gratitude, even if those things haven’t manifested in my life yet, and the last part is said in a way that reminds me that I want those things only as the universe intends me to have them.

Either my prayers are finally working, or I’ve simply stumbled into a better time in my life, which is okay, too, as I’ve no problem with the notion of a little bit of luck. Maybe it’s time to play Power Ball.


Artworks here are posted in my Etsy Shop for just $9.99 each.
Apologies if this isn't OS protocol, but as winning the lottery is highly unlikely, I can't resist plugging these little beauties. Remember, they're originals! :)


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Slamming My Guilt, With Good Results

I had a big insight.

There I was on Thursday, experiencing one of the worst pain days I’ve had since this whole ordeal began six years ago. Absolutely nothing I did worked to ease the burning and aching in my face, so I did the only thing that I knew for sure would bring me any relief, however slight it would be, and that was to take more pain medication. But with that decision came the usual overwhelming sense of guilt--that somehow I was being weak, was copping out and dropping out of life, disgusted at my fate.

The tears came easily that day, initially having been set off by a newsletter I regularly receive from author Annette Colby, a doctor who specializes in matters of the heart and soul, and who I’ve spoken to once on the phone and have had multiple email conversations with in the last two years or so. Her topic that day was a ten-step plan on how to bring more love and joy into your life, and it brought back such poignant memories of the happiness I was feeling before all this began.

I wrote to Annette to thank her for her words, as they’d set off the tears, for which I was grateful. I needed something to crack through the tension I’d been carrying that day, and was so thankful for the release. Annette responded with her usual compassion and wisdom, and then said something I didn’t expect. She said that if I needed to take the pain medication, it was a complete waste of energy to feel guilty about it, and that if and when the day came that I decided to stop it, I would, but until then, I should simply enjoy the relief it brought.

While this might sound obvious to some, her words truly altered my state. For the first time I can remember during the past six years, I decided that just for that day, I wasn’t going to feel guilty about any decision I made in order to cope with my pain, whether it be painkillers, cigarettes or wine. I saw very clearly that what I deal with on a daily basis is beyond what most people can even imagine, so why should I be judging my behavior in order to cope with circumstances so completely beyond my control?


Day in and day out, I live in such unchartered territory, which is why I’ve found so little solace in therapy or in programs like AA or rehab, where two years ago I did a two-week stint to get off the pills, only to find myself in agony again once I got home. The rehab experience was awful--not anything like one sees in shows like Intervention, as I was treated in the same punitive way that so many of these more ordinary places treat addicts--that we’re diseased degenerates who can’t be trusted and thus must turn over our lives to a supposedly loving god who will set us free if we just surrender our will.

While this approach may work for some, and I do respect it (despite my cynicism about that treatment center), for the addicted pain patient, this program just doesn’t work. No amount of steps or surrender did a single thing to alter the awful conditions of my life, nor did this loving god, who from what I can see, has dispensed far too much suffering upon this world to be taken seriously.

I suppose this is why I found Annette’s words so comforting, as she was putting her trust in ME--that I was the only one who truly knows what’s best for my pain, and therefore shouldn’t feel guilty about the decisions I make.

And so, for the rest of the day, I did whatever it took to bring me comfort, and a surprising thing happened. Without all of my energy being eaten up by pain and, more important, guilt, I felt a certain joyousness about life return, and I was shocked.

Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my art studio, which I’ve been attempting to organize ever since I moved into my new apartment here on Feb. 3. I couldn’t believe how effortless it felt to just go in there and start moving things around, as I was now eager to get started on a new painting. And every time I felt guilt begin to creep into my consciousness, I would say out loud, “Stop it!” and indeed it would just go away.


Curiously, two other things happened in previous days that perhaps laid the groundwork for Annette’s words. The first was a book I found literally in someone’s trash, titled simply enough, Meditation, which recounted meditation techniques by a famous instructor named Osho. There are descriptions of about 100 different meditations, one of which is for smoking, in which Osho describes the plight of a troubled man who had chain-smoked for 30 years, and had come to him looking for guidance on how to stop.

Surprisingly, Osho told the man that he should NOT stop, but instead smoke every cigarette with complete attention and consciousness, as it was the thoughtless, automatic behavior that was the problem, not the cigarettes. If the man continued to smoke, Osho told him to just enjoy it, as what did it matter if he lived a shorter life as a result, but if he stopped, Osho said it would happen effortlessly, and of course, it did. In short order, through conscious meditation on his smoking, the man soon saw the insanity of his behavior, and he was able to quit.

The second occurrence that alerted me to the destructive power of guilt was a few web sites I stumbled upon completely by accident that challenged whether or not Jesus Christ ever actually lived, as apparently, there’s absolutely nothing in the historical record about his existence. Yes, there are the gospels, but supposedly there’s nothing else--no stories written by the historians and writers of the time about this man of miracles, no record of his execution by Pontius Pilot--stuff like that.

I know so little about this subject that I bring it up not to invite debate, but to recount the curious effect it had on me. What if Jesus Christ never did exist? What if he was nothing more than an archetype created by the collective unconscious in the same way other deities have been created over the course of history, like Zeus? It’s indeed a fact that Christianity isn’t the first religion to speak of virgin births and resurrections, so what if the indoctrination I received as a child (which sometimes fills me with superstition to this day) was all a fabrication?

Over the course of the next few days, I could see that my guilt was also born of fear of sinning against this god of my childhood--that I was living an evil existence, even though the circumstances of my life were not of my own making.


So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, yesterday was probably one of the happiest days of my life in the past six years. I treated my pain as I saw fit, fully willing to accept any consequences of my decisions, and I did not allow myself to feel any guilt whatsoever about my actions.

And with that came joy. When I went to bed last night, I was so eager to wake up this morning that I actually couldn’t fall asleep, as if I were a child tossing and turning on Christmas Eve.

While having my morning coffee today (coffee being yet another thing I’ve been berating myself for), I eagerly jotted down a list of things I want and need to do today, and instead of it feeling like a weight, the list feels like, well, a life.

There’s nothing extraordinary on it--just ordinary tasks to do on an ordinary Saturday--and for once, I’m actually looking forward to starting my day.

I can’t remember the last time I said that.