The Peace of Stoicism (#poem)

adult alone anxious black and white
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The Stoics all counsel the same.
Contemplate life and accept
Death without too much disruption.

They counsel the same when
You are overwrought, but
Flood you with a tsunami of tears
When their turn comes.

Seneca condemned his own sobs;
Confucius angrily defended his,
And I have forgiven them both.
Their failure is my comfort as my own
Tears pour over your last letter.

In Defense of Vile Rottenflush (#poem)

Screenshot 2019-05-24 at 12.51.15The venerable X. J. Kennedy used a poem about “vile rottenflush”
to illustrate bad poetry in his seminal textbook,
Introduction to Poetry.

The poem, he explains, was submitted to the equally venerable
Paris Review, but he does not credit (blame?) the author.
The poem about vile rottenflush, he clarifies, is too personal
and subjective to speak to anyone other than the person who wrote it.
He says, “the author has vented personal frustrations upon words,
instead of kicking stray dogs.”

Who am I to question the wisdom of someone
as accomplished as X. J. Kennedy?
I only know that I remember the phrase “vile rottenflush”
four decades after first hearing it. Also, I think the author of “vile rottenflush”
had witnessed a death of someone much loved, and anyone who has watched
the most cherished people in their lives die might understand the poem, after all.

I think this because the poem also mentions “corpseblood” and “ghastly stench.”
No one forgets the smell of a soul leaving the body.
And no one forgets what they see when life is flushed away.
Perhaps “rottenflush” was a novel way of avoiding the now
clichéd references to “putrefying flesh.”
Perhaps it is a way of reminding the readers
That our blood will cease to flow, pulse, and pump,
Only to be left to pool, drip, and stink.

The author of “vile rottenflush” might be accused of being too direct,
But not too personal. Which of us will not overwhelm
Post mortem viewers and handlers with our own
Ghastly stench, reducing them to cries or horror
As they see their fate clearly in our eyes?

Frequent Death and Daily Disquiet (#poem)

woman lying down
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So many people died that year that I developed
A permanent anxiety about companion mortality.
Guns, cancer, fire, and water all took people from me.

After an absence of a few months, a friend once
Called just to say, “You thought I was dead,
Didn’t you?” My curse amused him immensely.

Once, as my infant son lay resting peacefully, I went
Over to check his breathing. His older brother
Reassured, “It’s okay, Daddy, he’s not dead.”

And you apologise for keeping me awake with
Your fitful sleep, but every cough, sigh, snore, or
Fart only reminds me you are with me awhile longer.

Ever since the change from that time of life,
You have thrown the covers off your body as
If they were on fire, inviting damp coolness

On your skin. As the sweat evaporates and
You slip into a sounder sleep, I touch your
Cool and immobile body with trepidation

Nightly. I don’t want to wake you and disrupt
Your peace, so I lie awake, fretting and alone, to
Ponder this nightly act of solicitous love.

 

The Best Way to Grieve for a Child (#poem #napowrimo)

brown bear plush toy beside pair of toddler s brown and white shoes on ground in selective focus photography
Photo by Max Schwoelk on Pexels.com

They never changed that room.
Dolls, teddy bears, trains,
And transformers all hold space,
Lock time in perpetual stasis.
When death comes life stops.

Family said they should pack
Things away. It’s too hard
To be reminded day after day
Of a future lost in the past,
But a room can be a memorial.

It’s a museum of childhood,
Until a child of a later
Generation discovers it with
Glee. New memories are
Born of innocent ignorance.

As the teddy bear rests again
In loving arms, life continues and
Memory grows sweeter and
Stronger through squeals,
Taunts, laughs, and hugs.

On the Disastrous Art of Losing (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

Kisa-GotamiOn our first meeting, she
Described me as a “near Buddhist,”
Meaning, of course, that I had
The ascetic qualities of a monk.
 
And it was true that Siddhartha
Helped me lose my appreciation
For things. You learn first that
Attachment is suffering.
 
But Elizabeth Bishop was more
On my mind. Like her, I had
Lost things every day, and
Most of them didn’t matter.
 
We all get practice losing things,
Of course, and we learn it isn’t
A disaster; lives are nothing
More than crude or elegant mandalas.
 
Everything will be wiped away,
And there is no use torturing
Ourselves with excessive hand-wringing,
Longing, covetousness, or desire.
 
Push on, let it go, they’re only things
After all, and the universe continues
With no pause. And still, I sit
Thousands of miles away
 
Thinking of you.

Life, Love, and Leaving in Livingston, Texas (#poem #NaPoWriMo)

Screenshot 2019-04-11 at 08.07.26In a previous century my grandfather died
Only weeks after my great uncle.
A few weeks later, my grandmother
Made a quick trip to the grocery store
And returned to find her house in flames.

Having lost her brother, husband, and home
In a matter of weeks, my uncle Skeet
(so known because as a child he was
No bigger than a mosquito or “skeeter”)
Tried to comfort his sister.

He was a country preacher with a small congregation
In the Piney Woods of East Texas, and he
Always turned to Jesus, of course, in times like these.
Attempting reassurance, he said, “Ain’t it wonderful, Sis?
This just shows that the Lord always watches over us.
No matter what, Jesus is always by your side.”

He meant, of course, that she was lucky not
To have been burned alive, but I sort of thought
The loss of everything she loved might have
Compensated for the joy of continued existence,
But people say I am just too negative.

In the current century, my grandmother
Eventually died just a few years short of
Becoming a centenarian, so I returned
To Livingston, Texas one last time.

As we gathered at my grandmother’s house
To mourn, one of my aunts complained bitterly,
“Well, we’re gonna have to fire our preacher,
‘Cause he keeps saying the BI-ble says to
Give our money to the poor. They can work for
Their own money like we did!”

Upon learning that one of her new in-laws
Was Mexican, she demanded, “Well, are ya
Legal? If you’re legal, it’s all right, but we
Don’t need any wetbacks in the family!”

I haven’t returned to Livingston, Texas.

Ricky Gervais and the Wrong Way to Grieve

After Life, created by Ricky Gervais, seems to be a quest to show just what it would mean to grieve in the wrong way. While grief counselors and well-meaning supporters will often assure us there is “no right or wrong way to grieve,” the central character, Tony, is destined to be an exemplar for how badly things can go when someone takes that advice to heart.

Tony recently lost his wife along with his will to live. Even without a will to live, though, he keeps living in spite of himself, partly because the dog needs to be fed. Maybe he really does feel an obligation to the dog, or he really wants to live, or he is just afraid to die. It doesn’t really matter why he keeps living, maybe, but several characters do make note of the fact that he does, in fact, find a reason to go on each day, even if he can’t say what it is.

So he goes on without wanting to live, which he feels gives him the freedom to do things he never would have done before. Of course, he always had the same freedom, but his suicidal ideation has now made him aware of it. The fact that suicide is on his mind tells him that if something he does causes things to get even more unpleasant for him, he will simply end it all.

This is, of course, a central tenet of existentialism, especially as articulated by Jean-Paul Sartre. Humans have radical freedom to choose their actions because they can annihilate themselves at any time. This annihilation can come in the form of suicide or simply choosing to become a different person. Sure, you can’t actually become a different person, but you can choose radically different actions, and we are defined by what we do.

Suicide is also the central question for another existentialist, Albert Camus, of course, but for Camus the question of suicide should challenge us to find meaning for our lives each and every day. If I’ve chosen not to kill myself today, I must have a reason. I should be aware of what it is I am living for. If it is just to feed the dog, then so be it.

But Tony isn’t so far along his journey yet. He’s engaged in a little game theory such as that discussed by Robert Nozick and other philosophers. He’s decided that being a decent person isn’t a good bet in the game of life. While it would be better if everyone were nice, that is not the case. Consequently, nice people consistently lose ground to the selfish people around them. Tony reasons it is better to be a rotten person benefiting from the kindness of a few naïve but altruistic people than to be a nice person expending energy on people and getting nothing in return.

So Tony is pretty awful to everyone around him. I don’t think there is any need for a spoiler alert here as this is all laid out in the first minutes of the first episode. Tony does some awful things that have awful consequences for people who come into his contact. Brief flashes of remorse or regret let us know an empathetic individual still lurks in there somewhere, but people risk real harm by coming into contact with Tony.

In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Buddha tells the grieving Kisa Gotami to go to all her fellow villagers and collect a mustard seed from everyone not touched by grief. She returns empty handed, of course, as everyone is touched by grief. Like Kisa Gotami, Tony slowly learns this lesson, and it changes him.

In the end, though, I think existentialism drives the series more than Buddhism, but it is Simone de Beauvoir who gets the final say. Beauvoir believed, as did the other existentialists, that to be human is to be free if we constantly practice freedom as an act of will as Tony has decided to do. However, as we will ourselves to be free we must also recognize the freedom of others and will them to be free as well.

We must all suffer, but our suffering is shared by all those around us as both Kisa Gotami and Tony learn. Recognizing that means we will move forward with compassion and kindness, and that is the greatest freedom there is.

#PleaseHearWhatImNotSaying Poetry Anthology and Me

I am thrilled to have two poems in the new anthology, “Please Hear What I’m Not Saying,” edited by poet Isabelle Kenyon. The profits of the anthology will benefit the UK charity, MIND, which promotes mental health services and support while also working to reduce the stigma around mental illness. If I’m completely honest, I’m most excited to have my poems in the anthology because it is the first time any of my poems will appear in print anywhere, so I’m grateful to Isabelle for that.

Secondly, though, mental illness is a subject with deep meaning for me personally, whichhear what I'm not saying is why I decided to submit to the anthology in the first place. It is my personal belief that 100 percent of people experience mental illness at one time or another, but a fairly high percentage of us struggle for longer periods or with deeper pain. Over the course of my life (57 years as I write), I’ve had many happy times, but I have also been diagnosed with major depression, general anxiety disorder, insomnia, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, and the all-inclusive diagnosis of “stress.” In addition, I’ve pretty much diagnosed myself with Avoidant Personality Disorder just because I relate to every item on the list of diagnostic criteria.

If you look up statistics, you find that more women report depression, but more men die from suicide. You can make up your own mind about why this is the case, but I can tell you that over the years I have been told that my depression was a “luxury” and that it made me seem weak, pathetic, and selfish. If other men get the same message, it isn’t too surprising that fewer men report being depressed. When they do report mental illness, fewer services are aimed at them. Even when services are available to both men and women, the décor of offices and language of materials often has a stereotypically feminine feel that makes men feel unwelcome.

All of this makes me especially sensitive to the high-price of masculinity. We hear quite a bit about toxic masculinity, but toxic masculinity is a by-product of what philosopher Tom Digby calls sacrificial masculinity. Men are taught from the crib to ignore their own physical and mental health. In the past, men ignored their health in order to be better protectors and providers. Increasingly, emotionless brawn is less needed and less valued in society, so men are left with poor mental health with no obvious purpose, which only exacerbates the problem.

For a time, I facilitated men’s bereavement groups, and all the men said some version of the following: “I’ve been told how I’m not supposed to grieve (crying and emotional breakdown), but no one tells me how I am supposed to grieve.” Almost every man in every group I facilitated broke down in tears, and almost every one apologised for it. For this reason, I think if we can fight like men, we must learn to cry like men. Although I haven’t been successful at getting others to use it, I occasionally post information on men’s mental health with the hashtag #CryLikeAMan.

The anthology will be available from 8 February 2018.

 

April is the Cruelest Month: Help Prevent Suicides

I’m a depressive. It has been some time since suicidal ideation, depersonalisation, and derealisation enveloped my pshche and smothered me in a warm fog. Still, being a depressive is like being an alcoholic. It never really goes away. “My name is Randall, and I’m . . . .”

When my depression comes, it usually greets me in early spring along with the new blooms of fresh gardens and reinvigorated old trees. I have no idea why spring is such a difficult time for those of us who struggle with depression, but I do know I am not alone. When most non-depressives think of depression and seasonal sadness, they think of winter when the skies are dark and the holidays strain the resilience of family ties and over-burdened budgets. But it is spring that brings the spike in suicides.

I don’t think anyone can say for sure why suicides peak in the spring. Some say it is due to allergic responses to pollen. Some say people tend to take action in the spring after a relatively dormant winter. You can click hereIMG_3180 for a brief overview of theories.

Whatever the reason, please be aware of the increased risk of suicide as spring rolls on. Many of the warning signs are straightforward: talking about suicide, buying weapons or poison, becoming withdrawn, expressing feeling of hopelessness, or mood swings. A less obvious symptom, though, is an increase in energy and mood after a period of depression. Sometimes people may feel happier or energised after deciding on what they see as their only way out. You can click here for a list of suicide warning signs.

Women report suicidal thoughts more often than men, but the majority of completed suicides are men. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take women seriously if they are having suicidal thoughts, of course, but it may be that men are less likely to seek help or admit to feelings of weakness, so it would behoove us all to make support available to men and to help men feel more comfortable seeking help.

Finally, some people may threaten suicide in a bid to get attention, or they may be judged that way, anyway. I can only say that if someone will go to those lengths to get attention, they desperately need attention. Please try to give them some. Attention in the form of care is a human need as real as the need for water or air.

How to Support a Mourning Man

When Olympian gymnast John Orozco made it onto the US Olympics team after recovering from an Achilles tendon injury and, more importantly, the loss of his mother, he wept openly with a mixture of joy and profound grief. We can’t know whether he was trying to suppress his tears, but they flowed freely and he made no apology for them. I was moved by his emotion, of course, but also grateful that he appeared to weep unabashedly and free from shame.

Not many men can do the same. I have been honored and fortunate to be in the presence of men crying on a regular basis. As a volunteer facilitator for a grief support group, I see men seeking support after the loss of their children, spouses, or other loved ones. Although a few manage to suppress their tears, most of the men weep, and almost all of them apologize for crying like a child. Fortunately, other men who have experienced a traumatic loss are quick to offer a reassuring, “Don’t worry, I’ve spent many hours crying my eyes out, too” or something similar.

It is disappointing, though, to learn how many men do not feel comfortable crying in front of their own families and partners. I hear stories of men crying in the middle of the night or in cars, closets, and bathrooms. Some men schedule time to let their tears flow as they try to put on a brave, unemotional face for the world.

I wish I could say their efforts were unwarranted, but too many men have been criticized for their tears. One distraught father who lost his son to suicide told me people at the funeral told him to “pull himself together” for his family. Other men tell of supporting their wives through extended fits of wailing only to receive a cold shoulder when they break down. Often, I hear laments along these lines. “I know I’m a strong person. I have to be strong. But this is too much. Is there nowhere I can get support?”

It is commonly held, even by some therapists, that men naturally grieve differently from women. Allegedly, men process their emotions through actions rather than emotional purging. Men may bury themselves in work, start organizations in the name of the deceased, build monuments, or fight for legal changes to prevent future deaths. Of course, many men do this, and so do women, but this does not mean that men’s biology prevents them from accessing their tears. Men and women both grieve through actions and tears.

If anything prevents men from grieving openly, it is social prohibition, not biology. Whether you are a man or a woman, please know that most men are capable of crying, need to cry, and should not be ashamed of their grief or their tears. If you need to support a man in mourning, please let him cry. If you are a man in mourning, please follow the example of John Orozco and cry without shame or apology. You are not crying like a baby; you are crying like a man.