My friend, Jim, emailed me after he returned to Nyack that the succulents I gave him from my garden on New Year’s Eve — the last hour of 2017 — are doing well. Jim, his girlfriend (and my friend) Anita, and another friend, Deb, had spent a memorable NYE together (doing nothing special — the four of us animatedly discussing the extraordinarily excellent movie we saw that afternoon — Call Me By Your Name — while we ate take-out sushi around my dining room table — for four hours!) In his email, he mentioned the memoir writing group he leads and a prompt he gave them….to write about something that almost killed them with delight. Jim is a great writer; I love his writing, and I love this prompt. I’d be delighted if I could take his class. It would almost kill me with delight if he would offer a week long writing workshop this summer. June would be good.
My problem is that most of what has been almost killing me lately has not been delight. The world is always what it is — ten thousand joys and sorrows. Killing me is my own mind which more easily sees the sorrow. Worrying how to fix it — it being the sorrow OR my troubled mind — doesn’t get me anywhere. Writing sometimes helps. But I’ve been “blocked” lately. Consumed with worry, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. Some of my loneliness is real; some of it just papancea, a word from Pali and the Buddha, meaning when your thoughts perseverate. Papancea is often negative and takes me far afield from what’s actually happening. Still, I go there, and believe my thoughts, my narrative, my opinions. Alas, not often to my benefit. Usually I only partially believe them, but that can be bad enough.
What’s been killing me lately was a pre-Christmas bout of the flu, which weakened me physically and added to my sense of isolation. What’s been killing me is all the weather-related suffering — Puerto Rico, the Thomas fire in and around Ventura and Santa Barbara, the mudslide a few days ago that devastated the community of Montecito, killing close to 20 people (some still missing) in a catastrophic 2:30 AM mudslide. The night before, my sister, Terri and her husband, Alex (a member of the search and rescue team) were visiting friends in Montecito, and discussed whether the voluntary evacuation that had been called for should be responded to by actually leaving. Montecito’s residents had only just recently returned from being evacuated from the fire. They had only in the last week or two managed to repair some of the fire and smoke-related damage to their homes. They had heard “voluntary”. They knew the risk of a mudslide, but the fire-denuded mountains were a ways away. I guess the risk seemed remote, or they were just disaster-weary and wanting to stay home. That evening it wasn’t raining that hard. Leaving was voluntary. Many decided to stay. A few hours later a giant boulder-laden massive mud tsunami roared down from the mountains and into the “voluntary” evacuation zone.
I was exchanging emails with my sister this morning. She lives in Oak View, in between Ojai and Ventura, where she works. We talked about the ongoingness of this disaster. The fire, the mudslide, and for the foreseeable future, the risk of more mudslides. Last year my sister did an exquisite photo documentation of the drought that almost disappeared their lake. This week the Lake Casitas rowing club had to take a break from rowing because of all the mud and stuff that ran into the lake after Tuesday’s rain. Being the hardy lot they are, they hope to be rowing again by Sunday.
There is always this re-generation of hope. The disaster may be on-going but it is at different levels in different moments and on different days. Some days, some moments feel almost normal. My sister wrote:
“[There is] … disaster fatigue combined with some numbness that this is the new normal. It’s kind of like Trump; he’s exhausting but you just have to recalibrate and be ok – otherwise you are not and that’s unhealthy”.
She makes a good point, an excellent point. Trump is also an ongoing disaster, one for which I need to remain vigilant, though some moments and some days can feel normal (especially if I don’t read or listen to the news that day). I can even feel on any given day almost killed with delight by some other wonderful aspect of life re-generating and showing up as an unexpected gift. Jim wrote me that he’d written about feeling almost killed with delight by our New Year’s Eve. I felt the same.
Today, in Emeryville. At first glance it was a rather mundane, modern apartment complex. But then I noticed — squares and stairs and zigzags and boxes and clean lines, diagonal and criss-crossing, all modern, grey, black and white, and then the tree branches in front, curved and “messy” lines everywhere. I had the experience of being “almost killed with delight”.
I take photos because it helps me see the beauty that is there, though it might take me a moment to re-focus, re-calibrate my eyesight (mind-sight). At first I might see “ugly” or “uninteresting”, but if I look again, I often find treasure enough for at least a moment of being almost killed with delight. These moments add up.
In all of this, meaning is important. Meaning can also almost kill with delight or at least offer reason to go on in the midst of moments that are far-from-delight. Sometimes it’s hard to find. I write to help myself find it. I hope my seeing, photographing, and writing might also help someone else with meaning. It’s a higher order of meaning in my book if anything I do helps someone, but, of course, I never know about that, and do it anyway, for my own sanity. Which is not nothing in terms of meaning.
Funnily (while not funny at all), meaning often shows up most easily in the difficult times when I am called on to rise to a challenge, but minus this challenge, many of us — those who retire without adequate plans, or people without partners, or some kind of real passion, or an emergency which elicits passion — might have difficulty finding it. Sometimes I find it for awhile, then lose it, then need to re-find it. Re-calibrate. Look from a slightly different perspective. Bring in more light, or shadow. Be willing to take a second look, sit myself down, re-think my narrative.
Like photography. Like writing. Like emails — from friends or sisters.
ps. Jim says he got the phrase almost killed with delight from this poem by Mary Oliver. Thank you, Jim, for sharing this (and New Year’s Eve) with me!
I see or hear
that more or less
that leaves me
like a needle
It was what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,
the very extravagant –
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help
with such teachings
as these –
the untrimmable light
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?