How to Write About Pain

For a few days now, I’ve been writing about the experience of chronic pain, in a descriptive way that might convey the experience to someone who’s never lived with it before, and also as a comparison against acute/short-term pain, beyond their obvious difference in duration. I think I finally came up with a good analogy to depict the experience of daily pain, the internal battle it becomes, the consuming and exhaustive nature it takes on. But I’m not going to write about that yet. Because also for the last few days, I’ve been questioning why I’ve taken the time to try and get this very unique experience across anyway. I’ve wondered whether it’s futile in the first place, but more I’ve been reflecting on whether the point in it is genuine; if I’m doing a service of any kind, or if my ego has found a formal way to complain. Like Tolle says, that is the ego’s favorite thing to do.

As an FYI, I’ll post about chronic pain next time, because I do actually think it’s important to explore for many reasons, especially if you’ve not been through it. And I’ll write more about why when I come there. But first I had to type out loud, because I question the morality of what I do—writing about my broken body and the battles that accompany it—or if there is any in it, all the time. I constantly ask whether I’m evolving, learning anything, or passing good things along, important things. Or if I’ve sunk to the lowest common denominator of the human experience, something literally everyone goes through in his life, and if it’s just too easy to make that a goal and have it blinded by ego.

I always worry about going too far into how “bad” things can feel. Sometimes, there is truly no point in bemoaning something you can’t control, and it doesn’t help anyone to go on and on about any matter of it. In fact it can easily make things worse, redirecting the mind to focus on negative aspects and intensifying the size of something that you are trying to keep small, in check. Not to mention, you’ll bore everyone to tears. No one likes a whiner, and I try to be cautious about keeping the line drawn, bold and underlined between the two pathways the narrative can take:

One describes an experience so that people on the outside might have a better idea of what his fellow humans are dealing with. It can help expand “common ground”, I think. If it’s done a very good job, it might help replace judgment with compassion, or prevent misunderstanding or a lack of empathy due to disbelief that it’s even real. It helps close the gap between the experiences of two people who have not lived in the others world.

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Guilty
The other path, takes pain and gives it too much of a stage. It exploits something that all humans go through in some capacity and disguises itself as some kind of cursed reward. It gains momentum by reliving the same woes with new words, and by getting others indulge in their own without reflection. It’s not adding anything new or valuable to the conversation. If it isn’t honest or asking for help, if it isn’t uplifting people, but just reinforcing old wounds, it’s fair to say it’s gone south. Ever notice how someone complaining can rub off on you and lead you to do the same, or simply leave you feeling depressed? I’ve experienced it in person, and I know writing and reading accounts can be just as powerful.

Similarly, a positive person, who still acknowledges reality but seems to see through their moment of pain, can leave you feeling hopeful and inspired. The difference is not that these people haven’t endured pain, but what they’ve done with it. How they chose to let it shape them.

I know I’ve crossed over into the negative side way more than I’d like to admit, and probably even fooled myself into thinking it was necessary. Talking about hardship will always draw people in, because we’re all being challenged in our own ways, carrying our unique burdens. But that’s why I scratch half these posts or become too afraid to write about things. It’s a necessary and good thing to talk about the realities we face, because so often it provides people reinforcement, encouragement, reminders they are not alone and the vital belief that they can endure their hardship, just as many before them have, and emerge on the other side. Reading other peoples stories has always inspired and comforted me. Sometimes I distrust myself and skip out on telling certain stories or of certain experiences, but I think maybe it takes practice in reading enough good stories, and knowing the difference between which one will do good, and which one is the ego getting his fill.

I pray constantly to be a source of optimism through honesty, not to exploit a reality that’s in comparison to some, very very lucky. I think you write about pain the same way you live with it, which is to keep in checked moderation and right sized, and attempt to keep eternity in view, somehow. I don’t know how to do this, but I know some good ways not to. So what can I do but try and hope that I’m on the right side of sharing a personal account. Usually if I become too whiny, my mother hits me. Kidding– but you have a big enough family and they don’t let you complain too long or past a certain point, so I’ve relied on them often to keep me in check. A good friend will do the same.

What I’ve learned so far is how easy it can be to start expecting things to go bad, because so many things go bad. But we do ourselves a disservice in becoming convinced the world has conspired against us and we’re doomed to draw the short end of the stick for the rest of our lives. The trouble with that kind of thinking, besides it having no intrinsic value, is that it assumes the rest of the world is riding the easy train to party-town, never confronting a hardship, enduring pain, or drawing their own crappy short sticks. No one has a monopoly on pain. It’s part of all our respective contracts here. So having the idea that your life is hard and everyone else is clueless and has it easy will only make your own pain worse by punctuating it with something that isn’t true, first. And second, that idea undermines the lives of others who do know pain good and well, but whose experience you are now denying, because you can’t see past your own. I cringe to consider how many times I’ve done this, being stuck in my own dark hole.

Pain can be blinding or clarifying, depending on how well it’s kept in check. It can be overwhelming in the moment but when held against the larger backdrop of our lives, it usually highlights what is good, it makes gratitude grow and can help you see with new eyes. If pain is held up only in its moment in the dark, and seen as punishment, bad luck, or some kind of payment you got stuck with and others are getting for free as though its some kind of tax, then you will pay continually, and your relief will be rare. Pain shouldn’t make us proud, it should show us humility. Acting well and grateful and good in the face of pain is what should make us proud.

Sometimes I think of my life from a birds eye view, looking at it plotted out on paper like a map, where I can trace with my finger through the course, beginning to end. When I get discouraged, I think that what I fear is living a life I can’t say that I’m proud of in the end, when I’m tracing my line and seeing how I behaved. I know what will make me proud is having loved fiercely, being steadfast, humble, trying, listening well, finding humor in every stupid day, and being grateful for the lucky life I was given, the family of love I was born into. In the meantime, it feels good to put your head down and work. Sometimes you endure the pain quietly, and know that you’ll be OK whether you tell someone about it or not. I think moderation plays a role, and a discernment in what is worth sharing and what will only exhaust us to speak about. In some way it comes down to self-awareness and restraint.

I’ll end with this passage I read in The Road to Character this morning, a book I’d highly recommend by David Brooks. The first quote is Brooks summarizing George Marshalls training at VMI, followed by a quote from Cicero, which Brooks used to explain the composed, revered manner of Marshall throughout his life.

“The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions–making a rude person ruder and controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age…

That person then, whoever it may be, whose mind is quiet through consistency and self-control, who finds contentment in himself, who neither breaks down in adversity nor crumbles in fight, nor burns with any thirsty need nor dissolves into wild and futile excitement, that person in the wise one we are seeking, and that person is happy.” -Cicero

Health, Happiness, Restraint

P.S. This is dedicated to Varney Prejean, the eternal optimist in the face of pain and such a happy, loving, groovy person. If you’ve got an extra prayer, send one out for him. Hang tough Varn-dog, we’re rooting for you!

I Have a Time Machine

Here’s a poem I really like. It’s by Brenda Shaughness.

I Have a Time Machine

But unfortunately it can only travel into the future
at a rate of one second per second,

which seems slow to the physicists and to the grant
committees and even to me.

But I manage to get there, time after time, to the next
moment and to the next.

Thing is, I can’t turn it off. I keep zipping ahead—
well, not zipping—And if I try

to get out of this time machine, open the latch,
I’ll fall into space, unconscious,

then desiccated! And I’m pretty sure I’m afraid of that.
So I stay inside.

There’s a window, though. It shows the past.
It’s like a television or fish tank

but it’s never live, it’s always over. The fish swim
in backward circles.

Sometimes it’s like a rearview mirror, another chance
to see what I’m leaving behind,

and sometimes like blackout, all that time
wasted sleeping.

Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment
at having lost a library book.

Myself lurking in a candled corner expecting
to be found charming.

Me holding a rose though I want to put it down
so I can smoke.

Me exploding at my mother who explodes at me
because the explosion

of some dark star all the way back struck hard
at mother’s mother’s mother.

I turn away from the window, anticipating a blow.
I thought I’d find myself

an old woman by now, travelling so light in time.
But I haven’t gotten far at all.

Strange not to be able to pick up the pace as I’d like;
the past is so horribly fast.

Pretty great no? It’s funny how some poems feel like they were written just for us, as if the author knew exactly where we’d find it and what it would do to us, hitting us in the gut in a coffee shop! Or heart. Our insides somewhere. I love this part of poetry. How fast it is. How in just a minute or two you can cosmically connect with a total stranger, dead or alive, and feel more seen or heard than you have by actual people. That’s powerful stuff!

I’ve recently been reading Anne Sexton–her history and her poems–and both are intense and curious and heartbreaking, but deeply resonant and I’m eager to read more. I plan to order someones cheap, used copy off of Amazon, and hopefully I’ll find parts that are underlined or circled with little notes in the margin. This is one of my favorite perks of reading (used) tangible books as opposed to electronic, kindle types; the human mark on the pages. They’re like little visceral clues of other life, but exceptionally personal. More confidential than say, finding someones grocery list, although there are treasures to find in that too. Maybe I am just an alien from another planet seeking signs of life and getting way too caught up in casual life leftovers. But somehow I feel less alone when I see a persons scribbles to the side of a page. Their unique handwriting next to that flat text against the page– It heightens the effects of the words. It brings the whole thing to life. It always makes me think that someone else sat alone somewhere, reading these same words and they were compelled enough to write themselves. Maybe it was there way of writing back, hoping someone somewhere along the way would read what they wrote and feel something. I don’t know, but there’s just something…nice, about that.  Anyway, I think I will start with The Awful Rowing Towards God. Or maybe Live or Die and go from there. Did you know that Anne Sexton had two sisters, and one was named Elizabeth Jane, and the other one was named Blanche Dingley? BLANCHE DINGLEY?! I wonder if Elizabeth Jane gave Dingley shit about that.

Health, Happiness, and Poetry. Pure Poetry. 

Questions Answered.

Everything is weird. I’m still healthy. And that makes things weird. And also pretty great.

I’m enjoying the three-dimensionality of things. The multitudes of personalities I’m confronting. The sounds that one simply doesn’t here in a bed in Southern Louisiana. Everything is distinctly colorful. Of course the onslaught of spring and the prolific products of hers help. It’s a been a long time since my health has maintained in this way. I’m walking a thin internal line, trying not to delve too hard into the why but not altogether ignoring the possibility of its fleeting nature, just like the season. I’m simultaneously happy at this new disposition and also keeping a dark fear at bay. It could all end quickly– a few things. And being entirely reckless hasn’t served me in the past. So I’m keeping these things in mind of course. But trying not to fall down completely into the rabbit hole where incessant introspective thoughts about it all could trap you just as easy as any sickness could.

For the most part, it’s been fucking great. Sorry. F word only every now and then. But it really is nice being able to stand and walk without the typical interruptions and be social and see comedy and do what other young people are doing. I can’t deny I am simply just enjoying the hell out of all of it. Things feel carefree and almost weightless. Life outside of a window at my house, a window on my phone, is really pretty great. When I get worried about the future or have fear of losing it, my mom tells me the same thing; detach from the outcome. And it’s so, so true.

I’m thinking of so many things these days. I’m still trying to put it together. What purpose will I serve with this newfound health? What did I fulfill in sickness? How to matter and find meaning in all of it– the big stuff and the little stuff and the small bits in-between. I’ve been thinking in questions today. I’m going to write them out with my best shot at answers because it’s just the current of my thoughts lately and I’m not going to swim upstream.

What do you contribute the newfound health to?

It could be the physical therapy for my neck which has lessened that pain load considerably. Could be the prescription switch to Trazadone that has me actually sleeping through the night–never mind the night sweats. Another prescription switch from Neurontin to Lyrica seems to help with pain management in general and maybe the increase in energy. Also it’s Spring and I swear to God I’m always at least a little improved in nice weather and my migraines are less frequent. Also divine intervention. I don’t know. Maybe a little of it all.

What happened to sewing, weren’t you into sewing for a while?

Yeah, I was. And I got really excited about some sewing projects. I sat at the Singer Simple 3116 for hours and taught myself the ins and outs of it. I got carried away and excited with ideas. Then I began, and I jammed the bobbin. THAT DAMN BOBBIN. I took the bobbin apart, unjammed it, and put it back together. And now the bobbin is failing me hardcore. I need bobbin help. Anyone? Still, I’d like to get back to some sewing projects. I find it relaxing and I like learning skills that seem to be fading from my generation.

What’s Monty up to?

You know, same ol…

This.
This.
And this.
And this.
This...
…This
Always this.
Always this.
Ending with this.
Followed by this.

Let’s talk about tea now.

Drinking this new acai/blueberry/pomegranate mix on the reg. It’s really good. Has there yet been a decision on the universal pronunciation of acai berry? I hear a mix around town. Let a sister know.

How’s the writing going?

I find a lot of reasons not to, but when I sit down and do it I like what comes out. Most of it’s been happening pen-to-page so I’ve been using up my notebooks, which is good because I have a lot. I’ve been on the lookout for a typewriter, but maybe that’s just another fantasy in the works. This thought that some instrument will encourage more writing instead of the truth which is that real writing just requires sitting down and doing that shit. I’m working on that.

Anything else while you’re out here in Neverland typing to yourself?

Yeah I’m reading like 4 books right now and 1 book of poetry. I don’t think this is how optimal reading was designed, but I find my head a little scattered lately. I’m almost finished with The Rosie Project–really funny, really good. Trying to push through Dance Dance Dance (slower than expected). One Dead in Attic is an easy quick read but dismal of course, you know, post-Katrina stuff. The Four Agreements is sometimes rudimentary in comparison to Tolle and Zukav and Nepo, but almost identical in the message. It’s got good stuff. New American Poetry which is proving what I feared–that I don’t really understand how to read poetry. Do you keep reading until you get it? I guess that’s all in the way of books.

And everything else.

For now the goal is to truly enjoy this time of health, appreciating every second where taking a deep breath is easy and sitting isn’t my only option. I’ve held the door for people these last few weeks. I held the door! These very normal things…they’re feeling very good. Clearly I’ve had a lot of doors held for me in my small life, and it feels nice to return the favor.

One last thing:

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel. I really liked it. Monsieur Gustave..he sticks with you. I’m still stuck on Moonrise Kingdom though. See them both. Make a whole night of it.

Health, Happiness, HEALTH, HAPPINESS!

 

 

10 Books You Should Read With Me

Going to the bookstore is one of my favorite mid-day activities. I’ve been under the weather lately so it was nice to get out and see real life. I felt like Bell from Beauty and the Beast in that library singing. Sadly there’s no ladders at Barnes and Noble but it was enjoyable nonetheless. I left with my next TEN books to submerge in for however long it takes. I’m watching ice-skating and that Olympic music they play when they cut to the commercials is so inspiring it makes me feel like I could become the president. Which is even more reason to read. So here’s the list! Cue the music.

1. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? -Maria Semple

I remember picking this book up and flipping through it at my last bookstore outing and for some reason didn’t end up buying it. When I spotted those big black fly-type eyes on the cover I grabbed it immediately before I could back out. Shameful fact: I really love this books cover and that played a big part. I know the cardinal rule, but it’s also sustained positive reviews for a very long while, and Jonathan Franzen loved it and so in the pile it went. Mostly though, I loved the cover.

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Ding Ding

2. Dance Dance Dance -Haruki Murakami

So the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles was one of my favorite and most adventurous reads last year and discovering the many other “Masterpiece Novels” he’s authored I was way excited to dive into another one. I like that his books keep your imagination and consciousness running. I’ve got high hopes. I know it will be good.

3. Why Sh*t Happens (The Science of a Really Bad Day) -Peter J Bentley

I liked the title. And the subtitle. Also it was on the bargain rack. It’s probably stupid.

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Ugh, birdshit

4.Oneness With All Life -Eckhart Tolle

This is a bite-sized version of A New Earth, which I’ve read and re-read and loved. But I forget the teachings often. I go back and reread passages that I’ve felt I’ve never read before. I think it’s one of those that stay on your bed stand for life and by the time you die the entire book is highlighted. Anyway this smaller dosed version is made of “inspirational selections” to be read maybe one or two pages per day and to reflect on. Think of it more as a daily meditation. Since it’s so easy to forget the big stuff, I like to have something in the morning or before sleep that gets my head right. It’ll go on the nightstand.

 

5. The Illuminaries -Eleanor Catton

Do you ever feel like the Universe is talking to you? Well this book came up three times in three days and I took it as a sign that I gotta get in on it. It’s also a gargantuan read (over 800 pages) so it will be my friend for a long time. Or enemy.

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Also I have no idea what it’s about.

6. Proof of Heaven -Mary Curran Hackett

I’m unfamiliar with this author but crudely, I fell for the optimism implied in the title. Even though it’s a novel among hundreds of actual accounts of Heaven, the back summary drew me in as well as the first two pages and I was like “Cool, I’m IN!” and now that I’m reflecting on that I really hope I didn’t say it out loud because that happens sometimes. Anyway, this is not to be confused with Proof of Heaven the memoir by a neurologist who died, went to heaven, and returned. I’ve heard really good things and watched his account in interviews. Pretty amazing stuff. That read is next in this Heavenly genre. (Mom, you said you have it. Give it to me!) But this one was on the bargain rack. Girls gotta eat.

7. Born Under a Lucky Moon -Dana Precious

Complete blind buy. Liked the cover. Like the summary. And the price. It’s Olympic Season so I’m really going for things.

8. The Almost Moon -Alice Sebold

Moons are so #trendy! I hadn’t heard of this one either but it was a #1 National Bestseller and the author also wrote The Lovely Bones which I read long ago and really loved. And it was on the bargain rack. OK you know what? I’ll just tell you when it wasn’t. 

...

9. The Four Agreements -Don Miguel Ruiz

I have been hearing about this book for a long time now. It was published in 1997 but stayed on The New York Times Bestseller list for 7 years and sold 4 million copies. The premise of the book is simple but beautiful– in lieu of agreements and rigid beliefs we try to adhere to but often end up limiting our happiness, Ruiz suggests a personal code of conduct he calls The Four Agreements. Wanna hear em? Sure you do.

  1. Be Impeccable With Your Word.
  2. Don’t Take Anything Personally.
  3. Don’t Make Assumptions.
  4. Always Do Your Best.

I don’t really love “gimmicks” for life type of books, but this one seems much deeper and substantial while sustaining its worth for years. Furthermore, it just sounds like a refreshing and happy way to live. Can you imagine never taking anything personally? Sounds awesome. I want to know more, so it’s going on the night stand. And it was FULL PRICE!

10. The Leftovers -Tom Perrotta

OK yes it was on the bargain rack again and no I’ve never heard of it or the author. But it’s a post-apocalyptic thriller type of novel which I don’t read often (like never) and I wanted to mix it up. I threw it in the bag because while the subject matter is dark, it’s also wrough with dark humor (my other best friend). It follows the survivors in the wake of the “Sudden Departure” as they try to go on with life keeping normalcy in mind but, you know, people are missing and the world is all messy. In my small confined life, it felt good to take a risk.

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artwork via NYT book review

Health, Happiness, and 10 New Friends.

Join me won’t you?

Book Review: Gone Girl

I’ve been on a non-fiction kick for a while now. But in Barnes and Noble the other day, I saw this black book..a simple cover with what appeared to be loose lines across the dust cover. On closer examination I saw that it was hair, wrapped around the book spine with wisps across the front. I don’t know what made me pick it up other than the fact that I am completely guilty of judging a book by its cover and  I do it all the time. (Books. I’m talking books.) Like usual, I read the back, then I read the flap, and then the first few sentences of chapter 1. It was enough. I went for it. I didn’t let my typical indecisive nature get the best of me even though I’ve never been one for murder mysteries or suspense thrillers. It also then struck me I’ve never actually read a murder mystery or suspense thriller–they’ve just never really appealed to me. But I’m trying to challenge my uniformed notions about things. Something about this one grabbed me, so I grabbed it back.

.

I don’t know exactly how to do a review of literary suspense without giving things away, and there are so many things I could give away. Muah hah hah. But don’t worry I won’t. That’d be irresponsible so I won’t go far into detail. All I know is I took Monty to the park, sat on a towel in the sun and began reading. And even though I’m in sunny California, I could feel some kind of anxiousness growing in me, a glimmer of discomfort. It felt like it had gotten cloudy, like it was about to storm and I should go indoors. But reading the book indoors didn’t make me feel any more secure. It also didn’t stop me from reading every chance I had. I couldn’t put it down. Half of this book was read at 2 am with one eye open, because I was so tired that when both eyes were open I saw double. With one eye closed I could keep reading without double vision and without falling asleep. I was so exhausted night after night and I love sleep. I’m really good at it. But I needed to know what happened to Amy Dunne. She went missing on her and her husbands 5th wedding anniversary; not quite a “poof, gone” type of thing, but close. A strange trail of evidence and clues leftover, leaving me and most of the book characters scratching their heads. All but one.

The story is told through two voices; Nick Dunne, the husband, and via the missing Amy Dunne’s journal entries where we learn about their life together: how they met, their losses, and their recent move from New York City to the midwest along the Mississippi River. Both characters resonated quickly with me. I’ve had similar conversations and conflicts in my relationships, and I knew a lot of the feelings Amy Dunne was describing. But I also knew I was going to be thrown off simply because I was barely half way through the book and yet Amy had been missing 7 days, the cops had their killer, and something about Nick Dunne’s story felt wrong, and yet I wanted to believe him. Sometimes. And then I’d change my mind. It’s pretty classic in the “Crime rocks a small town” type of setup; the community gathering for support, the good cop/bad cop routine, press conferences with Amy’s parents in tears, and t-shirts and flyers with a pretty, missing wife on them. It’s all reminiscent of those stories we see on the news; Lacy Peterson, Natalie Holloway. The ones that sort of dominate our TV’s for a while, make Nancy Grace’s vains pop out, and then, kind of like Amy Dunne…leave, unresolved. Come to think of it, I need to google what happened in the cases of those women, because I only remember the sudden onslaught of news and anger and finger pointing, but I don’t actually remember hearing how it ends. America loves a pretty, missing woman. And the book touches on this phenomena too.

The most interesting part of the story for me is that the reader is no longer what we normally are in cases like this; the spectators. The jury. We’re used to seeing the stories on TV, seeing the pictures, hearing the accusations, and we often makes up our minds quickly about who’s at fault and who to feel sorry for. This time, we’re on the other end. We get to hear how police go about business like this. How reporters and the media can shift the people’s minds over night, if not faster. (It’s like being on the inside of a presidential campaign, I imagine.) We also get to hear the advice and rules a lawyer will give you when a country of strangers has their minds made up. The lawyer was my favorite character. I could see and hear him perfectly. I’ve seen commercials with this man, to a T. You probably have, too.

I finished the book about an hour ago. I have to say, I’m glad it’s over. I was getting tired. Not tired of the book, but tired from staying up so late every night trying to finish it. And a little tired from the unnerving nature of the story. I’d been talking about the book to my sister since I was only a few pages in. I tried to finish it before she left on a business trip this morning so she’d have something to read, and I really tried. I almost made it. But I didn’t. I told her to just buy her own copy at the airport. “It’s worth it.”  I don’t know how I feel about the ending. I just know I’m ready to go back to the park with Monty and actually enjoy the sun this time. There was something about reading that story amid green grass and perfect weather that didn’t add up. It’s like playing Radiohead at brunch. It just doesn’t match. I wouldn’t call getting lost in this book particularly pleasurable in the normal sense. It was uncomfortable at times, upsetting, unsettling. But so good, so well written, utterly surprising and disturbingly real. I don’t know how author Gillian Flynn did it, but props to her, because it rocked me, and a few million other readers. It got under my skin and stayed there, and probably will for a while. As uncomfortable as it could be, it was really fun to read, fun to think about it even when I was doing other things. It kept me coming back for more more more and I kept wondering how how HOW in the hell it would end. I’d assembled at least 10 potential conclusions; none of them were right. I admit though I rarely get these things right. I only know it made me fear women and it made me fear men. It is a work of fiction, but the parts that stick have delivered something very true, very real. I get the feeling that even when I sleep tonight, finally able to shut both of my eyes at a normal hour, this book will still be swirling around in there. (Amy Dunne is also a restless sleeper!) It’s that good. It sticks. Even after it’s…gone. Get it? Yeah, you get it.

Health, Happiness, Gone Girl.

*P.S. Rumor has it Hollywood bought the rights to this story. Read it before they kill it!