“Best Christmas in years”

J’s experience of the holiday of loving and giving was one of manipulating and threatening for a long time. He doesn’t say that, of course; it takes detective work to glean the data from the clues he drops. He doesn’t reflect on the past, but it does tend to cast shadows into his present.

After last year, when I’d kept the holiday out of our home and opened my gifts in private, he said — to my surprise — that he’d like maybe a little bit of decoration and festivity next year. Not the commercial garbage, just a little light.

This year, I put redwood swags tied with burlap bows against the fence and draped a green swag of redwood across the trunk outside.

I picked up redwood cones, which are tiny and exquisite. I dipped them in penetrating epoxy to make them sturdy and non-porous. Then I painted the tips in copper or gold paint, and where I had twin cones on a single twig, I made one of each.
redwood-cones_decorated
On Christmas Eve, I made lamb kofta that turned out better than any I’ve had in years. It was the first solid food J had had in almost 2 weeks, and he ate half of it in a few hours. It went down well.

We’d gotten new flannel sheets. I dressed the bed in a brighter, perkier version of Black Watch plaid, fresh and soft and soothing.

That was enough preparation for me, clobbered by the worst humdinger of a cold I’ve had in years.

Then Christmas day dawned, sparklingly bright and crisp. Once he’d had coffee and I’d had tea, I made blueberry pancakes (recipe below) which he told me were the best I’d ever made.

We noodled around the house and yard all day, warm and content. I opened my gifts in the living room (he’d gotten and opened his earlier.)

I made a leopard-print minkee shawl for his dog, who has been swanning around ever since, clearly feeling as breathtakingly stylish as a modern Grace Kelly.
dog_shonie_elegant
The satellite TV was out, but I figured out how to connect my computer to the new TV and stream Netflix on our gorgeous HD screen.

Like many people, he has deep scars from mainstream religion. When he started climbing down that rabbit hole, I told him the history of the Christmas holiday, which dates back thousands of years in Europe. People collected under the largest available roof for the armpit of winter, keeping warm and entertaining each other, and those who had more shared with those who had less. Everyone got through better together than they would have alone, and familial and social bonds were reconfirmed ahead of another year of hard, often lonely labor. When the Church moved into Europe, they moved the celebration of their Savior’s birth from springtime to a few days after Yule, because the good ones loved the season of warmth and sharing and the scheming ones could spot a good opportunity. (I told him that the 3-day margin gave people time to sober up from the Solstice bonfires and clean up in time for Church.)

That isn’t about faith, just about historical data. Belief creates its own reality, and I respectfully support everyone’s right to choose and structure their own beliefs. All honest forms of worship make the world better, in my view. Amen.

The history lesson took the sting out of Christmas, and the last detail made him laugh.

After a week of prostration with that awful cold, he actually got up and washed all the dishes. The kitchen was sparkling by bedtime. It’s the little things that really tell you.

From about dusk on, J kept saying, “This is the best Christmas I’ve had in years.”

Something tells me they’ll get even better.

Recipes

These are Isy Recipes, so they don’t have too many ingredients or too many steps, and every ingredient has something fabulously useful about it.

Pain-cutting Pancakes

2 bananas, mashed
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup flaxseed, ground
1/4 coarse raw sugar
1/4 package Boreal blueberries

Beat everything together and let it sit while the pan heats to medium heat or slightly lower. These cook low and slow, not like flour pancakes.

Pour the oil off the top of your almond butter into the pan. If you don’t have that, use safflower oil. Either one makes a wonderful crispy edge.

Spoon the batter into the pan about 3-3.5 inches (5-6 cm) across and up to 1/4 inch (.75 cm) thick. If you’re using the almond oil, they may fizzle and make white foam with a lovely scent. Cover the pan. It takes at least 5-7 minutes for them to cook well enough to flip in one piece. Cook the other side for slightly less time. Serve with Kerrygold butter and non-osmosed maple syrup, if possible 🙂

Kofta Kebab

1 pound (2.2 kg) ground lamb
2 eggs
~2 tsp natural mustard
2 handfuls of finely chopped spinach (I couldn’t find the parsley)
Spices:
Lots of ground cumin
black pepper
1 tablespoon (scant palmful) basil
2-3 tablespoons parsley (I found it)

Mix everything well with your clean hands. Heat 1/4 inch (.5 cm) of grapeseed or olive oil in a frying pan over medium high heat, hot but not smoking. As the oil heats, take small handfuls of meat and squish them into a lozenge shape, laying them out on a plate or board. Drop them into the pan, one batch at a time. If you made the lozenge shape rolly-polly enough, you can roll the kebabs over in the pan. Only turn them once; more often and the meat gets tough.

When they are crispy gorgeous dark amber, scoop them out and lay them on brown paper to drain. Eat with your fingers if you can’t wait, like me, or with ketchup if you’re a total yahoo, like J.

Lamb has lots of zinc, which is good for fighting off viral infections.

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Happy Everything!

Now that the December holidays are within a couple days of being totally over, I hope it’s safe and amusing (rather than triggering and insensitive) to talk about them from my idiosyncratic point of view 🙂

We left the U.S. in January of 1976 for tropical countries, shortly before my 10th birthday, and didn’t move back for about 7 years. (This is relevant. Hang on.)
airplane_Abu_Dhabi_Boeing_747jpg
This means my entire pubescence and adolescence was spent in countries where, at the time, Christianity was an amiably tolerated oddity, and Western-style Christmas was weird almost beyond belief… but the pragmatism of shopkeepers is the same the world over: It’s all money!

And, of course, the legendary sweetness of Egyptians (outside of politics) made it all a sort of good-natured sport:
“Tell me what is ‘Christmas tree’ and I’ll get it — for you, special price, my friend! You my friend! Special price!” (The last part is indispensible.)

For you, my friend, special price!
For you, my friend, special price!

Then it was a matter of watching them try to keep a straight face, as you:

  • Try to obtain a cold-weather evergreen … in a hot desert country;
  • Subsequently drape that evergreen in colors of snow and blood … in order to celebrate a god of peace;
  • Who came to earth in — yup — the desert … where it snows less than once a century;
  • Which is all somehow tied up with celebrating a Northern solar event, which doesn’t matter near the equator

… And then there’s the obligatory gift-giving. This was even a bigger trip to explain.

The Cultural Gap on Gift-Giving

“Everyone?” I remember one man asking Mom, in deep confusion. In his life, the only people who got gifts were those who deserved it, and little children on their birthdays.

“Well, not everyone,” she temporized.

“Who do you have to give things to?” he asked, really wanting to understand.

She did her best to explain, as a good cultural ambassador should. “Your husband or wife and children, of course.”

ALL the children?” he asked, in shock.

“Well, yes.”

“Even if they’ve been bad, or broke the car, or spoiled the crops? Cost you a lot of money? You still buy them presents?”

Mom had to stop a minute. This is where practice bears no relation to theory. “You can try not giving evenly to the children, but they’ll let you know. Mine let me know, as a group, if they think it wasn’t perfectly even.” We did, too. She went on, “And I send presents back to my brother and his wife and family –”

He interrupted, “Where are they?”

She said, “In America.” Where he knew we hadn’t been in a few years.

He tipped his chin to one side, in that “as you wish” gesture of the Middle East, which was a polite way of indicating, “yeah, this doesn’t seem silly. Much.”

She went on, “We also send gifts to my husband’s brother and sister and her children — she’s divorced, so we don’t have to buy for her husband any more.”

His eyebrows popped, but he held his tongue. Why would you buy gifts for nieces and nephews thousands of miles away? What have they ever done to deserve that much effort? — And divorced?? A woman, divorced, still embraced by her famiily? And these foreigners push off the guy instead — odd, but probably praiseworthy. Okay. Nice. Weird, but nice. Moving right along.

But he didn’t say any of that aloud.

Mom went on, “And my mother, of course. My husband’s parents and my father are no longer living, so we don’t have to buy for them.”

I thought he murmured, “I’m surprised.” Maybe it was just his limpid expression.

She went on, “Oh, and we get something for the servants, plus a bonus of money. [Eyebrows up: nice deal, a bonus for your boss’s religion]. And Tom gives his boss a gift, small but nice, and the office pitches in and gets something for each of the secretaries, but Tom still gets something extra for the ones he works with [visibly wondering about those secretaries]… And then of course our friends.”

He was beginning to sound weary, or possibly just relieved that it wasn’t him. “All your friends?”

Mom said, “You get nice things for those you’re close to, less valuable things for friends further out.”

He nodded. At least that made sense. He asked, like the socially sensitive person he clearly was, “What happens if they’re not equal — if you get a nicer present than you give, or the other way around?”

“Well,” said my mother frankly, “That can be a little embarrassing. It happens sometimes, but we try to be polite about it. I’ve gone back and gotten someone something more, to even up the balance.”

Another gracious tip of the chin, this time probably meaning, “Smart move in a crazy system.”

Mom added, “And, if someone invites you to a party, it’s considered good manners to bring them a small gift, or at least a bottle of wine.” How suitable — in a traditionally non-drinking country.

He shook his head slowly and said, “And that’s not everybody?”

Mom finally laughed. “Well, not quite.”

It really makes you wonder, when you look at it from the outside.

"Oh no, I couldn't take another thing!"
“Oh no, I couldn’t take another thing!”

Blowing scads of money every single year on a bunch of ill-thought-out purchases, mostly for people you hardly know, who are getting inundated with them anyway, to celebrate the birth of someone who told you that love matters more than money … or possibly because it was the armpit of winter, so let’s all go indoors and eat ourselves sick until the sun shows up again … in the desert.

I never sneer when someone uses the terms “religion” and “mythology” interchangeably, even when they’re talking about mine. I know for a fact that it’s simply a matter of perspective.

Back to the tree question.

Our first year in Egypt, we did try buying a spruce and, well, sprucing it up. The result was pathetic even beyond my father’s generous taste for “trees with personality”. It was the quintessential Charlie Brown tree, but slightly taller. The poor straggly little thing was quite overwhelmed by even the few decorations we dared hang on it, and was almost crushed by a single strand of lights.

That was that for traditional trees (and none of us cared for the plastic ones.)
ChristmasTree_NOT
So we had to come up with non-traditional trees.

Each year, my feverishly creative mother outdid herself in coming up with some fabulous representation of a Christmas “tree”, appropriately gaudy and festive, festooned with merry decorations and strung with whatever we felt like stringing it with. (I remember learning just how tedious crafts could be, the year we decided to string popcorn.)

She was especially fond of the stacked poinsettias, perched on benches and boxes at several levels, but I liked every single year’s distinctive creation as much as the others.

I only wish I could remember them in any detail; it was a pleasant part of the backdrop of life, as far as I was concerned at the time. We take so much for granted at that age!

She finally called it quits on our first Christmas in Bangladesh. She was fed to the back teeth with coming up with something every year and decided to “rest on her laurels” — a nice way of saying that she was plumb out of ideas.

I was home from boarding school in the US (there were no accredited high schools in Dhaka at the time) and was still blossoming under the influence of tropical warmth, so notably absent from Massachusetts in December.
woman-with-sitar
I found a red-and-white canvas plant hanger (this was back when plant hangers were made of fabric rather than plastic) and fastened it to the wooden screen between the living room and sun room. A few bent wire coat-hangers later, we had a Christmas tree to decorate.

I even whittled a couple of reindeer out of Ivory soap and fashioned a little sleigh for them to pull out of unlined 3×5 card and toothpicks. Our little elfin Santa perched in it quite happily.

I have no idea how I pulled it off, but it was easy to do at the time.

So, as you can see, my notion of the holidays involved a lot of flexibility from very early on. This probably explains a lot. I celebrate Yule, Solstice, Christmas, and if I’m invited to any other spiritual observance, I do my best to participate with my best manners and heartfelt good will.

Normally. This disease does change things; most obviously, one’s social activities.

All last year, I sent off presents whenever I found them, things I really thought the recipient would absolutely love. Nothing thoughtless and nothing I couldn’t afford, and no waiting and storing and wrapping to deal with. It was a nice change! Not everyone I love got something, but everything I sent was right, and everyone else knows I love them just the same — I simply didn’t find the right gift yet. Next year, it’ll be a different mix.

At home, there was no noticeable festivity, but there was a cozy little trailer filled with love and care. That was all we were up to, and it was fine.

Next year, J and I think, there will be lights and color and a bit of show. In our own little way, we will celebrate anything we have a mind to, and it will probably involve lights and candles and sweet smudge. Whatever we do, it will still be in a little home full of love and care.

Because love is more important than money.

Postscript
Informal International Network of CRPS Bloggers:

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Riding what you’ve got

Today’s images are a sampling from the newly-released online library of digitized images from Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, one of the oldest extant university libraries in Europe, with images from all around the world. Enjoy 🙂

I’ve written before about the recurring message from some self-described healers that I must be sick because I think wrong, my soul is awry, I want this subconsciously, or some similarly cruel and blaming trope. (Pardon my speaking so plainly, but I have always been very likely to call a “spade” either a shovel, a playing card, or an African-American, depending on what the original speaker meant.)

I went through quite a few years of believing that myself, which is one reason I feel free to call it what it is, now. I know what it is from the inside. Like the child who gets beaten, I’d like to imagine that I have some control over the situation, so I try to believe that I’m responsible for it. But believing that does not make it so.

What would happen if I told a child who gets beaten that it happens because the kid thinks wrong, or because something is awry with that child’s soul, or because he or she subconsciously wants to be brutalized and abused?

child-beating
From a board game about Dick Whitington!

I’d probably get lynched, and rightly so.

There is such a thing as random chance. There is such a thing as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is such a thing as bloody luck. (Insurance companies know this, and people with consistently bad luck — regardless of actual, verifiable skill — pay higher rates for certain kinds of insurance.)

I used to be a trauma and triage nurse. I heard uncountable numbers of people cry out, “Why is God punishing me like this?”
angel-scoldingman
To which I said, more than once, “You’re not being punished! Sometimes things just happen, and this time it happened to you. It’s going to happen to someone, and what makes you think you’re immune from being a member of the human race?” (Said with a nice smile, of course.)

I wasn’t always there with the pat-pat-there-there (you’d be amazed how little that helps with the heavy stuff), but I could usually be counted on for the proverbial whiff of coffee.

coffee-4men
Yes, I added the coffee cups.

Some people believe that there is a reason for everything, and if it gives them comfort, so much the better.

Me, I’m absolutely clear that reason is what we bring to life, not vice versa. The universe tends towards entropy, which is, perfect chaos; our fragile rafts of order, which we impose on our lives, are temporary structures.
boat-mancallingastern
I’ve had so many of these rafts, each of which I called my life, blasted apart with me in them, that I no longer imagine either that I have to have one to live, or that I’m incapable of building another.
women-3bathing
I can live without coherence in my life for awhile, and I can always make more out of raw materials. These days, I recognize everything as temporary. And that’s neither good nor bad, it just is. I can have feelings about it, but that doesn’t really change things, except to make me happier or sadder.

I’d rather be happier, but what I’d really rather do is get on with things and stop dithering. I’m getting better at bringing order with me, and that gives my ANS a break so I’m better equipped to handle the chaos that inevitably barges in.
boat-amidstchaos
There’s an inward sense of riding the waves, rather than trying to flatten the ocean, which epitomizes my handling of life — especially life with CRPS.
boat-ridingthewaves
Joseph Campbell put this in his usual velvety prose, sounding much more spiritual and impressive:

And so this brings us to the final formula of the Bodhisattava way, the way of the one who is grounded in eternity and moving in the field of time. The field of time is the field of sorow. “All life is sorrowful.” And it is. If you try to correct the sorrows, all you do is shift them somewhere else. [Good point! //Is.] Life is sorrowful. How do you live with that? You realize the eternal within yourself. You disengage, and yet, reengage. You — and here’s the beautiful formula — “participate with joy in the sorrows of the world.” You play the game. It hurts, but you know that you have found the place that is transcendent of injury and fulfillments. You are there, and that’s it.

There’s nothing in there about being above pain or beyond illness. It’s about having illness, having pain, and being there anyway, because you know there’s more to it than the illness and the pain, and the “more” is what matters in the end.

Which raises the interesting question: Is life *supposed* to be a bed of roses? Because, if it is, then most of us are getting gyped!
woman-indolenceandroses
Many people say they deserve better, but what does that have to do with anything? Most of us deserve better, but I haven’t noticed things improving with that approach. Deserving isn’t the point. I get what I get, and what I make of it is the real litmus test of my life.

Are we supposed to reach for a painless state of perfect health and earthly bliss? Are we supposed to stay stuck in our ideas of what constitutes a life worth living, and keep reaching for that, whether or not it’s ever in reach?

Is that chronic state of dissatisfaction with the lives we have, right here/right now, really the point?

Or is life supposed to be one heck of a ride, where we don’t get to choose it, but we do get to choose how we handle it?

animals-battle-rides
Did you get a horse, a camel, an elephant, or a pair of boots?

I think it’s one heck of a ride. But that’s me. And I know I’m not immune from being a member of the human race, so I take my chances — and this illness was one of them.

I’ll take this life, warts and all, and be grateful. CRPS is a spectacular pain in the neck, a huge nuisance and a vile burden to carry, but it’s not the sum of my life.

I aim to handle this ride with all the poise I can, because it’s about a lot more than one rotten disease. And I certainly have some good company on this ride.
women-riding

P.S. The international network of CRPS bloggers is posting about how we handle the holidays this month. I avoid the whole circus, as you can see, but beam benevolently on those who choose otherwise. All the gifts I had to give went out between May and November. I spend winter getting through the winter, and that’s enough to manage, thank you 🙂

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The point of mythology — and there is one

I’m working on a series of 3 novellas, a triptych:

1. Kronos in season: The growing-up of a primal god.
2. Hell — the bright side: The original story of Persephone, the original career woman.
3. Pain, a comedy: the intimate family drama that came down to us as the story of Chiron, the wounded healer — and possibly the first recorded case of CRPS.
(Warning: slapstick and hangman’s humor, sometimes simultaneously.)

I’ve been bogged down on number 2 for the best part of a year. In other words, I’ve been stuck in Hell… heheh.

“That Heironymous Bosch. What a weirdo.” – Good Omens

When asked what I write, I usually talk about CRPS and turning medical science into plain English. When asked what my favorite thing to write about is, I have to say, it’s mythology.

“Wait — mythology? … Why??”

Because myths are about the greater parts in ourselves. Those of us in unbearable situations (like the Newtown teachers or Mother Theresa or, indeed, anyone with a terrible illness) have to be superhuman at times. Sometimes most of the time.

Myths remind us of our innate capacity to reach beyond our limits and own the moment, hideousness and all, so that we can lift ourselves beyond all reason and find a way to make things better.

We have modern myths, like James Bond, Star Trek, the X-Men and Harry Potter.  While they have their limits as myths, they still meet the inward need to see that part of ourselves that can bear the unbearable, survive the murderous, and emerge victorious from a no-win situation.

I should have died at least 5 times in the past 10 years. But here I am, very much against the odds, still thinking (sort of) and writing. Rediscovering mythology played a part in that.

And, more than ever, I find it incredibly easy to tell those enormous stories as if I were talking about real people in real time — because, in my own mind at least, I am. When I write about gods and demons, I’m writing of things I know, although under different names.

You should meet my friends with CRPS — and some of their parents. These people embody powers of creativity, diligence, determination, resourcefulness, strength and brilliance that make the great gods of prehistory look like punks, and leave modern adjectives beggared. Telling myths is easy-pie after talking to them!

If we should stick to writing what we know, then I’ve been to Hell and back so often they’ve installed a revolving door for me. I’ve wept on the knees of Hera. Sedna is my sister. I’ve heard Taliesin’s lament. Coyote has my home address, and comes over (too often) for tea… I have my suspicions about what he puts in his cup — and mine.

I won’t discuss the demons, except to say that they, too, can usually be healed. But it’s always by the thing you wouldn’t think of.

“O..kay.” Checks my head for tinfoil hat. “But what does mythology have to do with CRPS?”

It gives us back the unstoppable inner part of ourselves that can defeat it in the end.

And that’s good medicine.

 

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Different souls, one world

I’m intrigued by how different the characteristic of integrity looks on different people.

My car’s detailing is being supervised by a very Catholic chaplain who really doesn’t lie, really does respect others, really does care about his world, and really does put his time, life and energy into working for the greater good. He’s pleasant and charming in a comfortable way, and his whole demeanor is slightly aglow. He’s a man on a mission, and it’s one that coheres with his best innermost self.

Obviously, what comes next is about the general perception of certain groups — not individual or local impressions, but the wider impression that history, actions/consequences, and the publicity about them, have left in the public mind…

The Catholic church isn’t known these days for turning out coherent, stable, disciplined characters, so it’s really good to meet one.

Lutheranism isn’t known for sweetness, and one of my uncles is both a devout Lutheran and one of the most kindly, gentle, nonjudgmental people I’ve ever met. It really works for him.

Atheism isn’t known for consideration, yet this culture of argument which so often defines itself in terms of opposition has turned out some of the most resolutely practical, inspiring and embracing activist-philosophers of any creed in this age.

It’s possible to go on for some time, but let’s take a moment to realize that all belief systems look a little odd from the outside, despite the fact that living a belief system is a seriously powerful thing to do. It’s one of the great ironies of humanity.

I suspect it’s a clue: it matters on the inside, but shouldn’t matter on the outside. Being responsible to our own internal structure (respecting our own uniqueness) makes sense, but trying to push our framework onto others (disrespecting the uniqueness of others) does not.

Decency and moral stature don’t belong to any one belief, but they do belong to the human race. Each of us is at least as different in our inmost selves as we are in our outward lives. When you think about it, it would be impossible — bizarre and irrational — for us all to believe the same way.

Anyone who finds a path — whether well-defined or idiosyncratic — that gives them, in their uniqueness, real strength and purpose holds a great gift and a powerful tool.

I no longer fear the differences of belief and it’s been a long time since I held any in contempt, but I’ve taken a step back to simply admire and appreciate them, filled with joy tinged with awe.

We are an astoundingly diverse species, inside and out. Such an abundance of different ways to be should make us fitter than ever to handle anything. When we enjoy and admire our variety, rather than fretting over it, I’ve noticed that that’s exactly what happens: together, we can handle anything.

After we had done the paperwork, this chaplain and I continued our conversation and I wound up telling him about the purpose of this trip, the reason I was dropping scarce money on prepping my car.

As I did so, I felt my own coherence of integrity coming into focus, the energetic union of innermost self and outer reality.

And I realized: I’m on a mission. Regardless of my own outcome, I’m certain now of leaving the world better for my feeble but determined efforts.

This radiant chaplain is going to pray for me and my work. The science shows that prayer and meditation correlate to better outcomes, regardless of the forms used. To bring the science back to life and into specifics, I know that the prayers of someone so coherently devout are powerful help.

I’m a handicapped woman on a mission which is technically impossible. But now, I do have a prayer 🙂

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Warrior, eh? (End-of-Year Retrospective)

Interesting term, “warrior“. It came up on one of my CRPS sites today, applied by an ally to those of us with the disease.

I was such a righteous fighter all my life, and now the message I keep getting from within is to “lay down my arms” — a metaphor so painfully apt it beggars language (after all, my CRPS started in my arms.)

The more peaceful I am, the more progress I make — or at least, the more I hold my ground. But it’s very much a matter of never giving up, never laying down, never yielding one thing to this disease that it doesn’t have to win from me.

I don’t fight, I figure it out; problems are meant to be solved, and this is an evolving set of pressingly interesting problems.

I don’t think in warrior/fighter terms any more, but I believe those who work with me use them. While sheer determination has stood me in very good stead, I don’t think of my present approach in terms of battle. The ground has shifted too much — so much so that, as an amateur historian and traveler familiar with the terrain of many battles, I can’t think of there being anything left to win. The ground has been swept clean.

Yet I intend not to be destroyed by this disease. I intend to come out of it alive, and die by some more exciting means instead.

When you’re skirting paradox, you’re close to the naked truth.

I guess I’ll keep learning to “lay down my arms” and persist as peacefully and intelligently as possible, and let others call me a fighter if that’s how they think of it.

Me, I opt for peaceful intelligence instead.

Links (in order mentioned):

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Releasing the gods within

Modern mythology (á la comic-book heroes & Harry Potter) make extraordinary powers something odd, often imposed on those who never asked for it or are forced into concealing it in order to survive.

I don’t have a lot of time for the victim mentality, however charmingly restated. (I love Harry Potter and X-Men but still take them in small doses.) And the idea that it’s abnormal to be super-anything is not congruent with my experience. I don’t know anyone who isn’t super-something.

Embracing the deep weirdness of reality and going from there seems much more effective — and realistic. Notions of normalcy are hopelessly entwined in history and place, sealed with the invisible glue of social fear.

In other words, normalcy is unstable and profoundly irrational, even as we’re desperate to hang onto and justify it.

Not very helpful for dealing with bodily meltdown, lasting pain, deep disruptions and the massive issues of powerlessness, poverty and loss that are shaking so many. It’s too easy to feel like a victim and a freak.

I’ve been delving into the mythology of the Titans, creator gods (like Gaia, Rhea, Ouranos, Kronus) who gave rise to the later — and nastier — Olympians (like Jupiter, Mars, Hera, and all that crowd.) They deal with devastating changes, massive loss, pain, betrayal, mutilation, everything we face — but not for one minute do they imagine that they are ordinary, held to small standards, ineffective or meaningless.

They move and think and act and feel as if it mattered, because it does; they are born to their extraordinariness and they own it, warts and all.

I want to reframe the stories we tell ourselves so that we start out being extraordinary — not by accident or as oddities, but by right. Then the overwhelming tasks we face become merely heinously difficult, not completely beyond us.

We need not waste energy trying to conceal how much we can really bring to bear. We have better things to do.

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Mind, brain, spirit, and the im/pertinence of death

I referred to this material in an earlier post, where I described the online conversation that started it. My first thought was to turn it into a coherent essay. On reflection, I realized that digesting what my co-conversationalists said was not necessarily going to improve the content, as they’re very eloquent and have distinctive voices. So I chose to let them speak for themselves.

Note to non-academics and other civilized beings: I find that, with academics as with working engineers, it’s more important to be clear than to be sweet. Caveat emptor.

This thread is from James Croft’s blog on “State of Formation,” an excellent venue for lively conversations. It started with Jim F., as I secretly suspect a lot of the most interesting arguments do:

Jim F. says:
[…] Injuries to the brain from accidents or from disease like tumors or strokes can lead to radical changes in personality and/or character. In Lamont’s opinion, there are no real good reasons for believing that consciousness is something that can exist without the body. Therefore, when the body dies, so does the mind.

Isabel says:
February 28, 2011 at 2:30 am
Jim, I’ve mulled that relationship a lot. (Lifelong interest in neurology, now with neurologic disorder.) My studies and experience leave me certain that it’s a seductive mutuality, but not an absolute connection. It’s certainly not a simple one.

While mental states are associated with neuroendocrine activity, the subjective experience is inevitable _only_ to the extent that it’s unaware — or, of course, volitional.

This seriously disturbs the structure of the idea that “mental state doesn’t exist without physical state.” And that doesn’t even go near the eternal chicken/egg question — whether the chemical shift or the feeling it’s supposed to transmit comes first.

Go on to look at more organized ways of managing one’s mentation & neuroendocrine flow, like meditation or yoga or “inward” martial arts, and the question of connection and control becomes not just loose, but flaccid.

The more I think about awareness, and the more I learn about neurophysiology and endocrine behavior, and the further I go on the personal inquiry into how to navigate this neurologic disruption, the less I’m persuadable that the mind depends on the brain. That concept totally fails in the face of this experience — the clinching argument for me, obviously — but it also fails to describe those experiences that are _not_ as unaware, uncontrolled, and are experienced as irreflectively as those of animals. We are richer beings.

When my neurochemistry is whacked, I’ve gotten pretty good at finding other ways to hold my mind in a bearable state. That would be impossible if the brain were the only determinant of mental state. And I know I’m not so special that this capacity MUST be rare if I have it.

I’ve never found a good explanation for that part of the mind that can participate with and respond to neurochemistry, without being pwned by it (in hacker parlance.) It sure is an interesting inquiry, though I don’t need an answer. I just need to continually improve my command of it, since so far this condition is incurable. (We shall see.)

I’m glad you raised the mind/brain issue. More philosophers should study neuroendocrinology — and meditation.

Jim F. says:
March 1, 2011 at 7:21 am
Responding to Isabel. I have always found Hume to be pretty persuasive on this subject, even though he was without the benefit of modern neuroscience. In his essay, “The Immortality of the Soul”, he wrote:

“[…]— Sleep, a very small effect on the body, is attended with a temporary extinction, at least a great confusion in the soul. — The weakness of the body and that of the mind in infancy are exactly proportioned, their vigour in manhood, their sympathetic disorder in sickness; their common gradual decay in old age. The step further seems unavoidable; their common dissolution in death.”

//Isabel comments: Hume must have had curious nightmares. My own dreams tend to be rich and narrative; not as rich as waking life but often more encouraging.
// Hume’s understanding of mental development is clearly in step with his own time, which is to say, very uninformed: the brain of an infant is in the most quickly-developing, rationally evolving period of the person’s entire lifetime. Never again are we as aware, as able to learn, and as able to prune away useless thoughts as we are in infancy. The tiny fledgling bodies we have are needy indeed, but again, the capacity to recover from proportional insults to the body and brain is better than it ever will be again. Still, the brain function far exceeds the body’s function in infancy. Not proportional at all.
// The mutual disorder of the body and mind in sickness is rarely proportional, and as I have worked with sick and injured people for most of my life, I am the authority there. Sorry, Hume. Normally-healthy men are vile patients, making their tenders miserable while refusing to mend themselves; old women typically manage their way through pain and physical disruption that would have most of us on our knees in howling agony — unless it kills them. And of course, the rest of us fall in between these extremes, depending more on our personalities and cultures than on a proportional response to the illness or injury.
// Senility in old age is not a given, either: some people’s bodies rot long before their minds do, and with others, their minds go fast while their bodies soldier mercilessly on for decades. Any true proportionality between a fading body and fading mind is so rare that, in my clinical experience, it’s the exception and not the rule. (It would be fun to find a study on that, if only to discover the name of a doctor who has the nerve to tell us what degree of disintegration is “proportional.”)
// Thus, while Hume’s prose is wonderfully telling, his conclusions are not.

“[…] Every thing is in common betwixt soul and body. The organs of the one are all of them the organs of the other. The existence therefore of the one must be dependant on that of the other. — The souls of animals are allowed to be mortal; and these bear so near a resemblance to the souls of men, that the analogy from one to the other forms a very strong argument. Their bodies are not more resembling; yet no one rejects the argument drawn from comparative anatomy. The Metempsychosis is therefore the only system of this kind that philosophy can harken to.

// Hume is always delicious to read, but he is ignorant of the better-developed spiritual traditions which characterize the spiritual body as overlapping and interacting with the physical, but not being either a clone or tied into lockstep with it. These (both Asian and European) traditions therefore fundamentally differ from his base assumption about the twin-image nature of the body-mind relationship.

Concerning meditation, Rick Heller has been writing on the neurological basis of meditation in The New Humanism. He is himelf a practioner and teacher of meditation and also a convinced naturalist and physicalist.

// I’ll have to look him up. Could be interesting.

There seem to me a lot of problems with the sort of psychophysical dualism that Isabel seems to be defending. If it is true then this would seem to violate some of the most basic laws oh physics. Maybe such basic laws like the laws of the conservation of energy and of momentum are not completely valid, but most natural scientists are going to requires lots of very strong evidence to be so persuaded. Dualists have yet to come up with a convincing account of how a nonphysical mind can interact with the physical body. Dualistic interactionism therefore seems to violate a general heuristic principle of science: the causal closure of the physical world. And at this point we can invoke Ockam’s Razor to argue that we really have no need to posit any sort of a mental substance that exists apart from the physical organism.

// The assumption that mind is necessarily physical because the brain is, is a false conclusion. This nonbrain attribute is generally considered to be energetic in nature. Energy interacts with matter all the time, or none of us could (for instance) access this web site, let alone think the thoughts we bring to it. Hence the law of conservation is easily observed.
// Given how the body parts transmute so nothing is wasted, it remains reasonable to suppose that the energetic component transmutes as well, without being lost. Unrecognizable, perhaps, as Paul indicates below — but not annihilated. That would indeed contravene a number of laws of physics.

Returning to Corliss Lamont, one of the other arguments that he made was that even in the Abrahamic religious traditions, there is the tacit assumption that a body is required for conscious existence. Hence, the doctrines concerning the resurrection of the dead that exist in all three of the major Abrahamic religions. Eastern religions likewise have their doctrines concerning reincarnation

// I’ve been content to agree with the theologists/spiritual philosophers who explain that this is a metaphor for the benefit of the many-headed, i.e., a handy lie; the inward self continues in a way that does have its own integrity, but re-inserting the energetic “self” into the physical body is not something that happens literally. It makes a useful concept for the bulk of the laity to work with, to reinforce the idea that they are going to be held responsible for what they do to themselves.
// (While I object to using religion as a form of terrorism, it _is_ an ancient form of crowd-control. In the times of short lifespans, societies were run by adolescents and post-adolescents; therefore, these kinds of down-to-earth metaphors could be very useful indeed.)
// Physical experience has no exact correlation in the nonphysical realm; therefore, certain kinds of understanding can only be reached by means of in-carn-ation — allowing the spiritual/energetic/durable self to become embodied. This is one of the most basic theses in many traditions which consider both life and afterlife to be valid memes.
// It would be more accurate to speak, not of “conscious existence”, but of incarnate life that’s perceptible to itself. This leaves an obvious logical gap: What about perceiving non-incarnate “life”, or un-embodied types of consciousness? That’s a much more sophisticated question than, “is there continued existence after bodily death”, and requires a degree of intellectual care on everyone’s side.
// Why so much intellectual care? Partly because, to assume that spiritual life must be consistently observable only through a narrow spectrum of physical means, is to overlook one or two (or a million) basic realities of matter, energy, logic, and so on. And partly because, if spiritual theses can’t be described in plain language, they probably need rethinking. Thus, both sides need to approach that question with consideration, care, and (ironically) good faith.

Paul J. G. says:
March 2, 2011 at 3:49 pm
So thought-provoking as always. You just can’t help yourself can you?

// obviously, I didn’t even try to 🙂

Something cannot become nothing. What is it precisely that we want from an ‘afterlife’? What did the Star that went Supernova ‘want’? It probably wanted to keep being a Star. It could never have imagined its afterlife to be human cogitation, and Happy Meals, because it lacked the vision and imagination to see its new emergence as an afterlife. So maybe the Star thought it had no afterlife. I would disagree. Brian Swimme leads us down this road.

[…] What’s more, we don’t need to wait till some ‘final’ death (in the way we usually talk about death of a person as a person) to identify our many continuation bodies– the infinite ways that our life, energy, heat, thoughts, words, bodies, breath continue. Just because we are not sensitive enough to identify all of these continuation bodies, teaches Thich Nhat Hanh, does not mean they are not there. It just means that we fail to see. Hanh teaches this because the Buddha teaches that there is no annihilation.

I think there is no such thing as a final death– and that’s what is meant by afterlife: endless going on, eternal life. But, I agree with Charles Hartshorne who says, eternal life is not some eternal human career after death. To think that is an offense against the lavish exuberance of cosmic creativity. Human beings are not the end. Maybe we are merely embryos, or blastocysts, or zygotes of what is yet to come!

Isabel says:
March 2, 2011 at 9:52 pm
Well put, Paul. Yeah.

Further thoughts on stroke and brain injury …

These are good examples of unprepared-for, unawarely-encountered changes in the brain state, and these are the kinds of conditions that most disrupt the mind. Without a chance to become aware of the interface between your mind and your brain, and without a chance to learn and practice the techniques that give you some conscious leverage over it, the damage that these injuries do to the mind – that energetic aspect of the self, the one that may or may not outlive your body – can be devastating indeed, because the injuries to the brain specifically disrupt your ability to understand and deal intelligently with that interface. The injuries that disrupt the personality are perhaps the most difficult to overcome, because access to your accustomed “self” is specifically disrupted.

Practical note: It’s much easier to manage a well-hydrated brain. Drink more water.

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Expanding these horizons

As a gift of my old friend Jen, I’ve scraped the online acquaintanceship of a very lively group of secularists… And it says a lot that many will shoot down that collective noun; these are the intellectual equivalents of the clan of Asterix the Gaul, who will cheerfully scrap with each other when there’s no one else around to scrap with, and woe betide anyone silly enough to try and conquer them.

I love it. Oink heaven. My memory still has Swiss-cheese holes in it, but my reasoning is not completely shot.

I was mulling a blog entry on “trying to remember there’s a forest among the trees”, given the way that we tend to get fixated on a tiny handful of things which, if we had ’em, would surely fix everything. Surely.

These thoughts have been rather derailed by an online conversation I got into about the mind/brain issue. It touches on neurology, history, philosophy and theology, with logic and info architecture as palette-cleansing interjections (or so my thoughts are trending.) Naturally, I’m knawing it like a rawhide bone, tail thumping.

In fairness, not everyone wants the erudite stuff; nor does everyone want the why-what-works pragmatism. Both are so closely linked for me (the blogger, here) that I’ve decided not to break out a different blog. I’ll get better about tagging, and I’ll use indicative titles.

Please come along and play. I hope this works out well.

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Hope

At 12:11 this morning, a soft sea-wind went through me. My insides relaxed.

2010 was tough all over. We know that. Mortality sucks, life is hard, and all the rest.

But something has changed in here. Even though this date is, technically, just an arbitrary accident of history, it’s a good one. A happy accident.

I don’t know if this year will be any better than the last one, but I like this gentler sense of life I’ve woken up with. It leaves more room for hope.

Now there’s a New Year resolution I hadn’t even imagined: keep this inward gentleness. Leave more room for hope.

Yeah. I like that.

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