Taking blankets and rolls of toilet paper through to a large and underfunded shelter for the homeless. And remembering all of us who have been there.
Reminder to myself: in the kitchen I am simmering split peas and red lentils with fenugreek and turmeric for a North Indian dish. If I get absorbed in blogging and let the small pot run dry on the stove, it will burn and I shall have no lunch. The idea is to let the split peas and lentils soften and go creamy, then add tamarind, some lemon juice, some chopped onion, carrot and fresh mint.
When I got up this morning it was bitterly cold and grey. I dressed warmly and went down the road to a local farmers’ market, not a trendy upmarket place, very simple but with fresh ingredients. Along the thickly treed road there were Magnolia stellata trees in shimmering white bloom and clumps of leucojums, a kind of snow drop. Spring is drawing close.
Warning: TRIGGER for animal lovers
The farmers’ market is held to support an animal welfare group. The woman who organises the group, whom I shall call Jill, was standing there in tears. Her neighbour is a wealthy alcoholic, a lonely divorcee, who keeps buying puppies and kittens which she then neglects and starves. Jill takes the animals away and finds new homes for them, but the abuse goes on. I stood and listened and realised yet again how little control anyone can have over an active alcoholic. An alcoholic is unable to care for herself and therefore cannot care in a sustained and consistent manner for anyone else . Alcoholism is an illness, not an independent lifelong sociopathy. Many alcoholics try their hardest to ensure their alcoholism does not harm those around them, but most of us fail. Some alcoholics are unable to understand how much harm they cause. So, yes, there will be abused and neglected children and elderly dependants and domestic pets. Until the alcoholic sobers up, those cycles of abuse will continue. Because this alcoholic woman has the money to pay for new living toys, she will keep buying more puppies and kittens and mistreating them. There are no legal recourses out here to prevent that. This neighbour, this kind animal lover, must take care of herself. It is a terrible, heartbreaking situation.
So I listened and nodded and sympathised, then bought bought some spirng onions, muddy leeks, late winter potatoes and a new apron. As I was standing there, I felt the same inner anguish I feel when I see battered women with black eyes or frightened children. Could we not get her arrested? Could we not stop people selling little animals to her? Could we not have her locked up for her own good? I will talk to other neighbours, animal rights groups, law enforcement agencies and attempt to intervene, but deep down I doubt that the pattern can be halted. She may just move elsewhere and do the same thing again.
Pause: topped up the little pot of split peas and red lentils again. It smells wonderful, tastes harsh and incomplete.
Coming up out of a dip or slight depression has given me something to think about. What we come to realise about ourselves in the first few years of sobriety perhaps depends on what we do or change or decide to deal with. There are areas I have simply avoided looking at and they trip me up all the time. This isn’t apparent in blog posts because here I choose what I reveal or disclose and on the whole friends can’t ‘help’ with aspects of real-life avoidance I choose not to tackle. But this is one of the ongoing challenges in early sobriety — who am I capable of becoming? What will it take for me to change? What is the mysterious process that happens despite me, what alchemy is at work to keep me growing even when i would rather stay stuck?
And the coffee helped and talking to someone more wobbly than myself helped, and having a small dog puke up a semi-digested spider on my foot helped. Whatever takes us out of a certain loop of thinking, whatever erodes selfishness, whatever pushes self-pity or brooding aside.
Whenever I find myself on a certain switchback between old relentless memories and dread of the future, it is always key to ground myself in the here and now, and look at what I can change and not at what I can’t. Octavio Paz:
“Reality is a staircase going neither up nor down,
we don’t move, today is today, always today.”
Someone in some cosy nook of cyberspace is trying to sell copper ashtrays to me at a discount (I don’t smoke, I don’t need ashtrays, I think of copper ashtrays as ugly and irrelevant to my corporeal existence) and I spam him or her or it each day and they just pop up again. When I first began posting on the Internet, I believed that if I was cautious and reticent and guarded enough, I could protect myself from the obsessed and inappropriate and transgressive. Now I know better. If someone wants to seek me out or pester me, there is nothing I can do to pre-empt them or discourage them. What I can do is track down their Internet provider and complain, or call in the police if I know the identity. Bar mails through my spam filter. Or just keep zapping the mails into spam.
When I listen to anyone who has a life given over to craving and schemeing and uselessly fighting cravings and pointlessly hoping the cravings will give up and go away, I take in a deep breath and feel so grateful I could weep and shout with joy and dance. For me the war is over. I must have spent hours of each waking day in debate with myself about where the next drnk would come from, whether I should drink before noon, whether I dared have another and another after that, hoping I would stop before I died, knowing I did and didn’t want to stop. Alcoholism was my inner civil war and nothing changed until I gave up.
Some ask the world
and are diminished
in the receiving
of it. You gave me
only this small pool
that the more I drink
from, the more overflows
me with sourceless light.
- R. S. Thomas
Resisting the temptation of extra coffee to try and lift a dark dim mood. I have done exercises and had hot baths and doubled up on meditation time and shouldered through some community service, but the sense of being ground flat and chewed up is still there. Taking today one breath at a time and grateful to be sober.
An email from someone who grew up in my long forgotten country telling me that General Peter Walls died yesterday at the age of 83 — the man who was once head of the Rhodesian armed forces during the Second Chimurenga or bush war. I didn’t reply because I have no nostalgic or patriotic feelings about that former British colony, now Zimbabwe. It is a complex historical situation, but the reality for me is that colonialism in Africa was fundamentally racist and that war was bloody and unnecessary. For those of us who lived through war when we were young, even the most traumatic memories are tinged with something of that vitality and optimism which comes from being so young amidst violence and the nearness of sudden death. But no excuse to glamorise war, ever.
I think I will have some coffee after all. Reminding myself what Ted Hughes, a poet who lived selfishly excessively, remorsefully, said:
“The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.”
Went out again with a good torch last night and looked for leopard toads, an endangered amphibian locally. They are yellow as neon and have chocolate markings so I can spot them quite easily and monitor their whereabouts. Each year I am afraid there might be none left, but Iwon’t know if numbers have decreased until the end of August. There are gorgeous little green and black tree frogs all over the place and blacksmith plovers all along the edge of the field.
Went to a shopping mall this morning with a newly sober friend. We had coffee and talked recovery; then she shopped while I read a David Mitchell novel. I don’t like shopping, don’t window shop and only buy things if I have to. Many of my sweaters and shirts are neatly darned or repaired by my seamstress neighbour and have been with me for more than 15 years. ‘What are you thinking about?’ said my friend as she came back with armfuls of shopping bags and saw me gazing across the mall while disregarding the muzak from the Spice Girls
‘Leopard toads,’ I said sorrowfully. She looked at me as if I was crazy. But I care about all kinds of small threatened creatures and plants these days. My heart seems to have turned to mush. And there is no virtue in my dislike of shopping. I grew up on lonely African forest reserves and didn’t like monthly trips that involved going into crowded towns or cities and having to try on clothes in strange places and visit the dentist. Spending money seemed a waste of time when I could be out riding my bicycle or reading books or writing stories.
Came home and realised I should have bought torch batteries, rolled oats and loo paper. Went out into the garden with the puppies and picked leafy bunches of an aromatic new marjoram growing like crazy right in the depths of winter. Snow clouds coming over the flat-topped mountains to the north. In a little while I shall make a pot of vegetarian minestrone soup and throw in roughly chopped fresh marjoram.
In between the fiction, I have nbeen reading articles ( not online) about non-violent communication. My take on this is that non-violent communication works well when the participants are playing by the same rules and are willing to acknowledge their own stuff and unmet needs and covert agendas in a debate. It doesn’t work at all with abusve people who are only interested in winnning or intimidating the other. Reasoning with abusive people is like arguing with drunks, a waste of breath. Sometimes the protective use of force is needed and often it is better to just get away.
It is full moon here and the garden is bright and shadowless at night. Some frisky golden moles have been tunneling around bushes and small trees. They aerate the earth so I don’t mind them — the smell of the dogs will probably drive them away in a week or two — but they may have destroyed all my nerine bulbs.
Went over the mountains for lunch at a French-style bistro with sober friends on Saturday, very noisy and rambunctious bunch. Ate too much cassoulet (composed stolidly of haricot beans, duck leg in confit, smoked sausage etc) and lay awake with indigestion all night. Now I am nibbling Asian baby greens with lime juice and a fraction of ginger, steaming young squashes and maize, spooning scant teaspoons of yoghurt onto grilled peaches for a treat. Healthy living, long may it last.
Grateful for sobriety, grateful for friends, grateful that spring is just around the corner. It is still very wintry here and I feel stale and chilled and frazzled. No particular reason, just that time of the year. I had a painful and sad dream about things going wrong in the coming year, muddled decisions, losses, failures — and woke up thinking of a book review on Lily King’s Father of the Rain about a woman who knows she’s guilty of being “bad at trusting the future,” but she can’t admit that this weakness is a crime against herself. Unlearning the wrongheaded lessons of the past takes time.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Work, work, work I’m catching up on work I couldn’t do while I was ill, and household chores, and community responsibilities. Being sober sometimes means just getting on with whatever has to be done.
While having a cup of my cardamom chai, I am reading all about the furore over secret unpublished writings by Franz Kafka once stuffed away into Max Brod’s suitcase. A Prague literary figure, Max Brod was the most treacherous best friend any writer could have, and everyone who loves literature is grateful to him for his treachery.
On his deathbed, the writer Franz Kafka, aged 40, asked his best friend Max to destroy all his unpublished writings and letters. Max promised he would do so. It was 1924 and, like many undernourished and tubercular Europeans of that generation, Kafka died an agonising death in a Viennese sanatorium. His younger sisters would go on to die in Holocaust concentrations camps.
Max Brod destroyed nothing and went on to publish The Trial, Amerika and The Castle, novels that would become major classics of 20th-century literature. In 1939 Brod escaped to Israel with his cache of Kafka’s works and sold one or two original manuscripts. On his death in 1968, he left the Kafka works and papers to his secretary, friend and possibly mistress, Esther Hoffe, who died three years ago at the age of 101. She in turn left the Kafka stash to her daughters Eva and Ruth.
The court of Israel has determined that these manuscripts are now the property of the state and may need to be preserved for posterity by the state because of their literary merit. Eva Hoffe continues to protest but amongst the documents in opened vaults there is an unpublished short story by Kafka. His genius lives on.
Bad friend Max was not the only person Kafka asked to destroy his work — he also asked his young lover Dora Diamant to burn 20 of his notebooks. She did not do so and kept them with her in Berlin until 1933, when they were confiscated by the Nazis and never seen again. The largest collection of Kafka’s letters were those written to his earlier fiancee Felice Bauer, a hardheaded businesswoman who took the letters with her when she fled to America, and sold them to a publisher in the 1950s as Kafka’s fame was on the increase.
The moral of the story being that writers should burn their own manuscripts and friends should not set a lighted match to any unpublished works of genius. Jane Austen burned most of her own papers and letters and I can’t help wishing she had given them to an absentminded clergyman who might have stuffed them away in the attic.
Back to work! I resist the temptation to read about more rhino poaching in South African game reserves, the destruction of global rainforests, the disappearance of the English cuckoo, the adorable baby Asian clouded leopards pictured in a Paris zoo or images or Kalahari wildlife by Hannes Lochner Life is too short not to earn a living. And tomorrow is Saturday and I shall go out to lunch with friends and play, have fun, make the most of sober opportunities.
Had a long distraught call from an ornithologist friend telling me that the rare Ludwig’s Bustard is likely to go extinct very soon. When I was staying up in the Great Karoo, I would come across the Bustards’ nests under bushes, cunningly constructed from wild figs, leaves and dry grasses, looking like a lopsided straw hat. So many species lost to human predation, greed or carelessness.
Learning to sit still. There’s a new book out from author Tim Parks, Teach Us to Sit Still, describing how the practice of sitting in vipassana meditation helped him with a painful and embarrassing prostate problem and led him to a new understanding of the body-mind connection. As another reviewer notes, and this will come as no surprise to those of us who have sat through gruelling but illuminating hours of vipassana practice:
Finally he discovered a form of Buddhist meditation called vipassana, which involves observing sensations by passing your awareness through the body, part by part (I have also done it and found it surprisingly powerful). It took his prostate pain away because it enabled him to relax – and to realise that the rest of his body was a knot of tension. He hadn’t been able to stand straight for years, and suddenly, one day when meditating, his back smoothed out by itself.
Vipassana also suggested a new way of thinking to Parks. That all his experiences didn’t have to be framed by linguistic interpretation: that he could just be. He discovered, as he calls it: “the pleasure of a space that need not be imbued with meaning”.
Bodily experience the other side of language. Who would think that something as simple as not drinking would change body, mind, spirit, the known universe? But not-drinking is that stepping stone to transformation. I realise now, looking back, that there was no aspect of my life not connected to that alcoholism, that daily drinking.
In sobriety I have discovered I am omnivorous. Not talking just about food — my latest food thrill is all about cardamom chai, delectable spicy milky tea with a hit of crushed green cardamom, ravishing, moreish etc – but because I am curious about so many issues and absorbed in so much that is new, reading everything I can get my hands on. The piles of books on my bedside table look as if a crowd of assorted lunatics are trying to solve every problem under the sun. But it is just me reading all about why the term ‘trauma’ has become as meaningless as the term ‘depression’, why agriculture was a bad idea historically, how to create authentic Mexican dishes without authentic Mexican ingredients, neuron culture for the naive, Emma Donoghue on lesbian historiographies, shorter-than-short stories by Lydia Davis, a chirpy look at the future of recovery movements in the 21st century, Julia Kristeva on childhood separation anguish, West African writers of the diaspora. I went through to the bedroom a few minutes ago and looked to see if I had missed anything, stared at the pile of books and journals and notebooks in slight bewilderment. . My post-flu energies are returning, but I am not sleeping well. A little sitting and contemplating the navel might not be a bad idea.
And perhaps a little service. A newly sober woman who lives two hours away emailed me and said the ‘sober thing’ is going well enough but she misses her Camparis at sunset. I didn’t know anyone still drank Campari, such a herby rubicund treacherous sort of drink and a throwback to movies from the 1950s, all those cigarette holders and powdered cleavages and lantern-jawed men trying not to act gay. I will invite her to lunch and introduce her to the joys of cardamom chai.
When the world fades to grey. From an article found here.
The world literally fades to grey when we feel blue, scientists have discovered.
Depression has an effect on the eyes that makes it harder to detect the black and white contrasts. Scientists in Germany carried out tests on the retinas of patients which showed the effect — similar to turning down the contrast control on a TV.
It could be one reason why throughout the ages and regardless of culture or language, artists have consistently depicted depression using symbols of darkness or grey uniformity. The effect was so marked that scientists believe the test could provide an objective way of measuring depression levels.
The poet William Cowper said that ‘variety’s the very spice of life’, yet when people are depressed, they are less able to perceive contrasts in the visual world. This loss would seem to make the world a less pleasurable place.”
The German team measured electrical responses to gauge the activity of the retina in two groups of depressed and non-depressed individuals. The retina, at the back of the eye, contains the sensitive cells that turn light signals into nerve messages, making it possible to see. Depressed patients were found to have dramatically lower retinal contrast “gain” than the volunteers who were not suffering from depression. It made no difference whether or not they were receiving antidepressant medication.
Image found here.
The sun comes up like a tiger these cold winter mornings, a yellow-eyed and fierce light that makes one blink. The bare branches of the trees like inky cut-outs. Mounatains sharp and dense black in outline.
Feeling tense and a little unsafe — a troubled Xhosa man with a drug problem has been loitering around the street and watching the comings and goings of householders, keeps coming around to the side of the house or the kitchen window to demand money. I don’t want him carted off to prison, but my feeling is that he is highly aggressive and desperate for money to buy drugs. Very incoherent and agitated at times.
Writing publicity material in between proofreading. My mind turning to porridge. But the end is in sight and hard work is one of the things that keeps me accountable and growing.
“People often say that this or that person has not yet found him or herself. But the self is not something that one finds. It is something one creates.”
- Thomas Szasz
Every now and then I take a break to call a friend who has been sober 12 years but who is now enduring hellish withdrawal from anti-depressants after developing ominous side effects. She tells me howthe writer David Foster Wallace went through agony withdrawing from Nardil and says withdrawal symptoms can last more than four years. Heath Ledger overdosed while self-medicating because withdrawal symptoms from Zoloft left him with intractable insomnia. I know little about long-term psychiatric meds, so all I can do is listen and give as much support as possible. The wonderful thing is that my friend, distraught and sleepless as she is, has no desire to drink and applies the Steps to living through this period of withdrawal. Nothing about medicating mood disorders is simple, and accurately ‘tweaked’ medication has saved many lives. But the juggling act is lifelong and more tricky as we age.
Making a fresh pot of tea and planning a vegetarian supper with quinoa, edumame beans, Swiss chard from the garden — giving myself permission to begin planning the next writing project but I mustn’t write a word of it until I have cleared my desk. The next project is always the enticing dream, the one that may turn out to exceed expectations: metaphors and ideas rush into my head as I pour mugs of tea, get on with what still has to be finished — how important it is for a writer to push herself, try harder each time, break new ground. I fear stagnation more than death.
‘Do we pursue what we want, or do we do what’s comfortable?
For the most part, most people most often choose comfort – the familiar, the time-honored, the well-worn but well-known. After a lifetime of choosing between comfort and risk, we are left with the life we currently have.
And it was all of our own choosing.’ -- Peter McWilliams
Image Mountains Outside, Mountains Inside from Johan de Keuken, found here.