Monday, April 13, 2015

Know Thyself

“Not for the first time she reflected that there were many drawbacks to being a swordswoman, not least of which was that men didn’t take you seriously until you’d actually killed them, by which time it didn’t really matter anyway.”
 - Terry Pratchett, The Light Fantastic

Lately, my meditation has drifted to thoughts of uncertainty like a brick drifts to the ground when dropped off a cliff. I’ve had this life-changing AFOG and I’ve somehow lost the thread of the conversation. I’ve been trying to reason out problems, and ever failing for lack of trying. F for effort.

There are probably thousands of self-helpy books about personal journeys of growth and the wisdom of the ages I could google for a lifeline or even a clue. But I’m not trying to have an original thought here, let alone to discover one dropped along somebody else’s profit margins. I’m trying to find my own path – to figure out what all this is doing to me. The quote in my recent post about Japanese gardens says the best way to learn is to watch the masters. Certainly don’t read. Don’t even listen. Watch.

It seems like I’ve been studying all my life to pay attention, and this is the final exam. But I’m not confident of passing – of learning what I think. Because these days I’m unable to think for very long. Enlightenment doesn’t even make the top ten. It’s somewhere after seeing an orthodontist. I’m stuck in this grieving ADHD where I can’t seem to get on with the business of getting on. I’m going back and forth in place along on this mood swing, madly trying that trick where you swing so hard, you go over the top and come down the other way. 

Some days I feel - if not happy - I feel comfortably content - like this is exactly where I am and it’s good to be home. It’s not a feeling I’m familiar with. Or rather it is, but with some new aspects that I didn’t see before about how to be happy with being content. Some days I unaccountably laugh maniacally.

Some days I feel so lost that I know to a nano-tolerance exactly where I am but absolutely everything else around me is hopelessly lost and I never want to find any of it again. Some days my mood is several shades darker than black only jagged like lava rock so sharp you don’t know you’re cut until you see your blood. Some days I unaccountably cry. (I am getting over the raging anger that makes my heart literally pound. That happens less. I'm taking some of the aggressive air pressure out of  passive.)

Most days end with me so dizzy from swinging around in circles that I could open a bottle of wine without a corkscrew.

In brief moments, I’m perfectly balanced in the now. I’m able to realize the extremes are just the bad parts of the dream, and things will smooth out. Sometimes I’m so fucking insightful and farsighted I can see out the other side – as long as it is as obvious as an oncoming train. But about then I lean into the swing to push that process along, trying to break the laws of entropy by rushing us all to the heat death of the universe.

In the midst of this I experience brief moments of sanity, I glimpse a vision of survival and ease. I feel so much better. In those moments, I observe that the trick of the masters is to stay in that balanced place. Somebody else has probably already flogged the mood swing analogy to death by smashing the seat with a baseball bat. But I figured it out all on my own. And I did it by watching, and practicing and doing.

I can physically balance a little better too. And I’ve been reading the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld from the beginning. He’s in great part responsible for the mentally good days (this guy’s superpower was metaphor – many of which inspired this post). Which brings me to his observations about the drawbacks of one’s chosen life’s work being appreciated only posthumously. I want to know myself. Preferably before I die.

This is the direction I have now taken on the handbrake turn careening down this particularly steep stretch of the road of my life; I don’t need no respect from no boys. Nor do I need the authorization and/or appreciation of a man. For the first time in my life, I don’t need any man to take me seriously and it doesn’t hurt me if they don’t. It doesn’t matter to me.


So next, I get to figure out how to take myself seriously. But before I can take myself seriously, I don’t have to kill someone. Instead I just have to meet myself. Only, I just have to catch my attention first. At the rate this is taking, I’ll have learned by then how to survive the encounter with the swordswoman.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

It’s Called Geography

 “For a rule of the art is that its experts do not explain the reason and cause of the things they do in this matter by word but by deeds only, for they live everything to the consideration of reasoning of their pupils.”
-       Marc Peter Keane, The Japanese Tea Garden

The weird thing about trying to learn today about Japanese gardens, which were invented when Japanese monks traveled to see Chinese gardens and applied a Zen minimalism, is that you have to read books. That’s not the weird thing. The weird thing is that the way real Chinese and Japanese gardeners learned their craft was not by reading but by doing. And they didn’t have teachers that lectured. The apprentice just watched, and watched. As did Keane, to learn his art. The student has become the master, Grasshopper.

Then again, Terry Pratchett thinks you can take those goofy Zen riddles a bit too far. He says that the sound one hand clapping makes is something like “cl”. At any rate, here are some of my favorite books on the subject of Japanese and Chinese Gardening.

You can learn about large Japanese gardens in the Taschen (aka beautifully illustrated) book “Japanese Gardens: Right Angle and Natural Form” by Gunter Nitschke. It is a history book of (mostly) large garden spaces from their origins to the present day. One of the nicer things in this book is the interpretation of the principles accompanying the pictures of some of the most famous gardens in Japan. The thing I like best about it is that it includes a lot about the role of rocks in the garden, and in plants that mimic other forms in nature like plants and trees that mimic mountains and streams.

If you want to go back further, look into Chinese gardens. “Gardens of Longevity in China and Japan, by Pierre and Susanne Rambach. This is another lovely coffee-table picture book that could be used as an art history text because it explains how Chinese landscape painting was packed full of geomancy and symbolism. I believe to make an authentic Japanese garden you need to understand some of the theory that many early European students of Chinese art completely missed. From deconstructing the elaborate mountainside paintings to the calligraphically minimalist drawings, the authors then connect actual gardens to actual paintings. Some are large gardens and some are miniaturized versions. This book is one of the best at showing the relationship and cross-pollination of Chinese and Japanese.

If you want to skip the theory and just have a pretty, authentic Asian-inspired backyard garden or a small pot planted with a bonsai or entire miniature landscape including rocks, you go straight to projects. A good book for this is “Japanese Gardens in a Weekend” by Robert Ketchell. The subtitle says it all: Projects for 1, 2 or 3 weekends. Although I found them to be more like 1 -3 month- projects.

A better book is a mix of theory and practical projects: “The Art of Japanese Gardens: Designing & Making Your Own Peaceful Space, by Herb Gustafson. I have a paperback version of what I’m sure is even prettier in hardback. The book combines great illustrations, brief but thorough explanations, and excellent practical recommendations.

But my current favorite one is Kean’s tea garden book quoted above.  I first knew of him because he learned Japanese gardening in the traditional way and at one point was not only designing gardens in Kyoto, he was on the faculty at Kyoto University of Art and Design. His 2001 co-translation of one of the first written Japanese Garden books called the Sakuteiki, and later “Japanese Garden Design” which draws heavily on his own training and expertise to interpret these gardens from the inside out: from the intent of the designer.

My favorite thing that comes through in all these books is what drew me to these types of gardens in the first place. In order to create a garden that that encourages a sense of peace, you must include a sense of time - an indispensible part of the tradition of Japanese and Chines gardening. Landscape is something you can do over a weekend or two. If you want a place to go to find peace and stillness, a place to bring you into the present, you need a place that understands and expresses the past. You need a place where the stones are alive with the magic of the flora and fauna that have passed through their eyes like a speeded-up film over long periods of time.

Trees can live longer than people. Flowers can live for briefer periods. The land has been here since it’s been here. As Terry Pratchett says in Wyrd Sisters when the Kingdom is getting angry because the new king doesn’t like it, two witches discuss the problem:

“…How come this one takes offense all of a sudden?”
”It’s been here a long time,” said Granny.
“So’s everywhere,” said Nanny…”Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there. It’s called geography.”
“That’s just about land,’ said Granny. “It’s not the same as a kingdom. A kingdom is made up of all sorts of things. Ideas. Loyalties. Memories. It all sort of exists together. And then all these things create some kind of life made up of everything that’s alive and what they’re thinking. And what the people before them though.”

My backyard is succumbing to the drought. Our once large waterfall has been made into a tiny tumble over some rocks waving with hair algae – not a good thing. The pond cannot support koi because it is built on decomposing granite and is barely two feet deep. Koi need four feet of depth to hide from predatory (and protected) wildlife like migrating egrets. I’ve had a few.

My tiny tsukubai recirculating pump quit working months ago and the thyme that had strugled in poverty for years finally pulled up its roots and migrated. That’s my story anyway. I can no longer hear the splash of the water like I could when my bedroom door was feet away. Not only am I practically deaf, I sleep at the other end of the house now.  But I want to see it, and the hummingbirds it attracts when the water is running.

I debated getting a shishi-odoshi. I could hear the thunk on the rock and recall that sound from one we had further back in the garden years ago. Not only did it quit working, the electrical line powering its pump has been cut and the old original pond has become a bog that supports water plants and has lured a few unsuspecting visitors who mistake the covering of azolla for a solid lawn.  But that would take more room, and require a bigger investment of my limited energy because I’d have to install a pool liner to cover a larger spill area. Higher maintenance and higher evaporation loss are no longer options.

So I finally confirmed my earlier troubleshooting: the pump was dead. I got a new pump and carelessly didn’t realize it wasn’t powerful enough to lift the water up the 30” pipe to drip into the stone basin.

I’m going to try Korean grass based on my theory that it’s fatter and acts like its own mulch and maybe won’t let the ground get so dry like the doomed thyme. I’ve also got some chicken manure, some steer manure and some topsoil to add to the sorry dead dirt. I want to take the stupid micro spray heads that surround the perimeter sticking up 6 inches like mutant black plastic sentinels from some animae nightmare, and plant them deeper to be more level with the ground so they don’t spoil the entire effect.

My goal is to get out and use my newly flexible limbs to garden again, to get some sunshine after a dark winter, to get my fingernails dirty and to make a modest place for some peace, and to soak in some time.  I guess that’s more than one goal. And since I just decided to replace the old splitting bamboo, I now have to wait a week for the internets to bring me a new one. My beautifully aged Natsume basin is worn smooth with a patina of age that has turned the once factory looking grey concrete a deep black. Too bad I can’t grow moss in this climate.

My longer term goal is to have a small tsukubai garden with properly named and placed stones, and the deeply symbolic and appropriate three-friends of winter planting: a pine, a plum, and a bamboo. I’m going to have to replace that impractical weeping cherry with a western redbud and try to figure out how to prune it into a dwarf size to fit the small garden. Time for that later. Meanwhile, it will be another ten years for the black pine to catch up while keeping the small but spreading bamboo from swallowing everything. Plenty of time for a fast-growing redbud to thrive.

I am not in a hurry to make this happen because I’m willing to invest some time into making a drought tolerant yet traditionally Japanese space that looks like it’s been around a while and that will be around a little while longer. Someplace that looks like it’s been here ever since it was first put here.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Beginning of the End

"Closing time
Time for you to go out to the places you will be from
Closing time
This room won't be open till your brothers or your sisters come
So gather up your jackets, move it to the exits
I hope you have found a friend
Closing time
Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."
 - Semisonic, Closing Time

Time is the slayer. It takes all we love and then it takes us. Time is the healer. It assuages the pain of loss and then is stops the pain. Not ironically, so does alcohol, particularly at the beginning or the end. Or, the middle.

We are the characters in the dramatic irony that is life. According to the Google, dramatic irony is “a literary technique, originally used in Greek tragedy, by which the full significance of a character's words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.”  The joke is on us. We are the punch line in the play that is life.  And here I thought irony was supposed to be funny.

I would love to sit and chat about this, but that cabbage isn’t going to ferment itself into sauerkraut. No, that’s actually not a factually untrue metaphor. I have some lovely cabbages harvested from the garden yesterday. The cabbage, aged to perfection, will end in sauerkraut.

I have to get the cabbage shredded and add caraway seeds. Now, that’s a metaphor, bitches.

Photo credit: Derek Galon, his photo homage to Adrian Brouwer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

What You Should Have Done

"I’m not religious, but at the end of my life I wouldn’t mind hearing a deep, resounding voice telling me what it was I should have done. I wonder what he’d say."
 - Nobody here  (A lovely, visit-worthy site)

If I could ask each of my dead parents and my dead husband one question is would be:
Mom, did you believe in God?
Dad, were you satisfied?
Husband, were you ever happy?

No questions about regrets. No why or what-ifs. Just yes/no questions. 

But, what an amazing question is: what should I have done? Assuming that by the time I die I won’t be so far gone into dementia that I don’t notice I’ve woken up dead, what will that voice tell me?

Would the voice behind the wagging finger say I should have tried harder? Been better, done more, made a bigger difference. What if the answer is mundane?

You should have kept trying to perfects that violet cookie recipe until your cookies tasted like the Fortnum & Mason violet cookies. You should have got a tattoo referencing some lame TV show character’s memorable one-liner. You should have learned Latin, told more jokes, read better books.

What if the answer was tragically consequential?

You should have followed up that idea about creating a time machine using dremel tools and cookie tins. You could have saved the world from the genocidal megalomaniac Genghis Hitler and his evil minions in 3025. You should have picked up that hitchhiker, you should have taken up ice sculpture. You should have looked in the rear-view mirror just a minute ago.

My best guess is that the deep resounding voice will be saying I told you so.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Why I Didn’t Go to the Gym

For life is quite absurd
And death's the final word
You must always face the curtain with a bow
Forget about your sin - give the audience a grin
Enjoy it - it's your last chance anyhow.
 - Monty Python, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I spent Wednesday and Thursday trying to keep my heart rhythm steady and intermittently failing. I awoke on Friday to atrial fibrillation that had increased in intensity, duration and frequency. I packed a go-bag, put on comfortable socks and shoes and the only button-front shirt I have and went back to bed. At 9:00 I had an episode so extreme that my pulse was in the 160s and I heard the most charming ringing in my ears: like waves lapping the shore gently. After the second such episode, accompanied by the usual dizziness and flop sweat, I made sure some lights were on and the cat food bowl and water bowls were filled. At 9:30 I called for an ambulance and waited on the bench by the front door.

In the ER at one point, while the doc was talking to me to get the history of this latest episode, his eyes kept straying to the monitor that showed my heart rate bouncing around the low to mid-100s, and he finally said, as much as I’d like to keep discussing this, I think we better get some medicine into you right now. The rest of my day was spent attached to a drip in the ER waiting for my heart rate to “convert” to normal sinus rhythm.

I did have the best room in the house. Some fun facts: I was next door to the corner cubicle – the one that can be locked from the outside – where they put dangerous people. I could see the monitor at the nurses’ station that showed the poor girl inside the room, scrunched up and hugging herself and looking frightened and alone, and watching the guard through the window in the door. He was watching her back with as much empathy as a lion watching an old gazelle who has not kept up with the herd.

Because this is flu season and the joint was jumping, most of the staff were wearing face masks. I learned that I rely much more than I thought on reading lips; and yet I could clearly hear the man in an adjacent cubicle telling his beleaguered wife nobody was paying attention to him, while she murmured with saintly patience that they seemed kinda busy.

I saw a guy from Central Casting wheeled in with what even I could diagnose as a drug overdose, head lolling and minimally responsive but clearly feeling no pain.

The drill at Kaiser is that when you present with heart symptoms, they want a chest x-ray, which I routinely decline. Then they want to send you to nuclear medicine for a 4-hour test where they inject something radioactive and then give you a package of ten-year-old Lorna Doons while you wait with a bunch of old people in hospital gowns for the radioactive stuff and cookies to settle in, and then they give you a 5 minute scan showing how radioactive your heart is – which I also know to decline.

Then, after not feeding you anything all day, they decide to admit you for overnight observation. This time I was in my room by 6:00 and in a wing of the old hospital I’d never seen before. Believe me, I’ve seen enough of this place. I finally scored some dinner and was settling down to sleep when another patient was brought into the room loudly complaining that she wanted a private room because the other person always kept her up. She then proceeded to keep me up.

It may be counterintuitive, but when you spend an entire day with your heart rate averaging 120, you are exhausted and all you want to do is sleep. But you can’t. They wake you every 3 hours to make sure you don’t rest too well, aka, to take your vitals. At the 3:00 am check I asked the nurse if she could get the lab people in for the early blood test since I was already awake (that’s how well I know this drill). She explained that their practice was to wait about 30 minutes until you got back to sleep before the lab people came in.  Then, 30 minutes after that, roommate has to use the toilet which takes her past my bed. Believe it or not, she was complaining about hating to share a room with a noisy roommate as she passed my bed. I gave serious consideration to clocking her with my tiny complimentary toothpaste tube when she left the toilet to return to her bed.

By the time breakfast was served at 7:30 (why?) I had the distinct pleasure of waking up my roommate by asking when I’d see the doctor and then apologizing for speaking so loudly because I’d forgotten to put my hearing aid in. Oops. I was discharged just before lunch with instructions to double my dose of Lopressor. My copay for the day was $65, up from $50 the last time this happened, but still cheaper than La Quinta and dinner and breakfast at Denny’s.

The taxi driver told me on the ride home that if he had a couple of million dollars he’d remarry and have two wives. I asked, wouldn’t that cause fights in the house. His sanguine reply was that if his wife ever fought, he’d simply not feed her until she behaved. Like he cooks, you know? He gave me his card in case I ever wanted another $50 ride with free offensive commentary.

I was home by noon on Saturday, trying to decide how much salt not to put on my cheese sandwich for lunch. I had potato chips on the side.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Get Up

“Get up get up get up
No time to rest or run for cover.
Get up get up get up
Before the road pulls you under.
Knock the breath out of your madness.
Burn your photographs at the edges.
Send your heart back from where you left it.

Took a long way to come here
Got a long way to go
Climbing up switchbacks
Walking through tall grass the color of matches.”
 - Caitlin Canty, Get Up

At the moment, the only difference between a madman and me is that I have no penis. If I were bipolar, I’d be on my spin cycle. I feel like those washing machines that walk across the basement floor when they’re on spin because they’re so unbalanced. But I’m standing up.

A few days before Xmas, I wrote that I was surprised at how much it hurt, or to be more precise, the way it hurt. Not like a sharp pain, but like the way I describe the occasional “discomfort” of pressure in my bumpy heart to my cardiologist. It is all perfectly bearable; it’s possible to work your entire life around it to accommodate until it becomes part of your day. It’s a sadness so gentle that I can manage to not realize it for hours. Like my pinky fingers, swollen and distorted with arthritis, but painful only when I forgot to not use them for anything more challenging than touch-typing.

I think what predominately occupies my mind now – when I can’t manage to distract myself by not cleaning the litter boxes – is how we can go about our finite lives knowing they all end. How do we ignore this impossibly big and inevitable fact until we sit with a loved one and hold their warm hand, and keep holding it as it grows cold and still with death? How does this not overshadow everything all day long? All I could say was “wow”, not even in capital letters, or exclamation marks. Just a very small, amazed, soft, wow. This happened.

Now, past the first month of the first new year of my life, I’m ready to forget some of the negative stuff. But I’ll never forget him. Apparently however, when you go through a major life change, you have to mark the occasion by doing more than buying a new couch and living room rug, or even joining a gym. My new mission statement has something to do with my determination to be less negative, which is something he would recommend.

But for the moment, I feel as equipped to do that, as an octuple-amputee octopus is to open the combination lock to a safe. Even if I knew the combination, I’m not sure I could stop wobbling long enough to do it. I know how to do snark, but being nice isn’t something I have much practice at. Perhaps I should practice mixing a martini with the power of my mind alone. That might be easier than trying to be kind.

Being positive doesn’t mean being relentlessly happy. I have to keep reminding myself that I got this. Happiness is overrated - happiness without sadness would be boring, I’m going for contentment. It’s what I’ve waited for much of my life: retiring from having to take care of somebody else. The good part is that I don’t have to keep looking back and slowing down, and I don’t have to carry a dead weight. The bad part is that now that I’m up, I’ve just realized I don’t have a map.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Hey Superbowl!

"He did well, but he would have done much better if he had somebody with him who knew the score instead of all those crew-cut college boys in their silk suits."
Robert F. Kennedy, The Enemy Within

I don’t know who is playing. I don’t plan to pick up a 55 gallon drum of bean dip at Costco for my superbowl party.

I don’t care who wins. I don’t care what the score is. 

I don’t even care about the commercials because, well, commercials.