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Notably Quoted

It’s good for an artist to try things. It’s good for an artist to be ridiculous.
Sheila Heti in How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life (p. 18)

Administration

Take These Wings & Learn To Fly

I first became acquainted with the writings of Nick Hornby in 2000 after seeing High Fidelity, the movie version of his first novel. John Cusack played the lead character, Rob Gordon, who, at least in the movie version, began by asking:

What came first, the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?

Well, as you might suspect, the story line revolves around the “heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss” of relationships. Rob spends a great deal of time in a self-discovery mode, visiting one former girlfriend after another to learn about what went wrong in his previous relationships. Although the Rob character is fairly self-absorbed, obsessing over such things as Top 5 Lists and the Perfect Compilation Tape (they didn’t have iPod playlists six years ago), I found him a rather endearing character as he bumbled his way through his romantic adventures. I was pretty taken with the movie (seeing it a couple of times in the theatre) and went ahead and bought the novel later, something I rarely, rarely do.

Hugh Grant starred in the movie version of About A Boy, as you might recall, and, as far as I know, Horby’s third novel How To Be Good has not (yet) been made into a film. A fourth novel, A Long Way Down, was published in 2005, and I just finished reading it.

The story in A Long Way Down is told from the perspectives of the four primary characters, one after the other throughout the entire book. There are not really four different “voices,” though, as Hornby seems to make little effort to provide identifiable narrative styles for the various players, just obviously unique views of the world.

The setting for A Long Way Down is London, and the main characters are Martin (a former morning television personality, down on his luck after sleeping with a 15-year old, going to prison, and losing his marriage and kids in the resulting scandal); Maureen (a middle-aged single female, whose only son is severely disabled and unable to take care of himself; she is the primary caregiver and has no other life); Jess (a confused and rebellious young female, daughter of a highly-placed British politician); and JJ (a young male American rock musician, whose band has just broken up). Not knowing one another, they, coincidentally, find themselves on the roof of a tall building on New Year’s Eve, all there with suicidal intent.

Well, with all those people up there at the same time, their individual plans obviously don’t work out. They collectively talk themselves down from the roof, making up the excuse that they need to find and confront Jess’ former boyfriend.

These four really aren’t very endearing characters, as was (John Cusack’s) Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, or (Hugh Grant’s) Will Freeman in About a Boy. Still, Hornby’s ability to spin a tale, I guess, is the reason I kept reading about these lonely losers. (Each was rather like an individual train-wreck about to happen, reminiscent of the title character in that new NBC series, “My Name is Earl.”) After their time together on that almost-fateful New Year’s Eve, they keep in touch, go on a vacation together, and generally support one another through each other’s hard times, even though, as portrayed, these folks were individuals I personally would not seek out as friends.

However, in the final analysis, they are their own support group. And even though they, well, suck at it, the story suggests that somehow it seems to work to have others in your life that care, if only a little bit, or are only moderately adept at demonstrating it. The group gave themselves ninety days to hang together, to see where their lives were at the end of that time. As the book ends, at the conclusion of that time period, none of them is in the same emotional space. Their lives are not “resolved,” but things are noticeably different.

I never have been suicidal myself. But, I have certainly had my down times, when I’ve needed someone to talk to, someone to support me. Sometimes, rarely, there isn’t anybody around to talk to. Usually, though, I’ve been able to find somebody to support me through difficult periods.

I have a new, young friend in need of support right now. She is experiencing the loss of a significant other, is scared about the prospects ahead, and feeling lonely. She has asked for my support, and I am delighted to provide what I can. We are all, ultimately, alone in this existence, but we don’t need to face everything alone. We need each other. We need to find each other. And, we should ask for help when we need it.

Our struggles, and our pain, are what make us human. They are what make us strong. We are all incredibly resilient, and this is how we grow. No matter what our level of pain, at some point, we are able to mend our broken wings and fly again. 

Soundtrack Suggestion

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

(“Blackbird” - Lennon/McCartney)

Amazing Grace

Man, woman, birth, death, infinity. What is this business of living, anyway? Isn’t this existence just a total mystery? If things are totally clear to you, congratulations, for I have to admit, I’m sure having a heckfire of a time figuring things out.

Why didn’t I die during my drinking days? How did I make it through the Vietnam era without suffering a bloody, painful death in a jungle a million miles away from home? How did I luck out with a mere kidney stone, having been diagnosed with bladder cancer by two doctors one night in the emergency room? How have I made it through my depressing times of relationship and job loss?

I may be living in a state of grace, but I am still having problems figuring out why I am here. Is life totally about love and work? Is that what we’re all really here for? Do those things sum up our existence? Are they reasons enough to be born?

Surely, for love, I suspect that is the case. I fell in love with and, in my heart, “adopted” three young people (my significant-other’s kids) during the course of a years-long relationship that I have referred to in other essays here. One of those kids, two years ago, on January 9, 2004, had a child of her own. I had an incredible “first” (for me) of holding this infant at the age of six hours. This was a totally-wonderful experience, and something, at age 56, I was not ever expecting I’d have the opportunity to do. I was enchanted, enthralled, delighted, thrilled, and even a little scared. I was immediately drawn to this little one named Grace. Grace’s second birthday is coming up and I’ll not be there, now being separated from her grandmother for some months now—and no longer a part of the family circle.

I miss Grace, her mom, her uncles, and her grandmother. Even absent from them, I love them all, and send them light and love across the miles from where I reside here in Portland.

Birth. Life. Living. Loving.

Grace.

Amazing.

State of Grace

It happened on August 13, 1983. (My goodness, it’s been quite a long time ago now.) The unbelievable, unthinkable words were penetrating my clouded brain. “Mr. Arnold, I’m sorry, you are under arrest for driving under the influence of intoxicants. Would you turn around, please, place your hands on top of the vehicle, and spread your legs? You have the right to remain silent…”

With these words (as best as I remember them), I started down a path I wouldn’t have believed. The journey took me into a small-town police station and court room, a court-appointed alcohol evaluator’s office, an alcohol and drug education program, and a treatment group every Tuesday evening for months. Along the way I shed a lot of tears and took a very hard look at the way I’d been living.

That night, in Junction City, Oregon, as I was starting on my way home to Corvallis after an evening at the Scandinavian Festival, I flunked the field sobriety test in spectacular fashion. Although, at the time, I was in the process of obtaining my third college degree (a master’s degree in counseling), I found it impossible to recite the alphabet. Walking a straight line was out of the question. As I rode to the police station, handcuffed, alone in the back of the police car, what was happening didn’t seem real. I was, after all, quite intoxicated. Then, sitting in an obscure corner of that tiny station-house, I waited patiently for the sergeant to prepare the breathalyzer machine. I became confused when explained my rights about taking the test. I asked for them to be repeated. When I understood that I would lose my license automatically if I didn’t submit to the procedure, I agreed.

The results were impressive. (At least I was impressed.) I blew a blood-alcohol level of 0.19%, almost twice the statutory limit of 0.10% that was considered evidence of intoxication at the time.

“I’m releasing you on your own recognizance tonight, Mr. Arnold…”

Ok, so at least I don’t have to spend the night in jail, I thought. And I won’t have to come up with bail money in the middle of the night. As I stepped out into the cool, early morning air, I sat down on the sidewalk in front of the police station…

and promptly started sobbing.

Geez, how did I get into this mess? (I never intended any of this, you know.)

I had started drinking when I was in high school. In the small town in northern Wisconsin where I grew up, it was a pretty “in” thing to do, at least with my crowd. And during my marriage, which lasted the span of my twenties, I entered deeper into the world of chemical coping. To treat the problem I had with chronic tension headaches, I took Valium every day for over seven years. The doctors I consulted advised this route as a means of treating my affliction—and I had trusted them. In my late twenties, just about the time that I was deciding that I could and would end my marriage, my headaches improved and I was able to eliminate my need for the drug.

I thought.

My life as a perpetually-partying, single male was quite a contrast to the life I had had as a neurotic, withdrawn, Valium-dependent married person. I went back to the drinking that I had given up during the years of Valium involvement. (I had heeded the warnings about the combined effects of Valium and alcohol; the last thing my headaches needed was alcohol to magnify their intensity.) Alcohol and socializing went hand in hand during the first few years of my new single life, as they had earlier during my high school and college years.

I elected the state’s diversion program available to first-time DUII offenders. I had talked to some friends that seemed to know about such things and explained that I probably would “get off” by attending an alcohol education group; I might also have to continue on into a treatment group after that—but that was for “alcoholics.” Surely that wasn’t me.

My court-appointed acohol evaluator took a look at my involvement with Valium and alcohol from the information I supplied and labeled me a “problem drinker,” however. I was stunned. (I had not even been totally truthful about my drinking—and she still thought I had a problem!) I was particularly curious—and disturbed—how my Valium history was linked to my involvement with alcohol.

When I got to the five-week alcohol education group, I was determined to demonstrate my “responsibility” with respect to alcohol use. Although the information presented was quite on-target, I wasn’t able to fully grasp or admit how much of it applied to my own situation. At the conclusion of the group, my stated plan for handling drinking was the goal of controlling it.

When the staff recommendations were discussed on the last day of group, I was stunned. “And, Jim, we advise that you continue for a minimum of six months of weekly treatment group. You can have an appointment with me at 2:00 p.m. next Thursday to discuss what will best fit into your schedule.”

I didn’t really think she could possibly be serious. Was she talking to me?

“What? Just like that you sentence me to six more months? What is this anyway? Why are you doing this to me? Isn’t this negotiable?”

It looked like my stated goal of controlled drinking wasn’t going to satisfy these folks. I thought, Yeah, I know what you want. You want me to say I’ll quit drinking. Well, I don’t need to quit!

I left the group room angrily that day.

But… something was happening here. I was definitely being told that my use of alcohol was much more serious than I had ever admitted. Eventually, days later, my emotions settled down. Could they be right? Was I (gasp) an alcoholic?

I started the treatment group a couple weeks later. The same woman who had facilitated my education group was facilitating the group that fit into my schedule.

What a group!

As we went around for the initial introductions, my assessment was that everyone there had a much more serious problem than me.

I really resent this, I thought.

During the second week of the group I had an individual appointment with the facilitator. She recommended that I spend some time with the psychiatrist on the staff—that maybe he could offer some insights into my situation that I had not considered. I resisted, she insisted. I finally agreed to pay for a quarter hour of psychiatrist time.

Which was a turning point for me in this whole story, I guess.

The doctor I saw turned out to be OK. With my degrees in chemistry and my studies in counseling, I felt that I had something in common with him. He wasn’t there to analyze me; the hour I spent with him turned out to be quite educational and illuminating. I finally was able to listen to explanations about how my body had become dependent on the sedation it had been receiving during all those years of Valium and alcohol. And that I was, as a human being, OK. After all, I hadn’t really set out to become drug-dependent. That’s just the way it turned out.

Oh…

During this meeting and afterwards, I gradually began to become aware that if I wanted to live the way that was consistent with my self-image, I’d have to stop the alcohol altogether. What a realization! I didn’t need alcohol to have a good time—or to cope with life.

During the six months that I attended the group, I became, more or less, its co-facilitator. I became heavily invested in changing my alcohol habit to fit the healthier lifestyle that I had started the year before I’d applied to graduate school as a counselor. And I wanted to assist the other group members in this quest.

Along the way, however, I saw that just about everybody else was stuck back at the stage I had been—not really convinced of their problem. Yes, they said many things otherwise, but not persuasively.

Well, that was their problem. I knew what I wanted to do for me, so I proceeded to do just that. It was clear to me even before the treatment group was halfway over that I needed to stop drinking—totally. None of this Controlled Drinking Thinking. I realized that because of the physical tolerance I had developed I would be back at old levels of consumption if I chose to begin drinking again.

I didn’t want that then. I don’t want that ever again.

Was my treatment group a brainwashing experience? Who knows, maybe it was. To me, it doesn’t matter. What I do know is that my life has been much more fulfilling and manageable since that decision. From what I’ve seen and heard, though, I’ve had a pretty easy time of it—at least with kicking the habit. Once I decided that quitting drinking was the route I needed to go, pretty much all the rest fell into place. I’m not the white-knuckled sober drunk. I haven’t attended the meetings to stay straight. I just don’t drink anymore. Period.

Despite my initial resistance, I feel that I was very gently led into sobriety, and for that I’m thankful. Every person I encountered along this particular journey was understanding and respectful. The police officer, the judge, the alcohol evaluator, the education and treatment group facilitator, the psychiatrist—all treated me extremely well. And all the others in my life have been supportive; what a relief!

This whole experience has led me to a totally new way of living, though the personal issues that led me to substance abuse have cropped up from time to time. My control, my perfectionism, my anger… I continue to work on these and other concerns to try to make my life more manageable.

If I hadn’t had the good fortune to be arrested, I might not be alive today. I’ve come to believe that I was (and am) living in a state of grace. Perhaps, even, with a guardian angel attached. I don’t know how else to explain this outcome. I had driven drunk countless times and who knows what would have been my fate if I hadn’t been allowed to learn all this, in this way.

Zwischenraum

Yes: Zwischenraum. That’s probably a very appropriate term for my life on this New Year’s Day. As I learned from reading The Painted Drum, Zwischenraum is literally “the space between things.” Or, perhaps another descriptor for my existence right now is limbo — “a state where nothing can be done until something else happens.”

Might I be just plain stuck?

I don’t know. I am, all the time, trying to make something else happen.

Well, whatever I am, wherever I am: Here I am.

I am not in a relationship. After seven-plus turbulent years, during which time I experienced repeated rejection and heartbreak, I became unattached again, apparently permanently, last spring. I have been mourning the loss of that relationship, the loss of her, and the dream of being with her, ever since, waiting for a time when I feel I’m healed and that it’s possible to move on. I’m in as in-between a place, relationship-wise, as one can be. I want to be healthier than I am; but, alas, this is what’s going on.

And, I’m in a temporary job. It happens to be a really good temporary job, but it’s a transitional one nonetheless, simply by its designation as “interim.” I am giving it absolutely the best effort I am able, but I feel perpetually unsettled, and not entirely wanted. I have been in this in-between condition professionally for two years now. The Oregon State Board of Higher Education was replaced by the Governor in the fall of 2003, and it became apparent early in 2004 that significant changes were going to be happening in the Chancellor’s Office at the direction of the new Board. So, from late 2003 until the present day, I have been leading a work life fraught with ambiguity, with no place to really call “home” professionally.

At work and at home, for months (or years…how, actually, should I count?) I have felt rejection. And, the job-search process I continue with is, practically by definition, an activity set up to perpetuate this feeling. I experienced another huge rejection two weeks ago as I came in second place in yet another search process.

Sigmund Freud has been quoted as saying that “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” Another quote also attributed to him is “love and work...work and love, that’s all there is.”

If love and work, are, indeed, what defines our existence, then maybe it’s no wonder that I am feeling so off-center. I am not at all solid in either of these life dimensions at the moment, and I don’t know exactly when things will be changing.

But, still, I continue to get up in the morning, displaying a sincere curiosity about what the new day (and, now, the new year) will bring. Life is about the journey, so the saying goes. And, I need to remind myself, as Ram Dass advises, that “it’s all perfect.” I know that I am doing some good in this world, even in this place between things. I know that I am present for others and making some responsible, positive changes around me, despite my Zwischenraum state.

Here is a passage from Ram Dass’ “The Seasons of Our Lives” 1977 speech that I have on an old audio-tape. It is something that I find comforting to refer to in times like these:

But I say to you very simply, and very directly, what happens to another human being in your presence is a function of who you are, not what you know. And who you are is everything that you’ve ever done and all the evolution that has occurred thus far. Your being is right on the line every time you meet another human being. And what they get from you through all the words of love or kindness or giving is very simply a function of your own level of evolution. And the injunction given to the physician “heal thyself,” is right at the mark because we are here to talk about our own work on ourselves, because that is our gift to each other and it’s also what we’re doing here on earth in the first place.

My guru used to say to me, “don’t you see that it’s all perfect?”

The implication of “perfect,” if you want to deal with the concept of God…if I say…“God, what are you doing, why are you screwing up?” …I, who have this little teeny limited vision, mainly controlled by my rational mind, which is a little subsystem of a little subsystem, it isn’t even a very interesting way of knowing the universe, I sit there like this little ant on an elephant and say to him “you really blew it that time.” I say “you really blew it that time” – you know where I say that from? – I’m saying it from my own fear of death…

If I’m attached to you being other than the way you are now, I’m saying to God, “if I had made him, I would have made him different than he is now,” and I forgot my guru saying “don’t you see that it’s all perfect.” What we do for each other is we create a space, by not clinging to models, we create a space that allows each other to do what we need to do…we each have our own work to do in this incarnation.


Yes, I believe that I am doing my work in this incarnation. And, I believe that it is serious work. I simply wish, at times like these, that I had a more profound understanding of this universe and my place in it.

On this day of transition, I ask the universe for the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.

Life Will Break You

I can’t believe that winter break is almost over. For the last week the campus has been closed, so faculty and staff have been able to go their own ways to celebrate whatever version of the holidays they choose. My time has been spent, for the most part, in solitude: I have cleaned house, run errands, written job applications, sent out and replied to emails, taken naps and hot baths, gone on long walks, made up new playlists, Photoshopped pictures, driven to Albany for lunch, and, generally, tried to relax. (With only modest success on that last item, I might add, despite the apparently-leisurely, non-work schedule!)

Also, I just finished a novel that I spent a little time with each day: The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. I learned of this book by listening to NPR on Sunday morning, October 2, 2005 , and I immediately ordered a copy from Amazon.com . I admit I had never heard of Erdrich before, even though she has published several novels. I was intrigued, though, during the NPR piece, by the description of the story, as well as by Erdrich’s voice. The NPR website indicates that “novelist Louise Erdrich returns to the Ojibwe world in her latest work, but The Painted Drum also explores human relationships.” In my post of December 18th, I mention my attraction to works that explore the human condition, and this book certainly fits that category. I was totally drawn into the narrative, as Erdrich proves to be an incredibly-skilled storyteller.

Erdrich has published other novels with Native American themes and characters; this is not typically subject matter that I’d be attracted to. So, without having heard the brief description on NPR, I’m fairly certain that this book would not have leapt off the bookstore shelf at me. I am immensely gratified to have been listening to Liane Hansen that Sunday morning, though.

As I’ve indicated in another essay, I’m not really interested in doing book reports, per se . And, I’ll certainly leave literary criticism to those more suited for such activity, such as my good friend the Dean of Humanities. I found several things about The Painted Drum to be extremely compelling, however. The theme of loss was pervasive, exemplified, in part, by the deaths of a couple of young girls, a marriage torn apart by betrayal, and the diminishing eyesight of one character who had fought in the Gulf War. The complexities of the relationships, and the connections between, children and parents were also featured elements. And, too, the distance-closeness aspects of the relationship between Faye (one of the narrators) and Kurt, her free-spirited artist friend-and-lover, were explored. All these dimensions, and many more, are to be found in the context of this story of a mystical, magical drum, believed to be a “living thing.”

One of the reviewers of this book at Amazon.com says that “Louise Erdrich is a verbal artist. Through her carefully crafted prose, I could smell the dust rising from the prairie, hear the wind rustling the grass and feel the texture of the drum. The Painted Drum gives us a snapshot into the lives of people who must reconcile tradition with reality.” And I agree. Erdrich’s prose is absolutely lyrical. What hooked me was a paragraph she read during the NPR interview:

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could. (p. 274)

I had a phone conversation with my old friend J this afternoon, and, in recommending this book to her, offered to read this passage. My out-loud rendition, however, came up short. There is emotion and intensity in the above words that I dared not attempt. I held back, given our history I suppose.

Read this book. I doubt that you’ll be disappointed .