Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Anguished Memory...

I woke up early this morning and paged through the latest issue of Time Magazine. In it I found a recollection by Patti Davis, daughter of former President Ronald Reagan, sharing some of her thoughts and memories about her father. In just the few minutes it took to read the article the aching began. It rises fluidly from some unseen place deep inside of me. It has been a little over three-and-a-half years since my mother, Hildegard Warner, died. Even today the grief has not disappeared. What was for a time an almost inconsolable agony has softened over time, but it remains in languid dissipated form just under every thought, very sentence I write, every new experience I have.
There are just so many “should-haves” that still torture me late at night or now, early in the morning when I am alone with my thoughts. I cannot hear about dementia or read an article without reliving the moments of her terror as the world grew dark and unfamiliar. And I grew increasingly unable to protect her against my own fragile humanity. I wanted to be the perfect caregiver, but I wasn't. There were times I wanted to be absolved from all the responsibility even as I drove down I-90 towards Chicago. The fact that I didn't run away has more to do with her grace and bravery and her desperate need of me at those times and far less with any honor on my part.
Because I am a Psychology major I frequently encounter lectures and discussions surrounding the mental health of older adults and every time I contribute the tears still well up, my voice shakes... Whenever I encounter others who have traveled a similar journey their anguish vibrates inside of me, intensifying my own. I seldom speak of it today, most of my family and friends expect that I have moved on more successfully than this and to raise such issues would be to bring a level of disquiet into their perceptions of me that would only make this process of letting go worse. So I turn to my writing, and my recollections.
I wear the ring I gave her for her 50th birthday. Its tri-colored gold bands were a symbol of her three children. I received it from the nurse the afternoon she died – she had continued to wear it long after she discarded her other jewelry – just a few months shy of my own 50th birthday. As each new day and new experience unfolds I bring her with me – and somehow it cheers me to know that I can still bring new things to her, much like my brother, sister, and I did as children. From us her world expanded to become American. Today her eternity is still somehow gilded by my continued humanity. My memories of her and of my last journey with her into the hellhole of dementia will continue to tint the occasional blog here... my hope is that my words will honor her as she deserved. For me it will be the solace I cannot allow myself in my everyday world...

Friday, January 21, 2011

EXISTENTIALISM -- Reclaiming Faith

Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable. H. L. Mencken[1]

We shy away from it in our speech, masking its potency through the deception of semantics.  Unable to find its certainty within the person of the believer we cast it into the ether and pronounce it vapid – baseless.  Yet as we live and breathe it is inhered within us, forming upon a scaffold of rationality and emotion which hangs the whole of our experiences.  This ineffable reality, more experiential than rational, yet deeply involved in each thought is FAITH.
Its argument has consumed the philosophia of countless millennia, beginning in the primordial ooze that was the sight of our deliverance more than a quarter of a million years ago.  From the first stirrings of intellect upon the savannah, humanity found within itself a certainty beyond the senses – a reality no less sure than its very physical existence, but which spoke to it in terms known only to its very soul.  A surety and fidelity to one’s self and one’s abilities, it brought man forth out of darkness and surrendered itself to man’s inspection.  Was it not faith that catapulted the first hominids to stand erect and venture forth from their natal origins?  Who could argue that faced with the dulling reality of his finitude, man strove to make for himself a place upon the landscape of earth?
Faith is defined for us as belief in the absence of proof, a trust in a reality that is transcendent of the here-and-now and yet entirely steeped within it.  It is a paradox, for as Kierkegaard noted it is what lifts the single individual higher than the universal and defines this relationship to the universal in individual absolute terms .  What else could it do?  This extreme contingency is at the center of human existence.  We are bound heart and soul to the reality that is ours – we cannot escape its borders.  Nothing that can be conceived is conceived from without – as if there was somehow a separate whole than that which we occupy.  To a person, this would presume an absurdity – despite a solemn belief in a First Cause – a God.  Even as man gazes upon the vastness of infinity he does so bounded by his own subjectivity.
To the Deist this is understandable at its core as the great challenge of what is meant by being human.  For those of us that have experienced the magnitude of God, there is no faith – only certainty.  For us the experiential reality of finite existence is bound seamlessly to its origin in the infinite.  We cannot deny this eventuality any more than we would feel comfortable denying the existence of the entire earth even though we can only glimpse the horizon of our own environments.  But this word, this reality of faith, is not merely the purview of the Deist, for it is the inheritance and essence of every human, whether grounded in a belief of the Absolute or not.  Only history has divorced it from us. 
To better understand its belonging, we must first trace its departure.  For ancient man existence was bound inexorably to the time and tides of his needs.  Food, shelter, warmth and continuation soaked his every awareness and rooted it firmly in the present.  Yesterday’s feast no longer satiated his hunger and tomorrow’s meal was neither certain nor promised.  Yet even then there was faith – first in his hands as he chipped stone to fashion tools and later in his bonds to a community that had gathered primarily to ensure each their individual fulfillment.  In time this faith extended to his mind, his ability to scan the horizon and imagine his next move secure in the knowledge of every move that had preceded it.  This thinking, abstract as we might imagine it, had its roots firmly bound to the soil of his life, every waking moment that preceded the present one had brought him here and in his next step he exercised not only this utility of form but also the full weight of incommensurable faith.  For by his experience he had witnessed the inexactness of his science and the unparalleled complexity and capriciousness of his existence.  Yet he did not freeze upon that moment, riveted to a past, but instead stepped forth into his next present moment sure in the knowledge that he would construct what he could of it.
In time these communities worked beyond their imminent needs to establish permanent bases of operations and in that coming together arrived at a measure of safety that allowed for the ideation of the greater realities that surrounded them.  Here too, they exercised faith, as they sought to answer the greater questions of what had brought them to their moment of realization.  Before every new discovery there had to be a fidelity to their ability to perceive and make use of the information.  For one such community – that of the Hebraic tradition – this fidelity took the form of action.  Faith was a lived experience exemplified by actions that kept each of its tenets firmly rooted in the lived consciousness of its individuals.  Yet here again we are speaking, not of an ethereally perceived concept, but a living, breathing expression of a community that felt its commitments upon their backs as sure as any yoke. 
Perhaps it was inevitable that a crack was to appear in this relationship – a fall from grace, so to speak, that became manifest in the Hellenistic tradition of rationality that sought to separate humanity into a collection of selves instead of individuals.  Far from the violent, passion-filled interlocution with the Divine that characterized Hebraic tradition, Greek rationality set man upon himself – a dyad of reality that split desire from mind and made it to obey a hierarchically arranged order with the mind as pinnacle and the lived reality as secondary and, as such, inferior.  For the Greeks it was this objectivity that lifted man beyond his means and allowed him “critical and philosophical reflection upon the gods”. Faith became an object – a thing to be examined and nuanced and from this grew out its appearance as a propositional entity, something bound up in statements, creeds, systems. 
Yet even here can we see that despite the delusions of rationality as having an existence outside of the thinker, their remains the subjectivity that Sartre defined as “existence before essence” because even within the marbled towers upon which the Greek built his philia, it was imperative than humanity “exist, turn up, appear on the scene, and only afterwards, define itself”. Not to offend the Platonists and rationalists, it would seem to me to be a natural outgrowth of such existence that humanity would turn towards contemplation and introspection.  There is something to be said for the detachment they preached, for it is only in the process of detachment that man will ultimately find his most severe attachment – to himself as thinker and introspectionist.  Here perhaps, the Platonic myth of the Cave takes its most poignant meaning.  Once freed from his chains and allowed to walk from the cave-mouth and view the sun unburdened of his delusions, he is left to conclude that this sun – this mighty source of light – is nevertheless contained within his feeble and limited eyesight.  While construed originally as an allegory to underscore man’s delivery from the darkness of ignorance into the light of reason, it nonetheless brings man squarely back upon his beginning – that is, as the one who both perceived the reality of the cave and strove to evade it and as the one who exercises faith in his ability to walk unencumbered through its portal and be delivered. 
 Perhaps it was this acceptance of the unavoidable encountering of the self-that-thinks-as-one-surveys-“rational thought” that brought man temporarily back to a life lived faithfully within the traditions of early Christianity.  Yet the die had been cast for rationalism and it followed humanity into the church.  Was it perhaps the realization of the futility of climbing out of oneself that led to this revival?  Unable to cast off the flesh and blood of the thinker, the Church began the sublimation of that self-of-today in favor of a Divinely-promised tomorrow by its systematic regimentation of faith into a system.  In taking it out of the present tense and casting it far into the future, pinned upon a transcendent and incomprehensible hope, they hoped to contain the power of its passions.  At the same time the Church, under the guise of religion, claimed for itself the right to determine who among its members were of faith and who were not.  Yet, as Barrett observes,

“faith is…vital and indescribable and he who has it knows what it is; and perhaps also he who sincerely and painfully knows he is without it has some inkling of what it is, in its absence from a heart that feels itself dry and shriveled.

So despite the best efforts of both the rationalists to divide it and the Church to conquer it, faith remained within the individual, awaiting its reoccurrence and expression.  It was left to Augustine to once again pronounce faith and reason compatible and co-existent to spur the progress of its recognition forward into a new age.  Yet if we examine the lived reality of those early Christians, we are once again reminded of the physicality of faith – theirs was a literal and costly trust in the absence of surety, because they gave their very lives for its expression.  In the years following such a bloody and visceral living out of belief and trust, faith was held to be beyond reason, but never against or in spite of it.  Man’s ability to think, to reason and imagine would forever be equal to his existence and in many cases superior to it.  In laying these aspects out as equal while at the same time not acknowledging their common origin within the individual, humanity reaffirmed its own dichotomy and in many ways solidified its severance from the vitality of a lived reality of faith.
Banished to the domain of the priest and the enlightened, faith became for many something to strive for, a yearning for deliverance instead of an intrinsic acknowledgement of the scope of their own ability to conceive of their finitude and yet conquer its malaise.  By the time of the Reformation the natural realized faith of humanity had been configured into symbol and ritual alone.  Theologians dominated its discussion, and with the Protestant milieu upon them people of the time felt the nakedness of their existence.  Stripped of their inherent grasp of natural faith, and now rent from the rituals and symbols that had come to personify its echoes, humanity turned once more to the rational and now scientific realm to help fill the void of their longings for a connection to something larger and yet intrinsic to themselves.
Once science stood upon the stage of human endeavor and began to guide its motion forward, faith was soon relegated to an archaic and superstitious definition.  The factual condition of man’s being – man’s facticity as Sartre referred it – became both the subject and object of inquiry and analyses (Barrett, pg. 109).  The divorce was complete, albeit not final.  Although withered under the assault of rationalism and scientific derision, faith remained and blossomed anew with the dawning of Existentialist sentimentality.  How sad that this enlightenment resulted from an almost total annihilation of the supremacy of rationality and man as pinnacle being that was to mark the period of the 19th and early 20th century, a time that saw the world repeatedly shatter and regroup under the torrent of war, pestilence, poverty and despair.   However this rebirth had to follow the reemergence of labor pains – for just as it was originally born out of the danger and despair that marked the prehistoric times of early man, so too this new understanding and yearning had to be brought forth out of the morass of modernity and its incipient re-imagining of what was meant by humanity.  Faith emerges first out of trial, birthed in the depths of one’s soul and purified in the furnace of tribulation.  Only after one realizes the limits of one’s own existence can it blossom as a means of transport – to lift humanity back to its rightful place as the determiner of its own fate.  Comfort, for all it joy, encourages stagnation – an almost dreamlike stupor of bliss that conceals reality instead of marking its purpose.  Although it is unpopular to assert that suffering, in whatever form, is at the heart of progress, the distastefulness of this statement cannot overshadow its veracity.
      Faith implies movement – a stepping out unguarded by certainty, a becoming.  Kierkegaard knew this, stating that the reality of man was that he was at the very same moment rooted in subjective isolation and in the process of “coming to be”.  We must foreswear the quick definitions of religion or philosophy in accepting the challenge of becoming fully human and alive.  As long as we cede dominion over this term, this pregnant word-of-existence we remain infantile and powerless in the vast infinite universe – unable to effect a rescue and unwilling to acknowledge our participation in it.  Yet it is our subjectivity that gives life and breath to the vast chasms of stardust that swirl around us.  It is our meanings that will in the end deliver us to our ultimate destination – that of shaper and maker of our own design.  To remain stuck within the confines of formulaic certainty is to denude the very essence of what is meant by faith. 
As improbable as the dictates of faith may appear on the surface, what could possibly be more implausible than the reality of our own progression through the ages and our continued existence in our present day?  How much greater is the illogic of human emotion and caring than something as visceral and necessary as the exercise of a free and sentient being in the determination – without proof or precedent – of striving for its next moment?  We must reclaim faith from the archives and dictionaries and return it to its rightful place within the mind and heart of humanity.


[1] http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/H._L._Mencken/

Sunday, January 16, 2011

New Year...New Me

I know this blog is coming kind of late to the party, after all it's already the 16th of January, but it has taken me a bit longer than usual to gather my thoughts and aspirations for the new year ahead. Last year was so providential – signaling a major shift in both my and many of my closest circle's thoughts about our lives. Yet much of the year was also static, as thoughts gathered with no practicable outlet for their expression. This year will be different, as many of those gleanings are now able to be met with an equal amount of ability. For me and my life this ability centers on a couple of salient themes – financial, educational, nutritional, and definitional.
FINANCIAL - Our income, while limited, has become regulated and therefore consistent to the extent that a minimum monthly amount has been determined and a process for it's acquisition standardized. This allows me the freedom to plan ahead with certainty in matters regarding money. Because of this I have determined that 2011 is the year we finally distill a completely accurate picture of our total financial situation and gather the necessary information to draw up a reasonable plan-of-action in order to guarantee some measure of future financial security. This applies to everyone in our immediate family, but especially to Erhard and I, since our sons are all adults now and their plans and aspirations are clearly different from ours. They are setting out to regain their measure of financial independence while we are looking more to regaining our financial security. Yet and still there is much that can be achieved collectively and that will require several very intense and brutally honest conversations in the upcoming weeks ahead.
EDUCATIONAL – As of this last semester I have passed the halfway point in my immediate educational goal – that of attaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology. This last semester was the hardest of my school-related career and the mere fact that I didn't completely flake out is extremely rewarding to my self-image. I ended the semester with a 3.85 overall GPA and the awarding of lower-division honors. This semester I will complete the course requirements for upper division honors and once I finish my honor's project I will graduate with full University Honors in 2012. I know that by the end of this year Stephan will have his Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and both he and I will have taken our GRE's – the next step for both of us. I am anxiously awaiting the start of this next semester because the courses I am enrolled in are particularly interesting to me... they include Anthropology of Religion, Psychology of Sexuality, Elementary Statistics (actually a step up from the Basic Statistics class I took at Rock Valley College), and LGBT Studies (a survey course regarding Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender issues). I am also scheduled to begin hands-on research under my Psychology professor's mentoring – an exciting semester indeed!
NUTRITIONAL – It has now been two-and-a-half years since I began my health & fitness journey and a little over two years since I joined SparkPeople.com. These last few months I have found it extremely difficult to maintain my motivation and while I do not believe I have gained an inordinate amount of weight back I know that if I continue as I have been the weight will come back and I would be disconsolate. I began my fitness journey concentrating only on exercise and moved back into dieting only after I had been working out for a few weeks. This occurred naturally and almost without effort as I began to avoid greasy and overly processed foods because eating them while at the same time working out seemed utterly counterintuitive. Over time I began to pay greater attention to individual nutrients and once I had joined SparkPeople in November of 2008 I began to record my food intake in their online tracker. I continue to do this today, but there are days that pass without my tracking and then panicked catching-up follows. I know myself well enough to realize that when something becomes forced and obligatory I balk and what used to be a normal part of my day now feels contrived and banally difficult. This year I intend to reinvigorate my inner motivation to push beyond these bounds and once again rely more on exercise and allow my body to naturally discern what foods are best... I start this year somewhere between 172 and 185 pounds (my scale is not being at all informative on this matter, fluctuating wildly from day to day). By this time next year I want to weigh no more than 160 pounds – meaning that I will lose somewhere between 12 and 25 pounds over the next twelve months – certainly a doable and reasonable number. Going back to the YMCA will be a necessary step, as will checking out the NIU student health club. Lately, I have focused on my own potential longevity and in that vein I realize that getting as healthy as I possibly can is the single most important determinant under my control. While not uppermost in my mind at the present time, I know that quitting smoking is another goal I will eventually have to embrace.
DEFINITIONAL - The number one question in most of our lives comes down to this... Who exactly am I? Over time our definitions change and evolve, but being able to elucidate them can remain problematic through a dozen incarnations. So it has been with me. I know I am not the same person I was only a few years ago – sometimes radically so – but who exactly I am and am becoming is not as clear as what parts of me no longer apply. This is the year I turn prescient and use this foresight to underpin a new paradigm. This blog will become an essential component of this chronicling and hopefully its insights will be definitive and illuminating. At the very least this journal will articulate the journey in a way that only words to paper (or screen) can. Making the internal concrete is the first step in making it palpable and experiential. What is before me is available and manageable in a way that mere thought can never be. As such I intend to record far more here than I would normally externalize in the expectation that such exposure will allow those parts of me now hidden to flower. To that end I will upload both current and past writings. In order to reexamine exactly how each of them came to be and what each of them says I am opening those parts of my life up for commentary – because even as I shrink back from such audience, I know that it is exactly such objective analysis that can break open new insights that would otherwise remain hidden to me.
There is it – a new listing of goals and optimisms for 2011. Now on to the work they imply... 

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Not So Ancient History...12.29.2010


I did absolutely nothing yesterday, in direct opposition to what I had set out to accomplish...SIGH. Today has to be filled with something more...there are only two days left until this year ends and another begins. Two-thousand-eleven will arrive and with it the start of the second decade of the twenty-first century! What a time of recollection then these last few days bring on...of the last year, the last decade. So many things have happened...so much to recall! I know that one of my more “secret” goals is to start a blog this year, a general “just-me” blog not connected to either SparkPeople or Facebook or MySpace – but I am unsure of how to begin or where to go to find such a site... I have seen advertisements for blogger and Windows Live but getting the real scoop is one of my goals for these last two days of two-thousand-ten.
That's not to imply that I will stop writing on any of the other sites, I just want a place where I can feel free to pull it all together and also a chance to see if I could actually develop a following... I think I have a unique perspective and since I have always wanted to make at least part of my contribution to the world and my economic security via writing, this seems like a perfect opportunity. Lord knows I have a lot to say... I read others' writings and watch a myriad of non-fiction television and have yet to see myself reflected as well as I would like...there's always a bit too much “gloss” in the rest of what I see “out there”. My life doesn't look like that – even though I share many of the features of each and every other story there is always that part that seems absent – an absence of admission and/or recognition, I think.
I live in Rockford, Illinois – a town where many of the homes hover well below one-hundred thousand dollars and yet when I watch HGTV I get the distinct feeling they are completely unaware that we exist. I am a 53-year old full-time returning student at Northern Illinois University and O magazine really thinks I should outfit myself in $700 leather trench coats and designer blouses so that I can maximize “my look” - really? We live on a fixed income since my husband went on disability this last year – losing our insurances – all of them – life, health, you name it... no, we are still well above the poverty line but are still struggling to live at 40% of our former income. Yet I don't see many articles about us, only stories devoted to people much younger or much older. My husband is 60, too young for Social Security and too old to start over in a new career given the economic realities of our country. My three sons are in their 20's – two of them hold Bachelor's Degrees and the third will get his in the spring – yet only my oldest is employed, and he works for a large retailer in their merchandise pick-up department – hardly the career for which his degree was intended. Yet we do not appear on the government indices because none of us are unemployed in the way the government seems to think is worth noting. Over the past decade I have been the primary caregiver for both my mother until her death in 2007 and for my older brother while he was battling Wegener's. Just this fall I became my younger developmentally-disabled sister's legal guardian. Although there are many good sources of information for caregivers there is very little written about how one goes back to one's own life after these responsibilities wane through either death or recovery. The years I spent away dealing with their respective illnesses left me feeling very different when I ultimately returned to my “former” life.
Over the last two-and-a-half years I started working out again, diligently going to the YMCA until my husband's illness made affording even that impossible. My finding SparkPeople happened shortly after I started getting back in shape and the two years I have been a member have seen me lose 58 pounds and although I struggle like hell now to keep going I have maintained most of that weight loss longer than at any other time in my life. Look at pictures of me through the years and you will see that I am “accordion” woman – shrinking and widening like the folds of an accordion. But even here the constant “upbeat” mood of the site is only vaguely assuaged by the real stories I find on the message boards and most of the calorie-saving suggestions I find onsite are blatantly unrealistic – such as the one that stated you could save calories when eating a Big Mac by ordering it without sauce, cheese, or the middle bun – exactly how is that still a Big Mac? I get uncomfortable with the site's reliance on what I consider to be “fake food” - such as no-fat sour cream and mayonnaise – all chemicals and no food. Now I am also smart enough to realize that neither of these is patently “necessary” in anyone's diet, but I would rather eat less of these in their natural form than indulge in some convoluted facsimile.
I haven't even touched on my political and religious leanings – socially progressive and Roman Catholic – an odd mix if you look at either without the other. But I live both, a reality invisible in anything I read or watch on any kind of regular basis. Yet clearly here I am, trying to navigate the complexities of psychology and faith, ethics and dogma. I am both a social scientist and a devout spiritualist and I believe that my voice is not alone in the crowd – it just encompasses too tangled a web for any one dedicated site to contain. So I am embarking on a new journey, or heading in a new direction depending on how you look at life... since it can be said that no matter the path we take or where it leads, in a very real way all movement is forward. And there is more to me than even the details I have started to share here... a history that is at times quite graphic and gritty, layers of my personality that are not readily apparent to anyone, secrets I carry... but have gotten tired of keeping. All of these are fodder for the blog – each of them will speak to what it's like being a “real” person... light and dark, at times scarily dysfunctional on one level while maintaining complete competency in another... and sometimes living the middle ground between complete chaos and outstanding accomplishment – being ordinary. It could turn out to be a fascinating story or a complete bore – but either way it needs to see light. 

As the World Turns...

Just a few hours ago I was informed that our zodiac signs have been changed. Apparently the earth's orbit has wobbled us all out of our usual signs and into the one directly preceding them...this shouldn't bother me, I am not a particularly loyal follower of astrology, but it does...being a Virgo has, in fact become part of my identity.  The intensity with which I derided the news confounded even me.  How is it that something I only marginally adhere to could suddenly become so intrinsic in the wake of it's changing?  

First Thing First...


I have always wanted to write. For me the world is full of words and these words frame my every thought. They are magical, mystical and intimate. Some people view the world as a series of images, I see the world as a collection of stories, poems, essays. So this year I resolved to find a home for all these words...and here it is...