Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fear of Fear

I really have to get over this elevator thing. Fear of elevators, fear of flying, fear of high places--three long-time, debilitative personal phobias.

Pema Chödrön , in The Places That Scare You, on page 103, also wants to know more about "no fear."

"To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, " she says, "to that extent we dissolve our fear." (How am I struggling against uncertainty? Are my fears because I don't accept or embrace uncertainty or ambiguity?)

"The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment--wholehearted, open-minded interaction with our world," she continues. (I try to act wholeheartedly and open-mindedly with the world. I can't say, though, that that qualifies me as being "fully enlightened".)

"By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear."

Aha! There's the crux of the problem: relaxing with groundlessness.

Is that like stepping into an elevator en route to, say, the 57th floor, in a state of perfect calm, knowing the cables won't break and you'll go crashing to your death in a mechanical box, unable to escape? Or sitting in a plane, in a state of perfect calm, knowing the plane won't crash, sending you to your death in a mechanical tube, unable to escape except in small, scattered pieces? Or climbing the steps to some high, high place, in a state of perfect calm, knowing you won't get dizzy and fall and hit the pavement so hard you break and die? Even when I'm grasping onto a bannister or someone "holds" me or prevents me from falling, I still feel ungrounded being in high places (4th floor balconies, rooftops, stairwells).

"Connecting with a mind that knows no fear" -- what does Pema Chodron
mean by that?

I can see where one might overcome the fear of the Fear of something. Say you were once afraid of flying but somehow overcame that phobia and now no longer fear getting on a plane. That's not to say that if you were in an airplane whose engines suddenly quit or you realized your plane was headed into the side of a mountain during a storm, that you would necessarily be in a state of perfect calm, or "fearless".

I guess if one can accept and feel comfortable in total groundlessness (such as being okay with the fact that your time is up on this earth and this is the way you're going to exit, so you just shut your eyes and accept that it might not be quick and painless), then that is what Chodron means by "connecting with a mind that knows no fear."

Ha, easier said than done.

I realize that I am still very far from this mindset. Because look at my collective fears--they all occur when I am in a situation over which I have little or no control. I'm not "outside" the elevator or airplane, or "grounded" (i.e., I'm climbing up AWAY from the ground). I seem to have to be both grounded and free, able to move about without constraints, not in a mechanical box or tube from which I cannot immediately exit, or on a catwalk where I can't immediately step onto the ground again--otherwise I get claustrophobic, dizzy, or fearful.

And it seems intimately connected with the fear of death. Death is like going under anesthesia (which I also don't much like). Because it's the end of consciousness. You slip into a big, black Nothingness.

How does one let go of the need to be grounded? Of the need to know? to see and understand? to Be?

I have finally come to the point where I think I can relinquish the need to know--that if I arrive at the end of life without having found the truth of something, or understood the why of something, it would not greatly disturb me, as the journey was interesting.

It's that final "letting go", that willful surrender of the need to be able to control (or negotiate) the circumstances under which certain events might take place, that is hard.

It's like leaping into the abyss, without a safety net. I've "lept" before in certain situations where uncertainty was paramount, and was glad I did. I've yet to do it, unfortunately, with leaping past the Fear Monster when it comes to elevators, airplanes and heights.

Why is this so hard?

Friday, March 21, 2008

The Unbearable Suffrage of Lucidity

A friend and I recently had a long email discussion about words and feelings, intellectual honesty and the unanticipated perceptions of others re: our writing. In the end we agreed to disagree about certain issues.

“You’re a Verizon and I’m a Sony,” I told him. “We’re just wired differently. Doesn’t mean we can’t connect, on some level.”

And then he said a curious thing. He admitted that he sometimes "suffers from lucidity. "

Now why would that cause anyone to suffer? To be lucid is to be suffused with light, have full use of one’s faculties, clearly understand something--to be in a state to be able to perceive the truth of something directly and instantaneously.[1]

This friend often encourages me to write, even when I sometimes don’t want to. Sometimes he gives me odd assignments, like during the 2006 World Cup soccer games, he said to watch a particular match and write a poem about it. Talk about challenging! I’m not a spectator sportswatcher though I like the game of soccer. He gave me three days to come up with a poem.

So I sat there, glued to the television set, pen in hand, waiting for inspiration to knock. It was raining and the field was muddy, the players were soaked. Their wet hair dripped, they brushed the rain out of their eyes, it was a mess. A sea of fans in the bleachers, all wearing red, simultaneously waved and undulated to shouts of victory for the underdog team. The sound, the movement, the colors, the tension, the rain, the whole atmosphere formed an impressionable image that spoke to me, and the words slowly trickled from my head to my pen. I drew a parallel between what was going on in that soccer game and an event that had taken place earlier that week in Iraq. I later sent the poem out and somebody actually published it. So I am grateful to my friend for sometimes urging me to push the envelope, so to speak, to get out of the box of self-limitation and find, in a contemporary event, the link to something bigger, something universal.

Anyway, when I commented on the weirdity of the idea of lucidity being burdensome, and said maybe I would write a poem about it, he said: Yeah, do it.

Well perhaps it’s not all that weird, come to think of it. How many times do we know something we would prefer not to know? (Ignorance is bliss, and all that.) Or maybe it’s sometimes a question of quantity, like with information overflow. Too much truth can sometimes wear you down. (Not that I would choose ignorance over knowing.) I’m just saying, sometimes it can just get a bit... heavy.

I think that’s what he meant by the suffering part of it. Sometimes you just want to turn it all off and go blank, go to an empty space where everything disappears and you can mentally breathe again. So the suffrage of lucidity can be looked at from many different angles. Now if I were to write a poem about that, how would it go?


I understand what this all means but not my part in it.
Everyone’s got an opinion; the more articulate of them
form schools of thought whose theories we accept,
reject, or are simply unaware of.
Who cares.

Life is like a playground filled with pretty toys
Sorrows, joys,
fun-filled rides and crushing tides
and everyone sometimes thinks about it, talks about it,
maybe even obsesses over it
(or just plain doesn’t give a damn).

We judge one another, call a man “brother”,
betray our friends, sit at the bed of a dying loved one,
trudge off to war, hide from ourselves, hug our children
like there's no tomorrow.
We know what we know, we fear what we don’t,
and sometimes our little boat capsizes,
hurtling us into the murky waters of

The flow of fluidity, jammed by stupidity,
rescued by hope. Things go off course,
nothing is as it seems, nightmares mix with dreams,
a kaleidoscope of perception, and …
there’s no key.

Sweet clarity, when the swirling subsides,
when you finally understand
or think you understand
even as you sense that it may not be the all of it--
that you may die and never know
the All of it.
But that’s okay.
It really is.
You’ll see.

-- Annie Wyndham (my pen name)

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

No writing today

Today's the anniversary of the fifth year of this war in Iraq. I remember the day it started, in 2003, and the dark feeling that suddenly engulfed me, and the numbness that followed.

I've been re-reading some Russian poets and came across this line today:

"This cruel age has deflected me, like a river from its course..."

Of course, Akhmatova was speaking of a different time and from a different place when she wrote that. For every situation, no matter how awful, someone can always name a worse time. (Can one blame the madness that prevails on one's century or particular decade?) But I can relate to her words, nonetheless re: deflection, where it bumps you off track, never mind the reason. Is that why when I sit down to write lately, I don't know where to begin?

And how many verses have I failed to write!
Their secret chorus stalks me
Close behind. One day, perhaps,
They'll strangle me.

-- Anna Akhmatova, Leningrad, 1944
[Excerpt from: "This Cruel Age Has Deflected Me," in Poems of Akhmatova, trans. Stanley Kunitz w/ Max Hayward, 1970]

Imagine being stalked by your unwritten words. "Now see," they nag, "if you had just let us out..."

An even more absurd scenario--arguing with your cerebral archives! They don't so much strangle as clamber to be released. You've kept them in mental storage for so long that when you finally go and sort things out, you need about another 20 years to finish. (And this is for who, exactly? Who will ever read it?)

Akhmatova on writing verse:

I have no use for odic legions,
Or for the charm of elegiac play
For me, all verse should be off kilter
Not the usual way.

If only you knew what trash gives rise
To verse, without a tinge of shame,
Like bright dandelions by a fence,
Like burdock and like cocklebur.

An angry shout, the bracing smell of tar,
Mysterious mildew on the wall...

And out comes a poem, light-hearted, tender,
To your delight and mine.

Click here to hear her read it in the original Russian:

Мне ни к чему одические рати
И прелесть элегических затей.
По мне, в стихах все быть должно некстати,
Не так, как у людей.

Когда б вы знали, из какого сора
Растут стихи, не ведая стыда,
Как желтый одуванчик у забора,
Как лопухи и лебеда.

Сердитый окрик, дегтя запах свежий,
Таинственная плесень на стене...
И стих уже звучит, задорен, нежен,
На радость вам и мне.

-- Анна Ахматова,21 января 1940
[From The Bilingual Anthology of Russian Verse, at this web site.]

March 19 -- In Quebec, this is the day most people who have summer veggie gardens start their seeds indoors (feast of St. Joseph). I have a feeling we won't be able to transplant to the soil until mid-June this year, though, as two months may not be enough time to melt all this snow!

March 19 -- Cinq ans de guerre en Iraq. What a complete fiasco that's turned out to be.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Many Voices of No

Saturday, March 15:
I'm sitting in a clunky yellow schoolbus (along with 29 others), looking out the window at the passing fields of white. Cars and lawns and porches and fences are still buried in snow as fluries slam into the bus's windshield. We are traveling an hour and a half by bus, in this awful weather, to march for two hours in the frigid cold, to just say No.

The manifestation in Montreal yesterday representated a myriad of voices saying No to the war in Iraq--now in its fifth year--No to Canadian soldiers being sent to fight in Afghanistan, No to the killings in Gaza, No to the occupation of Tibet, No to injustice and genocide and terrorism in all its guises.

The march was peaceful and orderly. Bystanders took photos, people in apartment buildings watched from their windows, cafe patrons briefly glanced up from their coffee, then returned to their conversations; those passing by on the sidewalk glared, or smiled, or laughed and pointed--or ignored and continued on with the morning's business or shopping, indifferent. A few joined in--a student on his bicycle, a young father pushing his toddler in a stroller, an old woman with a shopping bag.

Year Five, and little has changed. Why even bother? That's the unspoken question from at least one of the passersby, who, from the expression on his face, seemed to believe it was a complete and utter waste of time. "You are preaching to the choir. Who even listens anymore. Go home and shut up. You are irrelevant," his eyes seemed to be saying.

How frightening a world in which no one says "No!" anymore. Where everyone just accepts, acquiesces, allows certain madnesses to prevail. What does it matter what goes on millions of miles away in another land? I mean really, what does that have to do with me? I don't know any of these people personally. Why should I care?

When you're from one country but live in another, and feel affinity with yet a third or fourth that you have never even visited, and someone asks you, "What are you?" (meaning, "With which nation do you ally yourself?"), it's sometimes difficult to answer. Culture and ideology cut across boundaries, and no one label expresses the entirety of one's personal affiliations. "Citizen of the World" seems a somehow more inclusive, more accurate description.

On the march I noted the apathy, but also felt the anger and frustration. Both coincide amid the swirl of events across the land, here and "over there" and everywhere, and these disparate forces seem juxtaposed or meshed into one big, gray, ominous cloud moving back and forth through time. This is nothing new. Just when some things get better, other things turn worse.

What is it that makes some people indifferent, and others passionately vocal? Why are so many silent and complacent, and others so bothered by the exact same events? Why do people keep marching and protesting when nothing seems to change?

I can only answer for myself. Because I can't not participate, somehow. When you occupy a land and burn the monasteries and imprison the monks, as in Tibet, and beat and kill people who are simply voicing their protest, as in Burma, do not expect the world to be silent. When you go to war for one reason but change the reason and extend the war for yet another, and another, and then another, different reason, as in the debacle in Iraq, do not expect the world to be silent. When you little by little, take away a people's rights or commit atrocities in their name, do not expect those people to be silent.

Well, okay, many will be silent. A large percentage of the world's population simply doesn't give a damn. Or maybe they do, but there are so many other things to worry about these days--like jobs and rent and food and can I afford gas this week? And maybe not everyone who cares can articulate it, much less act on it. We shouldn't judge one another.

A lot of voices screamed out this weekend, for Iraq, for Burma, for Palestine, for Tibet, for an end to the madness in general.

Is anybody listening?

[Photo 1: Manifestation in Montreal, Mar. 15, 2008; Photo 2: Tibetan exiles in a protest march in Dharmsala, India, Mar. 16, 2008. Tibetan exile communities, the public voice of a region now largely sealed off from the rest of the world, ramped up their protests on behalf of demonstrators inside Chinese-ruled Tibet. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia).]

Friday, March 14, 2008

Winter Soldier

Winter Soldier Iraq and Afghanistan kicks off in Washington, DC today, with hundreds of veterans of the two wars descending on the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland to talk about what they saw, and did, in the name of America.

About the Broadcast

From March 14th to 16th, Pacifica Radio will suspend regular programming to broadcast the historic Winter Soldier gathering in Washington, DC. The three day live broadcast will be co-hosted by Aaron Glantz and former Army medic and KPFA Morning Show host Aimee Allison. A live web-stream of the broadcast will be available through the War Comes Home website, as well as at


Le collectif Échec à la Guerre et l’Alliance canadienne pour la paix organisent une mobilisation pancanadienne dans le cadre d’une journée mondiale d’action pour en finir avec les occupations de l’Afghanistan et de l’Irak. Cette manifestation aura lieu à Montréal, le samedi 15 mars 2008. Le rassemblement est à 12h30 au Square Dorchester (coin Peel et René –Lévesque).

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Two Little Quotes and Another Snowstorm

Eggplant is a particularly good source of an antioxidant called chlorogenic acid, which is among the most potent free-radical scavengers ever discovered.
-- Dr. Weil

"Why is it that these monstrous triviliaties are so engrossing?"
-- George Orwell, in "Inside the Whale"

It is 8-pm-ish. We are in the middle of a raging snowstorm. Actually, a blizzard. I went outside to try and find Blackie, the stray cat we've been harboring the past week, nursing him back to health from a bad ear infection. Never mind that it's already like Siberia outside, the snow out back is four and five feet high in places; the "mound" out front, covering the entire length of the yard, is almost eight feet high. If you were to step out my front door, you would encounter a hill of the stuff and in order to reach the road you would have to climb up and over it and then jump down, but more than likely you'd sink in up to your hips and be stuck, which is what happened to me last month, out back. (Thank goodness I got rescued, thanks to an observant neighbor who happened to be looking out her window when I fell in.)

Anyway, about half an hour ago I walked out from the back door to the road from the carport but the wind was so fierce and visibility so poor and the snow blasts almost blinding, that I gave up my search. We're going to have to do some serious shoveling tomorrow morning. I hope Blackie's not buried somewhere, unable to get out. I have never seen this much snow in my entire life. This is March 8th. And it just keeps coming, and coming, and coming. And we are running out of places to put it.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Eye of the Beholder

Something one of Iris Murdoch's characters said has stuck with me because I have often wondered the same thing: I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of: What makes a person love A but not B?

Remember those old sayings, "Love is blind" and "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder"? Regarding the latter, a poet from down Boston way (Somerville, actually) has written a poem expressing the opposite sentiment:

Repulsiveness Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Let’s get over the hump.
Walk along with the stump.
The pimple, the pustule
The blatant stain
On the nape of
A crippled neck
Kiss it like a lovable

Lay in the shade
Of a sagging breast,
Caress the flesh
Of a withered and spindly thigh
And look at me
With an unjaundiced and loving
Gimlet eye.

-- Doug Holder

[With permission of the author. First published in Best Poem: A Literary Journal, Dec. 10, 2007. Doug Holder’s work has appeared in Poesy, Word Riot, Underground Window, Poetry Bay, Main St. Rag, Sahara, Iodine, and many more. He is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press]