i want to check out all the books in the library

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I want to go to the library and check out all the books. I know I won’t read all the books. But I never read all the books I check out, even when it’s a more reasonable number than “all the books.” Which isn’t even a number, really.

I want to check out all the books in the library and lie them out on the floor of my apartment (in stacks, because my room is very small) and I want to make intentional piles. Books I wish I had time to read. Books I really will make time for. Books I wish I myself had written. Books I wish had never been written at all. Books that look like they might cause me to experience an enlightened spiritual state and stay in it for the rest of my life. Books that genuinely look like they might end white supremacy and homophobia and genocide and depression and sexism and racism and environmental destruction. Books that were written only to make money.

These are just a few of the many categories I will make if I ever get around to checking out all the books in the library.

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woody guthrie as writing teacher

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Woody would sit at his typewriter for hours and bang at the keys much to the dismay of some of his housemates and women and children and he didn’t give three and a half shits because he would bang those keys and then he would sometimes even throw those pages away he didn’t care it wasn’t about production or fame so here I am at my macbook wishing it was a typewriter and wishing I didn’t care what came out of this writing session and wondering if we have writers these days who still write on typewriters and whether or not they throw out their work just because they are in a bad mood that day and I know I have a lot to say and I know it matters how I say it but goddam it feels good sometimes just to pretend I am banging on a typewriter and that in about five seconds I will pull the page out and crumple and throw it in the wastebin because hell it never really was about fame or success or getting a degree so how did it become that

writing while she walks

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Mary Oliver takes a notebook outside and walks in the woods every morning and jots down what she sees. Then she goes back home and looks at what she jotted and turns the jots into a poem.

I would like to try this method, but I wonder, does she write as she walks? Or does she stop every once and a while to reflect? Does she write standing up or does she find a boulder or a dead tree branch or a dry patch of pine needles and plop down?

What about the winter? Does she have special gloves that her pen doesn’t slip through? Or does she write with a pencil?

I shouldn’t assume that Mary Oliver writes with a pen.

anthropological look at psychiatry: questioning a system

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I am reading a book called Of Two Minds: An Anthropologist Looks at American Psychiatry by T.M. Luhrmann. While a bit on the academic side for “pleasure” reading, it is a fascinating look at the culture and process of how psychiatrists begin to think like psychiatrists. It was published in 2000, and many things have changed in the field of psychiatry in the past fifteen years, but many arguments that Luhrmann makes are, I believe, still very valuable today.

This illuminating quote is a bit long and jargon-y, but bear with me, there’s some good stuff in here. Luhrmann writes, “If a very new resident is asked whether a patient meets DSM [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders] criteria for, say, schizophrenia or paranoia, that resident will pick up DSM and read the criteria for each. She may find that the patient meets some for both and the difference between the two categories is not that straightforward, at least in this case. If you ask that same resident about such a patient one year later, when she has developed prototypes for the illnesses, she will probably not reach for the diagnostic handbook, and she will probably not feel that the difference between the categories is inherently uncertain. She is more likely to believe that there are clear differences between illness categories and more likely to pick up data in a case presentation that correspond to the prototype and ignore information that does not. As this happens, it becomes difficult for the psychiatrist to remember that initial skepticism about the diagnostic criteria. A patient’s illness seems less like a sorting problem–is it like this or like that?–and more like an identification task. Diagnoses begin to feel like real, distinct objects in the body” (Luhrmann 42).

In terms of documenting how psychiatrists begin to think, this is a bit frightening, no? Human beings become more likely to be defined by their diagnosis as a psychiatrist gains more training. Of course, at the same time, the psychiatrist is gaining more experience, and therefore their instinctual diagnoses might be more likely to be on target. Still, given the amount of mis-diagnosing that occurs, and that a diagnosis often leads to a medication prescription, this is a bit scary.

Then there is the topic of stigma, and how those of us who struggle with mental health issues begin to internalize the diagnose(s) we are given. In my case, I am fairly certain my diagnosis is correct. However, has it impacted the way I see myself, and the way I think about how others see me? Absolutely.

I don’t feel I know nearly enough about the inner workings of psychiatry or psychiatric training to make broad generalizations about the quote above (I haven’t finished the book, and even if I had, woe to the person who reads one book on a subject and thinks themself an expert.) However, being on the other side (i.e., being a patient and not a clinician) it feels very personal to read one account of how the minds of those judging my own mind get changed early and throughout their training. The quote mentions the likelihood, over time, to notice more and more what fits with the gut diagnosis, and ignore what doesn’t. We all do this throughout our days, in some form or another, in terms of “selectively seeing” and “selectively noticing.” There is simply too much for us to see and notice to be able to take it all in with equal amounts of attention. However, human beings are complex, and it concerns me that with more training a diagnosis procedure would become less–not more–complex.

I am aware that many psychiatrists have helped many people, including me, and that there is a great deal of good that is done in the field. However, recent experiences have led me to question the system and process itself, and whenever there is an eagerness to question a system, I think we ought to start exploring.

my last day working at the bookstore

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I will miss the peace of being surrounded by books and feeling that all the words in the world are holding me.
I will not miss being made to feel stupid because I made a small mistake.
I will miss intellectual and literary conversations with strangers I will never see again.
I will not miss customers harrassing me and asking me out and making me feel uncomfortable at work.
I will miss the wonderful people who work in the bookstore and in the building and who have become friends and backup teams and silly gooses and who work hard at what they do.

Every job has it’s ups and downs. When you decide it’s time to move on to the next part of your journey, it’s a mixed bag. I feel nostalgic already for the parts of bookstore life that I love. I feel excited for what lies ahead. Change is always happening, but sometimes the change feels big, and the change begs to be honored and marked. I am honoring and marking this change, grateful for all that I have learned and the experience I have gained, and eager to see what is next. Is “I’m standing at the crossroads” cliche. Absolutely. Is it true right now? Absolutely.

Sincerely,
grateful and humbled and proud and ready

escape: “the dirty life” by kristin kimball, reflections part 3 of 3

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In my final reflection post about The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball I find myself eager to discuss Kimball’s contemplation on the escape of horses, and the larger concept of escape in general.

“I’ve had more than one opportunity to wonder…what it feels like to be a horse running away. I know there is fear, but I also think there’s a certain joy, or if not joy then exhilaration, abandon. The broke horse is always poised between his instincts and his training, and running is giving in to the instinct.” 

Commitment is scary, be it in the context of a relationship or a job or a lifestyle or, in the case of The Dirty Life, all three at once. There is a power to nesting and rooting and grounding. Today you can read Kristin Kimball’s blog about Essex Farm and see the amazing work that is being done there as a result of committing to finding stability amidst the chaos of running a farm.

However, I am also interested in this concept of abandon and exhilaration. The tension between instincts and training. After spending so many years trying to be “good” and “do the right thing” and “not get in trouble” I often feel that my instincts are more trustworthy than my training. And I wonder if following my instincts, and abandoning my “training” (in the broad sense of that word) I can experience joy and exhilaration, and from that place, discover my own version of grounding and rooting myself into a life that feels meaningful. I think society has things mixed up and backwards most of the time, and this passage makes me ponder if escape can be what brings us home.

purpose: “the dirty life” by kristin kimball, reflections part 2 of 3

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“I was in love with the work, too, despite its overabundance. The world had always seemed disturbingly chaotic to me, my choices too bewildering. I was fundamentally happier, I found, with my focus on the ground. For the first time, I could clearly see the connection between my actions and their consequences. I knew why I was doing what I was doing and I believed in it. I felt the gap between who I thought I was and how I behaved begin to close, growing closer to authentic,” (Kimball 158). 

Ah, the power of who we think we are. When this gets called into question it can be very uncomfortable. I  love this concept of a gap closing, and outer actions beginning to reflect inner reality. I think this is applicable to many of us, farmers or not, as is the concept of focusing on the ground. There is the physical ground, and then there is the inner grounding, the feeling of centeredness that gives us clarity and purpose. Farming isn’t for everyone but I would like to believe that there is something for every one of us that brings us “closer to authentic.”

In the case of Kristin Kimball, she was somewhat thrown into it by luck and circumstance. A part of me thinks that is unusual, and that most of us have to look for and work for it. But maybe we are all thrown into it, and it’s just a matter of realizing what is going on–that our opportunity to merge our inner and outer lives has arrived, and we can either take it or risk letting it pass. Kimball could have walked away from the man the was in love with and the farm she was starting to build so many times. She thinks about it many times throughout the book. But she doesn’t. She sticks with it even when it is hard. I admire this. I await the closing of the gap. I hope I will know it when I see it.

consumerism: “the dirty life” by kristin kimball, reflections part 1 of 3

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I just finished reading The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball and as is the case when I finish a good book, I have so many thoughts and I am bursting to share them. I certainly recommend the book, and if you would like to read summaries and reviews, there are many. However, I feel more in the mood to reflect than review.

Adjusting to a sudden change in lifestyle, from city life to farm life, Kristin Kimball writes, “The last old habit to fall away was shopping. I could feel the need to shop building up in me during the week, like an itch. I’m not talking about shopping for clothes, or shoes, or any of the other recreational kinds of shopping people generally do. I mean only the oddly comforting experience of flowing past shiny new merchandise, the everyday exchange of money for goods. In the city, most of the landscape is made up of objects for sale, and it’s nearly impossible to leave your apartment without buying something–a newspaper, a cup of coffee, a bright bunch of Korean market flowers. When I went for days without buying anything, without setting eyes on commerce, without even starting the car to burn up some gas, I felt an achy withdrawal.” (Kimball 156).

When I read this passage my first thought was that Kimball was so honest to share this longing to shop. To me, it isn’t the most appealing quality, and it is just one of so many strikingly honest confessions that she makes in the book. But my second thought was realizing how I completely have this too. And since reading the passage I’ve been conscious of it more than ever. Specifically because I am having a challenging time right now, there is a constant capitalist rhetoric repeating in my mind that if I just buy the right thing I will start to feel better. This is made much worse by the fact that I work in a bookstore. Sometimes when I am cleaning and organizing the self-help, religion, spirituality, and poetry sections I begin to observe the inner conversation in my brain:

“Maybe if I buy that book and read it I will break through my depression.”

“Get it from the library.”

“But what if I want to write notes in the margins or underline my favorite passages or dog-ear a life-changing page.”

“Get it from the library first, if you even end up reading it at all and really do love it so much, you can always go back and buy it.”

“But I want the copy that gives me such a life-changing transcendental experience to be the copy that is mine, that I own.”

“Just get it from the goddam library.”

Or something like that. We have been told so many times, over and over again, that money and material goods will make us happy. I can know in my heart and soul that this is not true, and yet I still wrestle with the constant message that we just don’t have enough, and that if we did have enough, we would be enough. This is one of the core tenants of consumerism and capitalism, connecting our quality of life with the things we purchase. I know it’s not real, and yet every time I work at the bookstore I usually find a book that I fixate on for most of the shift. Leaving work and not buying the book feels unsatisfying and disappointing and an emptiness is certainly there, but halfway through my walk home I usually forget all about it. Wanting to heal is real. Buying things to make it happen isn’t.

Taking stock of all the changes my life has abruptly undergone in the last year and a half, I can certainly relate to Kimball’s “old habits that fall away.” Some of them needed to leave. Some of them I want back, and I need back, and I am working to get back. But the big thing for me is noticing. The fact that I have been observing my desire to fix my problems by buying books, and that I have not been buying them, has been challenging but also made me aware that I am not my thoughts, nor problems. I don’t know what I am, but I know I am glad not to be my “achy withdrawal.”

mary oliver live-tweets and why i need poetry

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I have been down. I  have been in a funk. I have not wanted to write new material for my blog in the last week. But I have also not wanted to stop my regular postings. I decided I would dig back into my files and find some older writing to share. The majority of my writing is written in prose. Sometimes poetic, sometimes more in essay form, but generally prose. However, I found myself automatically going to the “poetry” file on my computer and finding a couple of poems to share on my blog.

Why poetry? Why did I turn to poetry when I wasn’t feeling my best but I still wanted to engage with my writing and invite others to do the same? Because it is shorter than a long-form piece that nobody has time to get to the end of anyways? Perhaps. But I think there is something that draws us to poetry when our souls are hungering.

Recently Krista Tippett of the On Being Radio Podcast interviewed renowned poet Mary Oliver in Florida. The interview was live-tweeted by an On Being staff member, and some of Mary Oliver’s quotes resonated deeply with why I felt drawn to my poetic work when I wanted to share something but felt my reservoir for new material was running a bit dry. Here are some of my favorite quotes that were tweeted:

“I got saved by poetry and I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

“I believe poetry is convivial. It’s very old, it’s very sacred, a community ritual. When you write a poem it’s for everybody.”

“I have no answers, I have some suggestions. I know a life is more interesting with a spiritual part to it. So I cling to it.”

“People are more apt to remember a poem and feel they own it. They speak it to themselves and it becomes like a prayer.”

When I am down or lost or low I crave the sacred. I crave ritual. I crave the natural world. I crave prayer. I crave community. Many times I don’t have those things set up in place for me. But in composing my blog in the last week, I turned to poetry, and now Mary Oliver has helped me to see why. One final quote from the interview: “Poetry is a pretty lonely pursuit. I used to say that it was talking to myself.” Maybe when I feel lonely I look to poetry. Writing in general can be lonely, so when we seek out other writers in the form of their work, we create a mini-community to guide us along. I like the thought of being part of Mary Oliver’s poetic community. I like that thought very much.

P.S. I encourage you to explore a wonderful interview between Krista Tippett and poet Dr. Elizabeth Alexander discussing why humanity craves poetry, especially during hard times.