Monday, November 2, 2009

Returning from Amsterdam/Dynamic Structures/Life is life is life is life is

I'd been trying to organize my thoughts on the nature of living and what have you for some few days now since returning from Amsterdam Saturday. One of those thoughts was to play up potential confusions about what that statement might mean. A metaphoric Amsterdam that's more in line with what's in people's heads about Amsterdam. Course, the Amsterdam I'm talking about is an economically depressed former manufacturing town in upstate New York, and I can't really find my way to complex metaphorical intercombinations of conceptuality and actuality or any such things just in this particular moment right now.

It's been probably almost a month since my grandfather was shown across, but the reality of that fact was mostly lost to me until we finally placed his cremated remains in a hole in the ground this Saturday just gone.

The fact in now upon me and has taken hold in a seemingly unrelenting way. Even a whole day of playing with my nieces has only provided a momentary respite from a deep and endearing sadness that fills the very pores of my soul with a melancholic haze that refuses to lift. I spent the night Saturday at home drinking PBR and alternating between a sense of the radical impermanence of all and every thing and the full realization of the very real fact that some fine day that will be me that goes into the ground.

In that alternation of the sudden and on-rushing great anxieties of the imagination of my own last moments on this earth and this sense that nothing not even the deepest of meaning and profundity is anything but the fleetingest of momentary passing, everything seemed worn and shabby. The world was so dull and lusterless I thought it might drain of all color and that that might be an improvement, if not a lasting one, as what can last? What I ask?

And of course the megalomaniacal nature of the feelings released from this truly downcast occasion makes me dislike myself more than is normal, for being so concerned for my own death, for my own end. And that common transfixion (if perhaps heightened, if not so uncommonly so) of self that played or prayed upon my imagination for much of the night Saturday as I put myself in that final place of rest and watched as the horror of the realization of the end seized and made everything else insignificant, that base vanity of self love was just yet another weight in the balancing of the scale. The karmic balance of maybe just the interior of my skull, maybe just the turn of the screw, maybe just the chance of a peaceful final moment in life, maybe really in reality the difference between the gates of heaven and the depths of hell.

This would be the place where I derail into tangents on heaven and hell, James Baldwin's dictum that we pay for our sins by the lives we lead, the Hindu and Buddhist ideas about death, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Not so today. No, just this once I'm staying with the concrete and not tailing off into abstractive digressions, if also maintaining an all too sentimental tone.

My grandfather, my grampy, was, in his person, the kind of person that I would like very much to be. He was self-possessed and measured in everything. There was a level of attention, of concentration paid to the most minute detail of existence. And the thing that I will never forget and that draws from me still heaps upon heaps of tears is the light that was in his eyes, and of his soul.

There was a light that few possess, a light, an intensity, a great force of being that was not lightly earned.

After the funeral, as the family was all gathering ourselves to eat and then go our separate ways, my father passed around photocopies of these lists that my grandfather had made. He and his fellow prisoners of war had written out on tiny scraps of paper these long and intricate lists, and that had been in his bedside drawer until the last. They were lists of food. Different restaurants, recipes, all the different ways to cook potatoes. Lists of food.

In reality though they were lists of hope. And not the callow hope of political sloganeering. The hope that these young men themselves would not die in a German prison camp and would have the chance to see their loved ones and to break bread with those loved ones again in the everyday celebration of living. And he did get that chance. Six months after being captured at a forward position, the Russian army liberated the camp where my grandfather was held, and soon after that he was returned to the US army and on his way back to the bosom of his family.

I imagine he kept those notes to remind himself that every moment, every second of life is precious. Not one should be wasted or taken as a given. And the presence within himself of that constant reminder was what, I imagine, gave him such a light. I will always remember those eyes that shown as steady as a lighthouse, those eyes that revealed untold depths of being. I will remember the last time I looked into the depths of those eyes. The joy of living had not faded one bit at that time, that last time I saw my grandfather, even as his body was then already failing just back in early June.

The strangeness of burying a loved one on Halloween kind of occurred to me in the week leading up to the service. But it never really sunk in until I got home and people were all out dressed in all kinds of costumes and whatnot. In my neighborhood, because it's mostly apartments, people sit out on their front stoops with baskets of candy, and it's this really communal thing. And usually I do think that's top flight, but this night it just made me feel lonely.

It's been some fifteen years since I spent Halloween in a psychiatric facility. For many reasons, it was singly perhaps the most intense and indeed the craziest night of my life. (Actually, now that I think about it, being in a near riot on Halloween in a mental institution at 16 only really ranks as a crazy thing, not the craziest, which says a lot about the amount of crazy shiite I've done or that's happened since that time.) I've been variously diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder at various times by various different doctors, therapists, psychiatrists, what have you. And I've struggled with the dual weights of emotional turmoil and the stigma of mental illness and the imprint of adolescent institutionalization for all of the intervening years, never really able to talk honestly or openly about the neurologic storms that cast my mind high on the crests of hypomanic euphoria or low into the troughs of despondency and despair.

There has always been a concordant shame that comes with the lows, an idea of how idiotic I am for dwelling in the trough, for not fighting harder against the storm. But today I realized in what the idiocy was. It was not in not fighting but in the fighting itself.

Today I went to the grocery store. Even though the weight of unhappiness made my legs feel leaden, my mind numb, and my body electrostatically charged. Even as the verge of tears was like a swell behind my eyes. I went grocery shopping.

I didn't force myself as I've done so often to just do some little symbolic gesture of infulility even in the face of the blinding futileness I've felt. That sense that nothing has any real meaning. I didn't fight against the tide. I just made a list of foods to buy. A list of food. And I went. And I was okay. Everything was okay.

That's not to say that the feelings abated. I still feel charged with sadness, but that's okay too. It shall pass. I don't have to fight against it to get past it. But I do need to be willing to accept it, if you will allow me a moment of cheesy self-helpitude. I need to be present in my self, to remember the value of each moment, even the ones that wrench and seem to cast me out of my humanness. Or to cast me back into my humanness and out of my abstract self. Staying in the presence of a faith in the grace of life. Or something.

It is what is. In many ways it's a blessing not an illness. For me, at least. That's not to say that it doesn't make things difficult at times or that remaining unmedicated is the right or even a very safe answer (and there are all kinds of complications involved in this choice, which is just that, a personal choice, not some universal prescription, and there have been a few close calls for myself on both sides of that fence, so..), but it does make me acutely aware of the need for balance.

Life is a high wire act, even without genetic/neurologic/psychologic/sociologic complications (of which what life might not have at least one or two of those?). But it's too short to fool around with bullshit delusions about who or what we are. Too short to make false pretenses of some bland normalcy. And much too short not to do and be what makes you happy.

Cause when it all comes down to it, that may very well be all we get. We get now. Best enjoy it.

I get the sense from that light that my grandfather had that he did. He honored those lists and the men whose favorite foods were on those lists that never again got to eat them with their friends and families. The men and women who died on the forced marches. In the prison camps. In the gas chambers.

And at his grave side, as the marine in his dress blues played taps, the funeral director placed a small flag with a round plastic plaque that read US veteran into the ground. And I looked around, and I realized the cemetery was full of those same flags. We are burying the American generation that knows for true the horrors of war.

In the same way that my grandfather's death was not real to me until his ashen remains were there before me, these wars we are fighting are not real to us unless we know those who've died and see the grief and devastation for ourselves. 150 dead. 200 dead. (All adding up to thousands and thousands who continue to die in the horrors of war.) It's just numbers. It's not real.

And so we forget. We forget the charred remains of Europe. We forget the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The burning jungles of Vietnam. The scorched deserts and cities of Iraq. The scorched earth of Pakistan and Afghanistan. We forget what most of us never really knew.

We forget how perilous is the balance of this world. For myself and those like me, we will never forget the primacy of balance. How delicate is that scale. It is the very fact of our lives. None of us, sane or otherwise, can ignore the realities of death and destruction, otherwise they have no weight to bear on the face of change.

Regeneration is a kind of watchword of mine. It's just something you have to do after a bout of depression, as the trappings of life, be they material, physical, philosophic, whatever, as they fall away like sand through an hourglass. But regeneration is not merely the domain of the depressive or the bipolar. It is the cycle of life both human and otherwise, and the structures of society must reflect that. Our structures should be dynamic and regenerative. Not static and degenerative. Only really changing after some problem is so bad it can't be ignored any longer. And then mostly in a hyper reactive expression of emotional outrage, not in some considered structural adjustments (in fact the nature of structure tends to be downplayed, especially here in the US but also throughout the west, because of the liberal philosophic tradition of individualist paradigms of personal freedom [as extended to corporate entities as well]).

Those words, dynamic structures, have been kind of stuck in my head all day. The idea of structural dynamism is one that, I feel, has to really seep into the structure of global society for there to be any chance for this project to work. As we begin to build one integrated planet our national structures must grow and, dare I say it, progress beyond there current forms of hopelessly compulsive self-interested action. The global society cannot be a selfish one. Otherwise, well otherwise, (as I've said just maybe once or twice here and there) it's Thunderdome.

The Thunderdome dilemma is real. It's not just me. I may be crazy, but I'm not a fool (in this particular way).

2 comments:

John said...

Ian,
you write so beautifully!! thank you! moms

John said...

woof - Ian / very insightful / even to some things that I hadn't thought of about my own father, your grandfather. Thanks for the words son. - I love you - and I admire your skill with the language.