On Thanksgiving, my husband cooks the turkey (this, by the way, is all the mention that turkeys will get in this post). It’s his job because he’s really, really good at it. And his stuffing is even better. It’s a wonderful tradition, don’t you think?
However, our house does not have an exhaust fan in the kitchen, so sometimes the aromas of whatever is roasting and simmering and getting nuked in the microwave can get a little heavy. So at one point I opened the door to let some fresh air into the house and stepped out to let some fresh air into my lungs.
Across the way, on the edge of the park, there’s an old cottonwood that’s on the edge of death and probably will be for the next fifty years. It’s sort of a neutral zone for the neighborhood birds and squirrels. Often one can see nesting hawks, busy-body robins, clustering sparrows, and courting doves all in the tree at the same time, and at dawn, often an owl.
So I wasn’t surprized to see a crow (it might have been a raven. We have those too. But the tail looked more crow-like to me, so I’m going with crow. If anyone who knows more about birds than I do thinks it’s a raven, please speak up) and a red-tailed hawk (I looked that up in our bird book, so I feel a bit more sure of my identification here) hanging out amicably in the cottonwood.
BUT (and here’s where the drama begins) — there was another crow lurking in a different tree on other side of our neighbourhood and it began screaming and cawing and screaming and cawing, then screaming and cawing some more. It was obviously out of sorts.
I saw the crow and the hawk in the cottonwood look at each other. I swear they shrugged.
Then the farther crow apparently got to the one in the cottonwood because it shook its feathers and started squawking at the hawk.
The hawk tried to ignore all the noise. It even gave me a look that seemed to say “You see with what I have to put up?” (Hawks are total grammar wardens.)
But the crows wouldn’t let up. The one I couldn’t see kept egging on the one by the park, and that one kept kvetching at the hawk. The hawk tried giving it the evil eye. It didn’t work. The crow started flapping around and jumping from branch to branch.
The hawk gave me another look. I’m not sure what it thought I was supposed to do. I was clearly a disappointment.
Then the crow took up a position directly over the hawk, paused, and dived at the raptor.
Now the hawk was rather bigger than the crow. It’s a hunting bird, fierce, far-seeing, fearless. The crow is a scavenger. It just sits around waits for stuff to die or for other animals to kill things. So you’d think the outcome would be obvious, that the hawk would bat the crow upside the head and show the corvid who was the boss.
But no, nope, not at all. The hawk took off and the crow harried it to another tree, away from the neighbourhood, at the far side of the park.
Job done, the crow flew off and settled on one of the lights by the baseball field.
As I turned off my camera and turned to go back in, the other crow, the one that had really instigated the whole affair, apparently dissatisfied with the job the first crow had done, burst out of the tree where it had been hiding, hared after the hawk, and proceeded to circle the tree where the hawk had sought refuge.
And that’s where I left them: the hawk in the pine, one crow surveying the empty baseball field, the other making small circles over the hawk.
Is there a point or a moral? I don’t think so. If you come up with one, let me know in the comments.
Preamble I want to take back the word ruminate. The Online Etymology Dictionary explains that the word “ruminate (v.)” dating from the 1530s, means “’to turn over in the mind,’ also ‘to chew cud’ (1540s), from Latin ruminatus, past participle of ruminare ‘to chew the cud; turn over in the mind,’ from rumen (genitive ruminis) ‘gullet,’ of uncertain origin.” Merriam-Webster Online gives the definition of ruminate as
transitive verb 1: to go over in the mind repeatedly and often casually or slowly 2: to chew repeatedly for an extended period intransitive verb 1: to chew again what has been chewed slightly and swallowed : chew the cud 2: to engage in contemplation : REFLECT
But psychology — and in general I have real respect and genuine gratitude for the healing and support psychology and psychotherapists provide; if I kept a gratitude journal, my therapist’s name would be on every page — has come near to ruining this abundantly apt word that perfectly expresses the way many of us need or choose to take the time to ponder and deliberate rather than hasten to judge or get embroiled in the consequences of an ill-considered decision. Psychology, as a field, has decided ruminate should mean obsessively thinking about whatever is bothering one, over and over, round and round… ¹
I think one of the reasons that this definition has become popular, not only among psychologists, but in the general public as well, is that we have such short attention spans and have come to prize speed over all else. We rush to embrace technology that robs us of our privacy, we don’t stay to watch the credits after a movie (unless there’s an added scene), we expect to know the results of every election before the votes are all counted.
Take a breath, people.
Being ruminative used to be a positive attribute, one that indicated one was a careful, thoughtful person, not inclined to fling one’s self pell-mell off a cliff. Now it is a weakness, a character flaw that indicates one brings one’s misfortunes upon one’s self because one can’t control one’s thoughts.
Join me in my mission. Let’s rescue ruminate. Start using it in its proper sense. Fling it with abandon into your philosophical conversations: “I was ruminating upon the meaning of life the other day and wondering just what 42 really has to do with it.” If someone tries to push you into making a snap decision, say, “You know, in order to give you the thoughtful answer you
deserve, I need to ruminate on that for a day or two.” When next asked to describe yourself, pause for a moment,then declare, “I am an attentive, measured sort of person with a ruminative cast to my mind.” (Just don’t tell anyone you’re a ruminant. That will totally undermine our goal.)
And after we save ruminate, we’re coming back for you, enable.
Every so often, the New Yorker slips a suggestion for an archived article into the inbox of my e-mail. That how I came across Andrew Solomon’s article, “Anatomy of Melancholy,” that appeared in New Yorker’s January 12, 1998 issue. It’s a pretty harrowing description of the depths down to which depression can pull person and of the biases that still pertain when it comes to admitting to others or to ourselves that we have a mental illness and, worse, might be so “weak” as to need chemical (or electrical) interventions. As I moved through the essay, I came upon this proffered bit of wisdom:
Accuracy of perception is not an evolutionary priority. Too optimistic a world view results in foolish risk-taking, but moderate optimism gives you a strong selective advantage. “Normal human thought and perception,“ Shelley Taylor writes in her 1989 book, Positive Illusions, “is marked not by accuracy but by positive self-enhancing illusions about the self, the world, and the future. Moreover…these illusions are not merely characteristic of human thought; they appear actually to be adaptive.” As she notes, “The mildly depressed appear to have more accurate views of themselves, the world, and the future than normal people. [They] clearly lack the illusions that in normal people promote mental health and buffer them against setbacks.”
So — why are those of us with depression and accurate perceptions the ones who are mentally ill, while the “normies” with their illusions are the ones who are considered sane? Why are we the ones who are seen as less evolved? Am I the only one who thinks this assessment is a little bit off?
In a recent car commercial, actor and apparent guru Matthew
McConaughey ruminates (see how easy it is just to slip the word right into a sentence?) out loud about the process of identity formation.
“Knowin’ who we are is hard — it’s hard. Eliminatin’ who you
are not, first, and you’re gonna find yourself where ya need to be.”
OK, first: shouldn’t the thrust of the first sentence — the search for identity — lead to a statement about finding out who one is rather than where one is? I guess that’s what happens when one infuses manufactured sagacity into an advert for a vehicle. And never mind the lack of parallel structure in the second sentence.
But what I keep thinking is, “What if we, as is recommended by Mr. McConaughey, eliminate all the people we are not, only to realize there’s no one left?” That’s kind of who-where I keep finding myself.
An ethical dilemma: At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, by Daniel G. Amen. M.D. I haven’t read very far into it, but so far there are some sensible observations about the practicality of having one’s brain scanned for damage so one knows whether medical or psychotherapeutic remedies are most likely to be beneficial. However, on page twenty-nine, our friend the doctor discusses things that hurt the brain and things that help the brain. Under malign influences, Dr. Amen notes that “even spending time with unhealthy people [is] bad for the brain.” OK: I can see how that can work; we are the company we keep.
In the next paragraph, Dr. Amen lists things that can boost the brain. This list includes the point that “In many ways, the best thing you can do for your brain is to spend time with healthy people. As we will see, they are contagious. I often say the fastest way to get healthy is to find the healthiest person you can stand and then spend as much time around him or her as possible.” That also makes sense.
Aside from the difficulties of fulfilling this prescription in our COVID-19-riddled age — and you may already see the problem here — consider this: Let’s say I’m a healthy person. I know an unhealthy person, someone with, say, depression, someone who would immensely benefit from spending time with me. Yet if I do spend time with that person, I’ll be engaged in an activity that will be detrimental to my own grey matter. On the other hand, if I choose to protect myself by shunning the depressed person, I’m selfishly depriving her or him of my beneficial “contagion” and preventing that person from attaining the flourishing cerebrum she or he deserves. (Unless, of course, that person has been ruminating. In that case, she or he deserves all the melancholy that infests her or his soul. [That’s an example how NOT to use the word ruminating.]) I’m either allowing harm to come to myself or withholding aid from another, which makes me a pretty lousy human being, and knowing that I’m a pretty lousy human will depress me.
Now let’s imagine that I am the unhealthy person, and I know a tremendously healthy person, in whose salubrious presence I never fail to rally. I have a lot of time on my hands. I easily could spend days with this person and notably sharpen my dulled mental functions and ameliorate my debilitating mood. However, by latching on to this bloom-imparting person, I will be causing harm to that individual’s well-being and will likely disrupt her or his equilibrium. That would make me an insensitive parasite, sucking the life out of someone for my own ends, and being such a draining leech would make me feel horrible and depressed.
So what to do? I hate lose-lose, damned-if-you-do-or-don’t, caught-between-Scylla-and-a-hard-place options.
Revenge Bedtime Procrastination, which has a much more beautiful name in Chinese (the literal translation for revenge bedtime procrastination means “suffering through the night vengefully.”), is a phenomena unique to people who feel out of control in their daily lives, so we refuse to go to sleep early, to exert some control over our lives, and to enjoy some quiet time alone, when the rest of our people are sleeping.
I should confess, straight up, that I am, by nature, a night owl. It runs in the family. But I love both this concept and its name. Between the depression and the M.E. and the State of the Union, I’m having an increasingly hard time getting any sleep. I just wish being AWAKE YES I’M AWAKE YES I DO KNOW WHAT TIME IT IS OH ISN’T THAT A LOVELY SUNRISE? would wreak some actual vengeance on the conditions and people who are responsible for my near-insomnia.
I hope, dear reader, that my ruminations provide some conceptual cud for your synapses to masticate at the pace of your choosing. And don’t forget: enable is still waiting for us… _____________________________________
What do we want to lose? Constant lying, myriad scandals, incompetent leadership, criminal pandemic mismanagement, misogyny, racism, voter suppression, global warming denials, ultra-conservative judges, misuse of the military…
It’s been six months, as of today, since my mother died. I feel like I’m in a Greek myth-Freaky Friday mash-up: I’m Persephone waiting for Ceres to come back after her half-year in the Underworld. It ain’t gonna happen, but I still rather expect Mom to show up and want to know why we haven’t finished fixing up the house.
To mark the day, here’s one of my mother’s favourite poems, “One Perfect Rose,” by one of her favourite authors, Dorothy Parker:
A single flow’r he sent me, since we met. All tenderly his messenger he chose; Deep-hearted, pure, with scented dew still wet – One perfect rose.
I knew the language of the floweret; ‘My fragile leaves,’ it said, ‘his heart enclose.’ Love long has taken for his amulet One perfect rose.
Why is it no one ever sent me yet One perfect limousine, do you suppose? Ah no, it’s always just my luck to get One perfect rose.
In my last post, I wrote that my mother’s story became mine, and that is true. But it is not mine alone, not by a long shot, and I am beyond grateful for that, for having family with whom to navigate this odyssey. However, I do not have permission to share their parts in this story. I have not even asked for it because I am not ready for the suggestions and censorship that would inevitably ensue. So I’ll restrict this posting mostly to what pertains to my mother and myself.
In early February — on the first of February — my mother fell ill and wound up in the ICU. The expectation was that she had only days left to live. She told me later that she had gone to the hospital thinking, hoping she’d die there.
However, my mother came from tough pioneer stock and her body held on despite her intentions to die. The doctors put a tube through her back, between her ribs, and into the lung that had been filling with fluid for longer than anyone could guess. Until this procedure, my mother had endured all the poking and prodding, imaging and invasiveness without complaint. But the drainage tube was painful, painful enough that one night it gave her dreadful nightmares of confinement and torture. She thrashed around and dislodged the tube and her IV and woke bloody and wracked. We had no idea then that the pain would never go away.
After almost two weeks in hospital, we took Mom home. Different doctors gave us divergent prognoses: two weeks, a few months, a year. We struggled to make plans. Was it time for hospice? A nursing facility? Could we handle what to come ourselves?
Mom seemed frail beyond belief, almost skeletal, nearly translucent. She had no appetite, no energy for eating. She kept the thermostat at 78º F; in the middle of a bitingly cold Winter, I wore tank tops and shorts and, if the neighbours hadn’t such a clear view through the family room window, I probably would have worn even less.
When the cold drove the cardinals to gather near the patio, my mother perked up. She and my dad, dead these dozen years, kept binoculars by the glass door in the kitchen to watch the birds, and we got them out to watch the red creatures flit through the bushes. (The neighbours never did anything interesting enough to warrant spying, so there was no Rear Window-ing.) My husband, back after a few weeks home, bought some bird seed for the small feeder — an up-side-down stone turtle dish — and the cardinals came and ate, one pecking at the turtle’s up-turned belly as its mate kept watch. (It was all rather Promethean, but I didn’t mention that.) Eventually, the cardinals nested in the bushes lining the patio and in the hedge by the back bedrooms abutting it. It was hard to get a true count, but there were five or six nesting couples. My mother was delighted.
In years past, turtle doves had nested in a flower pot by the kitchen door. This year they flew in, but didn’t stay. I did what I could to coax them back with bird seed and by transplanting some soft ground cover into the pot, but they would only stop by to visit rather to set up house-keeping. They had always been so calm, so trusting, so unfazed by Mom’s comings and going, that she had found their confidence enchanting, and was disappointed that they abandoned her this Spring. I still haven’t forgiven them.
As the rains poured down, as the thunder welled and the lightning flared, Mom grew stronger. I cooked real meals, and she ate just enough to gain some energy. Eating wore her out, though, and she would head to bed to sleep for a while after dinner, always re-appearing just as I finished cleaning the kitchen.
In the hospital, Mom had been put on oxygen and, once home, tubes tethered her to tanks, but the oxygen sharpened her mind marvelously. The forgetfulness we had attributed to age, we now realized had been induced by how little oxygen had been making its way form her lungs to her brain. Nevertheless, Mom would still ditch her tubes to smoke in the greenhouse, sitting there in peace, looking at the yard, the birds, the sunset, and Hamlet’s undiscovered country drawing near. She ate more; the thermostat started to edge down. But the pain from the drainage tube persisted and increased. Meds took off the rim of the pain, but never made Mom comfortable. When others were around, Mom would pull together and push aside the pain, but it would come roaring back and she inevitably paid for her efforts later, panting panting panting from the pain. Despite the on-going agony, Mom was kind and grateful, though being so was patently a Herculean labour.
As Spring came on, the pink-bud bloomed. Bright buds of mauve and purple lined the branches; bright green leaves unfolded; bright cardinals and subfusc wrens perched on the limbs. We enlisted a home health nursing service, but time and again they could not apprehend what Mom needed. They came with pre-conceived beliefs that physical and occupational therapies would strengthen Mom when all they did was wear her out and exacerbate her pain. When we asked for guidance to help with Mom’s anguish over not being able to work, we were told to have do whatever made her happy, but it was being useful, feeling she had a purpose, running the family business that made her feel content.
When we had to make the shift to hospice, the doctor and nurses promised that they would see to it that Mom wouldn’t suffer, but her pain and sense of uselessness were equally anguishing. She felt betrayed by every effort to keep her alive; she wanted the hospice folks to speed her on her way, but state laws forbad such relief. “They promised,” she kept saying. “They promised I wouldn’t suffer, and this is suffering.”
Sitting in the kitchen, looking out at the yard, Mom found herself longing for more colour. I planted such flowers as I could find at the nursery and scattered seeds to bring more blooms later. The rains coaxed out more leaves, more flowers, more growth as my mother flagged and diminished. I intended to go back when there would be more plants available, but Mom started to decline and it was hard for me to leave the house for long.
Mom had some good days, too. My kids flew in and out to visit to see her a few times, bringing life and youth and more love into the house, and reminding Mom that she had helped shape the next generation, that part of her would live on in these quick, bright things. When the end became clearly in sight, Mom rallied a few times to tie up loose ends and legal matters. She wrote in her computer journal, committing to the machine stories of her own mother, philosophical thoughts, unresolved sorrows. She and I had time to talk, to argue politics and discuss Shakespeare. We said “I love you” a dozen times a day.
She’d say, “I hope you’ll miss me.”
I’d say, “I’ll miss you like mad.”
Her last really good day came when the neighbours came over with their grown son, his wife, four kids, and a huge, fluffy puppy. My mother, who loved animals,* especially dogs, was enthralled. She sat on the floor with the kids and the dogs and radiated warmth and happiness from the presence of the pup and the knowledge that, over the decades, her life had become so intertwined with these kind and generous people.
In the end, I think it was the pain more than the cancer that overcame her. Even the morphine she had been taking did little to ease the pain. Everything revolved around the regime of pain medications we kept hoping would bring some relief; eventually, because she was too thin for a morphine drip IV, we were giving her pills or liquid morphine every hour around the clock. I snatched occasional, twenty-minute naps and lost all sense of time. The mid-Spring days grew longer and brighter; my mother’s season diminished and faded.
And then, on 12 May, 2019, my mother died.
And I miss her like mad.
* I always said that I never worried about my getting lost in a forest because I knew all the woodland creatures would flock to her and lead her to the nearest house of hospitable dwarves.
Does anyone else remember this classic Far Side cartoon by the inimitable Gary Larson? It was a favourite of one of my closest college friends (hey, Sara!):
Well, I ran into my own Far Side moment the other day.
It was a lovely day in Colorado and I was walking along the West End of the Pearl Street Mall, headed for a coffee shop, talking on the phone with my friend and colleague Jaynie (hey, Jaynie!). I stopped outside Ozo’s to finish my conversation, and as I soaked up the bright autumn sunshine, I noticed a small, grey, slightly fuzzy spider valiantly trying to spin a web across the busy sidewalk. She was slightly larger than the top of a pencil eraser, and on a cloudy day probably would have been virtually invisible. But as I was standing there, the sun shone right down between the buildings and caught her like another strand of her web. Even so, no one else seemed to notice her.
What blew me away was that she had managed to get at least four long strands in place, one from the awning of the coffee shop, one from the wall next to the awning, and two others across the walk, attached to a low newspaper dispenser by the curb. The spider herself was hanging upside down, binding her anchor threads together, about four feet right above the middle of the sidewalk. There were a lot of people walking by in both directions and I have no idea why no one had torn through any of her threads.
(I couldn’t get a photo, so you’ll have to imagine the scene from my sketch.)
Alas! Her good fortune did not last. First a young man walked, all unaware, through the webbing that ran from the wall. The spider swung away, but not far, since she was still attached to three of her strands. Then, as the spider swung back, still working to tie together her workings, a woman in a coat of the same grey as the spider, ran into the weaver. I thought for sure that the spider would be off for a ride on the camouflaging coat, but after a second I saw her on the sidewalk, crawling back toward the wall. Dozens of people and a couple kids on bikes all came within a hair’s-breadth of squashing the little arachnid into oblivion, but she seemed to have a force-field around her because everyone swerved without even seeing the scrambling spider and she made it safely to the lea of the wall.
I don’t know what happened to her after that. And I don’t know what the moral of this story is. I guess I just have a fondness for the quixotic, for creatures that decide to tilt at windmills — or try to spin them for themselves.