“And Those of You Possessed by Devils, Try to Keep it Under Control a Bit.”

I’m not a winner — well, I did win a couple of things. I won a canned ham in a supermarket drawing back when I was a kid, and a few years back I won first place for a short story in the contest/publication of the Friends of the Alamosa Library. Oh wait, I used to win foot races a LOT. 400 meters, 400 meter hurdles, 100 yard dash, 200 yard dash, 600 meters.

Later on, I learned the dual nature of winning. There’s winning and there’s personal victory. It was easy for me to run 400 meters. (“Yay! I won!”) It was very difficult for me to stand up in front of people and speak. (“Wow. I didn’t die!”) I never got first place, but those second place trophies? Somehow those were bigger wins for me personally than any of the blue ribbons for running.

Judging books I find myself in the strange place of determining winners in several categories. There is one book that is so strange and important that it’s difficult to know what to do with it, and it’s made me consider the whole question of “diversity.”

It’s not just a matter of sexual identity/preference/gender or skin color. There is the question of the human mind. I’m pretty sure that as a result of biology, socialization and education there is a “normal.” Within “normal” is a whole range of weirdness, but convention tends to keep that under control a bit. Some people are not “normal” and among those people are people with mood “disorders” — bipolar and depressive, two large categories that encompass a big rainbow of “different” minds.

This book is a collection of poems and essay-like things written through and out of a person emerging from a depressive crisis.

As I read, I was, at first going “WTF???” but then as I slid into it I got it.

I have had one major depressive crisis (and a few minor blips along the way), and I know what that is. I also know what it looks like, feels like, to emerge. I remember the day when I found myself again able to DO something in and with my life — and that was the dishes! It was an amazing, transcendent, moment where the sun was again shining and the very air shimmered with life. Yep.

This author wrote IT not about it. A lot of people write AFTERWARD looking back having had the chance to fence in the experience and translate it to “normal,” a “This is what it felt like and what I did.” This little book isn’t that. It isn’t “raw” “gritty” or depressing. Far from it, but it’s not “normal” either.

As I read through it, I wept, partly because of what the author had clearly experienced and partly because I knew the experience.

I also remembered what it was like for me to re-emerge, return to work (teaching at the international school). The dangerous nightmare of major depression was nothing compared to seeing my colleagues move away from me in the hallway as I went to my classroom. One of them said, sotto voce, “Lazarus.” That was hurtful and informative. After 13 years of doing good work for/at that school, I could see that, pretty soon, I’d have to find another job.

I have never really written about it because I don’t see how. Others have, after the fact, using description and analogies from outside the actual reality of it. Kaye Redfield-Jamison has written well about it, and in a very factual and useful way, but she doesn’t write the experience itself. This little book is IN the experience. It’s so sincere and hopeful and filled with wonderment.

Luckily for me, as a judge, I can do something with this book for its writer who will never know who I am or why or what or anything, but I will be able to answer this message in a bottle.

The title is from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Sadly the clip is not up anywhere but this one is fun. 😀 Featured photo: Me with my second place in state trophy for original oratory my senior year in high school with three of my schoolmates.

No Thanks Needed

Write your story, attach your picture, what do you think is stigmatized and othered and made different and disliked? Wouldn’t it be boring if we were all exactly the same? It would be predictible? Our culture says “Be yourself.” but then sometimes it says, “No, actually, we don’t like you!” or “No, you are too weird or weird in the wrong way!” Knit a stigma hat, crochet a stigma doily, build a monument, tear up a stigmatizing book and attach the story or photograph, we want to see it!

Since WordPress stopped posting a daily prompt, a group of dedicated individuals (several groups, but I only follow one) has picked up the baton. I follow — and write — the “Rag Tag Daily Prompt.” This morning it’s more than a word. It’s an actual prompt much like those that appeared on WordPress back in the antediluvian era when I wrote my first post. I will try to answer that question about what I think is “stigmatized” in my society. As for “other” being a verb? Please, no.

“Kennedy, you’re weird!” I’ve heard that as long as my peers knew the word weird. My brother was beaten up regularly after school for being different (Poor Kirk. He was stigmatized for being a little chubby, very funny, and bored with school. BTW, Happy Birthday, Kirk. ❤ ). Kids made fun of the way my dad walked (he had MS). My mom felt like a freak because she was a little older than the other moms of similarly aged children in our neighborhood. The — oops — othering is done to ourselves by ourselves and to us by others and to others by us. Peer pressure is powerful in our species. We want to belong. The paradox in American society is that part of belonging is being an outlier (with other similar minded outliers who band together to outlie on the peripheries of sanity, refusing vaccinations).

Facebook and other social media platforms are filled with little bonding memes — some sinister, some benign, some no more evil than “Share if you agree.” One of the most difficult things I had to teach my critical thinking classes was that consensus doesn’t equal truth. A group, working on a problem, was usually satisfied when they all agreed with an answer. It was challenging to get them to question anything they all agreed upon. There are good reasons for this — humans survive better in tribes AND getting a group of people to agree is no easy thing.

The medieval leper is the legendary “other.” The thing is, in reality, he wasn’t “othered” at all. Sir Walter Scott (centuries later) wrote a work of total fiction (Ivanhoe) in which medieval lepers were persecuted as they wandered in droves (there were never droves of lepers in medieval Europe) begging, beaten, accused, etc. In reality, the handful of lepers in medieval Europe were housed, fed, cared for. Comfortable establishments wee built for them by wealthy land owners, princes, kings, dukes, earls (duke, duke, duke of earl) as a way for those otherwise murderous and rapacious feudal fighters to get into Heaven. Every florin donated by a wandering merchant or serf helped that merchant or serf get into Heaven AND getting into Heaven was MAJOR. Helping a leper was an easy way, a lot easier than not lying, cheating, stealing, raping, murdering, etc. etc.

Proving that one era’s “other” is another era’s “divine boondoggle.” No stigma at all. They knew back then that leprosy wasn’t very contagious, they knew this without even understanding contagion. Thank you, lepers, for the easy shot at Heaven!

Back in 1994 when I had a Major Depressive Crisis and had to take disability leave from my teaching job, I learned a lot about stigma. I learned it when, after 3 months on disability leave, I returned to work. Work didn’t want me any more, but they couldn’t fire me for having been ill. They COULD reduce my classes to such a point that I could barely keep body and soul together. The boss made sure I was not given any responsibility — I had formerly been the coordinator of the writing program, no more. I’d designed courses in listening, no more. I’d run the computer lab/writing center — no more. When a temporary boss came in to run a summer program and wanted me to be co-coordinator, no. Not Martha. The day I returned to work? That was something. I walked in the door of the classroom building to go to my first class. My colleagues backed against the wall, truly, literally, and one of them said, “Lazarus has returned.”

Just writing that this morning I feel a shred of the fury I felt that morning. I imagined myself as a super-Shaolin warrior, kicking and disabling all of them as I flew down the hall. Instead, I just held up my head, smiled and said, “Hi! It’s good to be back.” It wasn’t good to be back, and I found other work within the next two years. I ended up a contract university lecturer making four times what any of them did. It was as close as I could get to fancy Shaolin kicks.

Disease, insanity, infirmity of any kind is rightfully stigmatized by a species when the basic objective of all life is survival and procreation. I see it all the time in my jaunts into the natural world. Coots may lay a dozen eggs but end up with one or two chicks and they are “pro-active” in diminishing the number of children (as many birds are…) I have no idea how coots “feel” about that, but it horrifies us, what amounts to a kind of post hoc abortion. I’ve done a little research on this and it seems the jury is still out on why. Some say the parents nurture the most likely survivors and let the weaker ones die. Some say that Coots will lay eggs in a pre-existing nest and the OWNERS of that nest will kill the young that don’t belong to them and they do this by LOOKING at the chicks and keeping those which resemble them and letting the others starve. Well, I’ve looked at hundreds of coots by now and they are not all that different looking from each other. I’d have to know more about coot eye sight to weigh in on this one. BUT I think most of the choices made by animals are based on survival so would the mechanism for coot infanticide drive in that direction?

The other day I was out with Bear, walking slowly because I was still contending with the effects of the booster shot. I stopped to watch the Coots. They are smart little birds in their way. Just then, a large Harris Hawk swooped low over the pond, looking for lunch. I watched the Coots who, unlike the ducks, didn’t take to the air to evade the hawk, or send up a racket like cranes or geese. This morning I learned that the Harris Hawk doesn’t prey on them particularly. They worry about ospreys and eagles. How do they KNOW? The coots swam around like nothing was going on. It’s not like they don’t react to predators, but they seem to know The more I learned about them, the more convinced I was that they have made an art out of survival. And, they are not like the other birds.

I’ve cut my species a huge break by not breeding. 😉

There But for the Grace of God…

My brother was homeless off-and-on during his adult life. It was mostly because he couldn’t keep a job and he couldn’t keep a job because he was an incorrigible and belligerent drunk. He was also a masterful con artist, especially toward those who loved him. I’ve written about him a LOT here on my blog and while I probably DO have more to say, I don’t think I want to say a lot more. It did give me a slightly different perspective on homeless people, however. I came to see that there are people (like my brother) who’d rather be homeless than contend with their habits and who will use the concept of “rescue” as a way to manipulate others.

The summer I was on medical leave from teaching (having had a nervous breakdown, the summer of 1994) I was sitting in front of the sainted Quel Fromage on Washington Street in San Diego. Quel Fromage was a coffeehouse of the pre-Starbucks type. I spent a lot of mornings there that summer and had become part of the little community of regulars who ALSO spent their summer mornings enjoying that spot in the San Diego neighborhood of Hillcrest. We got so we kind of “knew” each other. The tables were fenced off from the main sidewalk. I was sitting at a table next to the fence.

One morning as I sat at a table, drinking a latte and drawing, a homeless guy, who had a beautiful border collie, came by and put two dollars on my table. “I’ve wanted to give you that for a long time,” said the guy. “Buy yourself a coffee.”

It was a stunning moment.

I know, personally, how close that reality is at any given moment. That crazy (literally) summer I nearly lost my house. Until my disability was approved, I had no income. I had recently been divorced and my ex closed “our” banking account — an account that was money I’d earned. I was at the point of standing in line in strange little buildings to pay my bills with cash. I was selling things so I could buy groceries. One of my neighbors bought lots of my stuff and never used it. I got it back when I was on my feet. I knew ONE thing in those times; I did NOT want to lose my house. A lot of reasons, but probably the big one was what would happen to my six dogs????

One of my students in 1996 was a homeless woman with PTSD. She was scary, but determined to get off the streets and become a counselor. I taught her in a freshman composition class. She liked me, and well she should because only two years earlier I’d nearly been her crazed neighbor on the street. I GOT her situation. The counseling department of City College was awesome working with her and over time, she calmed down. She saw she could do college. She saw that people were going to accept her. In the middle of the semester she was awarded a therapy dog — a Belgian Malinois. This was important because she’d been raped twice. The dog would protect and calm her. She was living in the back of her pick up truck. Social services was working hard on her behalf to find her a real shelter. Soon she and her dog moved into a converted motel room. Little-by-little.

The Malinois came to class with her. They always sat beside the door in case she had to escape. 😦 One day while they were taking an exam, and the woman had forgotten to tie the dog to her desk, it walked up to me in front of the class and lay down at my feet. I felt honored, and the dog’s gesture solidified a long “friendship” between me and this woman. One of the things I found while I was organizing “The Examined Life” was a letter from this woman telling me she’d graduated from San Diego State with her MA in social work, was working with homeless women who’d suffered traumatic experiences (war, rape, etc.) and she still had the Malinois. ❤

Homelessness changed drastically during the “Great Recession,” which will be remembered as “The Minor Economic Blip” when held next to what’s happening now. Still, the result of that for many families in San Diego was homelessness. At the time, I had students who lived on the street with their mom and siblings and were using government financial aid to put food on their family’s “table.” It made for some pretty awful classes as students who are not there to learn are difficult to teach. Over time, some families were moved into special housing — one such situation was an abandoned dormitory at San Diego State that was slated to be torn down.

In the immortal words of Jello Biafra, “We have a bigger problem now.” Homelessness in the economic reality of COVID isn’t just a bunch of people like my brother who would rather live under a bridge than, well, anything else, the guys who’ve discovered they make plenty of money panhandling so why work? (Truth) Now it’s communities of working people living in cars.

People are always looking for “the answer to homelessness.” There is no answer. The reasons for homelessness are as varied as the individuals living on the streets. Money alone won’t fix it. Education alone won’t fix it. Substance abuse counseling won’t fix it. But everything together can help SOME people. And, among the most troubled souls, there are angels.


P.S. In my blog, I have chosen to write openly about the mental crisis I faced. It was terrifying at the time, but in the grand scheme of my little life, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. As Henry Miller wrote in one of his novels, we might fear the abyss, but if we have the courage to fall, we will discover what we need to discover. When I recovered, I was greeted at my job by comments like, “It’s Lazarus!” and not given enough classes to support myself. People no longer trusted me, even after 13 years of exemplary work, and it became clear that I had to find a new job. People think things like clinical depression is contagious or something. I don’t know. In any case, there are so many people out there (out here?) who’ve fought that good fight and emerged stronger and more aware. I wouldn’t be me now if that terrible summer had not happened and, honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anyone else than the person I am now. ❤


The Tunnel

Long long ago in a faraway land a young woman wanted to find herself. “I have to find myself,” she told everyone. That was cool because back in those days everyone else was trying to find themselves.

It was amazing how many people were lost back then, but, whatev’…

So in the process of finding herself she set out into the world not knowing that she would get to know herself by what she did in the actual world. As she bumped around, OK, bumped and banged around, she didn’t feel like she was getting anywhere. She let the wrong ones in and kept the right ones out over and over.

Once in a while she managed to do something that was in harmony with her nature, but ultimately the tug-o-war reasserted itself, and she was back in the dark. Then, through a series of very crazy events covering the better (“better” is questionable) part of five years, she had a complete nervous breakdown, a major depressive crisis. She was told not to come to work, put on disability and sent to a therapist who gave her the DSM-IV.

The therapist sent her to a shrink and told her not to drive as she was a danger to herself and others. Luckily (luck has two sides, right?) she wasn’t living alone. Life was just dark for her in those days. The hole in which she found herself was covered with a perpetually gray sky. Black fingers of dead grass and dry branches reached across the hole. Some days her roommate almost had to drag her out of bed. Sometimes the smallest life stress would cause her to pass out.

The big challenge was that she had no insurance, and it took weeks to find a shrink who would take her without it. Without a shrink, she couldn’t get the antidepressant the therapist told her she needed. Finally she found one.

Getting PROZAC was fairly challenging and involved many trips to Tijuana to pharmacies on the border. It was cheaper there. No insurance, remember?

She read Listening to Prozac and puzzled over the fact that some people would rather be a danger to themselves and other than to lose “themselves.” She knew she wasn’t THIS, but what was she? She got more useful information from Touched with Fire. Years later she wrote one of the two fan letters in her life to this book’s author, Kay Redfield Jamison.

As the PROZAC began to work, she started drawing and painting and thinking. The climb out was slow and interesting. The morning she got up on her own and washed the dishes felt like a triumph (was a triumph). “This is great,” she thought.

What she didn’t know is that she had found herself.

“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it and one day, if you persist, you will be it.” Henry Miller, Nexus

Normal life attempted to begin, again, and she returned to work that fall. As she walked down the hallway to her classroom, her co-workers stood back against the walls, and one of them said, barely under his breath, “Lazarus!” The stigma of mental illness? It was as if the thirteen years of sanity (was it really?) and all the contributions she had made to the school had never happened. Little by little her hours were cut. It became almost impossible to make the ends of the month meet. The credit union threatened foreclosure which she staved off somehow. But with her new clarity of mind, she was able to act with conviction in her own defense as she’d never been able to before.

Pulling her shit together from a breakdown had given her — or revealed to her — power she didn’t know she had. The next few years were rough financially but at least she wasn’t lost any more. In case you’re looking within, hoping to find yourself, don’t. Actions speak louder than words. We know our friends by what they do. Same with the self.


Meditation on Precipices

There are a lot of theories about mountains and I don’t mean geological theories or theories about their existence, but theories about the way people perceive them. One theory says that it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that people started to regard mountains as objects of wonder and inspiration.

“During the 18th century altitude became increasingly venerated…The fresh attitude to altitude was a radical change of heart and one which made itself felt in every cultural sphere, from literature to architecture or horticulture. In the early part of the century, the so-called ‘hill poem’ established itself as a popular minor genre…” (Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind)

Before that they were “mere” obstacles with dangerous precipices people had to cross to get from one place to another.

I don’t agree with this theory, though I do agree that during the 18th and 19th century people did (apparently) begin to travel to mountains for the sake of the mountains themselves, and romantic poetry does love the precipice — as a metaphor at least.

The precipice is the place where the faint-hearted, ordinary, unimaginative, dim and cowardly person NEVER goes. In real life a precipice is a dangerous and scary place with extreme exposure where no one goes unless they must. I get the metaphor — and after reading Zorba the Greek I was determined to “walk to the edge of the leaf” and look over the side. (The Boss’/Kazantzaki’s metaphor for the metaphor of the precipice).

“Some men — the more intrepid ones — reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins…”

“I stopped. I wanted to say “from that moment begins poetry,” but Zorba would not have understood. I stopped.

“‘What begins’? asked Zorba’s anxious voice. ‘Why did you stop’?

“…begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: ‘God’! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: ‘I like it.’! (Nikos Kazantzakis/Zorba the Greek

There are some really nasty, scary passes through the Alps. One, the Via Mala (evil way), is notoriously terrifying. Goethe went there on a trip to Switzerland and sketched it. The lyrical lines of Goethe’s ink drawing reveal some of the romanticization of the precipice.


In real life it’s more like this:


Imagine crossing that ice-covered stone bridge in the 15th century early on a late spring morning with the wind blowing.

The trail itself, leading to the bridge, was cut into the side of the mountain and it looks like this:


Another fun pass from the past is the Devil’s Bridge on the Gotthard Pass. The pass itself has been in use since the 12th century. Before the bridge was built (and that means several centuries) people died trying to get across the river when it was in flood. The story is:

The legend of this particular bridge states that the Reuss was so difficult to ford that a Swiss herdsman wished the devil would make a bridge. The Devil appeared, but required that the soul of the first to cross would be given to him. The mountaineer agreed, but drove a goat across ahead of him, fooling his adversary. Angered by this trickery, the devil fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock so the devil could not lift it anymore.

Turner painted this bridge with a mixture of romanticism and actuality that works for me.


The precipice of the mind, however, is another thing. Henry Miller wrote about that, in Nexus.

“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it, and one day, if you persist, you will be it…Did I fear unconsciously that if I succeeded in letting go, I would be speaking with my own voice…and would never again know surcease from toil?”

I understand the precipice of the mind and I understand the precipice of the mountain. I am very afraid of heights and it’s a fear I don’t particularly want to face. There are slopes I was always happy to climb and some of them look precipitous, but they were not. The angles were friendly and accommodating, the exposure was doable and I did not have to look down any drastic drops if I did not want to. That is not the challenge life meant for me. As for the precipice of the mind, Henry Miller was right. I have fallen backward into the bottomless pit and there I found liberty.