Preface: In what seems like a lifetime ago, A News Café published part one of a piece I wrote titled “Explaining Myself,” in which I described a series of self-inflicted mishaps that I endured in August 2017. Published on July 2 of this year, I attempted to convey the confounding contortions that a mind (at least my mind) can fall into as it aspires to be right and do right and yet utterly fails to do either.
I submitted part two of “Explaining Myself” on July 22, 2018, exactly one day before the tragic ignition of the catastrophic Carr Fire that would soon annihilate vast swaths of our community in a stunning, merciless manifestation of monstrous perdition. In the ash-heap left behind, covering 360 square miles and 230,000 acres, three of those acres once held my home and history but now holds only silence and absence; a sterile, scraped void that barely hints at the vibrant life that once rose and danced across its green, verdant stage.
Three months later, I am tired of death, dying and grief; fatigued with fear and guilt; weary to my bones with the whiplash of change that forced its fury on me and mine. I don’t want to look back – we are moving forward – but there is something of value I left behind that needs its proper placement on the mantle of memory that links our past and future; our loss and hopeful resurrection. Words. My words. I lost a lifetime of my writings in those impersonal flames, but not all of them were stolen and consumed. What follows is part two of “Explaining Myself.” Thank you for your interest and bless you for supporting A News Café.
“I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”
In my previous piece, I attempted to convey the tone and temperature of a period of my life that was turbulent, intense and infused with relentless, inescapable failure; a period in which I struggled to find redemption and peace. And failed. And then carried that failure forward like a Sherpa, denying the burden on my back, shuffling and stumbling, grasping at pieces of purpose and meaning that I hoped would one day click and make it all new again – palatable, sensible, acceptable – and not stick out awkwardly in the great puzzle that would one day comprise my whole life. And not sound too dramatic in the process. And fail at that too.
When I last wrote, I left my readers in Ometepe, sitting on the tile-covered terrace of the pavilion at Ryan and Angela’s Finca Mystica, sipping cool water and, according to my journal, dealing with a body “on fire, the red skin screaming like a dog barking at strangers as they pass, resenting their unburned, perfectly happy skin.”
My water blister, collapsed and drained, lay like a deflated balloon on my foot, my celebrity status among the children gone while I focused my mind on reading and writing poetry, looking for lessons that might convince me I was worthy of reprieve. And in the midst of my despair and pain, I found much to appreciate and treasure. I wrote about it this way:
“There is this reality that includes everything I can see, hear, feel, smell and taste in this rocking chair on this covered porch at the Finca Mystica. Next to me, Nancy is reading her book in her rocking chair, her perfect, sandaled feet resting on the stone floor while a stone-colored dog named Jingo sleeps peacefully a few feet away beneath a blue and purple hammock that lists languidly with the gentle nudging of the most casual, benevolent breezes.
“There is green everywhere in the tapestry of trees, bush and grass; along with the spiky, red-leafed Cordyline, the green and yellow, paint-spattered gold dust, wandering, purple secretia and the elephant-eared Caladium, their large heads nodding with the wind. To my left, the rude whine of a chainsaw eating at the trunk of a large, dead tree that I interrupted my writing to film it’s falling; it’s black truck forever erased from the canvas of blue sky.
“Off in the distance, tiny, white windmills look like slowly spinning crosses painted on a hazy horizon of brown-green hills above the rippling, slate waters of Lake Nicaragua. And butterflies! A flying flotilla of fluttering flowers – yellow, black and red and blue – who sing with their wings: ‘I’m alive! I’m alive!’
“Earlier, the smells of fresh-brewed coffee, the lavender oil on my loud, red skin and the acerbic intrusion of diesel exhaust from a departing delivery truck. And music, eclectic and ever-changing: calypso, reggae, Steely Dan and Johnny Cash, jazz and Dylan and Paul Simon. Occasional birds punctuate the cloud- smeared sky while Ryan’s daughter, Jasmine – sparkling, precocious and three-years-old – celebrates each moment with excited exclamations in perfect Spanish and English, depending on her audience.
“It is hot and muggy and the air feels heavy until a cool wind blows across the empty chairs and tables to caress my moist skin. And behind it all the chopping sounds from beautiful, brown-faced women in the kitchen preparing food for the next meal.
“To what do we choose to attend? Of all the stunning abundance of stimuli surrounding us, what wins our mind’s attention? And once it grabs us or we grab it, what then? What happens when the judge arrives, pompous and arrogant, full of opinion, preference and prejudice? Suddenly, we are no longer present with what is. Instead, our negative interpretations slyly slip in between the seer and the seen and whisper sad stories in our ears.
“And so, we become lost. We wander through endless caves, caverns and corridors of the dark mind where we wrestle with our inner saboteurs – our own thoughts – and the feelings they birth, nurture and turn into assassins and harbingers of hopelessness and despair.
“There is another way. What happens when we see internal phenomena with the same open-hearted awareness that we greet and receive external reality? What happens when we refuse to render a verdict? What happens when we occupy that central space that eternally sits in the middle of all that is? What happens when we notice flowers and wind, dogs and butterflies, chainsaws and chairs, hammocks and trees, howling monkeys and windmills from that perfection that is pregnant with peace and contentment? What happens when we receive sunburn, water blisters, self-pity and shame through a clean window of glass that lets everything in as it lets everything out? What happens when we remember we have nothing to gain or lose; that everything comes into and passes from view? What happens when we admire all that arises within our awareness as we seek to allow, accept and understand? What happens when nothing is canceled, discounted or rejected? What happens when everything belongs to everything? What happens when we see that?”
Later that evening, as we prepared to retire, we found another wasp in our cabin – a nightly adventure it seemed – this one inside the mosquito net that draped around our bed from the ceiling to the floor like a sacred, wispy hermetic shroud. Nancy stood on the inside of the netting in the middle of the bed with a cup to capture the winged menace while I stood on the outside, trying to help. I could see the bee caught against the fine cloth surrounded by the cup’s rim but he refused to go in so – not thinking – I watched as my hand moved toward the wasp. My brain could have advised against this move! That is its job after all. But for some reason, it declined to do so.
It only took a second to successfully shove the creature in the cup, the same second the wasp used to say hello to my finger with his sharpest tool, and suddenly I found myself leaping off the bed screaming, lost in a moment of searing pain, reacquainting myself with the word “excruciating” and once again wondering why I do what I do.
The next day I wrote, “Each moment brings problems wrapped in blessings or blessings wrapped in problems. You resist one, you resist the other. Accept one, the other comes along. It is better to keep the door open, even when it hurts.”
A few days later, as we waited in the Houston airport, missing the full eclipse of the Sun, I wrote, “We all feel this lack. We feel like something is wrong with us. Something doesn’t feel right. Many of us feel disconnected, separate. The egoic mind feels alone, isolated, alienated and ultimately wrong.”
This is an illusion, of course, but it feels damn real. Especially when our experience seems to repeatedly tell us that it’s true. For example, when we eventually and finally arrived back at the Sacramento Airport parking lot in the dark of midnight, it looked like the hatchback window of our Prius was covered in frost or ice, which seemed odd for August. As I reached out to touch it and watched the spidery glass dissolve beneath my fingers, I realized the window had shattered but still held the memory of its previous shape. We would later learn from the guy who replaced the glass that this is not uncommon when cars are left for several days in the hot sun with the windows closed. Another failure, Doug. I tried not to believe I was jinxed or doomed as we drove back to Redding but that heaviness hung on me like a lead-lined cloak. What next, I thought.
For the Labor Day weekend, still sunburned and hurting, we did our usual camping trip to Patrick’s Point State Park and I wrote a hopeful poem one evening: “Ok, I may not win this one. It is possible I will lose. It is entirely likely that I will stand up and fail. And somehow that is ok. The bright fire is burning. The Dixie Chicks are singing, “I Hope You Dance” and Nancy is cooking too much spaghetti and we had a day on the beach and Georgia and Chris were there and the kids and the sun danced with the waves and a seal’s head bobbed like a submarine spying on the humans and the smoke from distant fires blew in and obscured the sun while a few of us found an agate or two and walked north until we thought we left everyone behind but found them still with us. Even a pregnant woman walked that far and said, ‘There is hope for us yet.’ Really? Maybe, maybe.”
Two weeks later, we sat on a plane to Denver on our way to a family reunion in Ohio and I wrote, “Jeremy Spencer went out to get a magazine while on tour with Fleetwood Mac in 1971 and joined the Children of God religious cult. Strange things happen in a world where everyone gets to choose. I have lived over 21,000 days and nights and it’s all a blur, an epic canvas of chaos and charm, on which my mind blends mystery, magic and imagination in creating memories I call my life. And yet I am still me, it is still now and I am still here while the show goes on, we all pretend we’re deathless and occasionally we confer together, murmuring and mumbling as if we were mathematicians solving the problem of the world. None of us knows what we are doing until we do it and then we make up a story of why. I am weary. Only my love for Nancy, Tenaya, and Teresa makes sense. Upon such love, a new universe unfolds.”
During the reunion, suddenly my finger that had been stung weeks before began to persistently throb when it had not before. In fact, it had only hurt for a few seconds at first and I thought myself lucky. Why now? And other strange sensations in my fingers and toes arose that weeks later would be labeled “peripheral neuropathy” that I would connect to a number on a piece of paper Dr. Roitman called, “prediabetes.” More fodder for the worried mind.
While in Ohio, I wrote a poem I called “Bet on Love” and quoted Rabia: “I was born when all I once feared – I could love.” I wrote, “No matter how many times I wake up, I soon fall fast asleep and not just sleep, but I dream I am lost and forgotten, the kind of thing that happens when you fail and not just a little bit, but utterly and some rude thoughts come knocking and take up space in the small house of my tiny mind and point to the pain and state the obvious: “There is your failure.” And then the fear comes in waves while I, lashed to a large rock, cannot swim away. Love, she says. I remember that sun, the bright one behind the clouds of my own failure and fear. It burns within me now and each word I write is a call, a request, a signal of surrender. I keep getting rid of all the lies that claim to be me and still the house is full of imposters, noise and nonsense. No matter. ‘Bet on love,’ I told him. ‘When it’s your turn, bet everything on love.’”
Nineteen days after returning from Ohio, we were on a plane to Seattle for an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy training with Steve Hayes in which I worked with a partner on what I described as steadily increasing psychogenic pain in my wrists and uncontrollable tremors in my hands. I have this history going back decades where I suffer with physical disorders that turn out to be expressions of underlying stress and anxiety. I assumed that is what this was.
On the other hand, I was also aware that the transient numbness, tremors and neuropathy in my hands and feet could be related to a motor scooter crash I experienced in 2008. I’ve relied on monthly massages since then to minimize back, neck and shoulder pain.
Less than a week after returning from Seattle, I found myself at a walk-in clinic. The pain and weakness in my wrists and hands had become unbearable and I was diagnosed with tendonitis and prescribed prednisone and spent a couple hundred dollars on ugly, black braces that I wore on each wrist for the next week. Suddenly, my pain was visible to others and I received attention and concern. Take off the braces, and to others, the pain disappears.
And then, less than another week later, while opening my office door for a client at the end of a session, something curious happened. The tendon in my right thumb decided at that moment to snap in two like an old, worn-out rubber band. I felt it pop and my thumb kind of vibrated as it stung and felt numb at the same time. Which was a surprise. Of all the scenarios I had conjured up in my active imagination to that point, severing a tendon while opening a door had not occurred to me. I didn’t see it coming. Another unwanted gift I couldn’t return. I was stunned. My mind struggled to deal.
I didn’t tell anyone at first. I pretended nothing had happened and welcomed my next client (his first visit) into my office, a talkative fellow who flooded me with information that streamed by me like wind past a fast car. I maintained eye contact and practiced intermittent listening as I simultaneously monitored messages from my panic-stricken mind that my thumb was not obeying commands to bend, hold a pen and write words. Silent cuss words erupted rapidly like machine gun fire in my mind as I struggled to comprehend my new reality.
I went so far at that moment to conclude that my career was officially over. I thought that. I was sure of it. How could I see clients if I could not write anymore? I soberly nodded as this nice man unloaded his worries and concerns like he was emptying a massive suitcase while surges of sheer terror kept rising and falling within me as I looked at the illegible scribbles on the yellow tablet in my lap.
That was the last client I saw that day. I cleared my calendar and fled to the walk-in clinic where they casted my arm and thumb in a brace before I then drove to Shasta Orthopaedics to set up an appointment. A few days later I saw Stephen Doll, a physician’s assistant who surprisingly remembered me from my motor scooter crash from a decade before.
It was then I learned the tendon didn’t snap in the thumb but in the wrist where it had been rubbing against metal hardware inserted there after the crash that shattered my wrists in 2008. Suddenly, I remembered the kayak trip from two months before. Did I not only invite the sun to roast my skin like a pig on a spit but had I also destroyed the fragile fiber in my wrist by repeatedly twisting, sawing and fraying it like an old rope? I feared I had.
Meanwhile, my tremors worsened, and new symptoms arose: vertigo, dizziness, fatigue and headaches. MRI’s of my brain and neck revealed I didn’t have Parkinson’s or MS but I did have an annular tear in my cervical spine. Somehow this comforted me and I began to relax.
I was given the option of surgical repair of the right wrist but instead chose to have the metal hardware removed from my left wrist before it severed a tendon on that side. And as time passed, my mind settled down. I adapted. I taught myself to write again with a new grip, fasten buttons and open jars with my new “dumb” thumb. I moved on.
The magic moment for me came in mid-December as I sat in a post-op appointment with Dr. Ferraro who had installed the hardware in my left wrist in 2008 and nine years later, took it out again. I was still worried about the tremors and asked him about them. He paused for a moment and looked at me, sizing me up, I suppose, like I do with my clients, figuring out how to respond. His demeanor was calm and kind. He called them “essential tremors” and set my mind at ease. Usually we look to doctors for answers and explanations but he had none and didn’t pretend to have any. And I found that strangely comforting.
Like so many physicians before, he essentially told me to stop worrying and accept this in my life. And so I have. And the more I accept it, the more it seems to disappear. I also gave up beer, pizza, pasta, chips and bread for a few months, developed an obsession for salted nuts and my A1C number dropped into the normal range. The peripheral neuropathy symptoms went away.
But best of all, I don’t feel like a failure anymore. Stuff happens. Like I tell my clients, I am back in the science lab mind where I run my experiments each day, get results and learn. I’ve left the court room mind where I sit in judgment of myself with criticism, blame and shame.
Meanwhile, who I really am and who you really and essentially are – pure awareness, light, life – remains beautifully present. Beyond our thoughts and worries, our one life is. Let us not forget that. Let us savor it in the midst of our worry and pain. And always bet on love.