Existential Crisis

I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, but I have and come out the other end not even sadder, just wiser. I have a friend who’s in the middle of one right now and I’m realizing, again, that there’s no way to help anyone. That said, I do have a little recipe for that time and it’s very simple. Maybe the problem with it is its simplicity. But here goes. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these moments, too, and what brings you through them, especially since the cost of NOT getting through them is very high.

WARNING: These aren’t deep. They are simple and mechanical

1) Get up every morning at a reasonable hour, before 9.
2) Eat a healthy breakfast, even just a smoothie, as long as it’s nutritious, and drink a caffeinated beverage to teach your body to get up in the morning.
3) Do your chores. Clean up the dog shit, vacuum your house, put things in order, do your dishes.
4) Work out even if it’s just walking your dog. Outdoor exercise is best — morning or afternoon, depending on your nature.
5) Eat lunch. It can be small, but put something in your stomach. Blood sugar spikes and falls can derail anyone’s mental balance.
6) See friends or do something you love. If you find something you like — even marginally — keep doing it and do it again as long as it’s not self-destructive.
6a) Each of us learns how we can best hurt ourselves. Don’t be fooled into thinking oblivion is something you like.
7) Show sincere interest in others. You’ll find you’re less alone than you thought.
8) If you hear yourself complain a LOT and about the SAME THING recognize you might have either a problem you need to solve or you’re identifying with the negative. Solve the problem or stop complaining.
9) Catharsis is only so good for so long. The good feeling it gives you is temporary. It doesn’t fix anything.
10) Eat supper.
11) Go to bed before midnight. If you have problems sleeping, try an herbal sleeping remedy.

And, most of all…

12) Get professional help. Your friends aren’t professionals and they can’t prescribe meds.
13) Be patient with yourself. It’s OK to feel down. Change takes time.
14) Happiness is a pretty chill thing. It’s not GREAT. It’s not a fantastic balloon ride over mythical landscapes. It’s simply knowing you’re doing OK, your life is mostly good, you’re making progress. To help with happiness, count your blessings every day. Examples of blessings? “Wow. This is good coffee!” “I have somewhere to live and food to eat.” “There are people who care about me.” Other blessings include an education, a car to drive, the sun shining on a particular day, etc. Seriously, happiness is NOT “all that” but it’s millions of times better than misery.

Writing and Sorrow

A long, long time ago I wrote an essay about writers suffering depression. First of all, I think depression is something all by itself distinct from writing (or painting). Then, I think that artists who experience depression have often discovered that — for them — the ladder out of the hole is creative work. It’s been discovered that creative work raises the “feeling good” hormones in the brain. To read about it, go here. Creative work is actually kind of a drug. ūüôā I’ve thought this for a long time.

I’ve been stymied on my novel in progress for months. I’ve been bored by it, uninterested in the characters who people it, not interested in the journey on which they’re traveling. I’ve blogged about that, too, at various times, knowing that sooner or later I’d either finish it or forget about it.

In the back of my mind, of course, was the sweet admonition of my Aunt Dickie, “Please continue writing the story of my mother’s family.” I wanted to, but didn’t want to. She died the week of Thanksgiving last year. I was in the middle of trying to get back to the story when she passed away.

Most of the fruitful moments writing my novels have been times of intense duress. Martin of Gfenn finally became a long novel during the days when my brother’s life was going seriously sideways, and I was at the point where I needed to make a decision about whether I’d continue to support him or not.¬†The Brothers Path happened during the darkest times of the financial crash which caused me to have a financial crash combined with health and professional problems, not to mention the death of my favorite aunt, Aunt Martha.

And, suddenly, a few days ago, all I wanted to do was work on¬†The Schneebelis Go to America¬†(working title). It’s been a ridiculously productive four or five days. The novel is finished, I’m editing like a bitch (thanks Grammarly) — I don’t know. But it hit me last night. Ten days ago I had to put Mindy to sleep. Five days ago my remaining aunt went into hospice care.

Sorrow is NOT depression. I’ve suffered depression, and there is a distinct difference. A person can be happy and depressed at the same time. A person cannot grieve happily. BUT now I see a connection between hard times in my real life and the drive to create.

My recent progress on my novel has made me think about the essay I wrote long ago.¬†In my essay I wrote that some artists write or paint their way out of darkness. I’m sure Hemingway did this. I’m sure van Gogh was not in mental agony during the moments in which he was painting. The teacher I wrote it for didn’t agree. She held the view that writing and painting lead people to depression. I’ve since learned that’s a pretty common view.

Years ago I read Kay Redfield-Jamison’s book, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.¬†She’s not an artist; she is a psychiatrist. Her knowledge of depression and bipolar disorder is both academic and personal. She, herself, has struggled with bipolar disorder all her life. I read this book when I was sliding into my own depressive crisis some 25 years ago. It was very illuminating to me, though I no longer agree completely with her premise that writers (in particular) are special and endowed with apocalyptically complex brains. It helped me understand my own brain and it helped me understand my brother.

When my depression began to lift (thanks, PROZAC!) I began painting like crazy. Nothing serious. I painted tables that were puns. A picnic table with a picnic painted on the top — potato salad, burgers, and ants. A tea table with a tea party. A pool table with people swimming. You get the idea. It was pure fun, pure pleasure and very uplifting. I started to see that I had in my own hands and mind the way out. So far, I have not returned to those dark places for more than a moment. I know what it feels like, I can distinguish it from real emotional highs and lows, and I’ve learned to hold on. I’ve learned that authentic emotional lows can be triggers.

So, sadness at missing Mindy T. Dog and my sorrow over the imminent loss of my Aunt Jo led me back to my novel. It’s way better than I thought it was, and I’m so grateful it was there when I needed it. ‚̧




I’ve been thinking a lot about writing — fiction writing — which, in an entirely justified and rather long hissy fit, I have stopped doing. There are a lot of frustrations — some with myself. I simply cannot proofread. It doesn’t matter how hard I try, how many times I go over a text, what tools I use, there are always tiny typos. It’s at the point where it feels like a failure of personality. I think of a certain boss I had at one point who really thought this was the result of arrogance and carelessness on my part. I’m neither arrogant nor careless, so that led to some pretty heated confrontations between us. I felt that she could use her abilities and I could use MY abilities and we could be a pretty good team as she had no vision, no imagination, and no sense of humor.

Now I get it. Typos really do matter a LOT at the “end of the day.”

My little book of (cynical) stories,¬†Luv’, which has mostly been given away (one person bought it for Kindle) has myriad typos in spite of most of the stories having been read not just by me but by others. I happened to take it to the doctor with me Monday because it was handy when I was leaving. I was reading (and enjoying) a story and BAM! typo.

But in more significant thinking, today it hit me that allowing my personal failings and the failings of the world at large to keep me from doing something I love is really stupid. Pretty much everything we do is pointless, actually, even if it’s successful. Life is pointless. I mean here we are, we do our thing, we save the world or ruin it, one way or the other (we believe) and the whole thing fills in ultimately like water in a hollow. There is no point in our existence at all except procreation, so the next guys can go out in their search for meaning and the discovery that meaning is subjective. Really the best we can do is not make our lives or the lives of others worse. That’s it. It’s not nothing, by any means.

So as Baudelaire’s poem,¬†Enivrez Vous¬†went wafting through my mind this morning I got the message (again?). “The only way to bear the heavy burden of time that crushes you to the ground is to be intoxicated without stopping, but on what? On wine, on poetry, or virtue, whatever you prefer, but intoxicate yourself!”

Pour ne pas sentir l’horrible fardeau du Temps qui brise vos épaules et vous penche vers la terre, il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.
Mais de quoi? De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise. Mais enivrez-vous!

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‚Ķ”

“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’?

“‚Ķbegins 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.