Organizing “The Examined Life”

Definitely a project I would not have undertaken in normal times, but there’s something about the virus that makes creative work difficult and life itself kind of off-center somehow.

I have been through all 23 of these tomes and it’s been interesting in so many ways. Most interesting was the evolution of my knowledge of the chaparral in San Diego County. I moved to San Diego in 1984. For two years I had no idea there was anything beyond the beaches, the bays, bougainvillea and hibiscus, then my ex saw an article in the Reader that said, “Fall color in San Diego? YES!” and on Thanksgiving 1986 we went to Old Mission Dam where the cottonwoods were golden and, when the leaves were trodden beneath my feet, sent that smell that means, to me, fall. I started taking my puppy — Truffle, then only five months old — up there and began the long journey that has not — thank God — ended yet. I thought that there was no good hiking in San Diego, that I was truly living in exile. How wrong I was!

The journals are full of hikes and what I saw.

They are also filled with perplexity about marriage, love and self. It wasn’t until the 2000’s that I sought professional help with these things. There, in one journal, maybe 2004 or 2005, it’s spelled out. My therapist said, “People who are raised by mothers like yours have a difficult time seeing relationships as anything but absurd.” As she was French, her use of “absurd” was more profound that the words “silly” or “pointless.” Think of Ionesco or Samuel Beckett. I wrote a long (typed) entry about this that showed that, on some level, I understood this but it wasn’t until I tried another romantic relationship that I got the full meaning of her statement.

It’s interesting that it’s our relationship with our mom that determines our ability to form relationships, life partnerships. The fact that I never knew where I stood with her, that she was constantly manipulating and controlling me, that in the court of mom I was always guilty, damaged me in my ability to choose partners and my ability to maintain a relationship. It’s OK, but reading through all those (sometimes tedious) journals showed me my struggle to find love, to understand myself, to figure out what I wanted. That’s not a stupid or embarrassing thing. I think love relationships are a fundamental human need, but I also think that not everyone is conditioned to have one. I saw through all that that my most successful love relationships were those that had little chance for permanence. It was clear I didn’t want permanence. To me it equated to my mom yelling at me for closing my bedroom door.

Do we ever get over that stuff? No. It is part of the adult we grow up to be. We can make some choices about ourselves and where we go, but the deeply engraved stuff like that? It’s always there. Understanding it helps and is, I think, the only way out. Now I see that (embarrassing) aspect of the 23 Journals is me fighting an invisible enemy to find my freedom, freedom that can come only through self-knowledge. I still cut a lot of it out, but…

Along with the search for love and the self-questioning are good stories about teaching. Letters and emails from my family and beloved friends. Notes from students, tickets from Italian trains, Swiss concerts, photos of people I love — all kinds of wonders. There I also recorded my hopeless attempts to get tenure — somewhere, anywhere, for the love of God — then the realization that what I had teaching at San Diego State was really what I wanted. I’ve written about the Cedar Fire, adjusting to life in Descanso, the mountains, the beginning of my osteoarthritis (at 51!!!) and how it had been misdiagnosed… Life is in those books.

One of the journals has an entire photocopied book I borrowed from a friend, poems by Rumi. Other books are filled with Goethe — and my conversations with him. There are drawings of hikes and flowers. Eulogies for my dogs when they died. ❤

On each journal, I have taped a note indicating something about its contents and I’ve labeled those with spines the years between the covers.


When I reached the last book (2006) — which is only half-filled — I wrote an entry that explained, from this distance, what happened, a bit about how things turned out. In 2008 when I threw out the Evil X, I began writing an online journal on Blogger, a private blog. I liked it. Who wouldn’t that types 100 wpm? I was already typing journal entries and gluing them into books. The online journal allowed pictures. That journal was my way of overcoming a very dark time and I did that by, every evening when I got home from school, writing one good memory from earlier years. I got this idea from Dostoyevsky who wrote in one of his books that one good memory from childhood can save a man’s life.

As I was writing that final entry, I checked my email and had to laugh. This quotation was on top of the first email, an advertisement:

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.”

-Frank A. Clark

I would add that even the path that’s FILLED with obstacles might not lead anywhere. ðŸ˜‚

Tyger — France, Therapy and Gallic Humor

Daily Prompt Fearful Symmetry Pick a letter, any letter. Now, write a story, poem, or post in which every line starts with that letter.

William Blake wrote a poem about tygers. In that poem he described tygers as having a “fearful symmetry.” Knowing the poem is about a tyger, a reader can see, in just that description, the movement and beauty of a tyger about to attack.

More than once I’ve been described as a tyger. The first time was my therapist, a great French woman I started seeing for help dealing with the guilt and fear I felt when I realized I had to cut off contact with my brother. I had a list of therapists given me by the insurance company. I called the closest four, two returned my calls. One of them had a French accent. I was immersed in French films at the time so I picked her. There was something in the films that “fit” me and I decided anyone from a culture that produced those movies might be good for me. She was. It just so happened that her area of expertise was helping the families of addicts. That first day, after listening to me, she said, “Ze alcohol is ze worst, Maretha. Heroin? Yes, it is a bad sing, but ze heroin addict dies quickly. Wis ze alcohol ze person can live a long time and ruin more people’s lives before zey die.”

French. Worked for me. The same dark thread of truth that ran through the films.

On my first visit she gave me homework. I was supposed to “be nice” to myself. I went home determined to do that or else… 😉 So… I took myself shopping. I didn’t know where to start with this, so that’s what I did. Never mind I don’t like shopping. I decided to buy something nice for myself. As I walked across the parking lot to Macy’s in Mission Valley I thought, “This isn’t easy.”

Other things I was supposed to do to be nice to myself included forgiving myself for the choice I’d made to stop talking to my brother until he decided to stop drinking. My brother was an incorrigible drunk, and I had been working an extra job to put him through rehab (for the third time). He’d gone through rehab and had been given housing as long as he remained sober. I’d learned that he’d leapt eagerly “off the wagon” and was again going to be homeless. I didn’t think I could handle this whole thing again. I was exhausted, demoralized and felt like a failure. Every time I picked up the phone and heard my brother’s voice, I felt an abyss open inside me. “I need money.” I’d finally reached a point where I couldn’t do it any more, but I didn’t know what else to do. Support and advice from people who loved me convinced me to cut him off. “Call me when you’ve stopped drinking, OK?” I said and hung up. I cried for hours afterward.

That’s why I was in therapy. I wanted to kill myself. Actually “want” is too strong a word. I was afraid I would kill myself. I didn’t want to. There were just times when the guilt and fear for my brother were so strong they were nearly unbearable.

“Did you do your homework?”

“Yes.”

“How were you good to yourself?”

“I took myself shopping.”

“Did you buy yourself something.”

“Cologne.”

“Good. When you smell it, you should sink, ‘zis is ze smell of my freedom’.”

Wow. I got homework after our second session. I had to learn not to punish myself for letting down people who were not even there, my mom, my brother.

“Ze super-ego is very strong in you, Maretha.”

“What’s that? I never studied psychology.”

“It is ze parent. Ze voice zat says ‘Maretha, you should do zis, you should do zat, you aren’t good enough’.”

“Oh.”

“Ze super-ego is a good sing, too, but it is not everysing. Zere is a little girl inside you, too. Were you ever a little girl? I sink not so much. You had a big job to do in your family. You had to care for your parents. Your dad, he was sick. Your muzzer, I sink she was an alcoholic, no?”

I started to cry. France handed me a tissue.

“It is normal. You can see how that little girl had a job too big for her. How can a little girl do zat job? But you needed a family, you were dependent, you needed zem, so you did what you could to keep zem functioning. You could not succeed. You see yourself as a failure, but what you are is a survivor.”

“Wow,” I said. “I never saw that.”

“No. We cannot see so well in ze middle of sings.”

“What’s my homework this week?”

“I don’t have to give you homework any more,” said France. ‘You are figuring zat out for yourself. Ze fact is, Maretha, you are a tyger. You see what you need and you go after it. Nussing can stop you. You are very fierce, actually a little scary.”

“Is it a bad thing?”

“No. Tygers, zey are beautiful. If you were not a tyger, you would not be here now. I sink only a tyger could survive your childhood.”

A tyger? Her explanation gave me so much to think about. I left and persisted in trying to be nice to myself. It helped to remind myself that it was impossible for me to save my brother from what he had chosen to do with his life. His life was his job, not mine. I gave myself the homework to understand that he had the right to make his choices, even bad choices, even sad ones. He had the right to make choices that would take him away from me. As France’ words penetrated more deeply into my mind, I began to see the entire dynamic of my family in a new way. Yes. I’d always been determined to be “normal” and to function and to survive. I’d fought back. I also saw that was why I was sober and had held my life together.

Later that day I reread Blake’s poem and saw how Blake’s tyger was formed in fire of hard elements, of darkness and night’s pinpoints of light. Roar.

The Tyger, written and illustrated by William Blake

A really good song and an even better (cuter) video. You’ll enjoy it! I promise!

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/fearful-symmetry/