Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Theft of Memory

Memory is not an exact, camera-like, permanent process.  “Neuroscience, which has undergone extraordinary breakthroughs over recent years, tells us there are reasons to distrust what we are certain we remember,” Jonathan Kozol writes towards the end of his new memoir, The Theft of Memory:  Losing my Father One Day at a Time (Crown, 2015).  Age and illness often have their way with us.  The worst is the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease which robs its victims of their memories and decimates their personalities while caregivers must bear witness to the destruction.  In spare, clear prose, Kozol takes us through the final years of caring for his parents, one of whom, his father, suffers from Alzheimer’s.  It is a heartbreaking, yet unfortunately not uncommon, story.

Kozol is best known for his chronicles of poverty and educational deficiencies, especially for children of color, in American society.  His books Death at An Early Age (Plume, 1985), The Night Is Dark and I Am Far From Home (Touchstone, 1990), Rachel and Her Children (Broadway Books, 2006), and Savage Inequalities (Broadway Books, 2012) all are classic sociological texts that excoriate a system rife with injustice and discrimination.  However, this book is a departure for him, and in its pages, we see another side to this tireless advocate for children and their educational future.

Kozol’s father was a well-known neurologist in the Boston area.  Over the years, he had been involved in, and provided key testimony for, a number of high profile cases, including the Patty Hearst trial and the Boston Strangler murders.  He also treated playwright Eugene O’Neill for many years.  So it was with great trepidation that in 1994 at the age of 88, he faced a diagnosis of a debilitating and eventually fatal brain disease.  He knew something was wrong for some time, so like the good researcher-doctor he was, he began to document his decline.  He was familiar with the common symptoms he experienced:  getting lost on walks through the neighborhood where he had lived for many years; the intense restlessness that gradually destroyed his ability to concentrate; the falls and resulting injuries that limited his mobility and independence.  He eventually sat his son down for a heart-to-heart discussion of his advancing disease.  Through the onset of symptoms, his father kept records of his own decline.  He studied himself as a patient or research subject and recorded everything in memos and notes, all of which he turned over to his son as well as his patient files from his years of private practice.  The disease robbed him of his clinical observational powers, but he made every effort to document the crime.

What follows in the book is a story not uncommon for those caring for elderly parents.  Yet, the well-worn narrative path the elder Kozol’s disease takes never lacks emotional punch.  This is a story many of us have seen play out in frustrating and tragic loss.  We live longer now, but do we not suffer more in this longevity?  His father lived another fourteen years to the age of 102, most of it in child-like oblivion and shadow.  The decline of a parent or loved one in this situation becomes a piece-by-piece, slow motion dismantling of a life as the patient slips further and further away.  Death, I dare say, comes with a mixture of sadness and yes, relief.  For nothing can assuage the growing confusion and terror of the patient as his perceptions become scrambled and language fails him.  Nothing can console the family in their grief and loss.  Once robbed of memory, of character and personality, who is this person we once called grandfather and father, wife and mother?

Kozol renders all of this so poetically.  When his father struggles to remember his own name in Yiddish, he tells his son, “It’s been a good trip, hasn’t it?”

“Yes, Daddy,” Kozol responds.  “It’s been a beautiful trip.  You made it good for all of us.”

Kozol must also deal with the decline of his mother in a parallel narrative but she remains lucid to the end.  For some of those years, while his father was still in the hospital and nursing home, his mother continued to occupy the family apartment.  Kozol must find a way to pay for his parents’ care as their financial resources dwindle to nothing.  Eventually, after many heartbreaking pleas to take him out of the nursing home, Kozol gives in to his father’s requests and brings him home to the apartment.  His father and mother live in separate rooms, sleep in separate beds, with separate professional caregivers who become like family.  These men and women in particular are singled out by Kozol as his staunchest allies in the care of his parents; they give heroically of their time and effort, more than any monetary reward could ever compensate.  He portrays them as heroes in a narrative that will end tragically, and they perform with unflinching sacrifice and dedication.

As in all his other work, Kozol is a passionate writer and chronicler of injustice, in this case the injustice of old age and disease.  Gone is the edge of anger and rage he has when railing against failing schools and institutions that should safeguard children, their education and their future.  Here, there is only somber reflection, a softer, more introspective side to a man who has devoted everything to the crusade for social justice.  Here, his adversary is death, and he knows there is no victory.  He can only bear witness to his father’s life, his work, his character.  In the end, the memoir is the tender story of a father and son.  The relationship, as is true in most families, is not easy, and Kozol must come to terms with the times when he might have disappointed his parent by pursuing a life of advocacy for the marginalized.  But his prose is clear-eyed and for the most part, avoids overwrought sentimentality.  He is never maudlin or hagiographic when analyzing his parents and their familial relationship, their marriage, their lives.  He is the consummate chronicler, a writer of poetic grace and detail.  The story of his parents’ decline, especially his father’s, is told with love and honesty.  His rumination on the substance of memory, its fallacies and reconstructions, is cogent and enlightening.

I did have one persistent thought after finishing The Theft of Memory.  Jonathan Kozol is a man who has fought for the well-being and education of thousands of children, yet he has none of his own.  Who will stand up for this man in the gloaming of his own life?  Who will chronicle his story and bear witness when it comes to his untimely end?  Having no children or close family members of my own, I worry about such things.  In Kozol’s case, every page of this book validates him as the good son.  As he is for disadvantaged children in this world, he is an advocate for his parents as they slip into the next.  In his quiet, dignified writing, Jonathan Kozol again speaks for those without a voice (in this case, his father).  There are many heroic caregivers who do this every day.  They are all heroes.  In the fall of this life, they stand, human and true.  Through grief and loss, they stand.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Cognitive Rollercoaster

Albert Ellis’ work with Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) struck a chord with me as I was reading his work this week.  In his view, people disturb themselves by their own rigid and extreme beliefs about events in their lives.  I could relate to this in a way, because I often set unrealistic standards for myself or refuse to back down when facing a task that is clearly beyond my capability.  Since I’ve been recently diagnosed with a heart valve problem, it is crucial that I be careful with stress and anxiety to control my blood pressure.  Heat and other external factors can also cause complications if I am not careful.  My diabetes and kidney issues must be carefully monitored and kept under control so that I avoid any other problems.  I am often tempted to overdue my activities which leads to stress on my heart and low blood sugar.  It is hard to accept that I cannot do what I used to as a younger man.

In a search for balance in my life, I have investigated the work of the Stoics and regularly reread Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus several times a year.  They are the writers I live by, and my journals and notebooks are filled with quotes from them.  I especially relate to the line from Epictetus, “People are disturbed, not by events but by the views which they take of them.”  It is often how we view things, how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world, that determines our success or failure.  This flows nicely into the basic hypothesis of the psychology I was reading:  our emotions stem mainly from our beliefs which influence how we interpret things; based on our interpretive view, we react positively or negatively to our life situations.  Ellis thought we were born with a potential for both rational, or “straight” thinking, and irrational, or “crooked” thinking, and the difference between the two is profound.

In particular, his idea that we learn irrational beliefs from significant others during our childhood and then recreate them throughout our lives resonated with me.  My mother was someone who always saw the negative in every opportunity.  She saw failure around every corner, lurking there waiting for us.  Was this because of her own dysfunctional upbringing, the child of an alcoholic?  “You won’t be able to handle the pressure and your grades will fall,” she would warn.  You will fail.”

For years, I heard her voice in my head when confronted with a challenge.  It took a long time to shut off that voice, and some days, it returns with a vengeance and has much to do with my sense of self-worth and self-esteem as well as how I react to confrontations with others.  This has also placed me on a path toward irrational beliefs leading to self-defeat as postulated by Ellis and Dryden (2007):  “I must do well and win the approval of others for my performance or else I am no good.”  Wow!  Dead on for me.  I am a perfectionist and I take great pains to insure that I know what I am talking about before I open my mouth.  I do not like being wrong and I do not accept failure easily.  But life has, in often unequal measures, failure and success.

In the ABC framework so essential for REBT practice, I found resonance with the way we cause our own emotional disturbances by having phrases like, “I am a miserable failure,” rattling around in our heads.  When faced with the activating event, and before we fall back on the same beliefs and feelings of inadequacies, we must change our emotional and behavioral responses to create a different effect and outcome.  We must practice cognitive restructuring by replacing irrational beliefs and self-defeating attitudes with more rational and accepting ones.  In the end, it is all about philosophy:  how do we see the world and our place in it?  We are responsible for creating our own emotional situations, both the problematic ones and the more easy-going behaviors.  We must let go and not cling too tightly, something advocated in Buddhist philosophy.  Our pain and suffering come from hanging on to things when all we know and see and feel is impermanence.  We must let go.

As for the cognitive distortions, in my darker moods I definitely settle into several errors.  The way we remember events often is worse than they actually were.  We think we said way too much, or we said the wrong thing entirely, but in the actuality of the situation, our actions were not as bad as we think.  I have also had the situation where, based on something one person said, I have felt I failed completely.  I tend to magnify my mistakes until they become overwhelming in the context of memory.  I take things personally, and this comes from lacking sure footing in my self-esteem.  I was brought up to defer to others, to always be polite, and to seek out approval, and even though that might make me a gentleman and man who speaks from the heart, it can also weaken my position when I defer to people who do not deserve such deference.  Usually, when I realize this, I tend to snap back hard which is too much the other way.  I am constantly looking for the middle ground, the stable response, the constant in the chaos, the modicum of balance.  I hate always thinking and rethinking my actions.  Does anyone ever act the perfect way in a given situation?

Finally, I like Aaron Beck’s theory of cognitive therapy a bit more than REBT.  I teach with the idea of a Socratic dialogue, and I find questioning is a good way to make a point.  Open-ended questions allow for reflection, and when done the right way, can lead to students to identify their own misconceptions for themselves.  In that way, they come to conclusions that are their own.  I always tell my students that I am not there to tell them what to think; I am there to push them to think.  If I do my job, students can be their own teachers in the future.

There is no way around the unpleasant truth:  I have faced moments of the darkest depression.  And it is true that my depression results from anger turned inward.  Beck challenges this idea, but I am living proof that there is some truth to that.  I can also see Beck’s triad has validity (negative view of self—interprets personal world in a negative light—gloomy vision and negative projections about the future).  I often have a negative self-view which makes me interpret the world in a negative light leading to my dark outlook and depression.  This goes with my rigid perfectionist tendencies and setting goals that are simply unrealistic.  Many times, these goals are not only unachievable, but they make my life far more difficult and complicated than it needs to be.  I often have to remind myself that I do some things right, that I have some successes, because in my darkest moods, I can only see failure.  Is this my mother’s voice again telling me I will always fail, that I am, even in the present moment, failing?  Yes, maybe, but in middle age, I think it is time to free myself from that voice.  She’s been dead for almost a decade now.  How long can I go on blaming someone for my own darkness and depression?  I need to focus on the successful experiences and let go of the negative ones.  Of course, this is all easier said than done.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ecrire La Vie

A few weeks ago, I decided to splurge on some new notebooks and two fountain pens.  After typing everything directly on the computer from my notes for several months, I wanted to get back to engaging with the pen on paper.  I wanted to practice “slow writing.”  In my case, it will be “painfully slow writing”; I am left-handed and have suffered from severe writer’s cramp for most of my life.  I knew, though, that if I stuck with it long enough, my cramping muscles would get into shape and I’d be able to write through an afternoon without stopping every few minutes to massage my claw back into a hand.

After shopping around on several websites, I ordered three different notebooks to try out—an Exacompta Basics Black with Silver edge, 5 ½ inches by 8 inches; a Clairefontaine Basic Black, Large, 8 ¼ inches by 11 ¾ inches; and a Clairefontaine Basic Black, Medium, 5 7/8 inches by 8 1/8 inches.  All three were made in France with high quality paper.  It seems France is the only country that takes notebooks seriously.  The Exacompta has some texture to the paper with 25% cotton fiber making it an excellent choice for use with a fountain pen.  Clairefontaine is known for making the first notebooks that French students are required to use in school and the quality of their paper is legendary.  When I took students to Paris one long ago summer, I filled my suitcase for the return trip back to the states with large Clairefontaines I found in a huge stationary store.  I loved those notebooks and used them for my journal for years.

I use a variety of fountain pens collected over the years:  Waterman, also made in Paris; Conklin, one of the oldest American fountain pen companies; Cartier, French yet again; and Sheaffer, in cheap models that write with a solid, wet line.  I find a good ink flow eases the writer’s cramp, but with the Sheaffers, I have to be careful because a quick movement will spray the desk with ink.  My latest acquisition is from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.  It is a 45 gram heavyweight with an Elizabethan armor exterior, a kind of novelty purchase but I am hoping it will also be a good working instrument.  One day, I want to get the classic Montblanc fountain pen, but for now, those are out of my price range.

I chose the Exacompta notebook to test out first, and immediately loved the feel of the paper.  Hypergraphia is the compulsion to write and write and write.  It is a mental illness often present in patients with epilepsy, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.  I don’t think I fall into any of those categories but since my notebooks arrived, I’ve been decidedly hypergraphic.  I just love the feel of the nib sliding across the page, and I’ll find any excuse to write.  What am I writing?

Well, while paging through back issues of The Times Literary Supplement (TLS), I found a review from 2012 reminding me of a French author I read years ago whom I love:  Annie Ernaux.  Her many slim, intense volumes are part of a genre in which she specializes:  ecrire la vie, or life writing.  In his essay, Michael Sheringham says that life writing “has become not only a handy catch-all for what were previously considered discrete genres, but also the emblem of perceived affinities between different ways of capturing the warp and weft of lived experience, and of grasping how the various dimensions of a life ‘hang together,’ as Wilhelm Dilthey famously put it.”  Ernaux’s work crosses a number of genres, including “autobiography, biography, essays, history, confessions, diaries and travel narratives…” says Sheringham.

She is not the first writer to utilize this form.  Sheringham mentions Rousseau, Stendhal, and Chateaubriand; Andre Gide and Jean-Paul Sartre (my hero!); Marguerite Duras (another French writer I deeply admire) and Alain Robbe-Grillet for whom the term “autofictional” was coined.  Sheringham describes Ernaux’s work in detail.  “The text is set out in chapterless blocks of print, usually a page or so in length but sometimes consisting of a single sentence, with the spacing between the units also varying in extent.  Description and figurative embellishment are avoided (there are few similes or metaphors); sentences are short and usually tersely declarative; enumerations are frequent, as are comments on register and rationale.  The result is an appealing mixture of the prosaic and the poetic…”

A term that surfaces frequently with this kind of writing is ethnography, or autoethnography.  This kind of writing uses personal experience and reflection to explore political, cultural or sociological issues.  Although Ernaux often writes about extremely personal issues like her relationship with her parents, her marriage, an illegal abortion she had in 1963, and her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s, the writing is inclusive and enlightening, and soulful, like a secret conversation between confidantes.  She explores the human condition and the experience of being alive through a personal lens, but the insights connect with readers and their experiences, as evidenced by her popularity, not only in her native France, but in other countries and languages as well.

To counteract possibly falling into narcissism and navel-gazing in this kind of writing, I have days where I do not allow myself to use the personal pronouns.  I watch, observe and describe people and places.  I am a fly on the wall.  I write about issues.  I explore spiritual and philosophical ideas.  I continue to use journal writing in my classes, and students, after becoming acclimated to the process, embrace it and often come in with their own topic suggestions for the day.  It is practicing the craft of writing, of capturing what is in the mind and putting it down on paper coherently and concisely.  Like working out a muscle, regular writing practice makes the skill stronger and more reliable.

So with all the digital tools and 21st century technology, I am drawn back in time to the broad-nibbed fountain pen and high quality paper in a notebook with a cloth-and-hand-sewn binding.  The pen is mightier than the sword; in a pinch, one could defend himself against an attack with a quick stab of the fountain pen.  If what Joan Didion says is true—“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—life writing is not just hypergraphia or narcissism.  It is an act of survival, a way of processing the big world, and to improve the craft of writing.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Listening, Mindfulness, and Bearing Witness

All this week, I’ve been thinking about how we bear witness to our lives.  To me, it takes mindfulness:  live every moment in that moment.  Or, slow down every moment.  To bear witness to another’s life also requires mindfulness.  It is not awareness of breathing or of a particular piece of music or a specific activity like walking, one foot in front of the other.  It’s deep listening both to what is spoken in our lives, by nature, by others, and also what is not said with words but communicated through posture, expression, non-verbal sounds—in short, body language, something deeper than spoken words.

All during the past, stress-filled week—the weeks never get easier no matter what the schedule says—I tried to find an island of calm, a meditative moment where I could summon up my focus, my mindfulness.  I failed.  All I managed was to sit for a few minutes until the panic set in, moments where I did not know how I would ever let go and just be.  We are so caught up in do-ing that we never fulfill the task embodied in our species’ name:  human be-ings.  It is not necessary to always take action; sometimes we just have to be, i.e., bear witness to our lives and the lives of others.  Because I lost this sense of be-ing, I entered into situations with an edge, a “chip on my shoulder.”  I was not at my best.  I was testy with students and impatient.  What I needed was a good, long walk or a day to refocus my energies and get on track.  I needed to center on my breathing, in and out, and try to get my racing mind under control.  Everywhere I looked, disaster loomed—too much drama because of fatigue.  Were things really that bad?  Narcissism?  Anxiety is my problem when pressures and stresses mount and almost always, things work out fine.  In retrospect, there was no need to be nervous or worried, but the next time such a situation arises, my throat will still start to close and my headache will pound.  There I am again, lost in the funhouse.

Too many times, I feel I want to disappear.  Thoreau off in the woods around Walden Pond.  The monk in his cell.  The ascetic in the desert cave imbibing the pure light of divine wisdom.  Ahhh, to be out and anonymous in the world.  To be silent and stoic.  Why do we always have to participate?  Why do we have to get caught up?  When teaching, I feel I must offer my students something of intellectual value, but too often the well is dry.  In the realization that I have nothing enlightening to say, I just want to keep silent.  Be still.

This is when listening comes in.  I need to listen, first to the breath of life coming in and out of my body.  Second, to the world around me—the people, their voices, what they say and do not say.  I need to listen to the silences of which I am so unaware.  No judgment.  No response necessary other than openness.

When I think of mindfulness, I think of meditation and the deliberate life.  Every action is the totality of the moment.  I block out the next action, the anticipation of what will happen next.  Instead, it is all about a single breath, a single step, a single moment.  A birth and death in the most intimate drop of rain.  Forget the storm; the seed of every tempest is in a single molecule of holy water.

This week, I am leading a discussion of two powerful pieces of witnessing.  Carroll Pickett is a prison minister in Huntsville, Texas.  In his time there, he has witnessed 95 executions of convicted murderers.  It was a job he did not want but upon reflection, he recognized he was being called to do something extraordinary.  He spent entire days with the condemned from six in the morning until the body left the prison well after midnight.  Then he went home and recorded on tape what he had witnessed.  He is not an advocate for the death penalty but rather than stand outside the prison walls holding a sign in protest, he felt he could do more by standing inside next to the condemned as they take their last breath.  The piece is called “The Ministry of Presence,” and it was featured on the National Public Radio show Unfictional.

The second piece is a 70 minute documentary called Griefwalker.  Stephen Jenkinson is a Harvard-educated palliative care specialist who counsels people who are terminally ill.  He also works with their families.  In the documentary, he is often shown listening to his patients.  Intensely, empathically listening.  Sometimes he asks questions.  When he does speak in statements, he is blunt and to the point.  The cradle of life is death, he says.  In his words he makes clear that as much as birth, growing up, becoming an adult are all part of life, so too, is death.  We cannot separate our lives from dying.  All is one piece and the fact that this life ends should profoundly influence how we live.  But so many people do not consider that they will one day not exist until the diagnosis comes or old age envelopes them.  But Jenkinson argues it should be part of every moment of our lives.  We should hold it close like a precious gift, this dying.

Both of the men profiled bear witness.  They are examples of people who put themselves out there for others.  Pickett, the prison chaplain, is a minister, a companion to others on their journey as they reach their state-mandated end.  Jenkinson is both a counselor and a teacher.  He reminds me that the best teachers don’t always have the answers.  They are not there to tell others what to think.  They come into our lives to provoke us to think.

For me, with all the books and mindfulness exercises, it is still too easy to slip back into my old habits.  It is too easy to lose my way and then I must stop and remind myself that there are entire worlds in a moment.  Slow down.  Breathe.  Forgetting these lessons leads only to shameful and embarrassing incidents of overwrought emotions.  It is not pleasant.

We can keep waiting for the weeks to get easier, but they never will.  As strange as it seems, I have to divorce myself from the situation.  I have to become the proverbial fly in the wall.  Only by stepping back and truly looking at myself as a character in a scene and then recording what I see in my journal, only then can I find a handle, a way to return to mindfulness.  So I have become an even more passionate scribbler in my notebooks.  The words spill out of me and flood the page, and I realize that writing is my mindfulness.  I can meditate on my breathing.  I can take a walk.  Better than those, I can sit down with a blank page and focus on the moment.  What does it feel like?  How is it precious?  How do others react, to me, to the situation?  For a long time I have known that my way in the world is to write.  It is as necessary to me as breathing.  The pen, scratching across the page, is home.