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A heart cracked open

“It’s not about money. It is about compassion,” said a local city council member at a meeting earlier this week. He spoke with such poise and kindness, I  deeply felt the broader truth behind his statement on a local measure.

Over and over since, I’ve come back to his words: It is about compassion. 

Each time I roll them over on my lips and in my heart, I understand better how much everything is about compassion.

Seeing how little is presented around me these days, I’m trying to find ways to show it more in my own life. I feel it often, to be sure, but quiet, held-in compassion does little for someone who yearns to be overtly recognized as human.

This morning, I heard something so overflowing with powerful compassion that I began sobbing. How rare it is to hear something so raw so boldly presented! How wondrous to hear a world in a shaking voice and to understand how compassion connects and strengthens us!

If you’d like your heart to be cracked right open and hear the goodness in compassion (and pain, and solidarity) expressed, please go here. Scroll to 52:40 in “Orange is the New Anti-Black” and listen to the minute of preface explaining why Jeremy Scahill included Kimya Dawson’s “At the Seams” in today’s podcast.

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” — Leonard Cohen

Categories: Music, Reflections Tags: ,

Blank spaces

I used to draw a lot.

I’m not sure why I stopped, but I’d wager there were many reasons. For example:

  • It wasn’t very practical.
  • I wasn’t an artist. I was “just playing.” I found better ways to play.
  • I was busy figuring out how to live independently, which took a lot more effort than I realized.
  • I wasn’t innately an expert. (Back when I stopped, I thought you were either innately an expert or wasting your time.)

I revisited my sketchbooks over the weekend. I was surprised to see some of my drawings were pretty good. I wondered how well I’d be drawing now if I hadn’t stopped drawing. Imagine what twenty more years of practice would have done for me!

I was also surprised to see how determined I was to fill every inch of each page.

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It was as if I was allergic to blank space. Read more…

Our flowers for Rara

Categories: Family, Friends Tags: , , ,

Dia de los Muertos: the hearts we touched

When it’s grey in L.A. I sure like it that way
‘Cause there’s just way too much sunshine ’round here
I don’t know about you I get so sick of blue skies
Whenever they always appear

— Loudon Wainwright, “Grey in L.A.

As my husband drove us northward this morning, I savored the gray so very reminiscent of my childhood home. I moved to Los Angeles for its sunshine only to discover my soul is bound to the rain.

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I would’ve been happy just to drive and cloud-gaze, but we did have a destination. We were taking our sons to Hollywood Forever’s Dia de los Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) festival. Read more…

Tree of Hands, Tree of Life

When my son was a newborn, he mostly cried, made messy diapers, and followed me incessantly with his eyes. I could see a beautiful light from within him even so, and looked forward to seeing who he would become.

His hands captivated me. At first he  only held onto things–usually rattles–without showing any real interest in them. He was just building his baby muscles.

Later, his hands reached out to hold things he wanted and deliver them to his mouth. Scraps of paper, crayons, toys, power cords. You name it, he wanted it in his mouth, and knew how to get it there.

Soon enough, he began walking. He used his hands to pick up sticks and leaves, pet neighborhood cats, and best of all, hold my hand.

How I savored the feel of his tiny hand in mine!

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Next came coloring, big loops and swirls he’d call airplanes, or monsters, or Mommy. Read more…

Categories: Family, Love, Parenting Tags: , , ,

My mom, my Thunder Thighs, my forever superhero

Today I got something remarkable in the mail.

I knew it was coming. I’d commissioned it, after all.

And yet, there is a difference between envisioning something in the abstract and seeing it with my own eyes, which are currently full of tears.

There were few traditions in my household growing up, unless you count my mom’s antiquing and Dumpster diving. One tradition I could count on was periodic weekend walks to the comic book store, where my mom would set my siblings and me free with a dollar apiece. She’d buy the comics that interested her, while we’d rummage through the ten-cent comic bins for our personal favorites. Mine were horror episodics, a la Creepshow, as well as Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld and Superman.

In law school, I got my sister the full set of Amethyst comics as a birthday present. I hadn’t had much cause to think of that, or the comics themselves, until a couple of weeks ago. I’d walked into an antique shop in search of a dresser. There were no dressers available, but I did find excellent conversation with the store’s owner, who reminded me so very much of my mom I felt as if she were standing just behind me, too intent in her own rummaging to chit-chat.

Another prospective customer came in and interrupted our discussion with a question. I examined the jewelry in a nearby case for a moment; when I looked up, my eyes landed directly on comic  book magic: Amethyst and Superman in the same comic!

I coughed up $10 and decided that, for that single afternoon, I believed in signs.

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I still haven’t read that comic. It’s not important that I read it, just that it exists. It reminds me of my favorite times with my mom, my Thunder Thighs, my forever superhero.

Every time my eyes landed on that magical crossover comic, I thought of another piece of comic art I was waiting for. I’d commissioned extremely talented, conscientious comic artist and friend Sina Grace to draw a piece borne from my blog “Becoming a Superhero.”

Because my mom’s life was so full of strife, I struggled to figure out how to do her memory justice. How could I help other people see her not as just a crazy bird lady but as the source of my own love, hope and wonder, not through accident but through emulation? How could I remember her that way, recalling not only her life’s many tragedies but also its victories?

“Becoming a Superhero” was the turning point for me. It was my answer. As long as I remembered Thunder Thighs, I was remembering my mom–my real mom, not not-Mom, the way she’d want to be remembered.

And as long as I not only remember but live the best parts of her, her love and laughter endure.

At some point I decided I wanted not just words but an image to serve as my reminder to remember my mom and use the remembering well.

I described to Sina what I envisioned, though that envisioning was in blurs and blobs. He asked bunches of questions and set to work, sending me a “blueline” (or very preliminary sketch) a few days ago to make sure he was on the right track. I loved it, and I said so. I was prepared to be enchanted by the final product, but again, I couldn’t really imagine what that enchantment would feel like.

Today I received a snapshot of the final image. I laughed and cried all at once, enveloped in the rush of remembered comic book shop visits, Thunder Thighs adventures, and the imagined forays of Dark Moon and Silver Star. My mom would love the image. I sure do.

The print one will be in my hands in a week or two’s time, but what’s important now is that it’s in my heart. Right there with my mom, my Thunder Thighs, my forever superhero.

thunder thighs sg

FTIAT: The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again: An Evolution in Thank You

Kathy (reinventing the event horizon) drew me to her blog with her clear, evocative descriptions of life with mental illness.  A few of the very first entries I read were difficult for me to finish, but the illumination provided by her words made continuing onward so much more than worthwhile.

I’m constantly amazed by the richness of Kathy’s life. Through her descriptions of her beginnings as part of an organized crime family, her knack for creating beauty from bric-a-brac, and her descriptions of traveling for humanitarian efforts, she paints a picture of a life both well and adventurously lived.

© Kathryn McCullough

Her painting isn’t only metaphorical. About her art she writes that it “is mixed media and reflective of my creative efforts to transform potential trash into art–how I’ve long felt about my past–that my life trashed by mental illness could, indeed, be recreated into something lovely and meaningful.”

Indeed. Reading Kathy’s blog, it’s easy to believe that anything and everything is possible with arms opened wide to embrace possibility.

Recommended post: Canines in Conical Hats: Lucy Does Vietnam

The Far Side of Sanity and Back Again:  An Evolution in Thank You

Sometimes gratitude takes time to develop.   Sometimes it’s a process.

For me, being thankful is something I’ve matured into.  In me, the feeling has aged, like cheese, fine wine, a decent sourdough—pungent, rich and layered with flavor.

In fact, I fought mental illness for years before I felt anything remotely resembling gratitude—for either the illness itself or my eventual recovery.  Mostly I hated it.

Actually, I lost my mind gradually, but by my late twenties, I was caught up completely in the throes of it—hospitalized twice in as many months.  And as my 28th birthday approached, I gave up all pretense of sanity and simply let go.  I’d white-knuckled reality for a number of months if not years, until finally my fingers slipped, and I was lost to free fall.

At first I merely brought dead branches into my apartment and decorated the walls with them—not only loving their sculptural quality but also believing I was receiving special messages from them.  Twigs wreathed the room in forest, a sacramental fact, reality stripped of ordinary distraction.

However, in addition to this, I felt compelled to tear up the carpet in my rental apartment’s living room, to strip the floor clean and access the concrete beneath—a more solid surface on which to stand.

So in March of 1990, I stayed up one Wednesday night, utility-knifed my carpet into carry-able strips, stood a ladder beside the dumpster in my parking lot, climbed rung upon rung, and deposited my former floor within.

A rug literally ripped out from under me, I was hospitalized the next day at a state psychiatric facility, where I walked the halls and fingered the walls for weeks, as all around me sentences bloomed into branches, a dazzling display of crazy.

Antipsychotic medication made me restless, so during that admission and the many more that followed, I paced almost incessantly.  I walked hospital halls endlessly, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony that worsened every evening.

One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me and lessen the aloneness, as I tried to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices, reciting senseless, sing-song rhymes.

But mostly I walked alone, alternately fighting and forgetting, as psychosis whiplashed me between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.

This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of me, a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I saw myself stripped of all substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall.  I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean?  And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust?

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me.  And I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything and at the same time terrified of nothing.  I couldn’t articulate exactly what I feared.  I was only and always overcome with dread.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

So in the end, it was terror that made me walk those hospital halls alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.

This is the terror of mental illness—a terror I fought for more than 10 years and 25 psychiatric hospitalizations.

Indeed, I was ill for a very long time, and recovery was slow.

Just like it took time to lose my mind, it took time to find it again, as well.  I emerged gradually from the ruin of my psyche.  Having forgotten what sanity looked like, I barely recognized its image in the mirror.  Backward and upside down at first, it slowly righted itself, turning me around to face the world again.

And it took longer still for gratitude to develop.  Who in their right mind would be thankful for an ugly, painful past—and how could I trust the seeming insanity of that—thankful for both the process of unbecoming and the evolution that remade me in the end.  How was I to straddle that divide?

Indeed, I am now grateful, not only for the recovery I still struggle to maintain, but for the illness, as well—grateful mostly for the empathy I learned.  I finally appreciate the pain I endured, knowing that suffering has taught me sensitivity toward others, a caring I might not have developed otherwise.

So my message then is this.

Gratitude, like mental illness, isn’t easy.  It doesn’t happen all at once, at least not for most of us.  Gratitude is gradual.  It emerges over the course of months and years—and sometimes even lifetimes.

Sure, it’s easy to be thankful for the seeming good that happens—but thankful for the bad is another animal altogether.  So be patient.   Pace yourself.

And during the month of May, Mental Health Awareness Month, please remember the struggles faced by folks with mental illness.  Please, donate to NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.  Share stories like mine with those you love, and encourage others to talk, write, and blog about their battles.  Let those who live with mental illness (and their families) know they’re not alone.

The world is still a staggeringly beautiful place, and those of us who struggle with psychiatric illness make it a richer place to live and love.  We hope big hopes.  We dream ever more enduring dreams.

Recovery is possible.  And for that, I am exceedingly thankful.

© Kathryn McCullough

© Kathryn McCullough

© Kathryn McCullough

Bio:

Kathy McCullough is a writer and artist who has lived in places as far away as Vietnam and unlikely as post-earthquake Haiti.  Her partner Sara is an international aid worker.  Kathy is currently writing a memoir about growing up in an organized crime family.  She blogs at www.reinventingtheeventhorizon.wordpress.com.

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