From Now On, I’ll Be Mad

Fittingly, this was the poem I read on Tax Day:

Bewildered

There are many guises for intelligence.

One part of you is gliding in a high windstream,
while your more ordinary notions
take little steps and peck at the ground.

Conventional knowledge is death to our souls,
and it is not really ours. It is laid on.
Yet we keep saying we find “rest” in these “beliefs.”

We must become ignorant of what we have been taught
and be instead bewildered.

Run from what is profitable and comfortable.
Distrust anyone who praises you.
Give your investment money, and the interest
on the capital, to those who are actually destitute.

Forget safety. Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation. Be notorious.
I have tried prudent planning long enough.

From now on, I’ll be mad.

–Rumi

Each day I read a poem from Coleman Barks’ very excellent collection, A Year With Rumi. Thanks to my friend Fareed for suggesting this to me when I first began recovery three years ago.

Wendell Berry: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

As we struggle with our personal and daily trials and difficulties, while wrenching and stumbling from the constant, unremitting horrors of the world as they keep stride with our lives through the tv and computer screens in every room we enter, take that much needed breath, perhaps permit yourself the luxury of a tear, and, for as many moments as you can allow, think of what your life, your world, your kingdom, mad with your own visions, wishes and loves, would be like. Now, go build it and live there.

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoyias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion– put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts
As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trial, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Ida and the Cycles of Violence and Forgiveness

Have you seen the film Ida?

It is a Polish film from last year that is a powerful, brilliant piece of filmmaking. I use those words powerful and brilliant, because, 48 hours later, I am still contemplating and dissecting the movie; I am still in meditation over its meaning and in awe at how the film has stimulated my own thoughts and tested my beliefs.

The story is a road trip in the early 1960s in Poland between a young woman, brought up in a convent and on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun, and her aunt, a once leading figure in Poland’s post war Communist Party and now a judge. The young woman has no worldly or sensual experiences and is about to begin her adult life by joining the once almighty, but now politically bankrupt, morally spent, and intellectually disregarded Church. The older woman with her life ending professionally, and judging by her alcohol consumption, physically and emotionally as well, belongs to the new order, the new way of the world, the post war communist party promising brotherhood, meaning and purpose in the years after the cataclysms and holocausts of WWI and WWII. It is a political and philosophical movie, but it is also a deeply personal movie, as two individual life stories, differentiated by commitments to competing ideologies and life’s purpose, commitments that dominate and control their lives because of circumstance and history, more than by individual choice, are forced to look past the veneer and trappings of their costumes and titles, to examine who they are and why they are.

As I watched Ida the same challenges arose in me, and as a testament to the great storytelling of the film, are still resident with me. Most concerning, about 2/3rds through the film, I said to my girlfriend, “if I were them, I’d take that shovel and split his head”. It was an honest and true feeling. I was not acting or parading as some phony tough guy or a has-been Marine, but my visceral, gut reaction at that time, during that scene, was that I would commit violence and I would revel in it to assuage my anger and celebrate revenge. But, as the film went on, and as I reflected on those emotions, spurned by the actions of the characters, I realized how wrong, how foolish and how weak such a sentiment and desire was and how embarrassing my utterance.

In the scheme of the movie, killing the man would have been possible and it would have fulfilled some form of duty or obligation to my family, my community and my people, as well as fulfilling a duty to my own image of myself and my need for vengeance; vengeance based on personal, cultural and institutional values. However, taking myself away from that scene, watching the characters and applying my own life’s experience participating in and around the violence of war, I grudgingly recognize and must accept the futility of such violence. I say grudgingly, because violence and revenge is such a part of our identity and our culture that I am loathe to give it up, I am afraid to move on, and to recognize the myth of redemptive violence, as exactly that, a myth constructed primarily for the purposes of national, ethnic, sectarian or religious hegemony, dominance and absolution.

But if I had killed that man, if I had split his head with that shovel, seen death overcome him and gain the satisfaction of such grisly passage of state, what would come of it, what events would I now own? His wife and children, as innocent of crimes as those in whose name I murdered, would be widowed and orphaned on a struggling farm. His sons, would they not seek revenge and in time come for me and my family? Would not the children of my family, the next generation, be butchered in turn? My actions, murder and the infliction of suffering on the innocent, would begin a cycle of violence, an uncontrollable, bloody cycle without end, the likes of which we see in our wars overseas and in the wars in our own cities. And for me? My own experiences in war, my own and personal struggles with moral injury, is that not instructive to me? What would become of my mind and my soul after killing the man?

To move on and say nothing to the man is an option and a better one than violence. However, it is an incomplete option, leaving a chapter of life open ended and without closure, in essence running from a problem and not attempting a resolution, but it does not require the strength needed for a third, and rightful, option. Imagine saying to the man: “I forgive you” and giving him your hand and your blessing. How hard that would be! It seems nearly impossible to me and such a thought, such an option, which leads to an involuntary reflex and rejection within me, would stop the cycle of violence and lead to peace, both within me and my community.

The choice of mercy, of forgiveness, is anathema to my sense of manhood and my obligation for revenge and justice; but what would come of such forgiveness, besides a rejection of cultural and institutionalized violence and loss of personal pride, if I had the courage to enact it? A man would be given mercy and his family spared, and perhaps nothing more than that, but, with deep consideration, is anything else truly necessary? Breaking the cycle of violence is enough. Quite possibly, and maybe very likely, the man would be changed and his family enlightened, hell, maybe his daughter would grow to be the second coming of Mother Theresa, but such achievements or results would not be necessary to validate or vindicate the forgiveness proffered to the man. Stopping the cycle of violence is enough, the peace that would come to my mind and to my community would be enough.

I like to say that one of my favorite quotes is from Saint Francis de SalesNothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength. Yet, how difficult to turn such an outlook into an attribute, even when through personal experience you have seen the glaring failure and horrific counter-production of violence and have been affected so forcibly by grace, kindness and forgiveness as I have.

So please give Ida a watch. It’s a wonderful, well done, contemplative film and I trust it will challenge something in you.

*For another excellent film that takes on the myth of redemptive violence and exposes it for the tragedy it really is, please watch Blue Ruin. Both films are available on Netflix.

If there can be one thing I ask, please watch and share this video:

If I could articulate well and share succinctly my entire thoughts on PTSD, depression, moral injury, alcohol abuse and, especially, suicide, it would be ensconced in this 4 1/2 minute video from Ze Frank.

When I was first shown it, my shield went up and I spurned it, wanting to disregard his words, because he was talking about teenagers and that certainly doesn’t apply to the pain and experiences of a returned warrior [cue the self-indulgence…;)], but I listened and everything, EVERYTHING, he says applies to me and to so many like me who have suffered and are suffering from the pains of mental and psychiatric wounds.

Frank’s description of himself, his breakdown, his rejection of others, his forays into getting help and how bloody hard it can be, and how this mental pain, this psychiatric trauma, is worse than anything physical, applies to those of us who carried rifles in far away lands just as it does to civilians at home. This commonality of suffering does not just unite us as humans, children of a natural and spiritual order, but it a source of relief and compassion. For, as you may be suffering, just as Frank and I suffered, you know that you are not alone, and through that shared suffering, through this community and commonality, you can find assistance, begin recovery and, through time and effort, including seemingly inevitable regression and relapse, you can regain your life.

The video ends with words to the effect that “if someone sent you this video it is because they love you”. No one is going to ask you to watch this video who doesn’t care, who doesn’t love you or who won’t help you. Most importantly someone who has sent you this video is offering their hand. They are not going to leave you and they will help you get to that other side.

Please watch and share.

 

Two Poems: One of Death, One of Life

I wrote an essay a couple of years ago expressing my views and feelings towards Veterans Day. I still hold those sentiments in my mind and soul as true.

At the end of my essay I emplaced Siegfried Sassoon’s World War One poem Suicide in the Trenches; which I vowed to read each Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day as Sassoon’s contemporaries, festooned with poppies on their lapels and overwhelmed by much dead in the ground and in their memories, would establish to mark the war to end all wars….

This year I read Suicide in the Trenches at our small Veterans for Peace Swords to Plowshares Memorial bell ringing service at the North Carolina State Capitol on Veterans Day. Here are Sassoon’s words, a more eloquent, concise and honest description of war I do not know:

I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

War and its primary companion, suffering, may take possession of your life, but by no means does war need to be in permanent claim of your mind and soul, by no means does war need to be the victor. Through love, through mercy and though kindness your soul and your mind may find forgiveness in yourself, and this, which is a process and a journey, is often enabled and emboldened by the grace of a stranger.

Such a stranger sent me a poem. The life war takes away, love, and its acts, can restore.

The Summer Day – Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So now I have two poems to read each Veterans Day. One to ensure those who have suffered never leave my purpose and my life, and the second, to remind me that this is my purpose and that this is my life.

Thank you Megan.

Coming home, being even more distant…and not having sex

Journalist Sean Langan provides a brave and wonderful service by sharing with readers the difficulties he faced, in particular his inability to maintain closeness or intimacy with his loved ones upon returning home from his imprisonment by the Taliban in 2008. The article is here in The Australian.

Sean’s circumstance as a prisoner, like Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s, is extreme and, fortunately, rare. However, many of the symptoms Sean shares in his article, are those symptoms that those of us, returning home from the wars, face in our lives, and, by extension, our families and friends suffer through as well.

I find the loss of intimacy, the distancing of oneself from others, and the general numbing of emotions and murder of relationships that many inflicted with PTSD, depression and moral injury experience, are the least spoken of and the least understood. In particular, the distancing from one’s partner, both physically and emotionally, is an affliction that ravages many of us and is one of the key reasons that professionals speak of PTSD as a relationship-killer. Tragically, but not surprisingly, the ending of a relationship is often a trigger for a veteran’s suicide.

I certainly went through those experiences and it cost me relationships and hurt people I loved. Looking back, it seems so odd, so foreign, but that was certainly me: sharing so very little about myself, letting no one know I was hurting. I was afraid to confide in someone, anyone, for fear of exposure and because I thought my peers, friends, family, strangers…would see me as weak, ill and not a leader. Never mind that I would ever apply such framing to a friend that came to me with such problems; double standards always exist for yourself.

I’m not even sure I understood that I was being distant or cold, my mind was so overwhelmed with stress, with noise, as if 1000 TVs were playing at once, (that seems such a right description to me, although I can’t remember where or from whom I heard it). The alcohol was key in all of it too. Each day was a measured exercise to get to my first drink, my first hit of medication to sooth the sadness and the guilt, and placate the fury my whole life was wrapped in, like a taut barb wire eco-skeleton stretched along my skin, never letting me move or act without some connection or thought to the wars.

And I lived like that in silence, for years, with a few exceptions. An ex-girlfriend who expressed concern at my state was told she was out of line and that SHE was the crazy one. Traveling on my own, I would sometimes get to a state in a bar where to others it was clear I was emotionally distressed, so drunk I was visibly sad, muttering to myself and drinking doubles of bourbons or Irish whiskey as fast as they could be poured. In Paris, San Jose, Louisville and so many other hotels and bars in Europe and the US, I’d be approached by a kind hearted stranger, if they persisted past my first silent responses, they would get a polite but firm request to fuck off. Sometimes I can recall the guy being a veteran himself, saying he understood and knowing he did, we’d buy each other drinks, make introductions and then drink aggressively, in silence, in mourning, in anger. Anger at what? Everything. Ourselves and the people all around us who didn’t measure up. Plus, we didn’t belong.

In Arlington, I would drink at a bar, late, right near Ft. Myer. You could get pitchers of beer there, along with your side of Jame-O or Jack.  The bar would be full of soldiers and vets, just sitting there, not talking to one another. All in pain, all dying inside, but all quiet, none of us willing, wanting, able to break through the encasement we lived in. Like a womb or a cocoon, alone inside that encasement, you could revel in your anger and your isolation, and make co-misery with your guilt and your sadness.

To your friends, your family, your partner, not a word, not a god-damn sound. And to Him? Well, I was in a wasteland.

The hardest thing to share, the most humiliating, is the loss of physical intimacy. Lust and sexual desire are still possessed, but the ability to make love to your partner and achieve that special intimate connection is gone. I’m at a loss for how to describe it and this post has gone on much longer, and in a much more rambling manner, than I intended, obviously, I’m not terribly comfortable expressing it, but this is the point I am trying to make: If you are suffering from PTSD, depression, and/or moral injury, it is very likely you are not having sex with your wife/girlfriend or husband/boyfriend. That happened to me. In multiple relationships. There were many reasons for those relationships dying, but the PTSD induced loss of intimacy seems to have had the longest knife.

It is not a physical or sexual dysfunction, you can still operate and act, and it does not mean you do not find your partner attractive or that you lack feelings for her/him, but it is a mental block, something so hard to explain, so embarrassing and so, so very frustrating. For both you and her/him. Understandably, for a young woman and through no fault of her own, the loss of sexual interest in her by her husband or boyfriend is devastating.

If this is happening to you, or if it is happening to your partner, please address it. Trust me, like other symptoms of PTSD, depression and moral injury it is something that can be helped and managed. But without attention, without treatment and care, and without love, it will destroy everything you ever loved and wanted in your life.

I can be reached at matthew (@) matthewhoh.com if you’d like to talk about this.