is the worst of maladies. It rips your heart out and leaves you breathless, exhausted, wasted, denuded. Your skin comes off and all your nerves get exposed, and you weep for no reason that you can explain to anyone, and no one cares, anyway. Depression makes you irritable and cranky and bad-tempered with everyone you know. The smallest things get under your skin, which isn’t there, so the smallest thing gets under your nerves and rubs them with salt so that you feel like screaming. There that, the endless and incomprehensible desire to scream your head off and, failing that, which you do, of course, because you fail at everything, you collapse into crying and self-loathing. Depression chains you to your bed or your chair or your corner, and if you manage to get up and walk around depressed, the chains drag and mossy anchors drag you back. You think about drowning. You long for death, to sink into the muck, the brown brownness of it, to bury your face into its dirty mess, your own dirty mess of self. You argue and blame and shout at people and feel furious with them for not understanding and stopping to throw their arms around you, kiss you, and hold you until the tears stop. The tears you fear will never end. But depression makes you monstrous and no one wants to kiss or hold a monster, so you carry on behaving monstrously, miserably alone, misunderstood, mistaken, misplaced, missed. Me miserable, which way I fly infinite wrath and infinite despair. You think you are going insane. You don’t trust yourself. You have no one but yourself to trust and so you fall into the lower deep that devours you. Depression confuses the mind and wrings the hands, it stammers the mouth and removes choices. It unfurls the mind against itself and dissolves the skeleton, hunches the back against the stairs uncomfortably. No comfort in the mind shut down and the body broken. They call depression a disorder. It is disorganized, chaotic, stormy, an attack, a tornado, a tidal wave of sadness, and it hurts. It burns the eyes, scorches the throat, stops up the nose and ears and painfully overstimulates every nerve in the body while simultaneously deadening everything, so that you move, if you can move, through the world muffled, muted, deafened, dulled, retarded, defeated, deflated. It washes you up on unfamiliar shores, it abandons you, wrecks you, dashes you, destroys you. Do not underestimate this affliction.
I drove home with groceries from Costo, arriving at 1:30 pm, with dread and sorrow in my heart, worrying that he, they, would still be sleeping. I have this bad habit, or sense that is true, that it is the girlfriend who drags him down, and who keeps him up late into the morning hours, and who prevents him from following his normal diurnal rhythms. Surely many if not most mothers have had these suspicions about girlfriends who don’t quite measure up. I am not proud of myself. But it was with dread that I came up the back steps into the yard, and with surprise that I greeted y son, standing on the ladder, scraping away.
He has taken a job from me to earn money to help pay his way where he lives. And the job is not as easy or as quick as the thought it would be. And he took his time getting to work. But he did get to work, today, before I got home, and he worked steadily at it, all day, taking occasional breaks from the sun and the heat. And when he thought he was done and I pointed out that there was way, way more to do, he didn’t complain, but set about the work, and worked well after dinner time, until just now, 8:20pm.
I told him, “hey, that was good work. You worked hard, and I’m proud of you.” He was tired and heading for the shower. It was the first time in a long time that I have complimented him in a way that he could and would accept. He took it in and acknowledged the good in him. Because he knew it wasn’t bullshit, knew I wasn’t trying to build up his ego. He worked hard and got the credit for it, and that was good for him and for me.
It is a platitude but there is nothing like honest work, done well and appreciated. I felt we both succeeded tonight. Small steps. Perhaps you would laugh at me–or at him–because you don’t understand how difficult it can be to do anything at all when you are depressed, and how even the smallest movement feels like an achievement.
Nothing is more difficult to treat than depression, because depression is an illness in the brain, a faulty logic, a disaster in the motherboard of the brain, a crossing of circuits that no genius can fix. We don’t understand it, depression, and therefore we have nearly no sympathy for it.
My great-grandfather, Lynn Latta, was born 26 June 1867, the fourth of seven children in a large and settled family near Fulton County, Kentucky. One day he walked away from his brothers and sisters and parents without telling anyone why or where he was going. His niece, Mary Emma Pittman, the daughter of his brother, Thomas Benton Latta, suggested that he went away to avoid a fight with one of his brothers over money. Her mother had once told her that Lynn “got tired of Uncle Guy borrowing his money and never paying back.”
“I never did hear my Father speak of him very often,” Mary wrote,
and I asked my mother one day why. And she said it hurt him so much as he was so good a person, but he didn’t like his brother treating him the way he did, as he was a good person who liked to save his money.
So, rather than confront his brother about the debt, and, presumably, shame him in front of his family, Lynn decided to take the shame upon himself and leave. This, at least, is the story given by his niece, Mary, who stayed on the “Old Home Place” that Lynn’s parents, Benjamin Franklin and Mattie (Mitchell Morris) Latta, built.
Years later, Lynn’s daughter Edith noted, “Dad left his childhood home when in his teens, and how he ever went so far north to find a wife, I’ll never guess.”
Lynn was not the only peripatetic member of the family. All of his brothers and sisters left Kentucky except for Mary’s father, “TB,” Thomas Benton Latta, who stayed on at the Old Home Place and then passed it on to Mary.
Courtship and Marriage
No one knows why, when, how, or where Lynn met Martha Matilda Kennedy,
a headstrong, Protestant Canadian of Irish and German heritage. One of my grand aunts, it might have been Ruth, told me that her parents met in Detroit or Chicago, where her mother was working as a milliner, but I have not found any census records to prove it.
We know that Martha, at least, was in Arkansas on January 14, 1899, giving birth to Ruth. Twelve days later–and this seems incredible–Martha and Lynn got married 1,000 miles away, in Huron, Ontario. A little more than a year after that, the little family had moved to an apartment building at 507 Ninth Street, in Des Moines Idaho.
At some point during this year Martha traveled back to Canada. The official documenting her crossing at Rockport, Ontario, wrote that she and her daughter intended to visit her husband, who was in the country for six months.
Perhaps Lynn had found and especially lucrative job up in Ontario. Shortly after he returned he purchases six and a half acres on Indiana Road in Des Moines, built a house on top of a hill and opened the “White House Cafe,” a small restaurant on West Fourth Street that catered to passengers heading to and from the Rock Island Railway.
Martha cooked and bore ten more children: Lynn Howard, John, Frederick, Edith May, Elsie, Evelyn, Edward, Albert, and Dorothy. The third child, John, died in infancy. Lynn and Martha owned two horses, Nellie and her son, Ben, cows, and chickens. They farmed hay, vegetables, walnuts, plums, cherries, and berries. They bought an upright piano and hired a teacher to give lessons to the older children.
Lynn’s second daughter Edith recalled that her father
was a very kind, hard-working man. He never had enough sleep that I can remember. He went to his restaurant after doing a lot of jobs around the house in the mornings and early afternoon. He went to the restaurant in plenty of time to prepare the evening meal, keeping the place open late in the evenings and letting his horse bring him home. Old Nellie knew the way, so Dad could sleep. He built our home, little, by little, with the help of a handyman. He was so good to all us kids.
Ed’s wife Wilma also observed,
the children all remember their father as a kind, loving man. There is a snapshot of him somewhere with a bunch of kids on a wagonload of hay. So apparently they played with him while he worked at home.
Martha, on the other hand, was not as much fun. Edith recalled that her mother
was always busy raising children and working in the fields and gardens. She was not demonstrative, but she must have had a good business sense, continuing to keep the household going after Dad left, with no monies except what we older ones who were working could give her. I don’t think she ever had time to do what she might have liked to do; she was just too busy doing what was necessary to keep the family going.
In the margins of this typed letter Edith has written by hand,” she did enjoy her flower gardens.”
On the other hand, he was difficult. Ed remembered his parents arguing often, which bothered him. His wife Wilma, who told me this, also recalled that Martha’s neighbors
tried to help her when she had problems, asking her why she took him back when she knew it meant trouble. She resented their ‘helpful’ interference, and told them so. So apparently he left more than once, although Ed doesn’t remember.
During the delivery of one child (Elsie, I think), she hemorrhaged so badly that they feared for her life. (All deliveries were at home, of course.) They sent for the father, but couldn’t find him. He had left the restaurant to go to a movie. She never forgave him for that. She probably was afraid of each of the four pregnancies after that, and felt trapped and resentful.
He must have been charming, to persuade her to bear more children under these circumstances.
My only purpose in telling these details is to help you understand what a hard life she had, and to see why she became a bitter old woman. It also helped me to understand why Ed refused ever to argue with me; he would walk out instead.
Culture and Traditions
Lynn Latta and Martha Matilda Kennedy came from completely different cultural backgrounds. Lynn’s Scotch-Irish folk settled in North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky–Protestant middling people who distinguished themselves for their extraordinary fierceness, stubborn pride, and cheerfulness, which neither poverty nor hardship could suppress. These out-spoken, hard-scrabbling folk brought their rich and colorful music, dance, and cultural rituals with them, elaborate weddings, wakes, festivals, and celebrations. The greater freedom they allowed their children fostered independence and self-confidence, but it also caused outsiders to think of them as somewhat wild. The object of their child-rearing practices was not will-breaking, but rather will-enhancing. Great men and women came from this stock–the brilliant orators and statesmen John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Andrew Jackson.
Martha Kennedy had more than a streak of stubbornness in her, having grown up on the western frontier of what was then known as “Upper Canada.” The Six Nations who lived on the land did not surrender it to the crown until 1844, and white people-most of whom were German– did not officially begin to settle in Haldiman County, where Martha was born in 1873, until 1832. Her mother’s people were puritanical, staunch, upstanding, orderly, and strict Free Will Baptists, who believed that once a person had renounced his or her faith, that there was no returning to God.
Martha Matilda’s maternal grandparents were Nelles family cousins who who traced their lineage back to Andrew Nelles and the United Empire Loyalists, German mercenaries fought against the Americans during the war of Independence. Passionately devoted to the English Crown, the Nelles family moved north from New York State after the Revolutionary War. Many German loyalists were given free land, as British crown wanted to bring in more Protestants, whom they regarded as more tractable than the Catholic French-speaking settlers who had intermixed with the native peoples.
These Germans regarded the women and men who fought for the independence of the United States as radicals and anarchists. In her obituary, Martha’s grandmother’s is remembered for her piety and “splendidly furnished residence,” as well as for her “untiring efforts to make home attractive as well as her skill and good taste.”
Much less is known about Martha’s father, John Kennedy, a Church of England (see the 1881 census) Protestant.. He is listed as a general laborer in Huron in the 1881 census, but Evelyn said that her mother grew up on a farm. Perhaps Delilah Nelles married outside her ethnicity to escape their narrowness when she took up with the first Canadian-born Northern Irishman. She certainly doesn’t look as dour as her mother:
And what about Martha Mathilda, this half-Irish, half German girl from London? One of her daughters said she once fell in love with a Catholic but was forbidden to marry him, and that she met Lynn while working in Detroit, Michigan, as a nurse’s aid. One of her other daughters said she had been a milliner. I can imagine the first rush of romance, the affable Southern boy sweeping the beautiful, Irish-eyed Northern maid away with dreams of cooking together in their own business.
In response to my query, “Did [Lynn and Martha] love one another?” Edith responded:
That is a good question. I never saw any affection between them; I remember one time when Dad put his arm around Mother standing in a doorway, and she shrugged away.” Obviously there was some affection, or at least, a strong physical attraction to one another–they brought ten [sic] children into the world.
These children had a great deal of merry freedom, much more than they might have enjoyed had they grown up in the stern, well-furnished rooms of Germanic Upper Canada.
Edith recounted that her brothers Lynn and Fred “were very good to us, …making all kinds of play equipment–a merry-go-round out of an old wagon wheel, a trolley slide across the field that sloped, a greased wood slide from the hay mow to the ground. That had to be taken down in short order, because we got grease on our clothes. I remember once daring those who would follow me to jump from the hayloft, turning a somersault before landing on a stack of hay on the ground. I didn’t do very well, landing mostly on my neck, so no one followed, and I didn’t try again. How crazy can kids get!! We really had fun, though.…I really don’t believe any child these days can have as much fun as we did, o so many years ago.”
When the train service to Des Moines dropped back, business at the White House Cafe began to fail. Lynn had to sell his restaurant and began working as a chef under another man. Edith wrote,
As I remember, he didn’t like his job at that time, we felt that he had been his own boss for so long that it wasn’t easy for him to work for someone else. The incident that precipitated the argument with Mother, as told to me, was Dad was coming to Mother, wanting to mortgage the house to get money enough to buy a smaller restaurant in a different location in downtown Des Moines.
According to Edith, Elsie was there during the argument, and Martha Matilda threatened Lynn with a butcher knife. Evelyn discounted this story, but Edith thought it was true. Edith wrote,
Evelyn told me that Elsie was not there when Mother was confronted with the proposal to mortgage the house. It was Evelyn and Ruth, and there was no butcher knife. Mother had something in her hand, probably a spoon, but Evelyn can’t remember what it was. And all Mother said was, “You old fool.” Then Dad sat down on a kitchen chair, probably feeling he was at ‘the end of a rope.’ How soon he left home after that, she doesn’t know, but I imagine it might have been the next day. That’s a relief to me, as he would have had time to get his clothes, and all these years I have believed he left with nothing.”
Edith had more sympathy for her father than Evelyn, who flatly stated, “he deserted us when I was about nine years old.” In a different letter she wrote, “I never could forgive him. Guess I’m stubborn, but mother had so little.” She remembered her mother rising early every morning to light the fire, and toiling in gardens, raising vegetables and fruit for food.
Lynn’s oldest son, named for his father, also got up before dawn to milk the cows and take care of other chores around the farm to keep it going while he simultaneously put his younger siblings through school paid for his own law education. He started working as a lawyer in the 1920s, and gave his brothers and sisters jobs in his offices.
Shortly after the argument in which Martha did or did not wield a butcher knife at him, Lynn left the family and moved north, looking for other work. Edith wrote that “he never intended to leave the family for good.” Edith wondered if he had “wanderlust in his system.” I remember Ruth telling me once that after that third baby [John, 1902-lived three months and 20 days] was born and died, [Mother] told Dad that she was not going to travel any more.”
At any rate, Lynn left his home after 1920, already in his mid-fifties, intending somehow to come back. Sore feelings, frustration, a short temper, pride, and all the other little factors that lead people who love one another to storm out when they ought to stay, brought him to say goodbye.
The story he tells of the years that followed, of his successive attempts to find work and of repeated disappointments and increasingly degrading jobs, is a familiar one these days, when people who have borrowed tens of thousands of dollars for college degrees, only to find themselves out of work and passed over in favor of cheaper and younger applicants for jobs that are scarcer and scarcer. In June 1928, on stationary from “Renahan Manor: A High-Class Residential Community” at Round Lake, Illinois, Lynn complained to Edith, who had tracked him town and phoned him:
I have been here two months and it had to be the only time I went to town, 1 1/2 miles, to get my hair cut, that you called…If only you had given…a number, I would have called at once. And now I want to know how you knew I was in Chicago, and how you found out my address. I suppose some one that I have met then must have told you for I have met several that know me in Des Moines…If only you could know how much it hurt me to think what a mess or failure I have been since I sold my restaurant. But I had been [illeg] with it so long that I had no home, just a place to sleep for a few hours, then go again. Then when I sold out card [?] to trick to stay home nobody wanted me. Then that fall and four [?] attempts to work for others, which [ended?] in disaster on account of my foot, which still hurts me in the night, although a little less each year.
It is hard to know what to make of these lines–was he feeling especially sorry for himself or did he really feel unloved and pushed out? Had he become alienated from his wife because they were both working so hard that they never saw one another? Was he tricked into selling his restaurant? How did that happen? And what about the fall he mentions here, the one from which never obviously never recovered? In those days working people had little or no health insurance. There also was absolutely no safety net, no social security, and no disability assistance, which exacerbated the Great Depression that descended on the country after the crash of ’29. These factors certainly contributed to the demise of Lynn Latta, Sr., who was by all accounts an extremely hard worker and devoted father.
It appears Lynn had traveled away from home before to find work, for his letter continues, in a story that many today would find familiar, with the earnings adjusted.
Now when I left the last time I had a chance to get a small room for my old time sandwich business and also a job at Florant City, up near Colfant[?], Minn., at $30 per week on the same day. Having no money left (just enough to get to [?]); I had to take it. I did not intend to do as I have done but [meant to] keep silent and save ($300 in 15 weeks and [had] started just trying to find some flour for myself and get in Dubuque 4 weeks in the Spring and find outside work, but my foot hampered me and I came into Chicago, where cooks were in demand. Went to Flint Mich as 2nd cook in a Hotel at $50 a month, came back, worked in the Mug [?] hospital 3 weeks at $40 a month, three in a steel plant 18 miles south of the Lake…, 5 months at $150 and 7 months at $163; then when good times had passed I lost out for a younger man.
Then I tried business again, but it takes a lot of money to buck the grade in Chicago. So five years ago when I was hoping to let you all know where I was I found myself down and out again, but I never gave up, nor asked anything of anyone. But I found it a lighter burden going until I caught the Light House Lodge the 18th of June with no argument as to wages. When it was over 2 months and 18 days they gave me $365 and my RR Hay [?] asking me to come the next year, then to get $14 a month and last year a little less, for I had stopped here a week before I went up there, and that 1 week as 2nd cook got me the chef’s job this year, and Mr. Renehan wants me to run a Restaurant (that he owns in Round Lake) next winter after he closes here in Oct. If I come through successfully here and take it I will let you know about it. Then you may tell your mother and the other children, for I would sure love to see Ruth’s babies.
Lynn’s agonized concern for his reputation and image in his daughter’s eyes is palpable in the last lines of the letter, where he instructs her to travel to the Light House Lodge, where she should “show them” his picture and
see what they say about me. You remember I had to get glasses before the War. Well, my eyes got better and now at 61 last June 26, I can read the Chicago Tribune without them, and then …I finally lost them. And I weigh 137: one pound more than I weighed before and 10 pounds more than I weighed 2 to 5 years ago. Your old broken-hearted Dad.
Unfortunately, things did not turn out as hoped for at Renehan Manor. The Great Depression must have had something to do with that, and his family lost touch with him again.
In January, 1930, Lynn’s brother Lee, a well-to-do and pious banker living in Minnesota, wrote to one of his daughters, Ruth or Edith:
Just keep on trying, dear, to locate him if possible…make an extra effort to find him, and if he is not well, for brother Tom [Thomas Benton] to take him home with him for a rest, as TB lives on the Old homestead where your Dad was borne. Then we his brothers and sisters could come, and see him there, if your mother still felt toward him as she now thinks she does. But I believe for the fact that he has a sense of duty toward her dear children, who love both she and he [sic], may enable her to forgive to a degree the past unfortunate mistakes, which we all are subject to as none of us are perfect, but only human. One was perfect that that was that we might be saved from sin.
This discovery of your Dad seems like a dream to your Uncle Lee, for had I almost given up hopes of ever finding him and now that I have positive proof of his being alive a year ago, I shall never be satisfied until we locate him, and we can let him learn from us all that we love him as we have always.
Now you do what you can to trace him as you suggest through his lodger affiliation, and we will see what action your Uncle t.B. takes after receipt of my last letter with Lynn’s enclosed. T.B. is well able to go to Chicago, and put forth this effort and care for him, should he succeed in finding him. When we get hold of him then we can plan the future, and if it is God’s Will that he should be restored to you children it shall be so. Because he belongs to your, his blood courses through your body temple, and no matter what his shortcomings may be, you must in no way deny him, for his brother the Christ never will, Your loving uncle, Lee
At some point in 1930 or shortly afterwards someone contacted Lynn Latta’s oldest son, Lynn Howard Latta (my grandfather), to tell him that his father was in a county hospital in Chicago. My grandfather then packed his mother, his sister Edith, and himself off to Chicago to see him. Martha told her husband that he could return, but later instructed her daughter Elsie to write to him not to come home.
“So, he was lost again,” Edith lamented. “He probably died in or around Chicago, but that is only guessing.”
When Brendan was six years old, his father and I separated. I was just finishing my dissertation and felt as though I had to choose between my was-band and my dream of becoming an English professor. I had supported him financially and emotionally as he went on the academic job market; had moved with him from one position to the next and postponed my education until he was settled, working and earning money to keep the house up; had sold my mother’s jewelry to put a down payment on our house in Arlington, Virginia; and financed my return to graduate school out of my private funds. But once he got tenure he made it clear that he would not be making any sacrifices for me. In fact, he resented the time I devoted to my studies.
He encouraged me to enter a different profession. In retrospect, I see that he was probably right. It probably would have been better to have gotten a job in government relations or nonprofit work. I could have stayed in Arlington and would have made a lot more money and felt a lot more appreciated and respected than I did in academia. But I didn’t know that then.
I had a dream and I wanted to pursue it. I luckily got a good, tenure-track job my first year out on the market, which was hard to do then because there were so few jobs and so many Ph.D.s applying for them. The only trouble was that the job was in Missouri, and we lived in Virginia. To make a living, I had to move. I wanted to bring Brendan with me, and fought a bloody battle with his father for custody. I wasn’t trying to get full custody. I was fighting for joint custody. This I got, but the compromise, which I truly believed was best for Brendan, was to leave him in the home he had grown up in, at the school where he felt comfortable, for two years. After that, he was supposed to come live with me. But when the time came, I took a half-year sabbatical in Washington, D.C. and went on the market again, searching for a job closer to him. I got the job at the University of Pittsburgh and postponed Brendan’s move to my household, again thinking first of his best interests. When the moment finally came for Brendan to come to me, his father balked. I insisted.
The chair of my new department promised me that Brendan would be able to go to the University School, and Michael, my was-band, reluctantly agreed that it would be a good place for him. Nevertheless he remained so angry about having to give him up—even though this was something that he had agreed to and that had already been postponed for an entire year—that he dropped his son off with his clothes in a cardboard box and not a single pair of shoes.
So Brendan came to Pittsburgh, but lo, the school that he was supposed to go to said that they did not have any room for him. I appealed to my chair for help, because I knew that he had had enough clout to get the son of another professor, who only taught one semester a year, in. He claimed he could do nothing for me..
Had I known that Brendan would be put onto a waiting list, and not admitted into the university school, I would not have taken the job. I would have stayed in St. Louis, where there was an excellent school with room for Brendan. I did not prefer this option because my aim had always been to keep both parents in my son’s life.
So now I had him with me but no school to send him to. The local public institution was a magnet school, and Brendan would have to pass a test in German to get in. He took lessons and did very well, but not well enough to pass the test. So he was bussed halfway across the city to a school where he felt afraid of the children.
He was there on 9/11. A plane had gone down outside of Pittsburgh, and all the teachers and students at the university were sent home. But I could not get word from Brendan’s school about his whereabouts until many hours later. Everyone has his or her own memory of that terrifying day. I remember people on bicycles, foot, and in cars streaming away from the city. We believed we were under attack, and fled all tall buildings. I could not find out what had happened to Brendan. The school did not answer calls. He didn’t have a cell phone. He was only 9.
Furthermore, bullies tormented him on the bus and at school. It was clear that the district was not going to do anything about it. I took him out of the public system, which was very poor, especially in comparison to the Arlington schools, and enrolled him in a private, Catholic academy just down the street from me. My teaching schedule—given to me by someone who knew I had a school-age child—kept me on campus for an hour after school let out. So he was home alone for a little over an hour each day. I cycled home as fast as I could and got it down to 8 minutes.
The kids at the Catholic school bullied Brendan even more than the public school kids had, partly because the principal humiliated him, who was then in the fifth grade, by forcing him to sit with the second-graders for math. I tried yet another private, secular, alternative school, which only had room for him in the fourth grade class. I interviewed the hoity-toity establishments in town and quickly discerned that I lacked the cash to get or keep him in them. In short I considered every alternative available to me and then some.
Brendan became very depressed. He started to say alarming things such as “I wish I were dead,” and “I’m just going to throw myself in front of a train.” He grew more and more morose and withdrawn, and did not want to talk to his father when he called. The was-band, being more childish than his son, threw a fit about it and, in a churlish fit of spite, dis-invited Brendan from Thanksgiving with his grandparents, whom Brendan loved and wanted to see. His own father actually instructed me to inform Brendan that, if he would not come to the phone, then he would never speak to him again. I knew that I was both stronger and wiser than the was-band, and that if Brendan were to have both parents in his life, I would have to make the sacrifice. I drew strength from Lao-Tzu, who said the master is strong because she bends like a willow. In a storm she bends all the way to the ground but does not break like the oak, who foolishly barrels up to difficulty with his manly chest.
I also knew that Brendan was struggling so much on the social level at school, where he was being savaged, that he was in danger of a serious breakdown. He would not thrive here. When we talked about it, he was visibly relieved but he also said, “You’re nicer,” and that a part of him felt very sad about going, but another part knew that it was for the best. He missed his friends and the school in which he felt relatively strong and confident.
I was renting a crap apartment on the edge of a very active graveyard. Burials at least once daily. Not a happy place. Psychologists and psychiatrists come to Pittsburgh because the per capita percentage of depressed people is so high. They say it’s because it rains a lot. The chubby kid across the street was treated terribly by his dreary hippie, unthinkingly politically correct parents, who continuously pointed out that he was their adopted son of a crack addict who had ruined him in the womb.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve come to love Pittsburgh for all kinds of reasons, but I hated it then. After Brendan went back to Arlington I hated it more. I used to collapse on the kitchen floor and weep. Or I’d go lie down on his bed and breathe through the pain, try to accept not fight it. I came completely undone. I went into the darkness. Those years in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, during which I could not physically mother or protect my child, where the hardest and most painful in my life.
The university had a lot to do with that. One of my friends, who was a brilliant philosopher who had her pick of the top jobs in England and America, swore that the institution itself had infected her with a virus, from which she later died. True story. She was a Platonist and a feminist, and fussy old patriarchal bastards ran the department. Another friend, the head of the women’s studies program left the university because she was so pissed off at her colleagues, who had slapped the wrists of a married guy in her department, a medium bigwig in the tiny academic pond, when they found out that he had been handing out lucrative scholarships to the female students he was fucking. The woman who replaced my friend in Women’s Studies was and remains mad, insane, crazy, ooby-shooby.
Worst time in my life, but it’s over. Through persistence, diligence, and many tears, I kept the bond. We like as well as love each other. And here we are in Nepal. We went up to the top of the house after everyone else had gone to bed, and listened. We hugged, and then joked with one another as we parted. His room is directly above mine.
The night air is throbbing with frogs. It rained hard earlier but the rain has ebbed. It is pleasantly temperate, neither too warm nor too cool.
I had a magical day with beautiful and affectionate children, as well as with a group of women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have a fantastic sense of humor and are genuinely down-to-earth. I’m learning Nepali as fast as I can so that I can talk to them, hear and tell their stories. But Nepali is hard. It’s written in the same script as Sanskrit. Spoken Nepali is a lot easier but the language doesn’t really make sense, I think, until you learn the script. How did I get here? It’s a long story and I’m trying to tell it. What am I doing here? Writing is supposed to help me figure that out.
Here is a verse from the second chapter of the Dhammapada,
A practitioner delighting in diligence,
Seeing dread in negligence,
Advances as a fire—
Every fetter, coarse and subtle, burns.
I am not sure I am practicing diligence or not. I am staying up way too late to write and edit this blog, and I am taking tomorrow off to go with Brendan to Thamel to buy sandals for him and books for me. I need a Nepali-English dictionary, and some guide to writing Devanagari. It is neither necessary nor wise, anyways, to adhere to strictly to any teachings.
Did you know that Buddhism spread from Nepal to India and the Tibet? The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in what is now known as Nepal in the fifth or sixth century B.C.E. He rejected the Hindu belief in a creator god and the caste system. The Newar people of the Kathmandu Valley, my hosts and neighbors, developed a unique mix of Buddhism and Hinduism with a strong emphasis on tantra. The Buddhist part of that blend faded as orthodox Hindu immigrants from what is now India swarmed into the Valley. Buddhism declined severely from the 18th through the 20th century, but was revived by Tibetan refugees from the Chinese invasion of their homeland in the 1950s. Tibetan Buddhism, or Vajrayana, has a more structured set of beliefs and practices than the native strain. Has my exposure to Buddhism through yoga helped to bring me here? Absolutely. I’m thrilled, moved, awed by the physical nearness of the great Stupa, Boudanath, one of the holiest Buddhist places on earth. I expected to feel this way. What I had not anticipated is how much I am also drawn to Pashupatinath, one of the most sacred Hindu sites this side of the Ganges. Because I’m not Hindu (i.e., white), I can’t enter the shrine, but I did witness the majesty of the place, with its deer park, Mrigasthali Ban, supposedly the site where Vishnu appeared as a stag, and the burning cremation pyres and the orange-swathed bodies on the bank of the Bagwamati River.
Bhisal took me there, and explained that he had recently attended a funeral on the very site where a body—heaped with wood—was burning. Knowing this made the sight all the more serious and disturbingly beautiful. Bishal also told me that there was a Buddhist burial ground in the jungle on the east side, where the monkeys live.
I like the idea of advancing as a fire, burning away all impediments in my path. But I’d like to do more than destroy and consume. I’d like to be in the light and to be the light, but I don’t know how I feel about the concept of burning up everything, including myself, even though I understand that what ceases to be is dross, not the gold inside each being. Something valuable remains, but this is not simply the spirit, separated from the body. The spirit cannot live without the body, body and mind are mutually informing and enlivening parts of a unity, yin and yang, not opposites, but component elements.
Yes! Already! It still hurts, sometimes, to “relax” on my back on the floor, because my muscles, long trained to bunch up, still contract and hold tightly to my spine when I lay it down flat. Yet I have learned, not just through daily practice, but also heat and exhaustion, to let go and, as I call it, to “fall through” the pain.
I have been going to yoga classes for more than 10 years. It is only recently that I have experienced lying flat on my back with complete comfort. Some years have been better than others, depending on the degree of stress I was under and how much exercise I was getting. Generally, whenever I lie flat on my back on a hard surface, my body feels, simply, not suited to this posture. For all these years, I thought it was because I had such large buttocks, which forced my spine to arch upwards away from the floor in an s-curve. It seemed as though I needed to reverse that arch in a posture such as child’s pose to get comfortable. The odd thing I have discovered is that the opposite is true. It is only through practicing poses such as cobra and camel, in which I bend my spine backwards and backwards from the floor, that I find relief.
What has been happening lately when I go into sivasana is a kind of cramping up. This is the usual response of my spine to the pose. Not only my spine, but my entire back clenches, as though the muscles have memories, in anticipation of pain. What I have been learning to do is to “fall through” the net that my clenched muscles create. I must consciously tell myself that it will be all right to relax into the pain. That is, the pain actually increases when I first acknowledge that it is there, and that my muscular habits are creating it. Once I accept that the pain is there– and this is a huge step–and then willingly fall into it, embrace it, by asking my muscles to release–I feel first a greater discomfort, and then a complete release from it.
It feels as though there are stages of pain, or layers of muscular netting, that I allow myself first to fall into so that I can go through them to the place where pain ceases and I am resting. Usually I have just arrived at this place of peace and comfort when my teacher alerts me that it is time to sit up. So my resting period ends up being quite short. But it is getting longer. That is, I am finding that I can “fall through” the pain faster than I used to, which affords me a few seconds more of complete relaxation before moving on to the next pose.
Camel, the excruciating backward bend that I could not do without passing out in my first week of class, is ironically the pose that affords me the most comfort in sivasana. Rabbit, the next crunch forward, affords the least relief. But today at the end of class, as I settled down into sivasana, I scanned my body in disbelief. Where was the pain? The net of clenching, tensed muscles had disappeared. I shifted position on the floor, looking for it. It had to be there. It has always been there. But it wasn’t.
So, what is the emotional or psychological lesson? Every day that I go to class I learn something new or reinforce something I have known about the way that I experience being alive in this world. Falling into pain to fall through it is something that I have been practicing with my emotions for many years.
During periods of great distress, particularly the years of separation from my son, I often found that resisting the pain, or actively refusing to acknowledge it, only heightened its intensity. I’d push it away and away and away, all in fear of what would happen to me if I admitted it. I was afraid that I would not be able to function; that I would never stop weeping; that I would not be able to get out of bed; that I could not do my job; that I would lose my income; that I would end up living hand-to-mouth on the streets, strung out, out of my mind with grief and pain and mother-madness. What I was mostly afraid of was that I would lose him forever, that he would stop loving me entirely.
The only relief I found, the only way that I could get beyond the pain, which was like a searing hot fire burning out all my nerve endings, was by allowing it to be. There was no pretending this devastation away. In fact, just like with back pain, the more I stiffened up against it, in all the various protective postures that my mind assumed to guard against discomfort, the more discomfort I felt. The more anxiously I responded to my fear of disablement, the more crippled I became. So I had to learn to give in.
I would go into my son’s room and lie on his bed and say to the pain, the grief, the longing, the fear, “come.” Of course I would weep. Usually I would cry myself to sleep. I did this for weeks, for months, for years. But it was the only way to make it bearable. Only by focusing directly on what I was feeling, without responding to it in any way, could I find any clarity, any relief, any sanity. I had to go into the pain, and bring it in, accept it, in order to get beyond it.
The key is learning not to respond. The key is finding a way simply to accept what is, to acknowledge it without fighting it, in the hope of understanding it and, most importantly, having compassion for the self who is experiencing it. I found I had to hear myself or see myself suffering to begin to recover from the suffering.
To invite the pain in is quite a different project than to dwell on or indulge in pain, which really only means a kind of idiotic wallowing and vaulting off into trauma after trauma. Yes, sometimes just breathing can feel traumatic. And sometimes just breathing is traumatic. Still, I have found that I do best when I put my weapons down, when I drop my fists, and stop trying to bat the pain away. Only this way do I see that some of the nets that I spread out for myself to fall into are not saving me, but rather trapping me in yet more hurt. A caveat: sometimes the nets–protective mechanisms of denial, or behaviors that temporarily dull my suffering (such as drinking, or smoking pot, or drawing, or reading, or playing computer games for hours on end)–really do save my life. But when I am stronger I see that only by falling through the habitual nets, only by letting go of my learned responses to pain, that I can fall through and get beyond it.
Oy! Yoga kicked my asana today. I did two classes in a row, beginning at four this afternoon. Throughout the first part of the first class, I felt sick to my stomach, but found relief by finding my eyes in the mirror and repeating my mantra, “I am.” In the second session, I felt so dizzy that I had to sit down several times. Again I found my eyes in the mirror and said to myself, “I am.” It’s a pretty powerful mantra, as Nisargadatta Maharaj found out. (And no, I’m not religious. I agree with Christopher Hill that God is Not Great and that religion poisons everything. But I also find peace in this simple, secular statement.)
Why was I so tired? Getting up at 4:30 this morning might have had something to do with it. Only one train travels non-stop from Pittsburgh to DC and it leaves at 5:20. My son needed to board it, so I drove him down there. It wasn’t so bad after we got out the door.
Toxins, mostly residue from sugars, probably also slowed me down today. I missed yoga yesterday because I had to drive my son’s friend down to McKee’s Rocks in the morning. And since it was my son’s last evening in Pittsburgh, and I don’t get to see him very often, I chose to have dinner with him instead of going to the night class. I knew I could do a double today. It was nevertheless not wise to eat mashed potatoes (his favorite) and pasta (my favorite) instead of green vegetables and fish. Nor was it sensible to indulge in the candied nuts I make very year, or in two glasses of wine.
I don’t regret the wine. It was a marvelous Bordeaux, dry and round and musky in the mouth. I do regret the carbs and the sugars.
It’s true what my yoga teachers say every day–that daily practice helps the digestion and keeps the blood sugars regulated. But it also helps to settle the heart and emotions. According to my teacher this evening, stress is harder on the body than sugar and other not necessarily healthy things that we ingest.
Today was stressful. Not because I got up well before sunrise; not because I haven’t been sleeping well for a week. Not because I’ve been indulging my love of fatty, starchy, and sugary food. Today was stressful because I parted–only temporarily–with my son. He’s lived far away from me since he was six years old. We have a good relationship because we have both made an effort to know each other. He seems to have adjusted fairly well to the separation, and now that he’s in college it is obviously common and normal to live on his own. I, however, seem to have a deep wound. Like an old war-injury, it aches and troubles me, sometimes more, sometimes less. I know the pain is old, not really relevant to the present. It’s an emotional reflex, a resurgence of sadness, of loss, of inconsolable heartbreak remembered, that triggers when I have to let him go again.
This dark wave that breaks over me brought me under in yoga today. I am not talking about something that exists only in my head, in thoughts, in memories, but rather a physical experience, a somatic condition. The mind and the body are connected. What makes it bearable, insofar as it is bearable, is that I know that it is just a wave. I know that I’ll go under and that the current might tumble and toss me more wildly than I might expect. I also know that if I just go limp during the worst bits, and swim when the surge begins to abate, that I’ll come up and through and out. The wave will recede, and I will get back on my feet.
I’m feeling rather beached now. But I still love the ocean.