It seems to me that September 1, or at least Labour Day, is more like new year than New Year. In January we drag ourselves back to work or school after ten days of Winter Solstice celebration – knowing we had 90 more days of winter to go. But in September we rouse ourselves from our summer slumbers and get on with life – new plans, new prospects, new purpose.
Travels with Myself
A Journal of Discovery and Transition
Doug Jordan, Author
Do you recall Roy Orbison’s tier two hit song, In Dreams? (Probably not, but it’s a beautiful song.) It starts as a fantasy, of a lucid hopeful future; but true to form, it ends badly. I think that’s the main point of dreaming, to reconcile our internal conflicts. (Roy must have had a depressing life – almost all his hits are sad songs full of doubt.)
Have you ever noticed, we rarely wake up to emotionally satisfying dreams? Mostly we don’t wake up at all because your busy little brain had no problem with its filing assignments that night. If you wake up with a dream there’s usually some sort of conflict going on in it, some emotional trigger, enough to disturb your sleep
So, to assuage my melancholic mind I have turned to reading lighter stuff, and viewing ancient Johnny Carson YouTube videos. I’m reading Alexander McCall Smith’s quirky series about a seriously cloistered university professor of philology, 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom, including Portuguese Irregular Verbs; and Bill Bryson’s, Notes from a Small Island, an Affectionate Portrait of Britain.
Marlene rather liked birthdays, her own included, but she wasn’t especially effervescent about it. Not for her, ‘birthday week’. She liked modest celebration of her birthday but was not strange about it as I am/was. She revelled most in the fact that on my birthday she was now a year younger than I, for three days.
It’s amazing how we put off doing what we know we must, somehow hoping to buy time and maybe a miracle. It’s certain we have to do our taxes. (Though maybe not for everyone – I’ve heard of people who avoided filing tax returns for years, maybe even know some of them, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because they have no taxable income.) It seems just as certain we have to accept our own demise too (though maybe those serial avoiders also know something about certain death the rest of us don’t).
The problem of death for the mourner is the pain of loss. It is not the loss of the past – the past is already past, and we still have our memories and photographs. The grief of loss is for the loss of future experience of the loved one – the promise of the future is that we can live again the present we take for granted. But with death, we have no more presents, we can no longer enjoy the company of the lost loved one.
Still it’s the 50% of regular ‘openers’ of my notification emails who don’t click through I wonder about – why don’t they stop and read my wonderful stuff?!? But then I recalibrate my ego and allow for the fact that many of these people have busy lives, and competing interests, and haven’t the incentive (the title doesn’t appeal to them, nor even the excerpt) to click through to my blog and actually read it. I have to accept that people, even covid cloistered people, are not sitting at home counting the days until my next blog comes out.
Ennui is not quite the same as boredom… Ennui is more than that, a general feeling of lassitude and listlessness that dulls the mind and torpefies the spirit, and persists. It is this feeling of ongoing sameness that enervates; even people exhausted by their heightened workload and demands of the pandemic and its consequences are suffering mental fatigue. It’s a hamster wheel with no joy.
And then there is the problem of giving and receiving feedback. Giving feedback is hard to do, which is why it is seldom actually done. Receiving feedback is hard because of our tender egos – but we self-protect by not listening, or rationalizing, or dismissing. Accepting ‘constructive’ feedback from social sources is especially hard. Who really wants ‘constructive feedback’? What we want is complimentary feedback, lots of it. How nice to have affirmation of our terrific traits and talents. But then, in the backs of our minds, there lies doubt.
Not only should the cover have a clever and pithy summary of the book which entices browsers to pick it up the and browse through it, it should also have a couple of short and sweet blurbs from noteworthy reviewers recommending the book to hesitant readers. And let’s not make too fine a point of it, anybody who makes the cover of a book with a recommending blurb must be noteworthy to the otherwise ignorant browser.
Never judge a book by its cover’ so goes the saying, but if readers never crack the cover, they will never know what they’ve missed. Not everyone will be interested in your book – not their genre, not in their present mood, they’ve already read one of your books and one was enough – but for those who might be interested in the extent of your book, they need to be captured by the essence and the essence of the book has to be demonstrated somehow in your cover.
Or how ‘bout this one, don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. Absolutely. How many of us get mired in design detail seeking perfection (or even excellence) and never make deadlines, or even produce anything at all? But you know, the devil is in the details. And there’s that damn word ‘good’ again. What is good? Is it good enough. Good enough is hardly excellence.
My purpose in life is not necessarily to be happy so much as to be worry-free. Regardless, you can put yourself into that state by becoming absorbed whole heartedly in something. Some people can do this through ‘mindful’ meditation. I can’t. I have to do something. So I write.
I wonder what 2020 would have been like if the world hadn’t panicked in response to a pseudo-calamity, covid. As I wrote my annual plan in my virtual Harvard Planner last January while I was in The Philippines, who would have guessed the events that turned my plan upside down.
Illusion or not, [sense of self] is pretty powerful magic and while I doubt we humans are anything so magical, it’s hard to resist. So we may as well go along with it. … And even though I doubt we have any special purpose in the universe we may as well give our minds satisfaction by inventing some purpose it can actually do something about.
Not content with sorting out mere months and weeks in the celestial calendar, the ancients decided to divide up the day too, and the night
So, despite my introversion, I do not like being alone, living alone. My normal planful proactive self would take action to solve this problem. Even in my crazy year after Marlene died, hair on fire, I was desperately trying to fill the void in my life, even if that meant traveling half way round the world to do so. (I hasten to add, I don’t really recommend my course of action – I was certainly being proactive, but grief hugely distorted my normal behaviour.)
I’m not sure how other authors do it [research for their books]. Highly successful authors with large revenues, or publisher advances, can hire students and staff to do it for them. But if you’re an independent author (the modern vernacular is ‘Indie’, hmmmm) you do your own. Or if you are mildly schizophrenic, or merely eccentric, you could delegate, to yourself.
And on other fronts I am proud to state that I have overcome my skepticism of lulu.com and rejoice at having successfully put up my book, Travels With Myself. (Well, I am still skeptical of lulu’s claims that self-publishing a book is as easy as 1-2-3. It is if you have perfect knowledge of Microsoft Word and how it must be formatted in absolute compliance with the PDF criteria in lulu’s print engine.
Said to be a virtue (though, curiously, not one of the ‘Great Virtues’ (André Compte-Sponville)), Patience can be learned, or so we are also told, and there is no doubt in my many years, and even more so in the last many months, I have had plenty of opportunities for honing this virtue.
I lament my forced separation from Carmen Beauty; I am missing her company and constant companionship and feeling quite lonely. We Skype twice a day, sometimes four times a day, adjusting for the twelve hours difference in our time zones, and keep ‘in touch’ (ha!) that way.
Many of my readers, when they had read the last instalments of my blogs that they were in fact the last, were mildly alarmed at the news: I had said I would convert the two blogs to books: The Pilipiñas Packet ended because I had returned to Canada from Philippines, Travels with Myself ended because my journey from the abyss to recovery had largely been complete. But then my caring readers were relieved when I said I would continue the blog, I still have a life to live and stories yet to tell.
I have been trying to live my life differently. I’ve tried to accept the Platonic challenge. I’ve tried to follow Scott Peck’s (and Matthew Kelly) and James Hollis’s guidance to live life vigourously; but I’m aware that I am running out of time and then I remind myself when I get discouraged or bogged down of Dylan Thomas’s anger.
Still, it might be nice to have a home to come home to.
I set down in the previous chapters some of the Lessons Learned of the Philippines. But what have I learned about myself? And have I been able to convey some of what I have learned to my readers? Indeed, what hubris for me to think they would want to know what I had learned.
One goal is output – not the ambitious thousand words a day, more like five hundred. In any event, a thousand words a day is pointless if it’s mostly crap. I think of Hemingway at his typewriter, tearing pages out of his carriage and filling his wastepaper basket, so much more visceral than modern hard drives. I’ve learned to be content with merely a decent paragraph, and just walk away.
And what do we learn from all this Trivia? That The Philippines is a country of contrasts, a curious combination of west and east, old and modern. Of tradition and of a rapidly changing society. And it gives me pause to consider aspects of my own life in Canada.
A big part of the reality of The Philippines are calamities, of which the Philippines experience a couple every year, and some years those calamities make world head-lines. The Filipinos mostly take these calamities in stride, but even for them, some of these are wrenching.
Travels With Myself has a different purpose than The Pilipiñas Packet; Travels is the account of my journey of self-discovery and transition in the twilight of my life. The Packet recounts tour of The Philippines but was as much a vehicle for discovering myself, as it was for having a life experience.
My author friends said I would never be able to please all the readers all the time, especially family and closer friends. I needed to put their ego issues aside and consider who my ultimate audience was. But that was still not clear to me. What was the real reason for writing this book?
The thing she did comment on though, was how far we had to drive to see these many friends. Living in suburbia, your friends were scattered in their own distant suburbs, or downtown, and this meant much travel. At least the travel on relatively uncongested expressways was not the tremendous thief of time that commuting in The Philippines is. For this we cannot thank city planners for inventing suburbia, only for adequate infrastructure.
when Marlene died and I sold the house I had had enough of suburbia. I imagined myself instead moving to old house, in an historic town, Perth, and savouring life of a different sort, the life of an author, eccentric perhaps, within walking distance of the library and interesting pubs where I could study the various inhabitants of a life so different from suburbia. Or so went the fantasy. Instead I moved to a downsized, though substantial, three-story townhouse, in Kanata. There I languished for a year, confirming once again that a house is not a home.
I was surprised she was fearful of my dogs. Maybe it was the size – standard poodles are twice the size of the semi-feral mutts she was familiar with; maybe their eagerness was a little off-putting to a reluctant visitor – responding with enthusiasm if you gave them any sign at all.
Carmen often would claim to be my new medicine and the reason for me getting off my psycho-pharmaceuticals, and this was almost certainly true, to a degree. But maybe more importantly, her catalyzing me to get back to boxing was even more significant for my improving mental outlook. It suited my Ernest Hemmingway self-image as well.
And the more I learned, the more confused I became. Could I spend the rest of my days with this woman, so culturally and linguistically, educationally and experientially different from me? Time would tell, but I already suspected there was a lot more to this woman’s story and at the least I should discover it, maybe write the book.
I still have problems to solve and still need to find the courage to solve them. Chief among these are dealing with aging, living a more considered life (James Hollis), practicing virtue and dying (with dignity). Bundled with this is leaving a legacy to my children and grandchildren, memories they can be proud of.
[two things that have stayed with me] : ‘we never stop grieving, it just gets quieter.’ And, ‘[he] doesn’t believe in closure’. If there’s new information that explain things you didn’t understand before, that helps; but there is no closure. It’s not like closing the lid of a box, or a coffin.
Returning to the sun was not all sunshine and warmth. It seems transitioning is not a sudden turn but a gradual bend in current realities. I may have been regaining my mental health, and feeling energy returning, but many questions remained about what my new reality was.
After eight days in dreamland it was time for me to return to Canada. I promised Carmen that, like my namesake, I would return. Doubt occupied my mind throughout the Christmas break, but I rebooked tickets for Manila January 15 – 22. I had come to Philippines to discover if she could fill this huge void in my life. It seemed pretty unlikely that she could.
As I anticipated my trip to Manila to meet the Filipina Cupid, I fretted about being drawn away from my [renewed interest in writing and completing my ‘novel’]. Such is the mind of the writer when the writing bug is upon him, he doesn’t want to do anything else.
I retrieved my bags and worked my way through the exit and surveyed the throngs of greeters on the other side of a barrier, looking for a familiar face in a sea of faces. Hopeless. Carmen and I had talked about our Hollywood moment, locking eyes in the crowd and rushing into each other’s arms, and ‘the kiss’. I lingered at the exit looking for her but it looked as though our Hollywood moment wasn’t going to happen.
The progression of a relationship in on-line dating predictably follows the same pattern, it’s only the pace that varies. In my state of mind, the pace I set for myself – or was it set for me by my subconscious mind? – was hectic. Carpe diem, time is of the essence, and running out fast.
It may seem odd to think of anger as a sign of returning to mental health, and it wasn’t obvious to me at the time either, but instead of the nihilism of anger that I had been experiencing I was seeing something different. The anger was no longer directed at blaming and revenge, it was more generalized. I’m sure I offended some of my friends during this period, and for that I must apologize. I just hope they can see that this was part of my healing process.
In the months of my struggling to find a way out of the abyss I have almost no recollection of people and events, women I dated, promises I may have made, people I may have offended. Instead I relived and reworked the memories of Emily, the months of love and loss and might-have-beens. It was obsession of course, those persistent thoughts; I couldn’t just block her out of my mind. Probably I didn’t want to.
I had been dating for about three months and already beginning to feel discouraged. Rather than feel the excitement of the new, I felt only increasing cynicism. I may have been living as if my hair was on fire but my energy was being sapped. But I was compelled to carry on, and match.com kept sending me prospects.
I preferred ‘organic dating’ – going out with people I already knew, if only slightly, or be introduced to somebody – but I knew the name of the game in 2018 was on-line dating. Kinda like a lottery – if I wanted to win a prize I had to buy a ticket – and maybe just as soul-destroying. I took a deep breath and posted my bond and my profile on match.com.
After that dream, and all through that awful summer of Emily yo-yo-ing me I had considered hanging myself more than a few times from various staircases, but now, while visiting Marlene, I thought the branch of the tree reaching over her headstone would do nicely. I wondered where I had put my rope.
If I was to be a real author, not a closet pretender, I needed to sell a lot more of my books.
Despite my reservations, and fear, I wanted to get wider exposure. I wanted affirmation. Endless ego needs may have been at the base of all this, but if I wanted exposure, I had to promote my books. As any author, successful and otherwise, will attest, the better mousetrap gets no attention by itself.
My plunge into the abyss lasted four months. Maybe abyss is the wrong metaphor; it didn’t feel like falling into a black hole. It felt more like I was walking underwater, trudging, dragging my feet on a sandy bottom with an undertow holding me under. And maybe this agitated aimlessness lasted longer than four months. It wasn’t as if I suddenly woke up one day and felt well. But from August to December I have only fractured memory of what happened to me. Here’s a list of what I do remember.
I knew I was having an emotional episode, even though I had never experienced anything like this before. This is what is commonly called a ‘nervous breakdown’; though professional people don’t use the term anymore, it nevertheless feels apt if you are experiencing one.
I drove to the cemetery to consult with Marlene, but she had nothing to say to me. In the fog of my grief I had hoped Emily would be the answer to my next stage of life. Now I felt completely alone. I was a mess, an admixture of anger and anxiety, possessiveness and petulance.
And I already ‘knew’ about Grief, Empathy and Aging. But I didn’t really ‘know’. You cannot know these things until you have actually experienced the depth of feeling these can demand of you. But my year in the Fog brought whole new lessons.
All through that fall and winter I had been gently but steadily moving ahead with the task of downsizing my household. It was a painful but necessary step to me redefining my life following Marlene’s death. I now had too much house, and too much stuff for one man living alone.
As our relationship progressed, I began to ask myself what sort of relationship I really had with Emily. ‘You are too unstable for us to think about this relationship. It has only been a few months and you are grieving hard for Marlene. And so am I. We are not ready for a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.’ Emily found lots of evidence of my instability. There were many signs:
At the Kingston station I noticed a young couple greeting each other with an excited kiss on the platform. I smiled at this public display of affection and then a dull yearning began in my chest. I suddenly had an impulse to text Emily. Was she available to have dinner with me that evening when I got back?
The fog of grief was real enough: I lost concentration, I had no plans, I was forgetful. I couldn’t sleep. I knew there were things I needed to do to start putting my life back together, but not today, maybe tomorrow. I went to grief counseling; I read many books about grief. I finally read The Emperor of all Maladies. All I wanted to do was escape all this grieving stuff.
And there she was.
Marlene’s condition gradually, inevitably, worsened. The tumour in her intestines may have been arrested but the damage had been done. Intestinal occlusion was the consequence.