Putting My Brain in a Box

Talking to my homeless, schizoaffective, and alcoholic brother is an exercise in futility. He bellows, doesn’t listen, is relentlessly and terrifyingly angry. I wouldn’t talk to him, but I’m trying to get him out of here, back to a place where maybe he can get a pension along with food stamps and Medicaid in a state where the pot he needs to help him sleep and to keep his psychosis at bay is legal.

The worsspeedt problem for me (besides his continued presence) is not letting his anger affect me. Sometimes when I am listening to his incessant nastiness and feel his fury coursing through me, I have to clench my fists to keep from beating him into silence. I believe this reaction is the accumulation of his fury assaulting my psyche rather than any innate violence, particularly since the moment I remove myself from his presence, my own anger disappears. I have to make sure I am more than arm’s length from him, because the closer he is, the more I feel the effects. Of course, my backing away infuriates him, so he advances, and we do a strange sort of dance.

The other day I tried to calm myself by doing the port de bras I learned in ballet class, bringing my arms into a circle over my head, opening them to shoulder height, turning my palms to the floor, and letting my arms gently float to my side. It did help me keep my calm, but my movements, which I’d intended to also calm him, only infuriated him further. He seemed to think I was doing some sort of clumsy Tai Chi or Yoga.

Today a friend told me another way of maintain equanamity — put my brain in a box. She counseled me to mentally construct a box. (Mine looks like a treasure chest with red plush lining.) Then open my head, gently lift out my brain, put it in the box, close my head, close the box. Finally, put the box in a closet and shut the door. That way I can get through times of pain or anger or aggravation without feeling anything because, of course, my brain is in the box.

Seems to work. After I put my brain in the closet, I was able to deal with my brother, my father’s needs, some siblings’ requests for information, the plumber, phone calls, and various and sundry other frustrations.

Maybe I’ll leave my brain where it is temporarily. It seems to be resting peacefully.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Going Nowhere

People keep asking me where I am going to live when my father has passed on, and I don’t have an answer. I have dreams, most of which are impossible considering my lack of funds and/or outdoor experience, but beyond that, I really don’t know. I’d like to continue taking dance lessons at a small nearby studio, which seems odd to me because until a year ago, I had no interest in dance whatsoever. The trouble is, I don’t particularly want to live here in this desert town. I don’t particularly what to live anywhere, if the truth be told.

I suppose where I really want to live is nowhere.

Jan Morris in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere writes:

“There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, a diaspora of their own. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinistic. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if only they knew it. It is the nation of nowhere.”

In the Introduction to Tales From Nowhere, Don George talks about nowhere having a quality of disorientness. “For a moment you lose your bearings, there are no coordinates, all sense of familiarity is gone.”

I suppose it’s just as well I want to live Nowhere. When I leave here, no matter where I go or what I do, I will have lost all bearings. My home died with my life mate/soul mate, and though I would go back to him in a moment, that home is four years gone. Where I am living now is no home for me — I am caring for my very weak and declining but still testy father, and I am doing the best I can for my mentally unstable brother. And this is my father’s house. Not home at all. But it is a home base.

And when I have to leave this house?

I’ll be going nowhere.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Dealing With Elderly Parents

A friend spoke to me today about our different reactions to the care of our aging parents. She seems to think I’m more accepting of my elderly father’s insistence on having his way than she is of her mother’s foibles. Maybe it’s true, but no matter how we deal with the problems that arise with elderly parents, it will always be difficult. To our parents, we are eternal children who lack the necessary skills to navigate through life. More than that, it’s difficult for them to see what is so obvious to us — that they are no longer the strong-bodied and strong-minded people they once were. All that is left is the strong will they are determined to exert even if they no longer have the means of assessing the situation.

icecreamAlthough my run-ins with my father do bother me at the time they happen, I quickly let the frustration go. For the most part, I don’t see that it makes any difference what he does, and besides, I’ve used up my cajolability. If he wants to eat ice cream for every meal, that’s his prerogative. I’m not going to cajole him into eating healthily. If he doesn’t want to do his breathing treatments, well, that’s his choice too. He’s 97 years old. His various medications can only help him be more comfortable. They can’t cure his congestive heart failure, his COPD, his prostate problems. Nor can they give him what he most needs — a modicum of youth.

I suppose it’s possible my blasé attitude comes more from exhaustion than acceptance. I’ve been here for four years watching him deteriorate at an increasingly rapid rate, and there’s not much I can do except watch.

This particular wage of daughterhood is so hard that some days I want to run away, but running away won’t change the situation, just remove me from the equation. I suppose if I had somewhere to go, I would go, but as of right now, only emptiness awaits me when I leave here. I’ll have to start rebuilding my life, and I don’t really have any strong inclinations to do one thing or another. I’d like to keep taking dance lessons, of course, but other than that . . . nothing.

And so I stay, answering my father’s summons when he wants something, checking on him when he doesn’t, and dealing with the other strange elements of my life the rest of the time. (My dysfunctional brother and the sister who has come to help with our father.)

Some day there will only be me to consider.

People tease me and tell me I will miss all this. I doubt that I will miss any of it, and yet there has been so much insane drama during the past fifteen months that the emptiness of my life afterward will seem even emptier by comparison.

I’m trying not to look to the future, though. For a while, dreaming impossible dreams helped me feel alive and made me believe that one day things will be different, but for now all I can do is hunker down and survive each day the best I can.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Gathering Forces

My sister is here helping take care of my 97-year-old father who seems to be declining. (I say “seems to be” because so far, every time I thought the end was nearing, he managed to find his way back to life.) A bit of a mystic, she claims benevolent spirits are gathering, though they aren’t telling her what they are doing or hope to accomplish.

It’s entirely possible that benevolent energy is in the air. Normally I spend quiet weekends running errands, walking, doing housework, but this weekend, I’ve been invited to four different social events. I feel like the belle of the ball, especially since my sister agreed — Cinderella-like — to look after our father while I am out gallivanting.

windThe forces of entropy also seem to be gathering. A window broke. That my brother has been banging on it for most of a year seems to escape him, and he can’t understand why it disintegrated. “I don’t know how that happened,” he told me. “I’ve been banging on it for a year, and it never broke before.” Decorative masonry is falling off the entryway supports. The two air conditioners broke down, each with a different problem. And now the hot water is gone.

I’m doing what I can to make the benevolent spirits feel welcome and at the same time staving off the destructive powers that are swirling around, though to be honest, I don’t really believe anything out of the ordinary is happening. I’ve made good friends, and the outings we have planned simply landed on the same weekend, and things do break down. (So do people break down, though I am holding up well considering how little sleep I got last night.)

I am worried about the immediate future, though. My father asked the urologist to take out the catheter, and now he gets up frequently to go to the bathroom. He is very frail, and we are afraid of his falling, but we can’t be with him every minute. Besides, if we were to get up every time he did, we would be worn out after just a couple of nights and would be no good to anyone. (Dealing with an aging parent, especially the authoritarian sort, is always difficult because to them, we are eternally the minions, and not very bright ones at that.)

Perhaps those benevolent spirits are here to give us all strength. Perhaps the forces of entropy will win in the end as they always do, and we will wind down like those old-fashioned mechanical toys. Or maybe I’m simply feeling the effects of sleeplessness.

Only the coming days will tell.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Handmaiden of Death

In June, I finished my started projects, cleaned house, and did everything I could think of to enable me to dedicate July to writing my new novel. I wrote for five days, then life, with a mocking laugh, stole my free time.

My elderly father developed prostate complications, and while he was in the hospital, his general practitioner decided to use the opportunity to do other tests. And since my father decided he had the right to refuse any treatment, he declined to sit in a chair or walk down the hall. And so he developed pneumonia, which extended his hospitalization.

He is home now, but mostly bedridden by choice. He can still walk, but both my sister, who came to help out, and I insist that one of us be there because he refuses to use the walker. Not a problem, really. He prefers to stay in bed except when he feels the need to empty his bowels, and so often, that feeling comes from his body sending him the wrong signal or perhaps he is simply misinterpreting what he feels.

During the past few years, I’ve seen way too many people in the final stages of life — a brother, my mother, my life mate/soul mate, and now my father. The first three died of cancer, and my father is simply wasting away from old age, his once strong body slowly shutting down.

To be honest, I find the end of life horrific, both for the dying and the tortures they endure(d), and for me as a bystander and future victim. I know this is the cycle of life — conception, birth, growth, decline, death — but something in me cannot grasp (or accept) the idea of decline.

heavenOne of my favorite end-of-life scenes is from the movie Soylent Green where the sick and dying are taken to beautiful rooms and treated to a visual and musical montage of forests, wild animals, rivers, and ocean life, scenes that had long disappeared from earth because of human overpopulation. And then the sick folks were gone, peacefully and instantly. That seems a much better and more humane way to die than waiting for the body to eat itself with cancer or to begin decaying while the body is still alive. (In Biblical times, executioners would strap a dead man — the “body of death” — on to the one convicted, and as it began to decay it would begin killing the living man . . . by decomposition. So vastly different from a Soylent Green death!)

In our culture, we basically have no recourse but to let the body do what it will. And rightly so, I suppose. Who among us is wise enough to say who is to live and who is to die? I remember another story I once read where the aged mother had told her daughter she didn’t want to live as a vegetable, and if that ever happened, then she wanted her daughter to end her life. One day the mother did end up paralyzed with no means of communication, but she found a quiet joy in her greatly condensed world. And then her daughter killed her. Ouch.

My sister had a rough time with our father last night, and tonight is my turn to be on call. We got a long-range wireless doorbell and gave him the button to push when he wants us. We women move the doorbell from room to room depending on who is to answer his call. It seems strange to be handmaidens of death, but that is the role we have accepted for now.

Despite all this, I’m still hoping to work on my book a little more this month, though exhaustion — for me, anyway — is not exactly conducive to literary endeavors.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Current and Recurrent Trends

My life is so chaotic right now, I have a hard time figuring out where I am and what I’m doing. Cultural reference points aren’t helping, either. Yesterday I saw someone in a huge Afro. Something in my mind slid sideways, and for a second, I felt as if I were back in the 1970s. I didn’t find out until today that Afros are back in style. (As you can see, I don’t exactly keep up with current and recurrent trends.)

massesAt the grocery store today, the guy standing in front of me was wearing his pants down below his buttocks. So not an attractive look! I never expected the droopy drawers trend to last so many decades, but there he was. Even worse, he was very tall, his waist about my eye level. He alternated hitching his pants up and pulling them down so that they were always binding his legs together. He was wearing a heavy coat that ended at his thighs (despite it being 100 degrees today) and I thanked my lucky stars that he never raised his arms.

The guy behind me had Ubangi ears. (I’m sorry if this is a racial slur. I don’t intend it as such, but my only experience with earlobes that hang down to one’s shoulders is from National Geographic magazines that were already old when I was young.) I can’t even begin to connect such a trend to a decade, though I have periodically seen such “decorations” during the past ten years.

I drove back to the house with my car full of groceries for other people (somehow I forget to buy stuff for me. It’s a wonder I’m not wasting away, but I am far from being Twiggy-esque). I could see that the couple in the decades-old car in front of me was smoking, their arms snaking out of the windows at frequent intervals, their fingers flicking like forked tongues.

It would be interesting to think that all these people have slipped into our current time, visiting, perhaps, or simply taking in the sights. But more probably the problem is me. I’m out of step and getting very crotchety.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Casting Off Old Family Patterns

I’ve been crying on and off for the past few days, mourning the loss of my brother. He’s still alive, at least physically, but he is so very lost to schizophrenia, alternate personalities, alcoholism or some combination of all three, that it seems as if he is gone forever.

I remember him as a bright twelve-year-old — bright as in joyous, bright as in super intelligent, bright as in the favored child, bright as in open-faced, eagerly awaiting all life had in store for him. Family stories indicate I idolized him, but that was so long ago, I can barely remember anything but being wary of the angry, frightened, intolerant, relentless, bellowing man he has become. To most of my siblings, the neighbors, even the cops who have come to the house, he is, at best, a nuisance and at worst, an animal.

And yet, whatever he has become, he is still a human being.

In June, Robert Wilkinson wrote about the retrograde Mercury: Some will see what contributes to hesitation or insecurity about a life corner that’s already been turned, preparing to reshape their expression before moving forward boldly in July. Others will take a look back, say goodbye, and cast off the old family patterns forever. This can give us a new look at fluid ways of moving with life energies.

The major unresolved family pattern in my life is that of my father, older brother, and me. Those two shaped my adolescence and early adulthood with their fighting and the inability of both to ever see any side but their own. Both used my love as a rope in their tug of war, and it was only when I met Jeff, my life mate/soul mate, that the pattern changed. But not forever. When he died, I went to look after my then 93-year-old father in an effort to restore the Karma of my early life, and fourteen months ago, my brother showed up. And the pattern repeated itself, with each using me as the rope in their tug of war.

Perhaps neither of them could help what they became, but I hoped I could change the pattern of our relationship. My father kicked my brother out of the house when he was a teenager, and when he again wanted to kick him out last year because of some innocuous offense, I counseled against it. And yet, as soon as I left the house that day to run errands, our father tricked his son into leaving and locked him out.

Such patterns seem impossible to change, but a week ago, my sister came to help take care of our father and perhaps to do what she can to help relocate my brother. This constitutes a major shift in our dysfunctional threesome.

I seem to feel the change more than anyone, weeping at what might have been, never was, and never will be. I know now that whatever I hoped out of this insane living situation will never come to pass. My brother will never again be as bright as the youngster I once knew, nor will he ever be the adventurer he was as a young man, where the whole world was his backyard. And my father will never be anything but what he is.

It is I who will have to change, and weeping, apparently, is how I process change. I always hoped that when my responsibilities here were finished, that those patterns of the past would no longer haunt me, but I expected it to be a joyful change. I suppose at some point, when I am truly free, the joy will irrupt, but for now, all I can do is cry for the loss of that bright, sane older brother, and a wise father who could fix anything, even himself.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

Becoming Dance

Of all the strange places my recent life has taken me, this has to be the strangest. I am sitting in lobby of a convalescent home, waiting for my father to wake from a nap. He’s only here for five days to get intravenous antibiotics to help treat a bout of pneumonia, but the few hours I’ve spent visiting him have made me realize how incredibly lucky I am.

I can walk with a straight back and easy gait. I can breathe unassisted. And oh! I feel so very young. I know this is a temporary condition. If I live long enough, I’ll be as old and decrepit as these folks, but for now, I’m thankful for what youth I dancehave left, for the joy that now comes at increasingly frequent intervals, for the capacity to taste what I eat and drink, for the ability to write and laugh and dance.

Strangely, not only do I feel good, people often mention that I look good, too. Some even say that stress becomes me. The wonder is that I can deal at all with the horrendous stresses of my life — an ailing, aging father and an insane and insanely drunk brother who has spent the past several hours bellowing at me. I am blessed to have wonderful and patient friends who will listen to my horror stories, sometimes for the second and third time, and who will offer hugs when I need them. I have this blog, of course. But mostly I have dancing.

We all need vacations from ourselves and our problems, but when we go on trips, we take ourselves with us. When we dance, especially choreographed dances, we leave ourselves at home. We become the music, the motion, and something else — part of a dancing whole. As the teacher keeps reminding us, we need to do everything in unison — one body, one mind, one soul. When it works, when we know the dance and are in perfect sync, it’s magic. For just one moment, we become more than we are. We become Dance.

Of course, after dance, we become just ourselves with all our attendant problems, but we still have the memory of that moment of freedom to sustain us, and hopefully we’ll still have it even when we’re too old to dance at all.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Science of Creating Creativity

A friend sent me an article This Is Your Brain on Writing, thinking I might get a blog post out of it, and as you can see, I did.

The article explains about research into the neuroscience of creative writing. The experiment, led by Martin Lotze of the University of Greifswald in Germany, showed a broad network of regions in the brain working together as people produced their stories, but they found a big difference between novice and professional writers. According to Lotze, the inner workings of the professionally trained writers showed some similarities to people who are skilled at other complex actions, like music or sports. They also showed more activity in the regions involved with speech, while the novice writers seemed to activate more their visual centers.

Dr. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, wasn’t convinced that the experiments provided a clear picture of creativity, saying that “creativity is a perversely difficult thing to study.”

I don’t know who is right, but I don’t quite see how this experiment showed anything about how authors write a story.

According to the article, Dr. Lotze wanted to scan people while they were actually writing. But he couldn’t give his subjects a keyboard to write with, because the magnetic field generated by the scanner would have hurled it across the room. So Dr. Lotze ended up making a custom-built writing desk, clipping a piece of paper to a wedge-shaped block as his subjects reclined. They could rest their writing arm on the desk and scribble on the page. A system of mirrors let them see what they were writing while their head remained cocooned inside the scanner.

Um, yeah. That’s exactly how I write — lying on my back with my head wedged into a neuroscanner, my arm reaching up to scribble on papers clamped to a desk I can only see through mirrors.

How could that very process of the experiment not affect the ultimate creativity of a writer? Perhaps the professional writers were more used to working under diverse conditions. Maybe they couldn’t relax enough to visualize their story, and so told it to themselves as they wrote. Maybe the novice writers were able to visualize their stories because they found it harder to actually write under such conditions. Maybe the novice writers were novices because they were involved with a whole slew of other creative mechanisms — etching or sculpting, for example. Maybe professional writers might not have time to indulge in various art forms, so were more linear. Maybe . . . well, as you can see, there are a whole lot of possible maybes not touched on in the article.

The way I see the experiment is that the scientists didn’t learn anything about true creativity in the wild, but only in captivity. Most of us create our own milieus for writing — in perfect silence or with music in the background, writing by hand in bed or sitting at a desk clicking a keyboard, whenever life permits or within strict timeframes.

We generally don’t let others to dictate how we write, and if we did allow such interference, for sure it would change our process in the same way that dancing on a miniscule stage in an informal setting is different from dancing on a vast stage with thousands of people watching, and both are different from dancing in a studio. (If it weren’t different, all dancers would be satisfied with simply dancing in their living rooms.) So obviously, one’s outer space helps determine one’s inner space, which pretty much negates the experiment since they didn’t take environmnet into consideration.

Besides, our brains are only a small part of the creative process. We write with our souls, our bodies, our very beings. And anyway, why do we need to know how our brains create creativity? It won’t make our writing better. Only writing (and living) can make our writing better.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

The Bees Of The Invisible

Life and death are strange things. Or maybe it’s death that’s strange, at least to those of us who are still alive. A wise friend keeps saying we have to just accept the way things are, that we could go nuts trying to figure out the whys of it all, but since I seem to live on the edge of death (other people’s deaths, not mine), death and the process of getting there are often on my mind.

We start out as miniscule bits and pieces of two people, are born, grow from helpless infants to independent-minded children to independent and autonomous adults, finally ending up helpless again as our bodies deteriorate.

A few friends were talking the other day about all the nonagenarians in our lives, and someone asked what use they were. This is a question many of these aged folks themselves ask, so it’s not an insensitive question by any means. When there is nothing left to accomplish, when you can’t move about freely either mentally or physically, when you can no longer enjoy anything, not even your food because your taste buds have decamped, what use is there in living?

My 97-year-old father is “declining” as the doctors say, which is a cute euphemism for “slowly dying”. He could live a year or more, but still, everything is breaking down, even his normally sharp mind. He hates that he can’t think, hates that he can’t make instantaneous decisions, hates even more to have others make decisions for him. Even worse, he finds the situation embarrassing. I tell him, of course, that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, that it’s part of the process, but my words don’t make him feel any better about himself.

I don’t want to live to such a great age, and especially I don’t want to wind up helpless and dependent on strangers (I won’t have the benefit my father has of a caregiving daughter). My wise friend reminds me we have no choice in the matter, which is true. The only real choice we have is to live as well as we can as long as we can.

For a long time I’ve thought that if God is Everything, then we are the sensory cells of the Everything, feeling, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting life. And the poet Rilke seems to agree. He wrote, “It is our task to imprint this temporary perishable earth into ourselves, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again ‘invisibly’ inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”

Maybe these nonagenarians are still gathering their invisible honey as best as they can, but even so, it doesn’t make it any easier watching the old get even older and feebler, gradually losing their touch on life.

Bee

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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