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Brilliance, Darkness, and Quotes from Van Gogh

I went searching for a quote from Van Gogh that someone quoted to me recently. This one:

If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.
Vincent Van Gogh

It has a lovely thought about the importance of creating even in the midst of self doubt. In searching for that quote, I found an entire wikiquote devoted to Van Gogh. I began to read Vincent’s letters to Theo, and discovered they were full of the amazing thoughts of a brilliant mind who battled depression and other mental health issues without recourse to modern pharmaceuticals.

This one in particular cried out to me:

Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all!
Vincent Van Gogh

I’ve spent the past several years dwelling in a place like the one Van Gogh describes; keeping going, but not counting on things getting any better. Except lately it feels like the endless gray is beginning to clear. I’m beginning to look around and feel that there was something after all. Many of Van Gogh’s other thoughts speak to me as well.

I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.
Vincent Van Gogh

I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself.
Vincent Van Gogh

What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have; in short, the lowest of the low. All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what such an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.
Vincent Van Gogh

Seeing his words, seeing the darkness and light that he struggled with in his own mind brings a new dimension to the paintings. I have a new found respect for who Van Gogh was, and a new grief that he struggled for so long with no societal support and without the resources necessary to continue.

I know so many people who are like this: brilliant, shining, thoughtful, good, and swamped by darkness generated by their own minds. I wish it were not so. And even as my world begins to feel brighter, I am aware that storms will come and go in the years ahead. But I can’t let some imagined future storm stop me from enjoying the sunshine today.

Shifting Gears and Slowing Down (Just a Little)

Occasionally life offers a clear moment of transition. There is a clear marker of the current thing being complete or the next thing beginning. Most of the time I’m surrounded by a plethora of transitions as one project trails off to a conclusion, another idles, a third begins ramping up. On this day Planet Mercenary is in its final stages. After months of me pushing as hard as I can every day, I’ve come to the place where I’m waiting on other people instead of being hyper aware that others are waiting on me. It is strange to not have a long list of urgent tasks to do. I’m actually finding it a bit difficult to focus my days. Some of that is pure fatigue. It is normal for me to go a bit drifty after a period of sustained energy. I should probably expect this period of driftyness to feel a bit different because I’ve never had such a prolonged period of sustained energy. I’ve been pushing hard on Planet Mercenary since late December.

Now I am beginning to have spaces and I’m trying to remember what I ought to do with them. Much of my time has been spent on parenting tasks, paying more attention to house, homework, children. Last week was full of melt downs, difficult conversations, realizations, and emotional reactions to all of it. Perhaps all of that is also a natural reaction to the shift in focus. I’m still processing. I’m tired and discouraged on several parenting fronts, while seeing encouraging growth on others. Somehow the fatigue makes the discouraging stuff easy to see and the encouraging things out of focus.

Part of the challenge is that while I’m not pressed with tasks that are “do this today” levels of urgent, I still have a long list of tasks that are urgent this week and this month. Planet Mercenary still has important tasks associated with it. I’m writing the bonus story for the next Schlock book. We’re preparing to do crowdfunding for the deluxe handbrain screen whose development was partially funded by the Planet Mercenary Kickstarter, but which we can’t afford to print without pre-orders. There are some posters and other merchandise which we also want to release soon. And I’m working to release all the currently available Schlock books in PDF as well as print. I have not run out of things to do. They won’t until after Planet Mercenary shipping in July.

And yet, I’m beginning to be able to imagine there being spaces. Up ahead there will be days where I can ask myself “what do I want to work on today?” instead of being dictated to by urgent deadlines.

In Which the Answer to a Prayer Involves Food

“I’m really more of a family therapist. Have you considered family therapy?” The therapist asked. I was once again at the clinic of a local university seeking individual therapy for my fourteen year old. Except they’d assigned me a family therapist instead of what I had asked for. The very question spiked my anxiety, poked all the guilty places in my brain. I know that there are patterns in my family which aren’t ideal. We all spend too much time on screens. We don’t go outdoors enough or get enough exercise. We eat too much frozen food. And yet, some of these patterns we’ve fallen into were extremely adaptive and necessary survival tactics faced with the quantity of mental health issues and the pay-the-bills business tasks that we had. Were I a being of infinite energy we would have handled it all and still had regular meals together, gone on picnics, and played board games regularly. I feel terribly guilty for not having that infinite energy, even though I know that every day I made the best choices I could with the limited resources available. But when family therapy was suggested it unleashed the howling voices of self doubt which gleefully shrieked that I had made all the wrong choices. Obviously.

It was an agonizing few minutes trying to answer this question from the earnest young man who was very perceptive and thus recognized that his question had opened a huge well of emotion. He was poised to dig and help me sort all of those emotions, as surely was his job. Only it wasn’t his job. I was asking him to help my son. I’d deliberately tried to set boundaries for the therapy. I’d done so in advance, being very specific about what I was seeking. Then when I was in a room alone with him, the therapist questioned why I had the boundary in place. The howling self-doubt, the confusion about being questioned on the topic, and my own natural tendency to empathize with my conversational partner all combined to make answers difficult to articulate. He tried to be a good therapist and say accepting things, but it was obvious to me that he believed family therapy to be the one true way to solve issues, including my son’s depression, loneliness, and inability to make friends at school.

Outside that room, in the car on the way home, all the emotional noise subsided. My son and I talked. Both of us felt clearly and calmly that family therapy was not what we need at this time. For all that we have some isolationist habits and some individual family members with communication issues, those issues would be simply resolved simply by spending more time focused on talking to each other. We don’t need a mediator to help us be find hidden resentments. We already know how to discuss such things the minute it becomes obvious that they exist. I can’t count the number of difficult conversations my kids have been through with me, with each other, with Howard. We know how to talk about the hard things without letting anger or frustration make us mean. Yet I don’t think I could have convinced the therapist of any of that. Until he saw it for himself, all my statements of “I don’t think we need your help” sound like I’m scared or anxious trying to desperately prevent change and growth in family patterns. I did not have the patience to disrupt my entire family for weeks of sessions just to demonstrate that while we’re not perfect, mostly what we need is more time together not a mediator. Besides, some of the things we do have more to do with being a family of introverts than with being broken in some way.

My son and I decided that this therapist would not work for him. Which was sad, because the therapist had good rapport and my son instantly liked him. I can add one more failed therapy relationship to the list. There was one thing the therapist said which rang true to me. Patterns in the home are translated out into the wider world. Requiring my son to practice more social skills at home will help him use those skills at school. This left the problem of how to draw a family of introverts from their isolated comfort zones and into more shared activities. I’ve discovered more than once that when I want to change a family pattern, the wrong solution is exhausting and falls apart, while the right solution clicks into place and makes everything easier. I began mulling over what we should do. Part of my mulling involved prayer. The answer I got wasn’t what I expected, which is true of many of my answers to prayers.

Netflix has a show called the Great British Baking Show. I’ve never been interested in cooking shows, let alone competition cooking shows. Yet several online friends expressed what a delight this one was, in part because everyone is kind and helpful to each other rather than cut-throat competitive. So I began watching and I liked it. Up there in paragraph one there is a little sentence “we eat too much frozen food.” It has been more than a year since I cooked regularly. For a long time it has felt like I’d completely forgotten how to cook. Even on days where I had time and energy, I would stare at a cupboard full of ingredients and have no idea what to make from them. I’d come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t a cooking person now that the kids were old enough to get their own food. Then I started watching the cooking show. Part way into season two, I found myself wanting to make a trifle. Not just eat one, but also make it. Within a two days of wanting to make trifle, I got a clear answer to my prayers about bringing my family together. The answer was “cook more.”

Over the next week I considered my answer. Then one day I stuck in a frozen pizza, planning to watch more of my show while I ate it. No sooner had the pizza emerged when three family members had come into the kitchen to cook food. My quiet space was gone. The smell of food had summoned them from their corners. I shut my iPad and watched them move through the space. They smiled and interacted more, even when they were dodging each other and some of the kids were still trying to watch a video while preparing food. I began to see that if I were making more food to share, instead of food for one, that togetherness would flow naturally from the process. If I called people in to help me with the food preparation, they would be pulled away from their screens and into an activity which simultaneously engages multiple senses and encourages being social.

Of course there are potential problems with building social habits around food, particularly if the food is heavy on dessert offerings. Yet if I am conscious from the beginning to focus on healthy foods, we might all experience health benefits as well as social ones. I’m not going to perform a massive overhaul of our family eating habits. That way lies exhaustion and discouragement. I’m starting simple and small. I’m going to cook more often than I was. I’m going to keep watching cooking shows that spark food ideas. I’m going to encourage social time in the kitchen. I’m going to be patient and see what these small changes shift before attempting any more. Oh, and I’m going to cancel any further appointments with that therapist, he’s not what we need right now.

Vacation as the World Changes

As I listened to Hardcore History’s series on World War 1, the narrator spoke in detail about how that war was a watershed in human history. Afterward everything was different than before. And it all began abruptly, with a single event that led to a cascade of other things until all of Europe was at war. I remember in particular one segment after the war had begun when the narrator spoke about average citizens in their home countries, that they didn’t understand yet that the world had changed. They went about their lives, had picnics, went to work, complained about the small inconveniences of life. The narrator was so surprised, how could the people not be struck by the trend of events?

In the past week my country ordered a strike on Syria. North Korea has been in the news. This same week my daughter spent hours by a pond catching frogs while we’re on vacation. I sent emails to continue a work project because I have a responsibility to see it through. I took pictures of the pond and of flowers. And I begin to understand why those people over a hundred years ago went on picnics. Some of them knew that the world had changed. They knew that death, grief, and disaster were coming for them. So they treasured the picnic while they had it.

The terrible pictures on the news exist in the same world as my pictures of bumble bees and blue skies. For a while I was participating in political discussions on social media. Lately I’ve been so overwhelmed with it all, and with my own urgent tasks, that I have not. I feel guilty about this. I should do more, spend more effort, time, money to improve the world for those who struggle more than I do. At the same time I know that if I deplete myself I will not have stamina for the long haul. Taking care of others is always a long haul. And if the current folks in power get to stay in power, that haul will last at least four years. I’m keenly aware that my efforts or lack thereof have an effect on whether they get those four years. My personal effect is minuscule, but not nothing.

One of the things I feel I can do is provide some places of respite. I can share my pretty pictures. Because when souls are beaten up and grieving over terrible images, sometimes beautiful things can help. I have to remind myself that the picnics which the hardcore history narrator marveled at were important. People on the front lines desperately need to know that there is something normal, beautiful, peaceful that is worth saving. When people rotate off the front lines something comforting needs to be there for them so that they can rest up before doing battle again.

So here are some of the pretty pictures of a vacation that occurred simultaneously with a series of events which may cascade and permanently change the world I live in.

LDS General Conference

I love General Conference. It reminds me to set aside regular things and feed my spirit. After a long run of heavy work focus it was nice to listen while I worked in the garden on Saturday morning. Then it was nice to half-listen while I played a four-hour-long board game with my sons. I’ll have to take time to listen to that session again with more attention. There was good stuff in there that I missed. For Sunday sessions we gather everyone into the family room and put conference on the big TV. It is nice to have a time to be quiet and be together.

I have much to think about and attempt to apply in my life. Some of the talks I’ll need to read and listen to again. I heard words on accepting and loving everyone around us. Elder Christoferson spoke against shame culture. Elder Uchtdorf had an entire talk about using fear as a motivator, that while it can work, it doesn’t transform people. He said that fear is not the way to lead. Many of the things said connected to many of the things I have been thinking about. Some intersected with personal issues inside my home. Others seemed to speak directly to the politics of the US which have been adding so much stress to my life.

Even more important than the specific words are a feeling of renewed connection to my spiritual roots and my LDS community. I’m calmer and happier this weekend than I have been for some time.

And Then the Sun Shines

There is something extra beautiful about a sunny day after an extended period of gray and rain. We had sunny today. It was still chilly and windy, but the sun was shining. I have flowers blooming in my front beds. They’ve poked up in spite of the fact that no one has cleared away the dead plant detritus from last fall. My 16yo went roller skating for the first time in months and felt happy instead of depressed. The 14yo exercised without me requiring it of him first. College girl called yesterday with only happy things to say. She’s figured out how to finish college in one more semester instead of two. 19yo has consented to attend a job fair tomorrow so that he can begin picturing the kinds of jobs he could be applying for. The taxes are done and we’re getting a return this year.

On the business front: I printed out pages from the Planet Mercenary book in color. It always feels more real, and much closer to done when I can turn the pages with my fingers. I’ve also printed out some posters that I hope to put in the store soon. And I finally cleared the dumb hurdle which was preventing me from making Schlock book PDFs.

The day hasn’t been completely joyful. I’m all too aware of the news and the fact that I’m not doing enough to participate in ongoing public conversations and legislation. There are upcoming expenses related to book printing and shipping that have me stressed. And of course there is the ongoing weight of Planet Mercenary tasks. I can’t slack off because deadlines are close.

Yet, despite all of that, the sun shone. The day was pleasant. And I think it is very important to spend a few moments sitting in the sun at the end of a long cold time.

Considering Failures

And a week has gone by. It was a week full of things, mostly good, nothing truly awful or unmanageable. Except there is that part of my brain that howls at me from the darkness saying that I have failed at everything.
I have lists of the things I could have done better. I don’t want to have these lists, but they show up in my head unbidden. I argue with them, but this does not dispel them. So I wield a pen, which is mightier than a sword, and write the list down.
Things I Could Have Done Better.
Those words are writ large across the top, with capital letters for all the words as is proper for a title. I write each thing, pinning it to the page in dark letters against white. It is permanent there. Others could walk by and read it. That feels far more vulnerable than keeping the failures tucked out of sight in my mind.
when I pin a failure to the page, it stops nibbling at me. They all do. It had gotten to the point where I felt crowded out of my own brain. Thought clutter.
The list is long. As I keep writing, my eyes wander back upward to the things already written.
I really couldn’t help that one. It seems silly to blame myself for it. And this one, yeah it would have been better if I’d done it, but the reason I didn’t was because I was managing a much more important task instead. I only have so many hours each day. There are more tasks than hours. If today I succeed at work tasks, I fail at eating healthy. Something has to give.
The ones that grieve most fall under the column Parenting Failures.
Then I cast my mind backward, and I am glad for the small scale of these failures. In the grand scheme “I forgot to make the kid do her dishes” is a failure with minimal consequences.
There are things on the list that matter. Failures I must attempt to remedy.
For now, with the failures trapped on a page, I can move onward with more space to think.

Being Seen

Today at church I had a friend come to me to discuss our mutual assignment. She basically took it out of my hands and said “Let me do it this time. I know how busy you are. Is there any way I can help you?” I didn’t have an answer other than “thank you” because all the answers to “how can I help?” require complex thought and untangling one task from another.

Later in church another friend came to me. She teaches my 16yo at church and had noticed that 16 had been absent more often than she’d attended lately. It is what happens when the mental health meds aren’t working as they need to, so you decide to switch. But then there is this dip in the middle where the old meds are fading from the system and the new meds haven’t yet begun to work. So we talked about how my friend could help my daughter.

After that, a third friend came up to give me a hug and say “are you okay? I know you have a lot going on.”

At which point I begin to wonder “wait, how do they all know?” I scan my memory for what I’ve written on my blog, on Facebook, on twitter. For a moment I worried that I’d been dumping too much stress and emotion online. Yes some of the things are there. Different things in different places, but even if someone were diligent about stitching those pieces together there are many things that never go online at all.

I’ve come to the conclusion that news travels in old fashioned ways, person to person. My church is structured to facilitate quiet, back-channel communication. Sometimes that can feel gossipy or cliquish, but done right it is a great help to those who need it. Though it is strange to have multiple people offering to help and to realize that there was almost certainly a conversation concerned about me and mine. It is both heart warming and uncomfortable to be seen as needing extra attention.

I still don’t have answers for these friends, some of whom I’ve only known for a few months and others that I’ve known for years. There are so many things that I can’t easily hand off. The things that I can, have pretty much already been dumped or hired out. What I probably need most is someone who will listen for hours and help me untangle all the thoughts in my head. Only then will I be able to identify pieces that other people could do. This is why I’ve scheduled therapy. It’ll begin next week.

I don’t want to be spending that money right now ($90 per session because my deductible is so high it is unlikely to kick in at all this year.) But I’ve been putting it off for four years. (Since February of 2013 when all four kids melted down almost simultaneously.)

This afternoon Kiki needed my help unpacking. She’s home for a week of spring break. Kiki didn’t need me to actually touch anything. All she needed was for me to sit in the room with her while she put things away. Somehow having a witness in the room let her sort a mess into a tidy space. I suspect this is what the therapist’s job will be with me. They will sit while I pull out old boxes of emotion and open them up to see what is inside.

I can say that being seen is far better than not being seen. I’ve had that experience at church too. There were middle parts of those four years where I tried to reach out and ask for help, but either I wasn’t specific enough about what I needed or someone else did not follow through. It is often hard to be specific when seeking help.

That is a thing I need to remember in years to come, when I know that someone is in a stressed place and I want to be helpful, it almost certainly starts with listening. Ask for details about the things in their life, and somewhere in what they say will be a piece I can take out of their hands and do for them. The burden of finding what to do needs to fall on the helper because humans under stress are not good at identifying what they need. Also there are huge social stigmas around asking for help.

For now it is just good to have friends who see me and all my things. Not being alone with the things is a huge help all by itself. And now I can add three people to the list of those I can call if I manage to identify a specific thing that I need help doing.

Ala Carte Health Care

Prior to Obamacare we had health insurance with a deductible of $10,000 per person per year. The only thing it provided to us was a vague reassurance that if something catastrophic happened, we would have help for all the expenses between $10,000 and 2 million dollars. Mental health was not covered. Maternity was not covered. Birth control was not covered. Dental and vision, not covered. Also my premiums went up every year like clockwork.

We made the switch to Obamacare the second year it was offered. I watched that first year to see if it actually worked for people I knew, and it did. On Obamacare my premiums were about the same as they had been on my old plan, but my deductible per person came down to $3000, and there was a $7000 cap per family. Suddenly a catastrophe which affected my entire family would put me out $7000 instead of $60,000. And there was no upper limit on how much the insurance would spend. Mental health, maternity, birth control, annual check ups, and vision check ups for my kids were all covered. True I still had to pay out of pocket for these things, but all those payments counted toward a my deductible rather than being unrelated to it.

I would have loved to have all those things covered in my earlier plan, but adding things like Maternity care were called riders. They cost more money. Not only that, but you couldn’t add a maternity rider to your plan if you were already pregnant. You had to add it several months before you got pregnant in order for the insurance company to agree to pay for anything. Mental health care wasn’t offered at all, not even as an expensive rider. I suppose that there were people whose coverage was provided by their employers who had coverage for mental health stuff, but I didn’t know any.

That is what the newly-proposed ala carte model for health care means. It means that those who have health needs, like maternity care, will have to pay more than those who don’t have needs. Guess which person will have less ability to work to cover the cost of their health care? Ala carte means that some things won’t be covered at all, or will only be covered at rates which are so high no one who has the issue can afford to purchase coverage for it. I suspect I’d be back to out of pocket for my family’s mental health care.

It is true that year after year I saw increases in my premiums for Obamacare. This past year my monthly premium went up by $600, an increase of almost 60%. That was alarming and has put a serious strain on my budget. I had to drop down to a plan with a $7000 deductible per person and a $13,000 deductible for my entire family. Yet those deductibles are still lower than the ones I had before Obamacare. And visits to mental health professionals count toward those deductibles. Also, I believe that my premiums would have skyrocketed anyway. There are other things driving the increase in medical costs than just giving coverage to more people.

There were definitely things to fix, but prioritizing the profits of insurance companies is not how to help people. Ala carte may help a few healthy people lower their premiums, but it will cost everyone else more.

Building Friendships in our Communities

Today at church I spoke with a neighbor who was born in Guatemala. She’s been in my neighborhood for the entire eighteen years that I have been here. I’ve not known her for that long, because somehow communities of Spanish speakers and English speakers can live intermixed with each other without actually mixing very much. I asked her what our congregation and neighborhood can do to reach out to our neighbors who weren’t born in the US and who might be feeling scared because of the current political climate.

Her answer was very simple: Just be friends.

Be the neighbor who introduces themselves and says “glad you’re in our neighborhood.” Take time to reach out and smile even if you don’t share a common language. Find out your neighbor’s names. Invite them to local events. Ask after their children. We’re all far more similar than we are different, no matter where we were born.

These are not things that come naturally to me. I tend to hide in my house not talking to people unless I have to. But I’m going to try to be better.

I’ve also assigned myself to do something my neighbor didn’t suggest. I’m going to try to be more aware when I’m out in the world. I want to be more ready to step in and help. I want to be mentally prepared to intercede if I see someone being treated poorly.

The national news is filled with events that are distressing to me. I see so much division and anger. I see appalling and crazy behavior at the highest levels of public attention. The solution to all of this is not a top down solution. Replacing people at the top wouldn’t solve all the emotion, it would just make a different subset of people scared. The real healing will have to come from the bottom up. It will come from people literally loving their neighbors and reaching out to help them. It will come from people being good and kind to those who think and believe differently. It starts with each of us being willing to extend ourselves to serve others a little bit more.

Today at church I learned from one of my neighbors. I also learned about a community service website that seeks to be a sort of Craigslist for people seeking volunteers and people who want to be volunteers. It is . It looks like it may be a good tool for people who want to reach out a bit more, help a bit more, love others a bit more. People connecting with each other in our own communities is how we heal our country.