Tuesday, August 2, 2022

House of Grief

I was reminded of the Five Stages of Grief trope earlier today in a context that had nothing to do with grief; but since I was dealing with grief at the moment, processing what would have been Grandmother's 104th birthday today, the little background buzzword hit me like a clanging bell. 

Of course I can't remember what the five stages of grief are, exactly... I know anger, depression, and acceptance, but is bargaining one of them? OK, a quick Google reveals that the stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, in that order...but that's not what I want to talk about right now... I want to talk about why I grieve for Grandmother's house as much as I grieve for Grandmother.

I have these dreams--not really a recurring dream because the circumstances and personnel change around with each outing, like different adaptations of the same play--where I am having to move out of Grandmother's house for some reason, seldom ever the reason for which I did move out, but the dream is always full of grief and I wake up from it sad for most of the ensuing day. 

In most of the house dreams, Grandmother is still alive, and in a lot of them everybody in the family who's died in my lifetime is alive and involved in the moving out somehow... Grandpa, Aunt Terry, sometimes my father. The most common reason for moving out is that Grandmother is moving into a senior living facility, sometimes I'm going with her and sometimes I'm going to a separate apartment I already have, sometimes I'm moving someplace new. Weirdly, I'm usually a lot younger in these dreams, like in my early 30s. Or at least I look like I did then, thin and relatively attractive.

A common trope in these dreams is that the whole damned family is staying in the house, especially my cousin Kellie and her vast brood, and we're trying to put on a family event, either Christmas or Grandmother's birthday, at the same time as packing up to move out. This of course makes everything more difficult, trying to pack up and throw out stuff that we need to put on a tree or make a big dinner party, with children getting in the way and Grandmother wanting to look at everything as we're packing.

The thing that makes the dreams so memorable is that it's always me doing lots of work to get the house emptied out while everyone is hindering me; when in fact it was the other way around--I mean, I don't think I actively hindered progress, but I was unable to take part in the packing and sorting in any meaningful way. I just couldn't move. I wanted to help, to at least take care of my own stuff, but I just couldn't do it. My uncle did a lot of it for me, and my friend Abby volunteered as a paid packer who sorted the things to get rid of from the things to pack up, and Caroline helped in the last push getting the things I wanted to keep packed. But for the most part, I just lay in bed like a lump...I guess that was the denial stage?

In the last years of Grandmother's life, I decided that I wouldn't keep anything from Grandmother's house when the time came, I'd maybe keep my own stuff but otherwise would make a clean start. And with a few exceptions (I kept a lot of things I'd need in the kitchen, and a few small decoratives that suddenly felt too precious to abandon) that's what I did. I got rid of or left behind everything but my clothes and books and decoratives, and didn't keep anything personal of Grandmother's except for a couple of things that I'd given her as gifts that meant a lot to me.

When I finally did get packed up and moved out, taking a room in Old Town Eureka to inhabit until the estate was settled and I'd have the money to secure permanent housing, it was an exciting adventure. The room was so small that I decided to leave my heavy wood furniture behind as well, and got some dorm-room-type furniture, all white-enameled, with navy or cobalt blue soft furnishings like pillows and blankets and towels. Living on my own for the first time in my whole life was so novel that I didn't really miss anything, didn't just sit down and grieve. I mean, I wasn't exactly dancing and frolicking and strewing flowers around me, but I wasn't as sad as I expected I'd be.

Of course, I was going home about once a month to take care of various business, and talking to Caroline on the phone daily, and my uncle and my sister at least once a week, and didn't unpack much into my new room so it felt really temporary. Suspended emotional animation, I guess. But after I bought my new home and moved into it, had all the painting and roofing and window-fixing and carpeting and furnishing done, all those feelings that had been suspended over the previous months came crashing down on me all at once and I was a wreck.

One of the things that wrecked me was wishing I'd kept certain things from Grandmother's house... like when Caroline brought fresh asparagus from the Farmer's Market, I wished like hell I still had the asparagus pot, which nobody else in the family even remembers or knew that's what it was, which was part of a set Grandmother got as a prize for top selling Tupperware in the 70s. I would be looking for something on my phone (I photographed a lot of documents and licenses to have them handy) and saw pictures I'd taken for the estate sale we had after I moved to Eureka, and would just weep over all the things I missed, stupid things that I didn't really care about before but which were now invested with a painful nostalgia. I eventually moved those all into a folder on my desktop so I wouldn't keep stumbling across them.

So in the last almost-four years (Grandmother's 100th birthday was five weeks before her death), I have been grieving for Grandmother, which I was prepared to do in some ways as I'd been working on the inevitable eventuality with my therapist for years in advance of the event; but I wasn't prepared to grieve for the house. Almost four years later, I still cry when I see pictures of the house the same as I do pictures of Grandmother.

And I know that grief doesn't work on an external timeline, everyone processes it differently, and that it takes how long it takes and no more or less.  But I guess I wish that I'd known to prepare for the grief of losing the house as assiduously as I prepared for the grief of losing Grandmother. When you live in a place for a long time, it takes on its own persona, it becomes a character in your life, and when several generations of a family live in the same house for a long time, it really becomes a family member. I knew that before, but I didn't really consider it at the time when mourning Grandmother was fresh and new, and didn't take it into account when I planned what to do with various things in the house that I miss now.

So that's me today. I see it's been seven months since I last posted, which is shameful, but not the first time I've gone so long without writing here. Hope to come back sooner next time, this has been exceptionally cathartic, writing all this out. Thanks for listening to me whine.



Monday, January 17, 2022

Faith No More

 A few weeks ago, Facebook gave me a "memory" from some time back, something I'd posted on that date in a different year... it does this every day, sometimes several times a day, and it often offers me a bewildering glimpse of a person I've forgotten I ever was. In this case it was a list meme (remember those?) called "Five Things You May Not Know About Me" or some such; in it I state that something people might not know about me is that I believe in ghosts. Looking at this list ten years or so later, I found that I didn't know that about me...not only had I forgotten I'd ever said such a thing, but I'd forgotten I ever believed in ghosts. Needless to say, I do not believe in ghosts now. And that got me to wondering: do I believe in anything? The notion of belief itself felt unfamiliar somehow.

In another Facebook-based instance, I was messaging with an old friend from AA whom I haven't seen or talked to in well over a decade; and as one does with old AA fellows, I said I was keeping sober and practicing the principles in all of my affairs despite not going to AA meetings or interacting with the program at all. But when I thought about it later, I can't say I was practicing all of the principles, since one of the principles is reaching out to the alcoholic still suffering, sharing the gift of sobriety with those who seek it. And though I didn't go into all that with the friend in Facebook Messenger, one of the other principles, the one I do consciously practice, is rigorous self-honesty; so I spent a lot of time dissecting the statement "I am practicing the principles still"... and realized that I had also let go of all the higher-power-centric steps, too. So, with God and the Fellowship both out of the equation, which principles was I still practicing?

That's a topic for another post, but for this post I asked myself why did I give up the God parts? When exactly did I stop praying? Why? I don't remember when, though I assume it was some time after I stopped going to meetings, as I would have noticed if I'd done it when I was going to meetings, as praying is part of the meeting; but the why came quickly: I'd stopped believing in God. There was no reason for it, no watershed moment where I saw it happen, I just stopped somewhere along the line. And I wondered, like I did with the ghosts, what do I believe in? What do I even just believe?

I couldn't think of anything. Not a single article of faith anywhere in my brain. It was just things I know and things I don't know, nothing in between but guesses and opinions. And of course a lot more of the latter than the former, things that I used to think I knew but turned out to be things I just believed, and had to be added to the things I don't know instead. And that's not even addressing the things I thought I knew and discovered that I'd misremembered, which is the topic of a whole other essay.

The very concept of belief feels foreign now, like how does one just believe anything? What does that even feel like? I don't remember. I remember believing things, but I don't remember what it feels like to believe, I don't remember how to believe. It's just gone.

I guess or opine that it's the depression that's done this, stopped my ability to connect to something that once gave me comfort and purpose like it stopped me connecting to lots of things that gave me comfort and purpose. But more, I have a feeling (perhaps this is a belief, but probably just a hypothesis) that it has to do with brain chemistry.  

There was a study published some years ago that claimed to have discovered a subunit of the brain that was directly responsible for the concept of God... a part that was activated during neural-imaging scans when the subject was praying, or thinking about God or the lack of God, or engaging in any kind of "spiritual" activity. I'm probably not remembering that right, or at least not exactly, but I don't have the energy to do research on it right now, I'm just going to take it as the premise for my hypothesis. 

Discussions of this discovery or study took two separate interpretations: some said that it showed that there was no God, there was just a knob in your head that makes you think there's a God (or any gods); others said that this knob made us capable of perceiving an existing God in the first place; but most agreed that a big part of our evolution into a successful species is our ability to engage in abstract thought, our ability to imagine things we cannot see, which might well have developed from this segment of our brains that perceives God, and our ability to rationalize and imagine, to construct philosophy and language and art is a direct result of that perception. 

If that is so, if the ability to believe in God, or anything that can't be seen or touched or smelled or heard, is centered in a part of the brain, then it is also possible to disable that part of the brain with a lack of serotonin or excess of some other chemical. Whether belief is an illusion caused by the brain or another degree of perception, I can't say, but it's suggestive that my ability to believe has waned as my depression has progressed.  It may be coincidental, though, so I can't say for sure. I should do some research on this if I'm interested enough, but I'm not sure I am... I mean, will knowing the answer help me get my faith back? Or give me a sense of natural inevitability for its loss? Do I even miss my faith?

I did, when Grandmother died. I wanted to take comfort in the knowledge that she wasn't really gone, that she still existed somewhere else, reunited with loved ones who'd gone before, retaining her memories and her personality without the pain and limitations of her decaying body. I used to believe that's what happened to people when they died. I think I believed it, anyway... I mean, I had a hypothesis that the neural networks that make up our memories and personalities survive the death of the brain that created them, and that the human will would hold those networks together without a body, in the ethers perhaps, floating around on the air, as light as radio waves, retaining organization and consciousness. That when these conscious networks floated around where they'd lived, they could be perceived as ghosts, and when they floated off into the atmosphere they went "into the light," mingling with lost loved ones somewhere up there, attracted to each other by the connections formed in life. 

It was just an opinion, but was based on something I simply believed, that there is an afterlife, that the individual soul continues to exist after death. Now, though, I don't quite see how that could be possible, that a neural network can exist without the flesh and blood that created them through sensory input; and if they could, they certainly couldn't interact with the rest of the world without those organs, they couldn't take in new information at all, they could not be sapient and conscious... they'd be in a permanent dream state, reliving what was already in their minds when they died, without any kind of direction or mobility.

But, though it seems unlikely, I can't say for sure that's not what happens. I have no belief in the opposite possibility as truth, either. I just don't know. And that not-knowing is far more uncomfortable than believing one way or another. They say that atheists have no beliefs, but they do: they believe very firmly that there is no God. They have made up their minds as to what is true and can think about something else.

Much stickier wicket being caught in between, unable to believe that there is or isn't a God, or an afterlife, or a purpose to existence either in general or individually. You're caught in a perpetual shrug with an eternal question-mark floating over your head. And that's just unpleasant, is all.

Well, anyway, I don't think I've drawn a conclusion from having aired and organized these thoughts in blog form, but I've written something, and I'm going to take that as a win for the day.  Celebrating little victories usually improves my mood, and that's enough of a takeaway.


Saturday, January 1, 2022

New Year, Same Old Me

I'm avoiding working on my finances for last year and budget for the coming year; the first part only takes plugging in the rest of December's transactions and copying the page formats into a new spreadsheet, but the second part is bound to be depressing. But it's necessary, and I'm already depressed, so why not just poke the bruise and get it over with? Because there are other things I can be doing to avoid it, so here we are.

As you can imagine, I'm not terribly excited about a new year... it's pretty arbitrary, when the year starts and what date is which, since they're not timed so that things start and finish on solstices and equinoxes and moon phases, which are the only non-arbitrary constants we have... weather and seasons are different in different parts of the world, and move in too complex of patterns (so complex that we haven't figured them out yet and it still looks like capricious divine behavior). Of course, it is pretty close, the Winter Solstice was just a couple weeks ago, so it's not too farfetched to start the calendar year here.

Years of experience have taught me that it's useless to try and start good habits at the new year, it simply never works out. And the last few years have indicated that it's useless to attempt new habits after a certain age. After reaching adulthood, new practices never become habitual: it's a permanent, ongoing, repeated effort to keep achieving the behavior.  At least for me, I shouldn't state that like it's a universal truth.  But it's like I've had to relearn how to walk, to allow for the extra weight and the decreased flexibility of the joints; I can't just walk as a background process like I did when I was young, I have to think about it and adapt to the new physics of walking, have to deliberately take each step, aware of every movement and cognizant of each destination. It's like that with everything, if I take my mind off what I'm doing for even a second I can become disoriented as my body falls into habits learned thirty years ago and I autopilot toward things and places that no longer exist.

Well, that doesn't mean I shouldn't learn new habits, especially new healthy habits, just that it's no longer a matter of "just do it" or making resolutions on an arbitrary date. When I learn what it is a matter of, when I discover how to get myself to do things that I don't want to do, I'll let you know. Until then, I'll just do what I can to get through the day. And work on my budget, which I'm going to go do now.

Happy New Year!