It has been so long since I last wrote a blog. What seemed so smooth and effortless has become herky-jerky as I stutter through broken words. I have lost my rhythm. In a rut, that’s where I am, where life is sustained more by the involuntary movements of my heart and diaphragm; unable to feel the gentle rhythmic flow of life’s changing meters. Younger people might say that I have lost my “mojo.” But for me, it’s all about rhythm.
I think that I’ll try writing about this man called “me:” A musician/financial planner/writer, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, who had a crack in his back and just happened to love green eggs and ham. He is a complicated man with complicated ways, and yes, a bit strange, that’s what his friends might say. Even through difficult times, he managed to maintain a primitive rhythm, more of a “boom-chick-boom-chick,” but not the hypnotic, sensual feeling that he had grown accustomed to. How can I explain the concept to those who have never danced like a child, placed a piece of popcorn between their lips and transferred it to their dog, or became — even for a few seconds — part of the moment? Oh the rhythmic sound of a childhood story that makes you want to dance in circles as you read to a child. Slide into the feel of “Green eggs and ham,” as you say Sam, I am, Oh Sam, I am, I don’t like those green eggs and ham. But in truth, I do like green eggs and ham, even with some toast and jam.
Back pain, yes that God-awful mother-fucking back pain turned off the metronome in my life. Two years ago I began the quarterly trips to pain management where an injection of goodies were shot into my back. Good while it lasted, that’s what I say, I say to Dr. Sam who knew my ways, but said that he will no longer play. Then the pain, pain, pain that lasted for three weeks until the surgeon repaired two herniated disks in my lower back. It was like magic, the pain was gone and I began to write again. I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got rhythm, who could ask for anything more? Then as if God had decided to tease me a bit, the pain began in another place, my sacroiliac joint to be exact. The writing stopped. In order to avoid another trip to the operating table, my surgeon suggested that I go to a chiropractor whom he believed might reduce my pain. Well, four weeks later the pain is decreasing and I’m beginning to feel the rhythm. No boom-chick, boom-chick, for me. It’s more of an effortless changing of meters from 2/4 to 5/8 to 3//2 to 13/8. Words are beginning to fly off of the keyboard, my mind feels all blurry and good and a bit goofy. Sam I am, I am, don’t let me down said the man with a crack in his back who just happens to like green eggs and ham.
Lies, lies, there are so many lies. As a society, we’ve become very good at spinning tales which are presented as the truth. And the biggest lies of all are broadcast over the airwaves; nonstop, twenty-four hours a day. It’s so bad that each political slant has it’s own network hell-bent on promoting their own political agenda by, you guessed it, lies. At first, it was more subtle; photoshop, cut and paste, and the distorted truth became a lie. Now, the truth is as difficult to find as fireflies on a sunny day.
I’m reminded of the 1881 fairy tale about Pinocchio, the wooden marionette carved by Geppetto, a bachelor who yearned for a real boy of his own. Eventually, through a lot of hoping, praying, and imagination, the good fairy changed Pinocchio into a real boy. But wait, the good fairy would not tolerant lies. She told Pinocchio that if he told a lie his nose would grow. Well, you guessed it, Pinocchio told a string of lies and surprise — Pinocchio’s nose grew so long that he couldn’t get out of his house. (Imagine our House of Representatives with noses so long that they would fill the chamber. And those nose hairs. Yuck.) To save Pinocchio, woodpeckers flew into the house and pecked at his nose until it became the normal size. Moral of the story — don’t lie or your nose will grow.
In the days when I was a boy, parents handed out advice that was designed to keep you from lying or doing “bad” things. If you make a bad face your face will freeze in that position for the rest of your life. Make your eyes go cross and they will remain cross. I heard this one at the church – If you masturbate you will go blind. That one scared the hell out of me. Well, I didn’t go blind but I am a bit near-sighted and have worn glasses since I was five years old. Go figure. My mother’s favorite — Rich people aren’t happy. You’re lucky that we’re poor. Another of her favorites — If you stay out past midnight, you can’t be doing anything good. Well, I’ll have to give her that one. About telling the truth: if you don’t tell the truth something bad will happen to you, and yes, you will go to hell.
Our reality, the truth as we see it, is based on a combination of our genetic makeup and our life experiences; nuture and nature, that’s what they call it. If we follow this line of thought, each person will have a unique opinion of the truth. Some people might say that the Bible holds the truth. Well, that might be true, but as soon as you read it the words become mixed with your concept of reality. The truth becomes less clear.
I’m reminded of something that a buddhist monk once said, When you think that you have all of the answers, you’ve lost your way. Now we don’t have a treasury map for finding the truth. We do what we have to do — read, listen, think, look within. Truth brings peace.
Just talked with a friend who happens to be in prison for allegedly killing her five-year-old stepdaughter. No, we weren’t talking over a cup of coffee at the local coffeehouse where we met and greeted each other with a hug, followed by a “how are you doing?” It was another telephone call from a prison constructed with concrete and metal pipes. God, it’s a cold, hard place where she has lived for the past fifteen years with some forty-five years to go. I’m certain that a lot of you are thinking that it’s appropriate that she lives in such a place, and is left to suffer every second of the day after day, after day, after day…. After all, she killed God’s greatest creation, a precious child. I have to admit that there was a time when I, for a minute or two, felt the same way. It was the time when I saw the photos of the little girl taken by the pathologist. Her face was smashed, bruised, and then I saw her swollen brain. I nearly vomited. I swallowed hard, pushing the vile matter further down into my stomach. But I still remember the image.
Now I see things quite differently. Becca is a friend of mine who suffers from a severe mental illness and just happened to do a very bad, unimaginable thing. Now that Becca is on her medications and away from the violent men in her life, she is a different person: a good person, a loving person, who suffers everyday of her life.
Becca’s life was a combination of factors that we see quite often today. It was a formula destined for tragedy. Lets see if we can put the pieces together — a heavy dose of a severe mental illness, no medication, three abusive husbands who beat the shit out of her, and a mental health system that fell short. Each time Becca went into a mental hospital, she received treatment for about seven days where she was put on medication and a few therapy sessions. Oh, I almost forgot, she was in the hospital for thirty days one time. But each time she came out of the hospital she went back to her family and friends, back to the things that had destroyed her. We’ve heard the same song before, and the lyrics cry out for help. It’s not in the top forty, but it’s still there for all to hear, if they would only listen.
I’m sorry if I had to rant over my lost cause. But Becca is my friend and I had to write something. God help the mentally ill.
Becca was the character in my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Baren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.”
These are excerpts taken from my second book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell.” I have drawn from the chapter called Fish heads in an open bag. Becca, the subject of my book was serving sixty years for allegedly killing her five-year-old stepdaughter.
*** I have listened to Becca for hours upon hours. In every season of each passing year, I have sat across from her in the visit room looking at her drawn and tired face, listening to her struggle to find ways of expressing her mental and emotional realities. What she says is not always cohesive, or narratively coherent, but over time, I have learned to piece together the fragments of her mental processes, and the images that she sees, in ways that blend with my imagination. If Becca hears “voices” or “racing thoughts,” it might now be said that I do, as well. I believe that I understand her and can, in one sense, show what Becca might say if she could find the words.
My name is Becca. It was the 1980′s. I was barely a teenager and the summer days were long and dry. Bacon was frying in a black metal skillet, and the morning was clear. My mother was talking and pouring her first cup of coffee. Her voice was faint and the words made no sense and the sounds became one, like the annoying hum of a fluorescent light. She probably told me that Dad and my brother were going fishing for the day, or that my room was a mess, or that I was just a bad kid.
I might have been thinking about the fish heads I saw at Friday night’s fish fry. The severed heads were stuffed into open bags. The bodies were gutted, washed, and rolled in seasoned flour, and cooked in black skillets like my mother used. The heads were alive. The eyes and mouths continued to open and close, and called out for help. Their misery was real and hard, just like mine. My mother’s shouting brought me back to her reality. My mind jumped around a lot in those days. Maybe that’s when my mind began to slip away.
The voices have no name. They’re not these booming commandments from up above or down below. They’re more like thoughts, racing thoughts that pound the inside of my head like a jackhammer. Sometimes I write the words on a piece of paper, and then another, and another. Later, when I’m kind of normal, people tell me that the words make no sense. They stare at me like I’m different, and then they turn and walk away. It’s so lonely in my world of cherry blossoms and barren plains. I wish that I could take you on a tour of my brain. All of the twists and turn through the cerebral matter must be a bit like running through a maze. Wherever I turn, I’m always lost.
It’s been nearly ten years and some ten-thousand pills later, since I killed Dani. I can barely say it since I still don’t remember doing it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought about it. But each time I try, I end up seeing fish heads in an open bag. Now I try not to think about that part. I just think about what a wonderful girl Dani was. I tell Larry, my writer friend to write more about Dani. I want everyone to know her like I did. I want them to know how she liked to read books, listen to music, and play make-up. I bought her a long blond hair piece. She loved wearing that hair piece.
I haven’t gone completely manic since I’ve been here. I take my meds eery day. I can’t take a chance on losing control of myself. But the meds are not easy. I never feel right. My hands shake, I get nervous, and I always have some kind of depression. Sometimes I wonder if that’s God’s way of letting me know that I’m a bad person. But that’s not what my psychologist says. I get to see him one time a month. And that’s not what Larry or the Pastor say.
How do you know when you begin to lose your mind? I don’t think that you can pick a certain day, an exact time, or even an unusual event. Maybe it’s a bit like cancer. One day a doctor tells you that the MRI shows a cancerous growth the size of a grapefruit, and if untreated, you will die. The tumor had been growing for some time, somewhere in your body, unseen by the naked eye.
My mental illness was the same and went undetected until the doctors told me in 1993 that I was bipolar, and if untreated, I would lose my mind. Looking back, I believe it began the day when I saw fish heads in an open bag. But as bad as I felt, I’ve always had my doubters. Some think that I faked it and used mental illness as an excuse for my violent behavior. Others believe that I’m an agent for the devil. But until you’ve visited the dark side and felt my torment, I’m here to say that mental illness is for real.
It was a cold, fall day. Red weathered Maple leaves were on the ground. Becca and I were sitting in the visit room at the Dwight Correctional Center where she was serving a sixty-year sentence for allegedly killing her five-year-old step-daughter. Becca still does not remember committing the crime, but believes that she did because the authorities told her that she did. I often wonder if Becca’s abusive husband might have killed the little girl. The two of us, Becca and I, had numerous visits spread over a three year period. I continually tried to crawl into her mind and grab hold of her feelings; experience her emotions, and then put them into words. As a writer, that’s my job.
Throughout my book, “Cherry Blossoms & Barren Plains: A woman’s journey from mental illness to a prison cell,” I used metaphors to describe Becca’s mental state. “It was as if someone or something, possibly alien, took over her mind. I can see how an imaginary octopus-like creature might have controlled her thoughts. Living in the lowest part of her brain and hidden by darkness, this creature, the one I imagined, reached outward with it eight tentacles, each lined with two rows of suction cups, and latched onto her mind. No one escaped its grip. When threatened, it released an inky-black liquid that allowed it to slip away. Even if one of its tentacles was severed, one quickly regrew, making it impossible to kill. This octopus-like creature, the one that I imagined, the one that invaded Becca’s mind, is called bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness.”
I’ve felt the soul-sucking depression before. Not to the extent of someone suffering from bipolar disorder, but enough to put me into a fetal-like position, while I waited for the darkness to pass. It was the same feelings I experienced in therapy when I relived my memories of childhood sexual abuse. The idea was to desensitize the feelings of depression so I could better manage them. “Manage” is the key word. They never completely go away. Now, I sense when depression is on the horizon. Although it moves in like a fog at morning’s first light, it’s quite different. A black fog, yes that’s what it is. One that seeps upward through the earth’s crust, and most likely originates from hell. The devil must regurgitate this foul smelling substance and send it my way. Sometimes I run away or walk around it. Other times I am able to muster up an invisible shield that protects me from its onslaught. But I must admit that there are moments when the black fog reaches me as I struggle to escape. If unchecked, it can engulf me into total darkness with no way to escape. Sometimes I play dead until it passes. For some, it can be so bad that they choose to die.
One time, while in a sleep-like meditation, I thought about the people who weren’t able to escape depression. I was focused on a person that I had known from years past. She was found hanging from the ceiling. How could she have chosen such a painful way to end her life, I thought. Then, right before my eyes, I imagined this person like I had never seen her before. I believe that she showed me an image of her inner self on that tragic day. No words were needed. The dark bags under her eyes pulled her sight downward. Skin the color of tree rot covered his face. And if she had tried to smile, her face would have broken into a billion pieces. The hair on her head had been pulled in different directions at the same time. This woman yearned to scream, but she was unable to utter a single sound. And then came the blackbirds singing in the dark black night. There was no escape. She chose to die.
I’ve been a board member of the Women’s Center for several years. I was recently asked to write a fund raising letter for the organization. Hopefully this will move you to consider the Women’s Center to be worthy of your support. ***
Dear Women’s Center supporter: Imagine what it’s like to be a bird without wings, Who’s fallen into a hole and not allowed to sing. Imagine what it’s like to be a beautiful whale, With no place to swim but a five-gallon pale. …male survivor of childhood sexual abuse
It could be in the middle of the night when a woman knocks at our door, shaking as she nervously asks for help. The makeup could not hide the blows to her face. She is without money, a safe place to stay, accompanied by the belief that she had done something wrong. She brings her daughter, as well, who wonders why the Daddy she loves always hits and swears. Perhaps there’s a telephone call to the hotline, where a volunteer hopes to convince a desperate woman that tonight is not the time to die. Or possibly someone calls from the hospital emergency room reporting a rape. Women, men, children, sexual orientation, it makes no difference.
The Women’s Center, established in 1972, continues to provide services to the surrounding counties. In 2013, we assisted 141 children and 862 adults with 11,715 hours of domestic violence services; 6,713 nights of domestic violence and 5,413 nights of transitional housing; and 16,429 meals to residents in shelter. Public edu- cation, professional training, orders of protection, and hotline calls are provided as well.
Thanks to you, we have expanded and updated our facilities. We have little debt and manage to show a respectable balance sheet. But where we struggle is raising enough money to maintain a $1.3 million dollar budget. We receive our financial support from various federal, state, and private grants, and donations from you. We face an annual increase in services while governmental budget cuts leave us with less. I wish you could come to ground zero and watch the dedicated work of our staff. You would soon learn that they are underpaid angels, doing God’s work.
Whether you are a first-time donor, or one that continues to offer us a lifeline, we need your help. This can be done as annual contributions, or through planned giving, a means of providing future financial support with no upfront cost. For now, we ask you to forget the tax benefits in giving. Just think about the abused woman knocking at our door, the child who still loves her Daddy, the raped woman lying on a hospital bed, or the woman who believes that tonight is the time to die. There are so many of them.
Oh my, where have the years gone? I’m 71 years old and have seen lots of stuff: good, bad, and some that I can’t talk about. But with the help of a good therapist, and a load of self exploration, I believe that I have grown both spiritually and intellectually. Too bad I can’t say that about our society. I’m reminded of Richard Semon, a 19th century scientist and one of the characters in my latest book, “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory,” who believed that while 19th century science had advanced by leaps and bounds, society’s spiritual growth remained dormant. Centuries later, I’m thinking the same. As a child, I played cowboys and Indians. I was the cowboy who shot the Indian. Boy, did I fuck that one up. Eventually I learned that the Indians were the good guys. Then came the detectives against the gangsters. Except for Bonnie and Clyde, I always shot the gangster. As time passed, I moved into war games where I was an American soldier who shot anyone who didn’t look like me. In all of these adventures it was understood that they were games, consisting of toy guns and make-believe deaths, and a good versus evil theme throughout. It wasn’t real. It was “child’s play.” But for Jordan Davis and Travyon Martin, it was not “child’s play.” It was murder. When did we decide that it was okay to carry a handgun and ignore the need to step back from a perceived danger? Illinois, the place I call home, has become the final state to approve “concealed carry,” and many other states have approved the “stand your ground” law. “Concealed carry” is when your handgun is hidden from plain site. The “stand your ground” law states that you can use deadly force and that you do not have a duty to retreat if you reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to yourself. Now I’m not against hand guns. I completed two eight-week classes at a local community college on the defensive use of handguns. Both were excellent classes which stressed safety, shooting technique, and defensive plans to protect my family against home intruders. In fact, I enjoy shooting my handgun and do so to maintain my skills. I’m all for the 2nd amendment but things have gone crazy. I don’t feel like I should always carry a gun and grow an extra set of balls. Hey, that’s not me. I’m a writer and one set of balls is fine with me. When did “child’s play” become real life? When did we decide that it was okay for George Zimmerman to stalk Trayvon Martin, get into a confrontation, kill him, and then say that he was just defending himself. Oh, I forgot. Trayvon was a black teenager who wore a hoodie in the dark of night. OMG, he wore a hoodie. And I almost forgot that Trayvon had been to the store, bought a bad of skittles, and was walking home. Now it makes sense — black teenager, hoodie, bag of skittles. We all know that Trayvon’s death could have been avoided. Zimmerman was found not guilty. What about Jordon Davis, the latest tragedy which caused me to write this blog? Jordon was another black teenager who was shot to death by a white man. Jordon and three other black teenagers were in a black SUV socializing as most teenagers do. Their car was sitting at a gas station while they chilled out listening to loud, bass thumping rap music. We’ve all heard it, and yes, it can be annoying. Michael Dunn parked his car next to Jordon’s while Dunn’s finance walked into the station to make a purchase. Now the story is beginning to make sense — black teenagers, black SUV, loud bass thumping rap music. Now that would scare the hell out of any white dude. Dunn rolls down his window and politely asks the occupants of the SUV to turn down the music. Well, that’s what Dunn said. The black teenagers turned down the music, but after some discussion they increased the volume of that loud, bass thumping rap music. Now we had a pissed-off white man and a car full of loud black teenagers. Dunn said that he was disrespected and that Jordon was beginning to step out of the SUV, and appeared to have what looked like a shotgun. Dunn retrieved his handgun from the glove compartment, and quickly fired several rounds into the SUV. And as the SUV sped away, Dunn fired the remainder of his 10 round clip into the SUV. Jordon Davis died from gunshot wounds. Dunn said that he feared for his life and no son-of-a-bitch was going to kill him. No gun was ever found in the black teenager’s car. Let’s see, how does this work — concealed carry, stand your ground, an extra set of balls, and no one is going to fuck with me. The jury was unable to decide whether Dunn’s killing of Jordon was self defense or murder. We ended with a hung jury. Where does all of this leave me? I like most people, in fact, I love several of them. I have more than one handgun to protect my family, and would shoot someone if it was absolutely necessary. But I consider myself a tolerant person and don’t feel threatened when I see a black teenager wear a hoodie, or a car load of black teenagers play loud, bass thumping rap music. I sometimes wear hoodies and sometimes have my car radio turned up, and yes, my wife says that I play the music too loud. I believe that it’s okay to sometimes step back and walk the other way. Killing someone is a heavy load to carry. But hey, that’s just me. I’m a writer and I only have one set of balls.
For those who are interested, I just completed my two week checkup from back surgery and I am progressing nicely. Still can’t lift anything, but I’ve been given the okay to begin walking more each day. In four weeks I should be back to my normal self. I have written a couple of blogs, and feel the need to continue writing. Take care and have a great day.
I ran across this brief essay that I had written at the time of the 9-11-2001 tragedy. This came at a time when I was heavy into psychotherapy for childhood sexual abuse. Reliving my experiences caused me to make a comparison between the misery of 9-11-2001 and childhood sexual abuse. I’m sorry if I offended anyone involved in the New York City tragedy, but if I’m afraid to write something that is uncomfortable, I shouldn’t write at all.
*** So metronomic, like the orderly flow of a Mozart symphony. A masterpiece of design; an act of evil. At 8:48 a.m., on september 11, 2001, the opening movement: a Boeing 767 fully loaded with fuel, crashed into the north face of I World Trade Center. An explosion, clouds of smoke, and flames blew upward as tremors rattled the structure. Fifteen minutes later, the second movement: a Boeing 757 was eaten by II World Trade Center in one giant bite, only to be regurgited through a projectile vomit of flames and debris. Civilians ran for cover and rescue workers ran inside and people jumped from the 80th floor. They fell like apples. The south tower suffered a breakdown and dropped to the ground.
At 9:40 a.m., the third movement: a Boeing 757 struck the western part of the Pentagon. And finally, the fourth: a Boeing 757 that through the heroic efforts of a group of passengers, averted its target and was forced to crash in an unpopulated field outside Pittsburgh.
People in agony: their faces in contorted expressions never experienced before. Some estimates show hundreds dead and 6,000 missing or presumed dead. Every image, every sound, was seen from New York to the Philippines to Kuwait. No one could deny the magnitude of misery that sprung from nowhere and pulled a hunk from our side. We were injured. Over the next few weeks, the major news outlets deluged us with stories about victims, survivors, heroes, and men sitting at Elmer’s coffee shop in midwestern-Illinois discussing how this will effect the price of beans.
Now we have the threat of Anthrax and worry how our bodies may be eaten alive, leaving only a remnant of rubble, a pile of powder, or a slab of slime. A fog of depression covers the horizon and lingers as America struggles for ways to live with a new epidemic called misery.
CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and the Fox news service explore each threat, some imaginary, some not. How do we protect ourselves? Will we live? Will we die? And if we die, will it hurt? Our politicians are scared. I read the other day that the governor of New York said he wasn’t going to be tested for Anthrax but he and his staff were taking Cipro. Now that’s kind of like receiving rape counseling before you’r been raped.
As America struggles with this new phenomena called misery, me and my fellow abuse victims meet in coffee shops and whisper our concerns, “I don’t want to sound cold,” I whispered, “but why are people so vocal about what’s been going on?”
“I don’t know,” my friend replied. “It’s like they’ve never experienced misery before. Maybe they don’t know how to deal with it.”
“We can’t say anything,” I said. “People will think that we’re sick, bitter, or just don’t care And that’ not the case. I do care. Still, I’m bitter. But, mainly, I just don’t understand.”
Why would Americans be more upset about our recent misery than other atrocities that have and continue to occur? That seems to the question. Lets take a look at the numbers. According to the findings of the Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3), 1,553,800 children in the United States were abused or neglected under the Harm Standard in 1993. The Harm Standard is relatively stringent in that it requires that an act or omission result in demonstrable harm in order to classified as abuse or neglect. Broken down, the figures for 1993 include 217,700 sexually abused children, 338,900 physically neglected children, 212,800 emotionally neglected children and 381,700 physically abused children.
*** It all seemed real, as most dreams do. I was playing second violin and sitting in the back row just in front of the timpani. It was an evening concert; penguin-like men, and women draped in black filled the stage. I felt the tightness of an undersized collar and the warmth of spots that beamed brightness from ceiling heights. The first oboe sound an A. Each musician entered the fray, searching for the matching pitch, playing an occasional scale, arpeggio or other pleasing note.
A tapping sound, then silence. From the wings, the conductor and guest violinist walked across the stage and took their positions. A downbeat, and we were into the allegro movement. The soloist was on tonight. Each phrase was clean and powerful and enhanced by the near perfect acoustics of the hall.
I moved my bow in long slow strokes, taking advantage of the brisk tempo. I watched the audience from the corner of my eye. Each face told it all. The passion;l the attentiveness; the tears; it was all there. I couldn’t help but wonder how it would fee to be heard by so many. Oh how I’ve yearned for such a moment. And then, as if directed by God, the soloist turned and looked m;y way. It’s you turn, he seemed to say.
I sprung to my feet and pulled the bow across the strings while the fingers of my left hand pushed firmly against the board. This was my chance. But the strings stood still. My eyes looked downward across the bridge and watched the bow hair brush past each string. My right hand gripped hard and pushed the bow hair downward, harder and harder. Still, no sound. Just silence, followed by tears. I want to be heard. Oh God, I thought, there’s no rosin on my bow.
The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman brings admirers to their knees, and gives reason to reflect on his magic. Hoffman was possibly the greatest actor of our generation. Each time I’ve viewed one of his performances, I came away with a clearer vision of life. His creativity was never in question, and the mastery of his craft was always on display. Now, we are left with his work to examine, enjoy, and yes, even taste the power and sweetness of its nectar.
Mr. Hoffman, tell me your secrets, from where does your magic come? Creativity and technique determine one’s artistry. Of the two, creativity can seem elusive, leaving us to lurch for fire flies in the dark black night. Other times, creativity seems to swallow us whole; oh, such a glorious feeling, as if we are falling in love. Where did Hoffman find his magic? Were they random thoughts, these bits of creativity, ideas that blossomed at will; possibly rare like a whip-poor-will’s call at morning’s first light? Or were they biological, originating from a handful of neurons located in his brain? Was his creativity there for the taking or did it sometimes appear in private moments or in the black of night when the soul longs to be fed. And who can deny that Philip Seymour Hoffman was a hungry man.
Viewed from above, the human brain appears as the two halves of a walnut — two similar, convoluted, rounded halves connected in the center by a thick nerve cable composed of millions of fibers that cross-connect the two halves, which are called the left and the right hemispheres. The left half of the brain controls the right side of the body, the right hemisphere controls the left It could be said that we have two brains in one, each able to operate independently or together as one.
Charles J. Limb, twenty-first-century hearing specialist and surgeon at John Hopkins Medical Center, performs cochlear implants in patients to restore hearing and enable the deaf to appreciate music. It was Limb’s profound interest in jazz that led him to explore where creativity originates in the human brain. He longed to know how jazz saxophonist John Coltrane created such strong and striking streams of improvisation. Secretly, Limb might have imagined himself, saxophone in hand, playing phrases that packed the beauty and power of Coltrane. Maybe he was in a jazz club where couples huddled around a table for two; others came in groups just to hear some jazz; maybe a down-and-out man sat at the bar, drinking shots as the sultry sounds carried him away; and then there were the lesser musicians who came to examine the intricacies of each melodic line that erupted from the golden horn that night.
Limb and National Institutes of Health neurologist Allen R. Braun developed a method for studying the brains of highly skilled jazz musicians. Musicians performed on a nonmagnetic keyboard that stretched out in a functional magnetic resonance imaging(MRI) machine that took pictures of their brains. Limb and Braun then compared the neural activity during improvisation with what happened when playing a memorized piece. The differences were stunning.
Creativity is a whole brain activity, engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down. These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of the actions you’re about to implement; all are impediments to creativity. In the meantime, another area of the prefrontal cortex, the medial presorted, turns on This is the nest of creativity that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative.
Kay Redfield Jamison, author of “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depression Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” writes about the connection between mental illness and the artistic mind. While some might doubt whether a serious mental illness has creative advantages, Jamison makes a strong case through the study of numerous artist — poets, musicians, writers, painters — who suffered from depression. Ancient Greeks believed in the link between creativity and madness. The Renaissance thinkers held a slightly different view. They believed that total madness prevented the artist from using his abilities, but that the sane melancholic could find a path for artistic achievement. By the eighteenth century, balance and rational thought trumped the previously held beliefs that inspiration and emotions were the primary entrance to genius. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected a moderation of earlier views due in part to the influence of academic psychology and psychiatry. Extreme madness lacked the sustained discipline and balance needed to reach great heights. Still, melancholy associated with mental illness, combined with one’s talents, could produce extraordinary works.
As writers, we must find the gems of creativity that reside somewhere in the grayness of our brain, and then we must mine them. Philip Seymour Hoffman did. Our of desperation, perhaps, or just plain curiosity, artists sometimes turn to drugs to find that special place that legend describes; a place without emotional boundaries where we seemingly float as if we experience ecstasy. No inhibitions, no restrictions. But we all know of the problems with prolonged drug use. We might die. Or we might exceed the “recommend” dosage and simply lose control of the mechanics needed to perform.
Is there another way to reach our creativity? I believe there is; better or worst, you must decide. But I promise, you won’t die. Watch a young child’s reaction to music. They dance around, bend and twist, laugh and giggle, and soak up the magic in the air. They are creative. Now fast forward to a later time when the aging process brings the restrictions, inhibitions, stiffness, and a concern for what others might say about our behavior. Find the child within.
My path to creativity was not predetermined. It came from my struggles as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I was in a bad state of mind and turned to a therapist who literally saved my life. Through her help, meditation, and self exploration, I began what I later believed to be a spiritual path. My life changed, not instantaneously, but slow and steady. I learned to feel, to trust, and ultimately, to love; accompanied by an openness to see the previously unseen, and an ability to be nonjudgemental. I found the “sweet part of the bat,” where I hit home runs whenever I choose. Creativity is there for the taking. Ask and you shall receive.
Now, the second part of the equation, technique, is simple but difficult. The better command of our medium, the more success in communicating our creativity. That’s why we write everyday, practice our instruments, and continually paint colors on our canvas. It”s such a marvelous rush when it all comes together; maybe a sentence or two, a phrase, chapter, or a longer work. Take what you get and savor the taste. Remember the process and how it felt. Next time will be easier.
I’m certain that Philip Seymour Hoffman has other secrets to share. Please feel free to comment.
Some of this was taken from my latest book, “Mnemosyne: A Love Affair with Memory.” In my defense, several pages, even a book, is needed to discuss such an important subject. But in a blog, we do what we can.