Saturday, August 13, 2011


So, I'd never heard of the concept of a 'bucket list' before that mediocre movie with Jack Nicholson came out a few years ago. Over the past, say, five years I've found that many of the items I would have put on a bucket list as a younger person have now been accomplished; however, some still remain. What's on your list? What have you already accomplished that you are proud of? Is there anything that would have been there five years ago that you've now dismissed as unimportant?

Accomplished:
Publish something in a book (not a periodical)
Be part of an art show
Deliver a baby
Spend a summer on a commune (They were Quakers. It still counts.)
Publish a zine (The one-year run of Zenger's Daughter, named for Johann Zenger--google him--was a great success. Thanks, Center High School administration, for letting me distribute a zine with references to safer sex AND poorly-camouflaged digs at the Homecoming court!)
Publish a blog
Learn to bellydance (For PE credit at Cornell. No joke)
Learn to knit
Gain fluency in a language other than English (German. Also Middle High German and Old English, but damned if no one speaks them anymore. Thanks, Bachelor of Arts!)
Mentor youth
March in a gay pride parade (with people from my church here in StL. Episcopalians represent!)
Learn to bake bread from scratch (anything from a sourdough boule to a ciabatta loaf to an egg-glazed challah, I'm your woman)

Still to come:
Publish a book
Learn to sing Schubert's 'Ave Maria'
Earn an MD
Run a marathon (I've registered for two, and every time I get a stress fracture during training)
Find love (and get married...I'm old-fashioned that way)
Sell a painting
See the aurora borealis (thinking of going to Canada for this when I get time off...)
Visit Jerusalem
Visit Ireland (I want to see the Book of Kells)
Read the complete works of C.G. Jung
Go parasailing
Mentor more youth

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jung, Inanna and the Harrowing of Hell

Every story worth telling is a story of transformation. As my high school English teacher said when explaining the ideas of plot and narrative arc: "At some point the protagonist experiences some kind of change--usually at the climax of the story." It can be a small thing, and is found (sometimes against the writer's will) everywhere; even in absurdist narratives that seem not to be narratives, like the characters who see leaves growing on a once-barren tree in Waiting for Godot. Other times it is earth-shattering, impossible to miss: Elijah, under the broom tree, is restored from suicidal anguish to a sense of purpose. Jesus rises from the dead after the harrowing of Hell, in which he rescues Adam, Eve, and the other 'righteous heathens' who came before his birth. Cinderella finds her prince, Sleeping Beauty awakes, Little Red Riding Hood is cut from the stomach of the wolf. What is common in these tales of transformation is that one must descend in order to ascend. It is the inverse of the idiom 'what goes up must come down': what would come up must first go down. As Nietzsche wrote at the beginning of Also Sprach Zarathustra, "And so Zarathustra went down."

One of the first written narratives in the world--before Dante, before Jesus, before even the Torah--concerns the descent of the Goddess Inanna (the Sumerian Great Goddess, known as the Queen of Heaven and Earth) into cold dark of the Underworld. The reason for her descent is unclear, but it is clear the trip is necessary. As she passes through the seven gates of the underworld, moving ever closer to the dark Queen Ereshkigal, she is made to relinquish one article of her clothing and jewelry at each stop: her dress, her golden rings, her lapis lazuli necklace. When she finally stands before her sister, the Goddess Ereshkigal, she is stripped of all the material goods that signified her wealth and power. The Queen of Heaven and Earth has been reduced to Her core being, all outside accoutrement and titles given up--all cunning facades removed.

Inanna stands in the presence of Darkness naked and vulnerable; Ereshkigal slays her with a word and hangs her lifeless body from a hook. Meanwhile, in the world above, Inanna's absence means that the vital spark is gone from everything. Crops no longer grow, animals no longer mate, human lovers are no longer drawn into one another's arms. The lush fertility and creativity Inanna represented is gone, replaced by a cold sterility and a sense of hushed waiting. Meanwhile, in the womb of the earth, Inanna--dead--waits too. Yet, as human beings have known from time immemorial, what appears to be an end is in fact a new beginning. She is rescued by two beings sent by the god Enki, restored to life in the world above. Fertility is restored to the land; Inanna returns to her life 'above ground,' but one surmises She must have been transformed by such an experience, with a greater understanding of the dark places in the Universe, the shadows and vast caverns of emptiness which even gods experience. One can imagine that, having tasted utter desolation, Inanna's creative capacities matured still further, through the 'life experience' everyone must accrue. There is more to the story, involving Inanna's mate Dumuzi, but for my purposes it ends there.

Lately such tales have been much on my mind. I've been sick, and I've been reading Jung. Through wrestling with illness--my own and others'--I have been brought into unavoidable contact with the sorts of questions I (and most human beings, I think) try to avoid. What am I if I no longer identify myself by what I do? What would I answer if some prescient individual at a cocktail party were to ask me, "Who are you?" I would give my name, of course, then likely begin rattling off all my activities, roles and qualifications. I'm a medical student, an aspiring psychiatrist, a writer, a mental health and LGBT activist, an artist, a runner. I'm a daughter, an aunt, a friend, a lover.

What, then, if they were to reply (perhaps with a laugh), "No, no, I didn't ask what you do. I asked who you are." I'm a...woman? A human being? A sentient being?
Who are we with our robes, our rings, our doctorates removed?
What is the shadow we have to confront--even if it slays some part of us? The periods in our lives that feel sterile and bereft of life--are they truly? Or is there some part of us waiting, like Inanna on the hook, or a crocus beneath a blanket of snow, for the siren call of an unimagined spring?


Saturday, August 06, 2011

Encore une fois...Things (and People) that Piss Me Off...

There are a number of things I do well. I am a passable painter (with watercolors and acrylics). I am a writer of essays and poems with some limited success in publication. I have been told my mezzo soprano voice possesses a light, sweet timbre that is quite appealing. I have equal facility with the sciences and the arts. I am a good listener. I am patient and compassionate. I can run like...ok, I'm not leggy enough to run like a gazelle, but like a frightened jackrabbit certainly.
However, there are many things at which I do not excel, and with the residency application process upon us, all the little demons of self-doubt and recrimination that I'm usually able to sweep under one psychic rug or another have come out to play. And that is number one on the list--inferiority complexes.

2. Michele Bachmann. I managed to get through the past several years without encountering her as more than a mere blip on my 'Psychotic Politicians' radar screen...and I'm sure my blood pressure thanks me for that. But how are people taking seriously someone who spews forth such gems as "And what a bizarre time we're in, when a judge will say to little children that you can't say the pledge of allegiance, but you must learn that homosexuality is normal and you should try it." Well, sexual orientation isn't really like trying flavors at the Coldstone Creamery (''Ooh, I wanna try Bisexual Boysenberry, Mom! Can I? Can I?" "Not until you've finished your Lesbian Lemon."), but maybe we caught Ms. Bachmann on a bad day. What else has she said? "If we took away the minimum wage - if conceivably it was gone, we could potentially virtually wipe out unemployment completely because we would be able to offer jobs at whatever level." I'm sorry, what did you say? I couldn't hear you over the sound of the naivete--not to say stupidity. Ok, I will say stupidity. Never mind.

3. Again, the flagrant and aggressive abuse of...the English language. "Irregardless" is not a word, nor is "anyways." Also not words: "supposably" and "pecific" (unless you're referring to an ocean, or something incredibly tranquil and calm--in which case, mind the spelling). Please learn the difference between "when" and "whenever." If in doubt as to which is appropriate, consider using "when." If you say, "We couldn't find a parking space whenever we went to the store," you are conveying that on every occasion that you have visited said store, you have been unable to park your SUV. If you've only been to the store once, "whenever" is not appropriate. NB re: my obsession with grammar and punctuation--this is why my mother bought me a button that says "Grammar Gestapo." Yes, I have OCD personality traits. I am more or less OK with this.

4. Poorly conceived drug names, particularly psychotropic medications. What happened to the glory days of Abilify, Zoloft and Mellaril, promising in turn greater abilities, a lofty elevated mood and a delightful mellow calmness (and movement disorders...lots of movement disorders)? Now we have Latuda, which despite my attempts to pull my mind out of kindergarten makes me think of flatulence, and Viibryd, which sounds like either a marital aid or an electric car depending on my mood. For as much as patients will end up paying for these, they deserve to have names that won't inspire embarrassment at the pharmacy window.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

One to Ten

On a scale of one to ten, with ten being the best you’ve ever felt and one being the worst, how would you say you’re feeling today?—common psychiatrist’s query

The questions are beyond rote,

Like pennies turned over in so many hands

They’ve become featureless discs,

Lincoln’s head polished to a muted lump, the dates

And mottoes inscrutable.

Reduce your life, please, to a number.

The days that stretch on, painfully long

And bone-dry as a track of dust-rutted highway,

Red earth horizon to horizon, the heat choking you,

When even breathing is a chore.

The nights when winter comes all at once,

Bringing swirling snow and discontent,

And you find yourself trapped

beneath the clouded green ice of your sorrow,

Bare heels and palms banging at the cold of your confinement,

Searching for the sharp-edged black hole

That you must have left when you fell in.

Please rate the dust, and the dryness you feel

Coating your brain with its grit;

Please give us some objective measure

Of the sensation that comes before drowning

When your lungs spasm wildly and make your heart stutter

And slow.

We aren’t asking much. Just a number.

Just tell us, and then we’ll go.

--AG, Aug 2011