These heavy boots are not made for walking – meeting Oskar Schell …

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I mentioned it before, Wonderguy gave me Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer as another part of our ongoing series “Goin’ to New York”. At first I was skeptical because I fear the child protagonist: many authors I read (Brothers Grimm, anyone?) use child characters to teach their readers a lesson, and the last thing I need right now is some elaborate lesson brought to me by 300+ pages full of moralizing undertone. But Oskar is a very special child and we got along well. Much better than I had ever expected. Apart from certain quirks that make him all the more tangible (though also at least ten years older at times) and the fact that I too (like most of us) lost someone dear to me, Oskar and I share another distinctive and at times very important feature: heavy boots. 

I read the first chapter of A Brief History of Time when Dad was still alive and I got incredibly heavy boots about how relatively insignificant life is, and how, compared to the universe and compared to time, it didn’t even matter if I existed at all.

I feel ya, Oskar. I do. I will not talk much about the book itself, because this time the connection with one character feels to strong and personal, an aspect that gets more important because of my current mental constitution. I gravitate around how reading about heavy boots makes someone with very heavy boots feel at the moment…
Oskar won over my heart and mind in one passage that describes a situation I know perfectly well, even though not necessarily in this context, due to geographical differences:

It had taken us four hours to get to her home. Two of those were because Mr. Black had to convince me to get on the Staten Island Ferry. In addition to the fact that it was an obvious potential target, there had also been a ferry accident pretty recently, and in Stuff That Happened to Me I had pictures of people who had lost their arms and legs. Also, I don’t like bodies of water. Or boats, particularly. Mr. Black asked me how I would feel in bed that night if I didn’t get on the ferry. I told him, “Heavy boots, probably.” “And how will you feel if you did it?” “Like one hundred dollars.” “So?” “So what about while I’m on the ferry?? What if it sinks? What if someone pushes me off? What if it’s hit with a shoulder-fired missile? There won’t be a tonight tonight.” He said, “In which case you won’t feel anything anyway.” I though about that. 

It’s well in the second half of the book, p. 240, that Oskar describes this inner turmoil, but this was the moment I knew I will forever love this book, and this character. Because I know heavy boots, I know exactly how heavy boots feel, and I know how hard it can be to make something feel even ten dollars, let alone a hundred dollars. Sometimes it feels impossible, way out of my league. And every now and then, this ‘sometimes” becomes ‘often,’ and ‘impossible’ becomes ‘unbearable.’ Because these boots are so heavy I can hardly move. And because I’m a grown-up, I know that I’m on my own, that in the end of the day, I’m all alone in my head, alone with my thoughts, fears, and feelings. Alone with my heavy boots, custom-made for me.
And these days my boots are very heavy. Though I’m looking forward to seeing NYC again, even look forward to presenting a paper and meeting fellow academics and people interested in my field of study, I dread the emotional and physical tour de force it will take until I get there. And I dread all these thoughts, freely floating through my head and messing with my synapses, much more than the fact that I will be awake and on the way for 20 hours. Fear, so much unfounded fear and panic: terror attacks, plane crashes, murder, death, mayhem. All that is possible – hardly anything is likely to happen exactly where I am at the time I am there. After all, this is the rather safe hemisphere of this tormented planet. I’m a rational person, I know that. But I also know panic attacks, anxiety, depression. Or, as Oskar describes it so poetic and also appropriate: heavy boots.

Oskar is actively working to counter his heavy boots, mostly by keeping busy, inventing stuff, designing jewellery and the like. This seems a good strategy though Oskar’s heavy boots and mine are two totally different things and what works for a fictional nine-year-old boy might not work as well for me. I’m not good at inventing and I’m not interested in jewellery; best case scenario is reading, worst case scenario is cleaning, decluttering, or rearranging stuff like there’s no tomorrow. Because a clean and tidy environment helps me to survive my mental chaos, so if nothing else works for me, this always does.
It doesn’t work anymore. Not now. And even though I feel like a whiny kid, I feel so stupid for not being able to get through this like all those times before, I know I reached a limit. I already had a lot going on in the last few months; this additional project, though it is a great opportunity and something I really look forward to, seems to be too much. Too much for my already hyperactive mind, my perfectionism, my aim of juggling different jobs and ventures simultaneously.

So I called my therapist today. I haven’t seen him in 6 years. It’s time for a reunion. 

 

Reading: Miriam Toews “All my puny sorrows”

 

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I finished Toews’ book yesterday and I still have Elf and Yoli with me, somehow. I laughed a lot; I cried several times. This is a story about mental illness, surviving, and letting someone go. This is a story about suicide and survival, about intentionally leaving this world, even though there would be no need to do it just now (i.e. no fatal disease or other physical failings that would make life unbearable). This is a story about death and family and losing the people we love. In short: Elfrieda, Yoli’s older sister, wants to die. Her mother, sister, husband and a lot of other people want her to live. But for some people, being free means being able to leave whenever and however they want to…

Writing about death is always difficult, because it is a tense and emotional topic; even more so when writing about suicide. Most people do not understand why someone wants to die. Many of us experience difficult times, lose people we love and can have a hard time coping with all the shit life throws at us. Still, we move on –or, as Churchill once said “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” But it is not like that for everyone. Some just want to stop going, because they cannot do it any longer…and they have every right to do so, no matter how hard it is to understand for everyone else.

There are certain books that just seem to choose me – “All my puny sorrows” is one of those. Every time I read stories of mental illnesses, I get a bit frightened; I can all to well remember how I felt years ago when I myself had to figure out how to “keep going.” Sometimes I’m afraid all this could come back if I read too much about it, think too much about it – I can be overly empathic and emotional, not being able to distance myself from the things around me, and I’m still very much afraid of depression, that kind of depression I experienced back then. I never actively thought about taking my own life, because I believed that it would get better. To me suicide was a sort of last resort in case I would truly lose it – and I can understand when someone passes this stage and ends his or her life.

I love Toews’ language and humor, I think it is so important to not only keep going but also keep laughing, especially with topics like this, death and suicide and losing people you love. When the inevitable happens, you are still shocked and surprised – even though it’s ‘just a book,’ I still hoped. For all those around her and for herself. Because if you are not feeling and living in this very special void, you see hope, even in the darkest days. If you know this void – the multitude of voids –, have been there, seen it, felt it, you may understand that someone does not see any more sense in ‘keep going.’ I love Elfrieda, who is a survivor as long as she can take it. I love Yoli and Lottie, her sister and her mother, who ‘keep going’ after losing a lot, keep laughing because in the midst of a storm, you have to save yourself and those close to you, the ones that can and want to be saved. 

I want to thank Miriam Toews for lightning up my soul and mind. I prefer to block out anything that may remind me of darker days, but Elf and Yoli brought some things up that were not even half as frightening as I thought it would (or could) be. Thanks for making me laugh out loud. Thanks for writing a book about some of the roughest storms of life that feels like a warm and bright summer breeze…

How to organize a chaotic mind

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I’ve been working as a freelancer for years now. I started the first draft of my thesis roughly 2 years ago and there’s still much to do, as pretty much the complete theoretical framework is still missing (it’s there in my mind, at least some parts of it, but not where it should be, written down). Part of the problem is not only that I have to find a balance between work, work, and life, but also because – no, ESPECIALLY because it is very difficult for me to organize myself.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in my mid-twenties. Though I don’t like to hide behind my various issues (panic attacks, anxiety disorder, depression, extremely introverted, anyone?) this did indeed explain a lot. Most of the time I find it hard to focus on one thing; I can lose myself in hours of online research, reading about the least interesting topics ever, but I cannot sit through a two-hour-movie (or even a 50 min TV show) because it bores the shit out of me. I get some impulse for my work, jot it down and forget all about it the next minute, even forgetting WHERE I made or put the notes that could be helpful some other time. I remind myself to write another blog post only to forget it just a minute later because I there is so much going on in my head that I am overwhelmed and just give up. I often thought (and sometimes still think) that this is all about procrastination and being unorganized and chaotic, but –as my therapist liked to say – this is rather about a psychological issue and being a ‘special edition.’ Since I do not take any medication, it’s always just me and my hyperactive, multi-wired brain.

Which leads us back to the initial issue, namely how to organize myself without losing my mind?! I desperately need some planning and structure in my life, for my freelance ‘career’ and especially for my thesis. For years I’ve been looking for some way to organize myself, my tasks, my appointments, my life. I have not yet found a system that works, so I’m still waiting for a miracle…

A possible answer could be: start a bullet journal.

Wonderguy started one and told me to give it a try because it could actually work. So I googled it (of course I googled it and filled my mind with hours of bullet journal porn on Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, and other sites) and was taken aback by how much work many people – and especially girls and women – put in the (graphical) creation of a bullet journal. I’ve seen journals I would never actually use because they were too beautiful to just put some common information in it. Those journals were works of art but nothing to work with since my chaotic mind would probably be too distracted with painting another elderflower in the left corner of May 12th on page 30. Also, it seemed so structured and organized (well, what a surprise!), it frightened me. I was afraid of not being able to organize myself with this system. I AM afraid of being too chaotic and unstructured to organize myself with any system. I suppose I’m looking forward to a future filled with post-its, lost notes in the corners of my life, and looking puzzled and surprised half of the time.

So I guess I should give it a shot. It really can’t get much worse…I think. And I do have a fair number of notebooks, I can spare one to substantiate my hopes in a more organized future…

Pain, pain go away, please don’t come back another day…

Times when I have to be highly efficient are often followed by days on which I can hardly get out of my mental mess; days when I ask myself why there is so much pain and suffering in this world and why so many of us have to go through sorrow and misery, just so they exist somewhere on this planet, physically existing while being surrounded by drought, war, destruction, poverty, illness, and abuse. There is an imbalance in this world that is beyond human understanding, even though it is the result of human actions, of greed, hate, anger, and ignorance. … You see what I’m getting at? This is one version of the recurrent emotional festival known as “My Dark Days”, this is how I often think and feel during those times (like, right now). In German it can be subsumed under the term “Weltschmerz”, which in English would mean something like “world-weariness” and does by far not sound as dramatic as the German “Weltschmerz.” The Perpetuum-mobile-like questions of global imbalances and alike do not only correspond wonderfully with this Weltschmerz I bear within my heart from time to time (or should I say, which seems to break free, roam the open spaces of my heart and soul, only to withdraw until it once again wants to share its sullenness with my conscious mind) BUT are also a result of my academic work.

I’ve been working on war literature for at least a decade, though only with my diploma thesis did I decide to professionally focus on war writings in a post/neo-colonial-world (mainly wars–or ‘operations’–initiated by the US, primarily in Vietnam and Iraq). I’ve read about killing, being (nearly) killed, bodies blown apart, blown-off limbs, terror, torture, rape, abuse, destruction, and misery for 6 years now. Even though sometimes I read a “normal” book, everyday politics hardly give me a break. No matter if I want to take a step back for a few days, there is always something bringing me back to “my” work. War, terror, death, destruction.

I love research work, I love to explore the things hidden below, I love to question standards, traditions, and all that stuff certain societies “agreed on” even though it is dangerous, questionable and just plain stupid. But more often than not, especially during my dark days, I lose it all; I lose the distance to my work, this distance I desperately need, and I get angry as fuck. Angry with all sides involved in those struggles. And I get frustrated. I think back, when I was a child and everything–my world at least–seemed orderly and simple, and I was watching “The A-Team” and “MacGyver” with my gramps and the world was my playground because everything had its place. I think about that now, asking myself ‘what would the A-Team do?’ How would Hannibal, B.A. and Faceman handle all this crap? Why, exactly, was shit hitting the fan THAT intense?

In the end, on those days, dark days filled with anger, rage, and a sort of total emotional overload, it is not about one side or the other; there are only losers in this game. It is about all the pain and destruction that all this hate and fear and anger bring into the world, pretty much everywhere. This is what I mainly work on, this is what I read about and work on constantly. And I’m angry at myself for being such a wimpy whiner, crying about the stories I read and work on when there are people out there, thousands, millions of people, who have to live through this, who have to survive this in order to write about it, so a sissy Western scholar can create her own fucking drama around it while working on it. I am angry at myself for not being able to keep the distance I need to stay healthy.

I need a certain distance. We all need a distance to certain things, both professionally and personally. Losing your distance means losing a lot of time and energy cleaning up the mess your oversensitive crap made.

Pain, pain, go away…

“You? Never! Stop kiddin’ me!” – Dark hours, days & moments…

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A lot of people who don’t know me well think that I’m confident, outgoing, and funny. I can be all of this with the right people. I can pretend to be this assumed person with a) the wrong people, b) at the wrong time, c) at the wrong place, d) b) a sufficient amount of alcohol and/or e) any combination of the aforementioned factors. This happens to many of us, for various reasons. And everyone faces the challenge of handling their individual issues the best they can. I failed often, still do.

Years ago (like, about 10 years ago) I experienced a period (lasting around 5 years) of anxiety, panic attacks and depression. I got out of it thanks to therapy, pills, and the constant hope that it ‘will be over‘ some day, but of course once your demons found you, they will stay with you. They will love you, take care of you, scare the shit out of you, guide you and force you to grow. Again and again, often for the rest of your life.

Nowadays (no pills and no therapy since 2011) they only visit for a few hours, worst case scenario they are with me for two or three days. But the last time was different – they seemed to enjoy their stay and decided to hang around a little longer than their usual 3 days. Luckily, I didn’t have to work/write a lot, so I had time to celebrate mood swings, crying, feeling desperate and hopeless without neglecting my duties. My demons may have celebrated some sort of anniversary or wtf soever; it was too long, too intense and exhausting.

To distract myself from my demons’ visit, I started to sew, or, to be more precise, I started hardcore-pro-24/7-sewing. Even though I don’t actually know how to sew. But I live true to the saying “learning by doing”, which included sewing…(what a rhyme!). At times like this, I prefer manual labor since my thoughts are all over the place and I can hardly focus on even short readings, let alone ’sophisticated’ intellectual work. Over the last few years I developed some techniques for handling myself better — a little melancholy can do magic about the tidiness of my living quarters. Besides, sewing serves my need for distractions as well as my creative aspirations…

 My demons left some weeks ago. They always leave sooner or later… And every time they return, I’m afraid they won’t leave again on their own, without me getting any help, again. And that is the only thing that truly frightens me about my mind, my life, my soul and my future…my stupid, lovely, fucking, somehow educational demons. Because sometimes it’s not the right time for education….