Looking out at the juniper bush coughing through winter, my mind burps an old bit of Kenneth Koch’s poetry, a tangle of sentiments I would like stamped to my new year--“I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls / One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self.” People I trust most on these sorts of matters, from psychologists to neuroscientists, ring variously the proclamation that people click first & foremost as biological creatures--synapses firing, free-will limited, reactionary. This guy here, my reality verges often on surreality, “the actual functioning of thought,” as Breton said; my default churns with the “neglected associations” that Breton sought to reclaim. Instead my necessary grounding comes through a somewhat-forced recognition of biological processes & ethical dilemmas, along with a hard-working lean on logical responses & artistic expression.
In life, often, I cannot react, trust my initial impulses, or live in the real world by “normal” standards, contained as I am in my own bubble of dissociation, paranoia, & polyvocality, & when I do drift out, it takes an enormous amount of energy, leaving me susceptible to further cycles of instability. That said, I am learning to live with these struggles through symptom management & shifted lifestyle / life goals, controlling the severity of my disorder through grounding techniques, open accountability from loved ones, & various acts of creation / expression (poems, collages, drum, etc.), instead of repression & conforming as I once did, lost inside myself inside myself inside myself, the swirl. This approach stands on the back of my new golden rule--setting myself & others up to be their best selves--centering the context in which I live.
Already, I have found a softer landing spot back here. Oddly enough, some of the negative effects of the disorder--my inability to hold a career-oriented job, the uncontrollable combo of anxiety & mood swings, the harm I caused in the Austin & larger poetry scenes--have guided me back to my hometown, to my family, to this land where I can be my wild self in a safer, more supportive context. Here, I feel permissioned to dig deep into the Midwestern life I think is most sustainable, to become holistically healthy as a person with a psychological disorder, & ultimately, to be my best self, now & in the future.
I know I am blessed for what others have gifted me--the land / house of my grandparents, the financial / emotional support of my wife, the “be happy” mantra of my parents, & the purpose granted by this community. This is the situation in which I find myself in. We live in the house where my mother finished off her teenage years, the house where my grandmother died, the house where my grandfather fell, leading to his transition to the assisted living community, the house which is situated on the biggest patch of what is left of our family farmland, the house & land I will inherit whenever the patriarch passes. We live in my hometown, thousands of miles away from my wife’s hometown & her birth family, only a mile from my parents & my longest-lasting loved ones. Unable to work a traditional job, I have been spending my days taking care of the house / property, writing poems / making collages, & developing several Future Barn future projects for next year.
Depending on your perspective, what manners of empathy & open-mindedness you have been dealt, what values have been plopped into your path, you might judge this scenario one of two ways: 1) I am an overly-sensitive bum mooching off my family, piddling around in the barn, & wasting my time with art no one cares about or 2) I am someone burdened with a psychological disorder & gifted with grand enthusiasm, burning curiosity, & a desire to contribute to the well-being of my surroundings through a system of exchange built on my values. The former is my default setting, cemented in the ethics of unwavering hardwork & the begrudged traditional framework of my youth; the latter is how, jetting into 2020, I am learning to reframe work, being proud in what I can muster for those I love very much.
My wife often reminds me that what is “normal,” “popular,” or “traditional” is not what is always vital for us. “It’s not about usefulness, it’s about autonomy,” is how Cal Newport put in his book, Digital Minimalism, when outlining his idea of utilizing technology in ways that represent & enact one’s values. This approach was what was first appealing about Pete Buttiegieg’s presidential campaign, oddly enough a characteristic that led to Trump’s rise in popularity in 2016; Buttigieg did not lead out with policies or credentials, he led with his values -- honesty, integrity, loyalty, etc. -- with the aim to build his actions around those foundations. It is how I attempt to approach my teaching, focused on modeling the values I aim to instill in my students, ye olde “practice what you preach.”
My new year’s resolution is to lead a value-driven life as this version of myself here. So, in honor of my blessed situation, my hope to be of service to my community, & the determination to be my best self in this best situation, here is a list of values, each accompanied by a more drawn-out plan of action for 2020. I hope to define myself & my actions in the new year through choices centered around community, a balance of reason & expression, & mindfulness, & here are ways I intend to turn those seeds into stalks:
Future Barn is the umbrella I am holding over much of my planned work in 2020--the physical space of my barn for gatherings, projects, & creative time, the blog space for explorations around art, culture, & mental health in central Indiana, the Dispatches From Elsewhere podcast for highlighting the great folks & great happenings here, & the Your Buddy, T-GOB service project for engaging a reciprocal system of helping. Future Barn will be staunchly this-community-oriented, operating as a model for curiosity & enthusiasm, a system for mutual-accountability, & a projection of contemporary hick life.
Instead of evening the scales, I want to explore the possibilities of what a good intertwined life of both wild artistic pursuit & ragged intellectual engagement can look like. I seek to better understand how the input (whatever it is I put in my ears, eyes, mouth, etc.) affects the output (whatever my hands, mouth, body, etc., unleashes) & vice-versa. What kinds of solitude encourage me to be the best social creature? What social events call for recharging with solitude? What can I read / look at to enhance the verve of my writing / collaging? How much am I creating compared to how much I am absorbing? When do I talk & when do I listen, how do I respond? When is it time to support versus when is it time to oppose? These questions must continue to be asked.
No place are these questions more relevant right now than in my relationship to technology. A couple months ago, I read this fantastic book Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, a manifesto for linking one’s actions around technology with one’s values for living a good life. He lays out many research-based & psychological arguments for a mindful approach to technology use that fit very keenly with my goals for 2020. Playing off his suggestion for creating a philosophy of technology use, I scribbled this list:
Similar to the necessary review of how I interact with technology, I find it important, especially being back in the Midwest & in need of a twenty-pound weight-loss, to take a closer look at my relationship with food. Lately, I cannot think of food without thinking of Mark Manson’s declaration in Everything Is Fucked: a Book About Hope: “And it’s not because we don’t know better; it’s because we don’t feel better” (34). In the hopes that the opportunities of rural life, the calm of stay-at-home-ness, & the pressures of financial limitations once again will increase my overall wellness, I will lean on my knowledge more. If that fails, here are seven guidelines for the new year:
I also move into 2020 with a more articulate understanding of my spiritual, political, & philosophical beliefs, & more importantly, my interactions with others’ beliefs, progressing beyond the angry atheist-liberal-humanist stage, beyond the black-&-white “but who is wrong & who is right” phase. Instead of always leading with arguments for the non-existence of god or litanies about the problems with the right, I am leaning more towards what Greg Epstein called for in his book Good Without God, leading an ethical, loving, co-existent life.
In my one-day-I’m-gonna-live-a-van phase, I owned a book called Making Things & Doing Stuff. There was an article about living a more radical, which turns out to be a sneaky synonym for mindful, lifestyle, & I remember a sentence like, “Stop supporting places that are trying to kill you and that treat your friends like crap.” It comes down to choices--where, as well as what, I choose to spend my time, money, & attention on. These feelings refocused are also flags of me accepting my situation, what is in store for my future; I am lowering my standards, finding contentment, comfort, & joy in maintaining a good property for my wife, my dogs, & our other critter / plant / human pals in which to thrive, in creating art with & for my immediate folks, & repackaging my insane self as someone more sustainable & good.