I made this video a few years ago and, even though I would do a much better job making it if I made it today, I hold onto it for sentimental reasons. The pictures and videos presented here are of just some of the friends who helped shape me into who I am today. Each has a wonderful story of their own as well. The music is my favorite song about friendship which I’ll play for Friends Day: Every Minute by Sara Groves.
Note: This wasn’t supposed to be a story about Stan. But I think my mind went in that direction because Stan was a writer and I used to ask him about writing when we worked together. He didn’t have a lot of material wealth but he was rich in charm. He had a fine sense of humor and genuinely enjoyed being around people and swapping stories. I’m so privileged to have had a friend and teacher like him in my life. If only I had just a fragment of his self-confidence….
I’m done with Wednesday blogs, at least for now. That doesn’t mean I’m going to throw in the towel on blogging altogether. I’m simply not convinced there’s a need for me to post more than once a week. Besides, I have other projects to consider, like that pending novel, you know, the one that’s been living in my head forever trying desperately to convince me to give it life.
I keep silencing it. Year after year I tell myself I’m just not worthy of the task. I don’t have what it takes to call myself an author. Why should I anyway? It’s not like it was a childhood dream or anything. After all, Stan knew he wanted to be a writer when he was 14. Stan never wrote a bestseller but some of his stories were published in magazines. He was a student of human nature before I ever claimed to be and probably before I was even born. He’d ride the bus to work and arrive at the bookstore early, at least an hour before his shift began, with a simple, spiral-bound notebook in tow, scribbling away. He told me once that he’d written a horror story about an ex-girlfriend. And his coworkers said he was the best at dealing with the occasional celebrity. When Robin Williams purchased a book from him, Stan said, “I loved you in What Dreams May Come” which apparently was very flattering to the actor because it wasn’t the first movie most people remembered him for.
As far as I know, Stan didn’t have a formal education and he lived in one of the rougher neighborhoods in Phoenix. He might very well have been Ray Bradbury’s greatest fan though. I never saw his apartment but they say there were stacks of books everywhere.
Stan moonlighted at Arbey’s. It seemed strange to me that a man of his age with such talent and ambition would choose to work in the fast food industry. I’m ashamed to say I’d thought it beneath me and assumed it was beneath him too. But he didn’t see it that way. When I asked him about it, he just casually told me he and the manager at Arbey’s had become friends and one day he offered Stan a job and Stan said yes. It was as simple as that.
For the first part of my year at the bookstore, I spent most of my time as a barista in the café. I had multitudes of complaints about my position, but there were a few perks. The best part was the people. Not only did I get to know our regulars, but the staff, who were entitled to free tea and coffee, would often come in several times a day for refills, Stan included. Sometimes he’d mutter something about the Illuminati, other times he’d say something about “bringing sexy back.” It was a time when my heart was often heavy with sadness yet Stan could easily bring a smile to my face. I’ll never forget the time he told me about each guy at the bookstore who had a crush on me. A fellow bookseller did finally win me over for a bit, but, ironically, it wasn’t one of the guys Stan told me about. My bookseller boyfriend had snuck in under Stan’s radar. But, that turned out to be more of a fling anyway.
In 2007, our reliable Stan failed to show up for work one day. He didn’t call in, and after more inquiries were made, it was discovered he didn’t make it to his shift at Arbey’s either. As it turned out, our friend had suffered a stroke while he was alone in his apartment. In the hospital, when he regained consciousness, they tested his cognitive ability by asking him who his favorite author was. When he said, “Ray Bradbury,” we knew not all was lost.
Stan was never the same man after that. He moved slower and he looked much older. I no longer worked at the bookstore but I visited often and he never seemed to remember me. He had personal troubles behind the scenes too. It’s hard for a person to suddenly lose his independence, his livelihood, and his dignity. I don’t know what was going through Stan’s mind throughout all this, but it must have been a terrible struggle, especially for him.
The bookstore closed in 2011. Stan had worked there for well over a decade, happy to be a bookseller and a writer, nothing more.
After the bookstore went out of business, I never saw Stan again. I wanted to but it’s not like I was a close friend. I mean, we didn’t exchange birthday cards or anything (although we do share the same birthday: February 26). I wasn’t close to any of our other coworkers either, but I doubt he’d have known who I was anyway. I just know how he impacted my life in a wonderful way, without even realizing it.
In 2014 I was in the midst of my own emotional crises (caused mainly by a change in psychiatric medications), I went to the hospital for a medication adjustment and when I came home, I saw the news of Stan’s passing and my heart broke again.
No one said anything about a funeral. To be honest, I was afraid to ask. I thought people might be offended if I asked because I didn’t know him as long as my other former coworkers had. What right have I to intrude uninvited? At the same time, I would’ve loved to have someone to grieve with. It’s hard to bear that kind of sorrow alone.
I’m a horrible writer. Don’t even try and tell me otherwise because I know it’s true. I was great in third grade and above average in high school but throw me into a world of John Greens and Barbara Kingsolversand I pretty much suck. Once more, I can’t bear it. If I can’t be a great writer then what’s the point of writing at all?
I’ve met many writers in my time. In my adolescence some of my friends were secret poets. They’d write in meter and rhyme but dared not share their deepest longings with the world. I tried to be a poet too. My poems were all meant to be songs so they had to rhyme. Sure, song lyrics don’t have to rhyme but try telling that to Tim Rice, Stephen Sondheim, or Lin-Manuel Miranda. I love musicals and everyone knows all the great librettos rhyme. I mean, what would Pirates of the Penzance be without Gilbert’s clever and precise mastery of rhyme?
In college I was much more likely to receive a higher grade if the final was based on a term paper as opposed to a more traditional exam. Even if I had to suffer through a traditional exam, my best scores were usually on the essay question.
It wasn’t until France, however, that writing truly became an obsession. I was lonely up there in my studio apartment and I longed to share my feelings with someone. But each day I’d come home alone to just my pen and paper, my only faithful companions.
Though I wrote some letters by hand, I must’ve written hundreds of emails to friends and family. The internet cafés made loads of money off me. Everything my voice couldn’t express in normal conversation took the form of writing. This was partially a reaction to my stubborn insistence to not (as much as possible) speak English in France. I just didn’t impose the same restraints on my writing. Maybe that’s why my written French suffers much more than my conversational French to this day….
It is therefore not surprising then that, following a good night’s rest, shower, and breakfast, my first request at the French psychiatric hospital was for pen and paper. When the nurses granted my wish, I sat and wrote an epistle to my brothers and sisters in Christ for I was sure the apocalypse was at hand. The nurses watched in bewilderment as I scribbled words in a language neither of them understood. I still have the letters I wrote to remind me of that bizarre interruption in my life. Many people with bipolar disorder struggle to remember their manic episodes, but I can never forget mine.
Later, after I’d been forcibly medicated, my writings began to look more normal. I kept a diary and began to write a devotional, song lyrics, and a fictional story just to pass time. I had to because there were no books, magazines, games, group therapy, or anything else (with a few exceptions). Most people spent their days sitting in the waiting room, smoking cigarettes and staring at one another. I couldn’t stand the cigarette smoke so I’d either stay in my room, hang out and sing in the adjacent waiting room, or request permission to write in the cafeteria where smoking was forbidden.
When I came back to the U.S. I continued to keep diaries. I also began to write a memoir and actually completed my first draft by the time I was twenty-five. The writing was terrible but it was still a part of me and I kept trying to write and rewrite that story for the next ten years or so. Last year I completed another draft but it’s still not good enough. Besides, how can I ever truly own that story? I didn’t create it; it just happened to me.
In between I’ve written essays. You can call them blog posts if you like but I’ve not really obeyed the rules for becoming a successful blogger. At this rate I’m lucky to have even one follower.
I’ve also written song lyrics and, occasionally, tried to attach melodies to them. Sometimes I fantasize about someone far more talented than me taking my imperfect and raw song material and turning into something amazing; giving my words a life beyond my wildest dreams.
Besides writing, I’ve taken photos and tinkered with them on Photoshop. I will sometimes make a digital collage and be thoroughly satisfied with it only to post it online and have it go completely unnoticed. The amateur videos I’ve created suffer much the same fate but those truly are rubbish. I deleted many of them last year and the remaining few are simply there for sentimental reasons.
Some might say to me “don’t quit your day job” because that’s what we tell people who are too idealistic and aren’t well-anchored in reality. But that part of me was set adrift a long time ago. Now I watch self-help gurus online who tell me how to have vision and how to achieve goals. I read books with much the same sentiment and try and imagine my future.
What’s your story, Clara? What’s your vision? What’s your dream?
Well, this isn’t the definitive list but I suppose it’s a start:
Everyone thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself. ~ Leo Tolstoy
In 2008 my friends persuaded me to join this new social network called Facebook. Some of my friends had been on it since way back when it was just for university students. I guess I was just slow to catch on.
I’d been late to join MySpace too but I enjoyed it because it gave me a place to write and express myself. Facebook I was less sure about. The only upside to it, I thought, was not feeling obligated to “rank” my friends. But then something strange and beautiful happened that almost never happened on MySpace. People who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade were sending me friend requests!
It was refreshing. I mean, I’m a nostalgic person to begin with. I love learning what my old friends have been up to over the years. This was before the big boom in smartphone usage as well so when Facebook indicated that someone was online, that person was actually online and most likely available to chat, so we’d chat. There was just one problem. You see, a lot can happen in ten years or more. Even a gap as small as five years can hold considerable life changes. So the way we’re remembered or the way we remember others can change quite a bit.
From the template given out at Donald Miller’s first Storyline Conference in 2010. For more info, visit: storylineblog.com
An old high school friend, for example, would start chatting with me online and suddenly I’d have flashbacks. I’d remember all too well what I was like as a teenager and I can’t say I was fond of the girl I was. She was nice on the surface but deep down inside she was terribly insecure, timid, and scared. Many of the things I believed back then I no longer believe. In fact, now-me would probably not want to hang out much with then-me. But I can’t just explain it all a way in a few short sentences and my friends don’t have time for a long story. So what do I do?
I want to prove I’ve changed, first and foremost. People change. I’ve see it happen. There’s no blanket formula for change, of course. Sometimes we need professional help, sometimes we just need a challenging, unexpected life event to wake us up. Sometimes a simple word from a friend is all it takes.
I wrote the following to an old friend I was trying to reconnect with back in 2010 to try and explain how it was impossible to live my life and remain unchanged:
Life went through the extreme ups and downs a manic depressive patient goes through and each crossing taught another lesson. Each stage in life changed my perspective, to the point where old friends from as far back as high school could hardly believe I was the same.
I asked my Facebook friends recently whether or not any of them had a personal story about change. Not the kind of change that happens naturally with time. I meant change in thoughts, beliefs, and/or behaviors. But these Facebook friends weren’t too eager to tell me anything, not even in a private message. I wonder why? Do they possibly feel ashamed of who they once were? Is it hard to admit ever being someone we didn’t even like?
Many things have changed in my life since I graduated high school in 1999. When someone I haven’t seen in ages asks me what I’ve been up to all these years, I hardly know what to say. I think they want to hear about my accomplishments but my greatest accomplishments are meaningless without the struggles and failures that preceded them.
Let’s just address one of these challenges: cutting. I wasn’t really like most cutters. I first cut my wrists when I was 22 and studying in France. Nobody found out until long after the physical wounds had healed. And, because it was more or less a suicide attempt, it didn’t really resemble the stereotypical behavior of a “cutter.” Besides, I didn’t take a blade to my wrist again until I returned to the United States about 6 months later. In January 2004 I hurt myself so bad I could no longer conceal it, so a friend drove me to the ER where I was forced to sign myself into the inpatient adult psyche unit.
Between 2005 and 2007, wrist-cutting became a kind of addiction. For awhile in 2008 I thought I’d cured myself of it but then life became too stressful again and I self-harmed and landed in the hospital one last time.
I’d read a little about cutting (not much was written on it at the time) and I met some other cutters here and there but most of them didn’t wrist-cut like I did. They also tended to be younger than me. Cutting was kind of a teenage thing after all and there I was in my late twenties, my extended adolescence I guess. Maybe “cutter” wasn’t the right label for me.
I hate labels anyway. With mental illness they’re especially annoying. But, for psychiatrists to be able to treat us, we need some kind of label so I’ll tolerate it I suppose.
When psychiatrists make a diagnosis, they generally have at least an Axis I and an Axis II diagnosis. Axis I is the illness that’s usually treatable with psychotropic medicine. Axis II is the personality disorder or intellectual disability.
At my last hospitalization for self-harm in 2008, by diagnosis was as follows:
Axis I – Bipolar Disorder Type I
Axis II – Borderline personality traits
I blamed the personality “disorder” for most of my problems (the most famous book on BPD is called I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me). I mean, since 2004 I’d managed to make quite a few of my friends uncomfortable around me. By 2007 some of my closest friends had dropped out of my life altogether. I broke my cell phone twice in anger after receiving voicemail after voicemail too many nights in a row. All my emails were pathetic outpourings of emotions. I’d become very selfish without even realizing it. I absolutely hated myself but I didn’t know how to change. Once more, I feared I couldn’t change.
But bipolar disorder was no excuse, at least not in my case. I knew I couldn’t play the mental illness card and expect everyone to just roll with it. In the end, I simply had to let go of my pride and accept help.
In 2009 I moved back home with my parents. My psychologist suggested this thing called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) which is the only therapy known to really help those with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). So I did that for a little while. My psychiatrist also helped me find the right medication to keep my moods in check and, aside from a brief setback in 2014 when I tried to find a medication with less annoying side-effects but couldn’t, I’ve been hospital-free and self-injury-free for a commendable amount of time.
Change is possible. To be honest, I’m still changing. I’m still learning and growing. I like to have my beliefs challenged. It’s good for me. A huge part of changing and becoming a better person is learning when to admit you’re wrong. I’ll write more on that later.
Anyway, as I’ve said, many things have changed in my life over the years and this is just one of them. I focused on a behavior that has change however my core beliefs and philosophies have significantly changed as well. But I’ll save those stories for another time.
I’m standing in line with my mom for high school orientation. Other parents are there with their kids and I watch as more than once a classmate steps in to interpret for a parent who doesn’t speak English. I notice how effortlessly my bilingual peers switch from one language to another. What must it be like to live between two worlds? I wonder. It’s not fair to grow up with just one language! Why couldn’t I have grown up with at least two? I choose French as my foreign language because I didn’t want to be like the majority of people and take Spanish and the only other option was German, which, at the time, I didn’t think was a very pretty language (even though I have German roots).
After my freshman year of college I’m in Sibiu, Romania sitting in a church parking lot and chatting with a 9-year-old Romanian girl who is already a budding polyglot. Her English isn’t perfect but for someone who didn’t spend a lot of time with native English speakers, it was pretty amazing. Not long before, I’d met an American widow who was a fulltime missionary. I heard her speak Romanian to someone and it sounded fluent to me. What was more astounding was that she’d only been in the country a year or two and before that, she spoke no Romanian at all.
Major life changes lead me to become more resolute toward learning my language-of-choice: French. With one year of university French under my belt, I boldly invite a couple of good-looking French international students to assist me with my endeavor. The Fall semester has barely begun and I lead them on a nighttime walking tour of downtown Flagstaff. They have just one condition – no English allowed. I agree because I’ve heard immersion is the best way for adults to learn a foreign language anyway. That’s when I discover how far I have still to go as I point to things I know the words for and struggle to form full sentences. Meanwhile, the French students carry on a French conversation between the two of them and I am at a loss. BUT I can’t intervene because I agreed not to speak English and I don’t have the grammar or vocabulary to join in. My thoughts are incommunicable. All I can think to do is point at something I don’t know the word for and say: Qu’est-ce que c’est? The French guys laugh at me, but I don’t mind.
2002 – May
I’ve had a year to study French with the help of the three French students studying at my university from Strasbourg. The third one, a spirited and lively woman who’d grown up in the French countryside, ended up spending the most time with me that year, although all three of them helped me immeasurably. Whether in accepting my invitations to “French movie nights” at my place, introducing me to French music by Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel, and Louis Attaque, helping me with my French homework, or teaching me about French culture, they made that year one of the most memorable in my existence. So we sit in the coffee shop with some other international students and one of them gives some sage advice. He says to us, “Remember, whatever happens in life, just say ‘merde.’”
I sit on the opposite end of the table and just start laughing uncontrollably. Meanwhile, my French friend acts a little defensive and says, “Clara! You are not supposed to know what that means!” And of course I laugh more.
2002 – June (beginning)
I’ve managed to make it to France on a one-way ticket. Don’t ask me how. Anyway, the girl from the French countryside arranges for me to stay with her family when I arrive because I’m scheduled to fly out before her and she wants to send some of her things with me. I’m at her house in Auvergne and her father says to me, “elle nous a dit de vous parler très doucement.” I almost choke on the soup I’m eating, I laugh so hard. It wasn’t just what he said, of course, but how he said it – slowly annunciating each syllable. My friend’s family doesn’t speak English but I don’t feel completely isolated like I felt nine months before with the two French guys in Flagstaff. I can make some sentences. I have more words to express myself with. But it’s not enough.
2002 – June (mid)
I’m on a paddle boat on Lake Annecy with this guy who’s kind of my boyfriend. I actually don’t have romantic feelings for him but there is one thing I find very attractive about him – he doesn’t speak English. I’m in this French language learning program, you see. It’s with my university and there are just too many Americans. Not that I have a problem with other Americans. It’s just that I’m in France and I want to speak French. When Americans congregate with one another, however, they speak English. It’s so infuriating! We’re here to learn French! Speak French! Anyway, my “boyfriend” is with me on this paddle boat. I sing him a little song and then he reaches over to put his hand on mine. Instinctively I pull away and say, “Laisses-moi !” He removes his hand and, while still clearly annoyed with me, corrects my French. “C’est « laîches-moi » pas « laisses-moi »” This would come to be a common occurrence I’d observe in many French people. No matter how irritated someone seemed to be, they always seemed to have time to correct my French.
2002 – September
I’m at this horrible invention designed to help American students integrated easier into the French university system at Université Paul-Valéry in Montpellier called “Pré-stage.” It’s basically a mini-America on French soil. All our classes and excursions are only with American students. All the Americans are housed in the same dorms. It’s a total nightmare but still, it was part of the program I signed up for. But it was only a month, not a lifetime. I’d survive. I stood at the pay phone and rang up one of the French guys I’d known in the U.S. He was the only one I hadn’t talked to yet. When I called, he was there and we spoke French and only French. In fact, we never spoke English to one another again. I’d write him in English, but that was because I feared the corrections he felt he had to make in my written French. An American student from my home university overhears me and feels a little intimidated. We were in the same French class speaking at the same level a few months before. Now I was having entire conversations in French she just wasn’t there yet. Don’t worry, I say to her. “You’ve just arrived but I’ve already been here 3 months. 3 months from now, you’ll speak as good as me or better.”
It is kind of magical to finally realize you can speak a language you weren’t capable of speaking just a few months before. When you begin to read you might start with children’s books because the words and sentences are simple. At first you’re looking up every single word and it takes forever to read a single paragraph. But with persistence and passion you stop trying to translate words in your mind as the new language begins to become a part of you.
Pronunciation is always going to be a problem if you learn a new language as an adult. My French friends say there’s a distinct difference between the sound of “tu” and “tout” but I can’t hear it. I’m always going to speak French with a foreign accent.
2003 – February
My father’s come to free me from the French psychiatric hospital I’ve spent the past three weeks in. None of the doctors or nurses speak English in this facility. A couple of the patients do, but it’s not their native tongue. In fact, I got the feeling they’d never really had an American at that particular hospital. I mean, it’s not like it was in a popular tourist spot. Besides, before they learned where I was really from, they just assumed I was British because American’s don’t speak French, right? Dad came in to consult with the doctor but since my dad didn’t speak French and the doctor didn’t speak English, I had to be the interpreter, just like my bilingual friends had done for their parents back in high school.
I apologize. I’m trying so hard to pretend I’m a professional writer but something came up and, as the amateur blogger I am, I wasn’t prepared. That being the case, I’ve invited a younger version of me to present her thoughts and ideas to you. Keep in mind this is the 2006 version of Clara so let me give you little context first.
Twenty-six-year-old Clara’s been secretly engaging in self-harm. Actually, it’s not such a big secret. She’s not always able to conceal the fresh cuts on her wrist, especially at her job. She’s already emotionally exhausted her closest friends but her problem will become much worse before she acknowledges the need for help. In terms of vocation, Clara barely graduated from Arizona State University with a BA in French a few months prior to writing this and has been working at a bookstore coffee shop and renting a room from someone she found on Craigslist in Phoenix. She so badly wants to travel! She also wants to write because she feels like writing is her calling in life. But she makes little progress in this area because she doesn’t believe she’ll ever be good enough. She feels powerless in so many ways, so much so that she’s already made a few superficial suicide attempts. But she won’t tell you that here. She wants you to believe she’s got a handle on the whole “being an adult” thing. She wants to feel like she has something to contribute to this world, something good and worth living for. Intellectually she knows this short essay isn’t it but her emotions have a way of silencing the voice of reason in her head. At this time she thinks the world and the people she trusted most in it have betrayed her. “They” led her to believe a fairytale. But when reality finally hit her, she was forced to question everything she’d been brought up to believe (again). Feeling greatly burdened and frustrated with the world, she wonders if there really is anything worth hanging onto in the so-called “real world.”
In Search of the Real World
By Clara Tenny (circa 2006)
From the viewpoint of a student of human nature, I wonder now what truly is nature and what
is human. A college degree can only take a person so far. Somewhere deep inside they have to uncover their own dreams and their own motivations to pursue. And it seems we have been fed this idea that nothing is beyond our grasps. Whatever we want, we can have. This is America after all. This is the American dream.
As a college student I found myself trapped in the anticipation of what most people termed “the real world.” Imagine, I thought to myself, having a key in the shape of a diploma that would open doors to places my heart never dreamed of. This coveted item would be the secret to success and the job offers would be pouring in from all directions. Everyone would want me. I would be an essential part of the “real world”. Of course, there were no disclaimers on my college applications saying that success was no guarantee. In fact, entrance into the real world was more often accompanied by a tone of caution, as if to say, soak it all up while you can. The real world can eat you alive. Proceed with caution.
The thought never once occurred to me that the world I had inhabited during my studies was artificial. I cried, I laughed, I felt energetic at times and tired at others, I fell in love, I worked, and I played. Was that just a dream? The intensity of it all climaxed at the height of my enjoyment. When I could see all the kingdoms of the world before me and I was overwhelmed with the temptation to rule them, I leapt from the comfort of my home in hot pursuit only to land in a raging sea of frustration and despair. I knew then that whatever the rest of the world defined as real I could no longer accept. My curse, in effect, was to be perpetually at odds with what was and what I perceived it to be.
My initial observation was that nothing was as it seemed. All the sugarcoated answers the world at large had offered up to appease our simple mindedness were nothing more than painkillers. They didn’t heal. They didn’t even address the source of the pain. They just numbed us with distractions that dictated to us what we wanted. If you don’t find it on earth, then you will find it in heaven perhaps. But it is there.
I clutched this dream with my own blind faith. But my reality was far different than everyone else’s. In my twenty-third year of existence, I learned from a maze of confusion and disappointment that I suffered from a diseased mind. Once more it had to be true. What other explanation was there? Endless tears were not normal. High expectations were just delusions. All those Hollywood fables of the underdog winning against all odds had not substance to them. They just toyed with our emotions, or least my emotions.
Slowly I became aware of what really was real in the world and I cringed. The highly coveted desire to have the American dream had been contaminated by greed. It stretched from the corporate highlands all the way down to the core of friendship. People were beginning to loose their value as human beings. Life was no longer priceless. Instead it was an inconvenient liability. Our dignity now had a number and a dollar sign attached to it. We were judged by what we did, not by who we were. And bit- by -bit, the beauty that once was became replaced by superficial garbage fed to us by a greedy mass media.
The lust for power and affluence are not new. They are as old as mankind. But the more we progress, the more high tech the world becomes, the more means we find to deceive and manipulate others toward our wills. I shudder at the thought. With the world becoming so small so fast, is there anyone left who does not know the Golden Rule? Why all the pain?
I was once told it is not normal to be sad. I was told this from the confines of a psychiatric hospital in a foreign land. All of us who wanted to live in a different world suffered from diseased minds because we tried to live in that world we longed for. Maybe it was the disease that would not allow us to accept the world as it was. Maybe we were just too much for the world and it was easier to let us go than to let us in. If you can’t play by the rules, then you’re out of the game. But are we at fault, or is it the real world we should blame?
It’s the dawn of twenty-sixteen and it comes roughly two months shy of my 36th birthday. I suppose like most of you I will sit down at some point and think about how this year is going to be better than the last. Sometimes it’s bittersweet to see a year end and other times it’s a relief. In any case, the sunrise of a new year symbolizes hope and if there’s one thing this world needs, it’s hope.
I like to keep track of my own timeline and I think it’s helpful in a way to see how close I am now to the person I imagined I’d become when I was younger. Of course, when I was younger I never factored in all the possibilities. Finding out I suffered from a mental illness probably came as the biggest shock to my younger self. That was about a month after the dawn of two-thousand and three. Oh, what a fantastic New Year’s celebration that was! Dancing around Piccadilly Circus with a wonderful friend! I remember boasting about how the next year was going to be even better than the last and I was determined to make it so!
I can’t fully describe the happiness I felt when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve 2002 and 2003 officially began. It was a rare kind of joy. Two weeks earlier, my favorite French friend who I will call Amélie, had given me some sage advice. You see, the next semester was to be my last semester studying abroad in Montpellier, France and who was to say I’d ever return? Since Amélie was a veteran study-abroad student herself, she told me sincerely « Profites de ton dernier semestre » which meant “make the most of your last semester.” Don’t waste time wallowing in self-pity. Step out of your comfort zone. Meet as many new people as you can. Take advantage of every learning opportunity presented to you. Speak French as much as possible. Make this the most memorable year of your life!
I was determined to take Amélie’s advice to heart. I’d hit an all-time low just before Christmas that year but I was intent now on becoming a better person; to rise above all my hardships and become someone even I could like.
I never saw the danger in being incredibly happy. No one saw it and my new-found joie de vivre was contagious. I wanted to talk with everyone and everyone seemed to want to talk with me. Whatever it was that Amélie said, it was working, it was actually working!
Exams in France back then were a couple of weeks after the winter break and I threw myself into them like never before. I had never been a great university student but somehow I knew I had greatness within me. I just had to harness it so that others could see and that meant acing my exams.
The girl I was becoming was not the girl I thought I was but I liked her so much more! I mean, I was so full of energy, curiosity, and compassion! It’s no wonder neither me nor any of my friends saw this as a problem. Amélie, (and even Deirdre) had been telling me for ages that France would change me. They believed France would liberate me from all my rigid legalism and guilt complexes. At last it looked as though they were right! France had changed me! …or so it seemed.
The next part of my story blindsided all of us. It must’ve been the endless happiness that caught us off guard. I was writing generic emails to my friends and family that were often times so thought-provoking and profound that I’d, in turn, receive encouraging replies from friends who rarely wrote me at all. Those encouragements seemed to raise my sense of self-worth exponentially. I began to feel there was something greater at work within me, like I was being touched by the divine. God was somehow working through me in a much greater capacity than ever before.
I studied harder than ever for finals. A lot was riding on my ability to prove I could handle the academics in France. Even my parents refused to make plans to visit me until I’d proven I could pass all my classes. And so if at any waking moment I let myself be distracted from my studies, I’d feel guilty. I even tried to make connections between the historical names that graced each street sign or I’d go to the library and pull down the giant book of French history so I could cross-reference what was going on with people I’d studied with what was going on in their world. I felt like a detective sometimes as I was trying to understand the past and it was exciting!
Much to my delight, all the hard work paid off and I passed my exams with flying colors! I wanted to tell someone. I wanted to shouted it from the rooftops! But everyone was too busy so I just walked home alone in joyous silence.
Once more, it’s a beautiful day today! So beautiful in fact that I can wear my summer clothes again and you know what I feel like doin’? I feel like dancing!
We had another break after final exams and while most of the other American students traveled, I stayed in Montpellier. A day or two after classes resumed, I disappeared and only when the university I was attending in Montpellier was contacted by a psychiatric hospital near Perpignan did the truth begin to unfold.
The rest of the year was painted with feelings of fear, betrayal, depression, and confusion. I never finished my year abroad. My dad flew to France to bring me back to the States and it all happened so quickly that there wasn’t even enough time to say goodbye. My apartment in France was packed by someone else and much of what I thought was real turned out to be nothing more than a delusion.
A year later I was staying with a friend in Flagstaff and I slept through the New Year. In New York they have the ball drop at midnight and in Flagstaff I’m told they have “The Great Pinecone Drop” to signify the start of a new year, but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes.
Sleeping when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is more my speed anyway. Then, the next day, I’ll write something either here or in my diary. I’m not a big fan of resolutions but sometimes I’ll set goals.
Each new year presents it’s own challenges. We always hope for the best but so much is beyond our control in life that sometimes I think it’s best to pray for the strength and courage to face the unknown. Happiness is an emotion and it feels so good! But like every emotion, it’s fleeting . So perhaps wishing one another a “happy New Year” is a little too presumptuous. Maybe it would be more appropriate to wish each other a “safe New Year.” And, most importantly, whatever trials and tribulations may come our way, pray we won’t have to face them alone.
I’ve decided to take a break for the holidays. I will be back with new posts on January 4th, 2016. In the meantime, here are some collages I made to illustrate the meaning of “jubilation.” The first 2 are made with old photos and the last two are made with photos I took this year. Let me know if you have any suggestions for new posts! I have lots of ideas but I’m always open to new ones. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
There’s not enough time. There’s never enough time! There’s just too much I need to do – too much I want to do! A lifetime isn’t enough! I just need a little more time…
But I’ve wasted so much time already. I moved home near the beginning of 2009 and now we’re almost 2016! That means in another two months, I’ll have lived here 7 full years… What’s happened? Where has all the time gone and why do I feel like such a failure?
Time always gets the better of me. There’s no such thing as “saving time.” You can’t really “make up for lost time.” What’s past has passed and there’s nothing left for me but now. After all, tomorrow is no guarantee for anyone. We can’t cheat death. Even the healthiest people will die. Diet and exercise is no preventer of old age nor is a healthy person immune to violence, natural disasters, accidents, and viruses we’ve yet to discover. No one can add a single day to his or her life because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. In the end, what more is time to us than the days we have yet to live?
I’m getting old. I began aging the moment I was conceived. But let’s face it, the only way not to grow old is to die young. I did try to die when I was young and failed. When I was 25 I couldn’t see my life beyond the age of 30 so I didn’t set any real goals. I thought, what’s the useif I’m just going remove myself from the story?
Reminds me of something a friend once told me when he saw the scars on my wrists for the first time. You can’t kill yourself, Clara. Don’t you want to see how your story ends? If you kill yourself, you’ll never know how the story ends.
Old friend, the kind of story you’re referring to requires a special kind of Storyteller because, if what you say is true, then I don’t have total control over my life. Tell me, does this Storyteller ever reverse time or are we only given one shot? What are your thoughts on immortality?
I look back at my scars. Sometimes, even after all these years, I can still feel a dull ache where the cuts used to be. Time heals all wounds, they say. And yet the scars remain.
Some wounds don’t heal with time. Emotional wounds are hidden from view and it’s harder to mend what we cannot see. A person who was abused as a child often carries those wounds into adulthood before the pain is ever fully understood. Psychotherapists will help a patient expose those wounds. In the beginning it’s painful. At times it does hurt to be healed. But given time and professional guidance, the pain eases until all that remains are emotional scars.
I searched the works of great poets hoping they could teach me about time. Poets look at the world much more closely, I think, than other wordsmiths. The art of poetry is about more than storylines and descriptions. Just one line can carry the history and the tone of an age. Through the written words of old poems the ancients whisper to me and sometimes I feel as though we understand one another.
I thought the great poets would show me the beauty in time, the joy in time freely shared, or the love that grows with time. But that wasn’t the case. You see, time for the poets, was a villain. Time had but one ambition: to bring us closer to death and, in the meantime, rob us of the beauty and vitality of youth.
William Shakespeare (1564 (baptized) – 1616):
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
W.B. Yeats (1865-1939):
Though leaves are many, the root is one;
Through all the lying days of my youth
I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun;
Now I may wither into the truth.
John Masefield (1878-1967)
Be with me, Beauty, for the fire is dying,
My dog and I are old, too old for roving.
Man, whose young passion sets the spindrift flying,
Is soon too lame to march, too cold for loving.
From “On Growing Old”
Time may be the ultimate demise of all things but time is also what it takes to learn and grow. When I was a kid sometimes I’d plant a flower or a bean from seed just to watch it grow. I’d see the tiny green sprouts peeping out of the dirt in the flower pot and shout with glee. Each day I’d go to the window ledge and touch the soil to see if it needed more water. The green stems would stretch and lean toward the sun. Each new growth was its own tiny miracle.
As a kid or teenager, I couldn’t quite understand what my parents meant when they looked at me and said: It seems like it was just yesterday that I was bouncing you on my knee. Now I understand. I don’t have kids of my own but I see my friends’ kids growing up and I just can’t believe how little they used to be. Not only that, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long. What year is it now? 2015? 2016? In 1996 I was a mere sixteen years old.
Seven years earlier I’d watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid in the theatre. That year I became obsessed with the movie! When the film came out on VHS, I watched it almost every day. The next year, as a 10-year-old in fourth grade, I wrote as story called “The Girl Who Wanted to Be a Mermaid.” Ariel (the mermaid) was supposed to be sixteen in the story so I’d sit in front of the mirror, play with my bangs so my red hair would look more like hers, and wonder what I would look like when I was sixteen.To a ten-year-old, sixteen seems a long time away. When I turned sixteen, university seemed a long way away. By my early twenties, thirty seemed incredibly old. Forty was ancient. Let’s not even talk about my parents’ generation. But when I crossed that “thirty” threshold, I decided to celebrate. I decided I wasn’t going be one of those people who remained stuck at age “twenty-nine” forever. If I could make it to age thirty then that meant that the worst part of my life was over and the next chapters in my life were full of new adventures just waiting to be lived.
We may not be able to make up for lost time but we can share our time with others. In fact, I think time is sometimes the greatest gift you can give. We don’t have an endless supply of it and, since we can’t know how much we’ll have in the end to give, we should give it as a freely and as generously as we can. Who knows when the window of opportunity will close for us to show a friend we care? And if you find yourself intentionally avoiding spending time with someone, try and understand why. If it’s something within you, acknowledge it and seek counsel.
It is frustrating to hear a friend say she’s too busy to talk with me. I’m always suspicious of such statements. I’m even more concerned when the friend is too busy to check her calendar and arrange a date for us to talk. How I wish we could all be more like Bob Goff! Seriously, how does he do it?
I think maybe the best way to view time is as a gift. Not just a gift to give but a gift given to us. I like what the Bible has to say about time, particularly in the Hebrew portion.
In the book of Esther, Esther’s uncle, Mordecai, tells Esther to use her privileged position to talk to King Xerxes and help the Jewish people. She’s hesitant so he says:
And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this
Esther 4: 14b
This bit from wisdom book of Ecclesiastes is also the source material for a famous song by 60’s band The Byrds called Turn Turn Turn.
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
Writing a blog is hard. I know this is my blog and I have the freedom to write whatever I want whenever I want. It’s not like anyone is forcing me to post something new twice a week. In fact, that’s how I used to write my blog, writing when I felt like it, not worrying about consistency or quality. It was all about freedom of expression, writing what was on my mind and then giving my thoughts away.
My mood has dictated my personal writings for as long as I can remember and I’d write in my diary now and then but it never was as satisfying as making a connection with someone else through the written word. It began as handwritten letters to pen pals and fan mail to my favorite celebrities. Then, when I left home for university, old-fashioned letters began to go out of style and email took over. The year I studied abroad, I began writing generic emails about my experiences that I’d cc or bcc to almost everyone in my address book, whether they asked me to or not. The only complaint I remember was a friend actually telling me to please bcc everyone because he had to comb through too many email addresses before he could read what I actually wrote. Otherwise the feedback, if any at all, was positive and encouraging, so I kept writing.
All the emails I sent from France (thanks to my dad who saved them for me).
I still write letters by hand now and then. I feel a different kind of connection to my words when I write by hand. I take longer pauses to gather my thoughts. I’m focused and in tune with my writing instrument. My pen is an extension of me. I can write from anywhere, no electricity required. It is, by nature, poetry.
But the words I type on my computer screen have another advantage. They can travel farther and faster than any other form of writing or publishing could before. My words can be in several places at once with just the click of a button. In 2007 I caught a glimpse of this when I began writing things for my MySpace friends. Then, when everyone migrated to Facebook, I started a blog on Blogspot called Devoted to Dreaming. When that fizzled out I started one called Le Monde Clara. Then I tried to reinvent myself again with no references to mental illness in How to be the Exception. At last, a very tech-savvy friend saw me struggling and told me to come here to WordPress. In fact, in 2011 she sat me down and gave me an informal lesson on how to be a successful blogger. I took excellent notes but failed to follow all her advice. I still have the notes, though.
This year, around August, I made an important decision. I decided to erase the blogs from the previous four years and start again. Don’t worry. I didn’t erase them from existence. I simply took them down from the internet and filed them away for personal reference. Then I waited.
Have I told you yet that I don’t know exactly what I’m doing? I’m an expert in nothing more than my own stories and I believe those stories have value but how much value and to whom I can’t possibly know. I visit quite a few popular blogs and their comment sections are sometimes several pages long but how genuine are those comments anyway? In this competitive world, how can you know if someone truly appreciates you or if they’re just doing more shameless self-promotion?
Of course, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say how amazing it feels to be re-tweeted by a celebrity – or anyone for that matter. When others share your work of their own freewill, it’s incredible! You really need to thank them.
I might as well admit my mental illness plays a huge part in all this. You might say that since my initial diagnosis at age 23, my entire worldview has been framed by my manic depression. What do I tell people? Am I now less human because my mind is broken? If I stop my medication, will I experience mania again? Why does no one understand me? Why do I feel ashamed? I feel so alone in this world, like a perpetual foreigner. Does anybody love me?
I can’t write from my life experiences without sometimes writing about mental illness. I know that’s not really something all of you relate to and that’s okay. I’m not going to connect with everyone. But even if I make a connection with just one person, it will have been worth it.
Version 1.0 of this blog had an “About this blog” page. It explained the origin of the title and a little bit about what the focus of the blog was supposed to be. As of this post I haven’t made a new version of that page. I guess I’m sort of getting a feel for having the sort of dedication it takes just to post regularly, twice a week. Perhaps someday I will my ideas will run dry and I’ll have to take a break, travel the world (if ever I can afford to) and come back with something new and amazing to share. I do love a good travel story.
Beyond blogging, I need to have clear goals. What is the endgame? How will sharing personal stories help me? I have some ideas but for now let’s just leave it at truth and clarity. Besides, it’s a lonely world and if I can connect with someone else’s writings and feel less lonely, maybe the stories I write will help another person feel less lonely as well.
The big question has to do with profit. Do I want to be a professional writer? I don’t know. I thought I did for a long time and I can’t deny that the extra income would be nice. But what would I write? I’ve met people who have enough books in their heads to keep writing novels for the rest of their lives. Then there are journalists who live to tell other people’s stories. I won’t bother to list all the niche writers’ markets out there. Few of them are of interest to me anyway, at least as a writer.
So how about this: I keep enjoying my status as an amateur blogger and you tell me what you think. Next week, more stories.