Thursday, October 31, 2013

On Holidays Secular and Spiritual

When I was a young Badger, I started to understand that my country celebrates two Christmases.  There's the solemn celebration of the birth of Christ, honoring God's promise of hope and salvation.  And there's the warm, loving celebration of time with family and friends, exchanging gifts and drinking eggnog and singing about sleigh bells.

Even when I was Christian, those two holidays were different for me.  When we went to evening/late services on Christmas Eve, I didn't associate the magical candlelight sermon on hope and love with the next morning's explosion of wrapping paper and Family Dinner.  I found that the differentiation seemed easier for me than for many of my peers, over the years, as they wrestled with cramming spirituality into a Christmas stocking.  And when I left Christianity, I had no trouble keeping Family Christmas alive in my life and discarding Spiritual Christmas, which had ceased to hold a deep meaning for me.

Lately I've been coming to understand that today has a similar dichotomy for me.  There's Hallowe'en, which is the orgy of costumes and candy and spookiness that seems to bring out the kid in every last person.  And there's Samhain, the dark winnowing to end the year, when the veils are thin and our dead stand among us.

I like Hallowe'en just fine.  I like candy, and I like to see other people's costumes, and it's great to watch people get SO INTO creativity and expression because maybe they don't feel like they've got an excuse year-round.  But I find that I celebrate it mostly by observation, by watching others embrace it.  I have no costume ideas.  I don't feel compelled to carve up a pumpkin for the office contest.  While I totally respect the effort that goes into designing witch hats out of donuts, ice cream cones, frosting and sprinkles, I have no desire whatsoever to put forth that effort.

Samhain, though, is incredibly important for me.  It's the time of the year when most are pulling inward to rest through the dark part of the year, when I and those like me, who have chosen the alternate path, begin our winter's burning to stand as guideposts and guardians.  Today, so to speak, I take up my sword and begin my watch.

Today I stand in love and trust with my dead gathered around me, not mourning them but honoring them.  I thank those voices that have spoken to guide me, I am grateful for those who walked into darkness to light my own way, giving me the courage to stand as light for others.

After long years of wrestling with this holiday dichotomy, I'm finally at peace with something: I don't celebrate Hallowe'en.  I love to watch it go by.  I laugh and enjoy other people's celebrations, and it makes me genuinely joyful to see all the fun and happiness.  I am not, by any means, a Hallowe'en Grinch.

But this is one day of the year I have to stand apart, my loves.  As I take up more fully the path of the Warrior, as I step more deeply into the Wood, sometimes I have to choose the path apart from the crowd, because what I am doing needs my full attention.  I don't begrudge you the ability to balance the secular and the spiritual in your celebrations, to stir the cauldron and still use it to bob for apples.  Perhaps in future years I'll manage that balance as well, but right now, at this time in my life, what I am doing in the spiritual consumes my focus.

I have been, as I do, resting this summer.  Today is my last day of rest for a season.  Tonight I gather my final harvest, draw upon the energies I've been storing, and light the fire I'll hold through until spring.

Let me say, because I do not say it often enough: I am more grateful than I can ever say to have been given this space to burn, this torch to bear.  For the trust I am offered, for the chance to serve and ward, I am thankful.  My harvest is not of the physical; it is the trust, respect, and love of those people, living and dead, who are part of my life.

I love you all.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Gaming as a Tool Against Depression

A few weeks ago, I got a new phone (it is a shiny new Samsung Galaxy s3).  I asked friends for app recommendations, and among the suggestions was Ingress.  As that website's not very helpful, allow me to explain:

Ingress is a worldwide online multiplayer game of Risk, basically.  There are two teams, and each team is vying for territory.  The 'Enlightened' represent those working to bring the effects of this alien 'exotic matter' more fully into the world, on the premise that the coming evolution is both good and necessary.  The 'Resistance' represent those working against that influence, on the premise that there is malicious intent behind it.  When you begin the game, you default to 'Resistance' but you have an opportunity to choose 'Enlightened' during training.

The territory is controlled by 'portals', which are usually found at places of interest.  Churches, post offices, historical markers, scenic overlooks, state parks, landmarks, that sort of thing.  You claim a portal by putting 'resonators' on it, and can also add things like shields or defensive turrets.  If the portal is owned by the other side, you use 'XMP' grenades to take out its defenses and claim it.  Once claimed, you can link portals together and use those links to create 'mind control fields', territory held by your side.  You can also 'hack' a portal, which nets you some shiny new gear.

One of the primary features of the game is that it must be played in person.  To capture a portal, you have to be standing next to it.  You can defend remotely, but only by recharging existing resonators, so if someone can attack faster than you can recharge, you'll lose your portal.  But to really play, you must get up, go out of your house, and walk or drive around your city seeing the things that someone, somewhere has decided are interesting and worth looking at (some portals were generated by the game makers, but more have been submitted by users, who love their cities and want people to see what's cool about them).  If you really want to play, you have to break out of the 'wake, work, home, relax, sleep' cycle.

I'm enjoying the game.  I'm very close to level 5 (the game is in beta, and currently only goes to Level 8), so I have a reasonable ability to take and hold portals, though sometimes other players take mine.  What I'm finding, over the last three weeks, is that this game is uniquely suited to resisting my personal manifestation of depression:

1.  I must leave the house to play.  I must go out, into the fresh air and sunshine.  The game sends me a message that says, "Someone has attacked your portal, and you only have one half-powered resonator left!  If you don't go rescue it, you'll LOSE IT!"  That's a perfect trigger for me to put down the book or laptop and go, because it's just enough of an 'emergency' to feed the need for manufactured crisis, without any actual crisis.

2.  The game is geared around small, attainable goals.  The above-mentioned manufactured crisis is easily resolved.  I get to my portal, I put more resonators on it, I re-attach all its links and fields.  Or I locate a weak enemy portal, go to it, and capture it.  Mission accomplished, small 'hit' of confidence acquired.  I made a plan, I executed a plan, and the plan worked.  I did A Thing because I am a Competent Human Being.  On dangerous days, when the Traitor Brain is loud, it helps tremendously.

3.  The defeats are small and without serious consequence, and provide more challenges.  This weekend, someone took out a couple of portals I was using to anchor a large field.  Now I get to find a way to get them back, find a new field to build, or work around what that person did.  I may have 'lost' something, but that 'loss' just gives me more reason to play, more to think about, a chance to re-plan my field layout.

4.  Because most of my portals are interesting things to see, I also spend a few minutes in a city park, or at a church labyrinth, or at a scenic hill country overlook.  I'm forced on a regular basis to stop and appreciate some aspect of my city that I might otherwise have passed by.  When people ask "Why are you standing here in front of our church looking at your phone?" I smile and tell them "I'm on an electronic scavenger hunt of beautiful places, and your church is one."

5.  There is a supportive community.  Perfect strangers will point out unclaimed portals to lower-level players, or even go on strafing runs to knock down a bunch of enemy portals for you so you can claim them yourself and level faster.  Maybe you only hold them for a day or two because you're Level 2 and everyone in your area is Level 8, but you get the points for claiming and linking them, so you can get to a higher level faster than you would alone.  I have been able to help a couple lower-level players myself, now.

I'm coming to realise that I need to seek out systems and activities like this if I want to stay emotionally healthy.  I see how I respond to 'get outside' triggers and a structure of small crises and accomplishments, how the structure and the planning and the ability to say, "I have had a hard morning.  I think I want to go capture that park near work and make it my own," gives me a lot of tools to stay even-keeled.

The more I dig down into this brain I inherited with no user's manual, the more tools I find for operating it.  It's really pretty excellent to have found this one.

Monday, October 7, 2013

On Being Alone In Your Head

Here's a question:  when's the last time you were alone in your brain?

Here's another one:  was it a comfortable experience?

When I say 'alone in your brain' I mean really, truly alone.  Not only no other people, but no internet or phone.  No book or movie or music to distract you.  No input except looking at what's there, hearing the ambient noise.  No goal-ended project to focus on.  Just you, and your brain.

Since I've been dealing with severe anemia, I have not been able to safely hike alone.  I've noticed that I miss the time with my brain.  This isn't about 'too many people'.  It's that the distractions never go away unless I deliberately leave them.  The phone is there, with its little games.  The internet beckons me with blogs and facebook and chat.  Even offline, I'm surrounded by books, and radio stations playing catchy music.  There's *manufactured content* everywhere for me to consume and I live in a world of active distraction, and unless I make a conscious effort, I'm never fully alone.

A lot of people ask me, "What's wrong with manufactured content?"  They say, "I get inspiration all the time from things I read or hear on the radio or see on TV."  And I agree that there's nothing wrong with it; it's just other people's brains.  And when you're listening to other people's brains, working on other people's deadlines, you don't have much incentive to stop and listen to the voices in your own head.

You get a clarity, left to face those voices.  You come to understand more about what you want and where you're going and who you are.  You also have to face the big life truths out there in the brain-black, ask the big questions:  Am I happy?  Am I a good person?  How can I be a better person?  How can I navigate the experiences of my life without compromising who I need to be and what I want to become?  If you establish a regular relationship with them, you develop a dialogue and an understanding, and you can really work through some serious growth.  Intuition is based in being able to hear and respect those voices.  So is inspiration.  They represent your subconscious collating information you didn't even know you'd taken in and pulling together your *own* conclusions from it.

Meditation helps, but it's hard to meditate long enough to really achieve the flow and stillness of your own mind.  Driving long distances without the radio is good, but not terribly environmentally sound.  Even when I work out, I'm listening to an audiobook or watching the TV above the elliptical.  I get a few minutes in the shower each morning, but I'm usually going over my day in my head and making lists.  Most of the people I know only spend quality time with their brains at one time: when they're trying to fall asleep.  I've been in that position lately, and I'm starting to notice that I'm having a little more trouble dropping off at night.

I suppose it makes a certain sense.  Is it any wonder that your mind, shouted down all day with television and conversation and books and blogs and work, takes that moment when you're not quite tired enough to fall asleep, grabs you by the face, and drags you off to hear all the things it wants to say?  You're a captive audience.  And when I'm trying to fall asleep, I'm still not in a place where I can engage my brain constructively.  I'm still trying to shut it down with my *own* worries and anxieties: If you do not let me go to sleep, brain, I will not wake up in time tomorrow and I will be late and groggy for work and the whole day will go badly.

I'm feeling much stronger now, and should be able to start heading back out for regular solo hikes.  I'm looking forward to finding out what my brain's been doing without me this summer.