Category: Poppy Field Companion
“I found my self alone, hoping someone would miss me.”—Cat Stevens, On the Road to Find Out
In 1954, John C. Lilly, an American physician and psychoanalyst began experimenting with sensory deprivation and its effect on the brain. He constructed an isolation tank where an individual floated in a salt solution warmed to body temperature, sealed from light and sound. He discovered that the effects of sensory deprivation were similar to the states reached in deep meditation. After about forty minutes, the brain transitions from beta to alpha brainwaves, then to theta waves. Theta brain waves generally occur right before sleep and just before waking. This theta wave state can last indefinitely, and many have found time in an isolation chamber to aid in creativity and problem solving. An hour in a commercial float tank will set you back about $60. Most describe the experience as one of the most relaxing things they’ve ever done, but they usually struggle with feelings of panic during the early moments of their first float. Complete isolation, it seems, is a bit of a shock to the system.
Solitude is good for the soul; loneliness is not. Solitude is a place to reflect, to evaluate, to dream—and sometimes, a place to mourn. Loneliness is a paralyzing mental state. Pervasive loneliness is a mental illness.
Solitude is what you feel when you disconnect. Loneliness is what you feel when you are disconnected. It is possible to experience both these emotions in a crowded room. It is not possible to experience them simultaneously. One you do for yourself, the other is done to you. One is healthy—the other is destructive. One helps you to function more efficiently—the other brings dysfunction.
Find a place of solitude. It’s good for you. But never allow someone to make you feel lonely. Solitude is for the strong—loneliness the weak.
“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”—Mother Teresa
Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary available on Kindle or paperback.
“Richard concludes each chapter with haiku-like poems, but his prose also sings lyrically . . . Despite the meditative nature of the narrative, historical action continuously looms in the background—the Soviet collapse, factional warring, the rise of the Taliban, and the similarly timed attacks on the World Trade Center and mujahedeen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud.”
“A highly personal story that mines the psychology of betrayal and forgiveness.”
“Hauntingly beautiful. Prose—simply amazing!
—Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Review
In 1877 the historian John Russell Bartlett published Dictionary of Americanisms. One of his entries was, “Pinky—a common term in New York, especially among small children, who, when making a bargain with each other are accustomed to confirm it by interlocking the little finger of each other’s right hand and repeating . . .
Pinky, pinky bow-bell,
Whoever tells a lie
Will sink down to the bad place
And never rise up again.”
It’s the pinky promise. Apparently it crossed the great pond in an English folk rhyme that young boys would say to one another when they made a promise. They would link their pinkie fingers together and say . . .
Ring finger, blue bell
Tell a lie, go to hell.
—A History of Warwickshire, Samuel Timmins
A wedding wouldn’t be a wedding without the exchange of rings and a promise to be faithful. This passage from the Book of Ruth is often used in wedding vows.
Entreat me not to leave you,
Or to turn back from following after you;
For wherever you go, I will go;
And wherever you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people,
And your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die,
And there will I be buried.
The Lord do so to me, and more also,
If anything but death parts you and me.
—Ruth 1:16-17 NKJV
Most folk these days omit that last phrase about God bringing judgment on them for breaking their vow. The Pinkie Promise has been modernized too, removing the penalty for breaking a promise. It’s seems, in the contemporary world, we are reluctant to call down fire and brimstone upon ourselves. I suspect there were many broken vows in the Middle Ages, when serfs trembled in gothic cathedrals, and gazed in awe at gargoyles, and feared the clergy. Those folk lived with a certain sense of shame and doom. They believed they deserved to be punished for their sins. They were probably like us in their dishonesty, but they were different in their willingness to embrace judgment. We have evolved past that. We scorn judging one another and ourselves. Maybe we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
When Shakespeare penned, in Hamlet, to thine own self be true, the Middle Ages were done and the Renaissance was in full swing. A huge shift had taken place in western civilization. Human dignity was rising and the Age of Enlightenment was around the corner. By the Twentieth Century, true-to-self had evolved to what we call self-esteem.
Now, we are post-modern: mass media, mass commercialism, mass politics, mass think, globalism. To thine own self be true has become a permission for unrestrained passion with no fear of judgment from humankind or God. We are accepting, forgiving, understanding, and non-judgmental. But we are often unkind, and we lie . . . a lot!
Over twenty percent of us betray our lovers, at least forty percent of our marriages fail, and few of our close friendships last more than a half-decade. In 1940 twenty percent of high school students admitted to cheating on exams. In 2010 over 80 percent of students admitted to cheating. Surveys vary but by 2014 sexual assault statistics reveal: eleven percent of women were raped while in college, one in five women are raped in their lifetime, and forty-five percent experience some form of non-rape sexual violence. (U.S. Center for Disease Control statistics)
I want to be kind to folk and I want folk to be kind to me. But maybe a little shame is not such a bad thing. And maybe a little fear of judgment is not such a bad thing either. As a postmodern apocalypsephobe might say . . . “Not judging, just saying.”
“Though grief is a lonely journey, it is far better than vengeance.”—Carey Richard
I once fancied myself a flower child—free love and all that. I missed the free love part—couldn’t get past my Protestant upbringing. Still though, I believed in the freedom principle. Those were insubordinate times, but looking back, it all seems rather innocent. We listened to ballads about peace, and love, and everybody getting along. We protested the war. We smoked a lot of acrid pot.
We would say things like, “If you love someone you will set them free.” Had something to do with not owning anything or anyone. We were free from materialism, encumbrances, and envy—or at least that was the plan. It didn’t really work out like we imagined.
Jealousy is not one of those emotions that is easily managed. It’s primitive. One of the first things we learn to say is, “It’s mine!” We have a primal yearn for exclusivity, especially regarding our lovers.
Jealousy, it seems, has something to do with affections. For love is as strong as death, its jealousy as enduring as the grave. —Song of Solomon 8:6 NLT
There is a toxic kind of jealousy and there is a healthy kind of jealousy. We spot the difference almost innately. The toxic kind leads to irrational obsession. The healthy kind leads to acceptance, and sometimes, grief or loss.
I think that owning a person is not necessarily a bad thing. To own someone, and keep them to yourself as a cherished possession seems sensible. But it is true that you cannot keep a lover beyond his will. And it’s probably true that you cannot change a person. They must change themselves. And they must love themselves. And they must choose to love you.
I suppose that, in the end, jealousy is wasted emotional energy. But like the grave, jealousy cannot be denied. You will pay jealousy’s toll with either vengeance or grief. And though grief is a lonely journey it is far better than vengeance.
River stones have traveled far. A polished surface tells their journey. Chipped, then sanded through eons of toil, they come to rest in the coastal flats where sleepy rivers murmur. I once held one in my hand as I relaxed among them on a sun-warmed sandbar in lower Mississippi. It was cool to the touch, utilitarian, reassuring.
I have crossed high passes in the Rockies, the Andes, and the Himalayas. I have picked my way through fields of sharp-edged rock recently shorn from those jagged mountains. I have never once held one of those adolescent stones in my hand and rubbed my thumb meditatively over its surface. But sometimes I put a river stone in my pocket, and carry it through the day. I think of the beautiful thing that time has made of it.
Life has a way of wearing one down. But the end result is not all that bad.
“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” —Winston Churchhill
“Respect yourself and others will respect you.” ―Confucius, Sayings of Confucius
I once crossed a ridge in Kentucky on my mountain bike and dropped down onto a wandering gravel road at the bottom of a shallow valley. It was near dusk and I didn’t want to take the two-hour trail back through the state park, so I turned north on a dusty one-lane, hoping to find a shortcut back to where I was staying. I rounded a corner and stopped in front of an old unpainted wood-siding cabin. It rested at the top of a small hill within earshot of the road. An old man in a rocking chair sat on the front porch. He pondered a moment, evaluating the spandex shorts and the bright moisture-wicking bike jersey, and finally spat a dark stream of tobacco over the porch edge.
“Mister,” I called, “Does this road reach the highway?”
He didn’t say anything but he did stomp his foot on the wooden porch. Three dogs roused from their slumber under the house and galloped down the hill toward me. Two of them, black and tan coonhounds, bayed in that musical howl that fills the southernwoods on cool autumn Saturday nights. The other, a Catahoula Cur, separated from the group when he reached the bottom of the hill. He circled behind me, quiet, menacing, and low to the ground, his eerie blue eyes locked on my bare legs. I put the bike between him and me, figuring I had a better chance against the coonhounds.
“Mister,” I shouted. “I’m gonna kill me one of these dogs.”
It was a bluff, of course, and I don’t even know why I said it. Somehow that was all I could think of at the moment.
He eyed me carefully, spat again and said, “You might as well. They ain’t no good anyway.”
I tried every trick I knew on those dogs: submitted posture, no eye contact, aggressive alpha male, nonchalance, but nothing worked. They were professionals!
After a long moving battle of lunges, low snarling attacks, kicking counterstrikes and careful positioning of the bike, I managed to reach the border of their territory. They stood their ground in the road—grumbling, watching me warily, making certain I continued along my way.
I was angry for a while and pedaled furiously down the lane, replaying the incident in my head: what I should have done differently, what I should have said, how I should have handled the dogs. But after I settled and could think coherently, I realized that somehow I had disrespected the old man.
It did not matter that his rules of social engagement made no sense to me, only that those rules had been violated. When I violated his rules I gave him permission, in his mind, to go to war.
It seems most conflict begins in disrespect. Nations, defined by culture and tribe, rules of behavior, religion, language, become defensive when another nation encroaches. And within nations polarizing opinions divide to endless conflict. Politicians launch scorch-the-earth campaigns against the perceived lies of their opponents. Families feud, couples fight, and teenagers slam their bedroom doors.
Men are particularly sensitive to disrespect. In the military, that bastion of a male worldview, you dare not neglect to salute. At Arlington Cemetery easygoing tourists are often scorned to silence by the smart foot soldier that guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The entire military culture is built on respect, rank, discipline, and the value of sacrifice.
I travel quite a bit in an RV and often find myself in laundromats. Located in lower income areas, they are often filled with young struggling mothers and their toddlers, especially if you go in the morning. In Memphis, I once watched a teenaged mother yell at her rambunctious three-year-old and raise her hand, threatening a slap. He cringed but within minutes was back to his antics. A large red and blue tattoo on her fleshy arm proclaimed, “You Have no Right to Judge Me.”
I smiled to myself. I had already silently judged her—crude, uneducated, poor, lazy, redneck—all my favored prejudices in a single thought. Her tat nailed my self-righteous hypocrisy. I should have spoken to her. I should have been kind and friendly and accommodating, but I wasn’t. My judgments silenced me; my hypocrisy paralyzed me.
I envision myself as a tolerant, understanding peace-lover, but I rage like an assault-rifle-toting-survivalist when some plant worker in a pickup truck cuts me off on the interstate. Respect.
I suppose it is naive to imagine a world without war, a family without conflict, a love relationship without arguments, a child without a tantrum; but I can dream, can’t I? And maybe, if I dream, I’ll be more respectful.
image by Taka Nakura