Tag Archives: journey

Momentous Journey

“You’ve come far, Pilgrim,” the old mountain man said to Jeremiah Johnson.

“Feels like far,” Robert Redford (Johnson) replied.

This week is a slight digression from our study of character traits conducive to recovery from PTSD and other past stress. Or, maybe not. August will focus upon the twelfth and last trait: Vision.

Have we come far? Well, we didn’t do it in a day.

Journey is a term originally referring to the work done in a day or how far we could go in one day. Just for today.

In the jungle of Vietnam, we could walk about one click an hour. One kilometer. So a day’s travel might be five or ten kilometers or five miles give or take a couple.

It is roughly twenty-two miles across the Grand Canyon, and people can do that in a day. Not me, but other people. My plan is to do it in four days.

Twenty miles was a journey for a wagon train.

Yesterday I drove nearly three hundred miles, but I have done many more in a single day. Today I hope to fly a couple of thousand. Quite a journey.

Our culture has twisted the meaning of journey far from the original meaning of marche du jour.

As I wait to go to the airport, I am pondering just today, this hour, this moment–while I think about the future.

Much of my life is wasted weighting events of yesterday or waiting for events of tomorrow rather than savoring my walk today.

My parents were married during the Depression, living on squirrels Dad hunted, day old bread they sold door to door, and what they could grow in a garden. “Those were the good old days,” Dad told Mom fifty years later.

“I think we’re livin’ in the good old days,” (Merle Haggard). I hope we don’t miss it.

Psychologically, we can never experience more than a moment, a fraction of one second. Everything else is memory, an illusion created by the mind to record the experience of a moment. Yesterdays are all illusions. Yes, they happened, just not quite like we remember.

Tomorrow is illusion. Yes, it may happen the way we imagine, more or less, but maybe not.

Today is all we have. Let’s make it momentous, grander than the tomorrow we dreamed, yesterday, grander than the memory we create. Let’s live in the good days.

We made a lot of tracks, you and me, some deep, some barely noticeable. Some we regret.

Tomorrow we will make more tracks, God willing.

Have you ever watched a track being made? Have you ever taken note of the Earth beneath your feet as you made a track?

I participated in a blindfold swamp walk in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. We were led in a group, one person behind another, along a string through the swamp as were blindfolded. It was fun and comfortable, slipping into holes, feeling my way around roots, finding footing. After some time, we were stopped and told to remove our blindfolds. Quickening the pace, I took three steps and cut my foot. I forget to feel my track being made.

Momentous is another word our culture has twisted, originally meaning of one moment. Well, maybe that is not twisted. Maybe making note of a single moment is huge.

A funny thing happens when you face the probability of dying soon. You find each present moment precious, momentous.

One morning this week I went to my spot along the stream valley and noticed the activity of Chickadees. One flitted in a tag alder but three feet from my face, eyeball to eyeball, leaving a visual track in my mind.

Today, will you take a few moments to notice your breathing? Will you admire another part of life sharing this moment with you? Will you take a slow, deliberate walk and feel your tracks being made?

Happy Tracking!

Indignant Invalid

“Be as one with all creation,                                                                                             in beauty, in harmony, and in peace,                                                                         and may you walk your own road with a cool body.”                                               R. Carlos Nakai in Hart, 2000, p. 151  

The title and this quote are separated by two great rivers: my Post Traumatic Stress and the misunderstanding of an unhealthy culture. Recovery is the only bridge. Shall we walk it?

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

This leg of my journey ends today, for I have closed Dr. Hart’s little book. I shall continue blogging on other topics of PTSD Recovery, but first, one last post on this one.

I am an invalid. I feel it. I know it. And, you tell me so.

We didn’t win in Vietnam. I didn’t die there. I didn’t even bleed. But I hurt, and the pain I feel is not validated, and that compounds the hurt to indignation.

Dr. Hart says on p. 149, “Vietnam veterans often feel this lack of validation and wounding for being part of a war which was not won.”

There is more. Dr. Hart also refers to ‘Secondary Wounding’ as the pain we feel when our wartime experience is not validated by those around us. We instinctively turn to silence rather than to face the invalidation of blank stares or worse, a form of dismissal or disgust.

I will go further. When people around us ignore our feelings, ignore our triggers, we feel not only invalidated; we feel unsafe.

Where can I go during this election season without hearing people complaining about politics? Most any kind of conflict or complaining can trigger me, but certain kinds, including war stories, religion, or politics, are especially dangerous. I feel unsafe—as though at any moment I may fly into a full-blown dinosaur dump of rage beyond my control. So, I stay home, indignant.

I wonder, do people not know what it feels like to be triggered? To endure days of anxiety and rage that aches in the middle of your chest? That leaves you drained as from a fever for a few days more? Do people really not know? Or, do they not care?

Now, in this time when I need the support of others, I cannot trust them to validate my feelings, to respect my need for harmony and ease in all things. I cannot trust my friends, so I isolate. I bunker down.

There are medical professionals who discount the validity of PTSD and there are multitudes who simply ignore it. They tsk, tsk, and shake their heads at suicides and homicides, but do they ever pick up a book and read. Do you?

So, here I am spilling my guts to you because I can. I have a very mild case, and I have the faculties and opportunities of expression. It reminds me of a story about a boy walking along a beach strewn with stranded starfish. As he picked one up and threw it back into the sea, an elder counseled him on the futility of his actions, telling him that with all these starfish, the boy couldn’t make a difference. The boy responded that he thought it might make a difference to that one (starfish).

One problem with emotional disorders is that they self-perpetuate by causing trauma in others. So, families of people with symptoms get wounded, themselves. They wound back and it escalates. PTSD is hard on families. Can you make a difference for just one?

We each live in two worlds, one internal and one external. I may not find peace in this external world of dangerous humans, but I know of two safe places. I know how to find that clear space Dr. Hart talks about, that inner peace, and I know an external world that never invalidates me. Nature. Next week I will pause to refresh with Nature. I may even share it with you.

Sad Sorry

…A man carries one of these into battle and by the grace of God comes out in one piece; he carries a strange sense of guilt the rest of his life.   (Paraphrase of John Wayne in The Green Berets.)

This is from memory as I couldn’t find the quote, but I have seen the movie several times including 1969 before I had earned my own Green Beret. Perhaps one of you can post a quote and source.

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

“Frequently, combat veterans feel guilty about having survived their combat experience, and this affects their sense of self-esteem and self-worth.” (Hart, 2000, p. 141)

The first thing I did when I walked up to “The Wall” (Vietnam Memorial) was to read the first name. The second thing was to wonder where my name should be. The third thing was to find the panels of names of those killed during my tour in 69-70.

This is a healing wall and I felt the acceptance of my life and, unbelievably, of the loss of theirs. It is a spiritual place.

After my experience, I tried to encourage a good friend and fellow Vietnam combat Veteran to go to The Wall. He said he couldn’t do that until he had done something with his life.

We lost something in combat, too. My first wife said she always thought I had lost my soul. When another friend was asked by his psychologist what part of him died in Vietnam, he went after his doctor.

This is another dilemma of Post Traumatic Stress. We feel a sense of loss but deny it because we feel guilty for surviving. We didn’t lose as much as others so we have no right to feel that loss. We never grieved our own loss.

Psychologists describe several stages of grief (usually five or seven depending upon the source). When we refuse to allow ourselves to grieve (because we feel unworthy of the feeling), we get stuck, mired in the past and caught in unresolved grief.

We deny our loss and our right to feel the loss for a generation or two. When denial fails at a subconscious level, we proceed to bargaining. We try to relive the time and experiences, if only in our dreams, desperate to make it come out different, to finish this unfinished business. In our dreams, death is undone—our friends are still alive, a thing we regret did not happen.

More about sleep issues next week.

We spend our lives in denial and bargaining for so long, going back and forth between the two, that we sometimes forget it is not normal. We wonder what is wrong with the rest of the world.

And, the next stage is anger. Yes, this is about as far as most of us ever get. We are angry at ourselves for surviving but we do the sensible thing to protect ourselves. We focus our anger on others. You make the list. We blame. I’ll attempt to move past that stage.

Anger causes all kinds of physical and mental illness, family and social problems, even legal and moral issues. It is a tragedy, a genuine waste of life.

So, why do we not move on, into the light of acceptance? Of resolution? Of healing recovery?

Because there is a hazard between anger and acceptance. (Ooh, that would be a good title, “Between Anger and Acceptance”.)  The hazard is a gulf, a chasm, a gauntlet, and it kills (quickly or slowly) almost as many Veterans as combat. It is much more dangerous than anger.

Depression. We cannot get from anger to acceptance without depression. That is why Dr. Hart counsels us to hold a low level of anger, to hold onto that “Edge” as we walk our recovery into acceptance. Few of us can survive the journey without help. So, we stay angry.

Are you depressed, now? Feeling guilty? “It is important to remember only good people feel guilty.” Thank you, Dr. Hart, for that reminder.

 

Hope and Heartbreak

“Losin’ wouldn’t be so bad at all,
But I’m always on a mountain when I fall.”             Merle Haggard

Reminder: For the past few months, this blog has been dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

As I approach the end of my work on Dr. Hart’s book, I ponder where to go next for the blog. I open his book to a section on the problem with hope. That is next, probably beginning after Christmas.

“In the end we always learn something about ourselves when we conquer a mountain. When we conquer life’s difficulties we end up learning something about ourselves as well.” (Hart, 2000, p. 117)

I have climbed a couple of small mountains including Cowle’s Mountain, the highest peak in San Diego. There is a sense of awe and power in reaching the top—or, reaching any goal. More importantly, there can be a flood of gratitude.

Combat PTSD is a mountain and we may never completely conquer it, but there will be days when we can see the sea. There will be times above the clouds. And, there will be moments of exhilaration along the path of our journey.

Hope propels us. We begin with an expectation of success; however, hope carries with it the specter of failure. Else, the success would not exhilarate.

Please recall that one characteristic symptom of combat PTSD is an expectation for things to go wrong. We often wake with a sense of dread, and we often expect to stumble.

Sometimes we avoid hope because it is to blame for propelling us up those mountains. Then we fall, and falling is so much more tragic when we are so far from the ground, when we are so close to our goal. That’s how we see the world.

I have a trick. I take the winding path up Cowle’s Mountain and I rest frequently. But I don’t just rest, I look back. I take stock in how far I have come.

There are always people earlier and faster than me. That is not the point. Progress is.

It was a deep and dark valley I traversed many years back, a time when I listened to a lot of Merle Haggard. I understood.

I lost a wrestling state championship. By one point. Twice (once in high school, once in college).

I once had a psychiatrist counsel me that the mountain I was trying to climb might be Mt. Everest. My answer was that it had been done. I was younger, then.

My favorite inscription to offer in novels I sell, especially in person, is “Celebrate the Journey”. It is good advice for me. With the help of family and friends, I look back, not in regret, but in celebration of the progress I have made.

Today I awoke with a familiar sense of dread. There is and was no reason except that I have combat PTSD. But, today I talked about it and accepted it as I accept the limitations of my knees and back. The dread receded.

I have come far.

It doesn’t matter if I am first or if I get to the top at all. The view from the mountainside is wonderful, and I am exhilarated by my progress. So, that is my project for next year, reflecting on that progress.

But here is one caution for today. The fear of a hard fall off the mountain is not the only hazard of hope. It is not just the heartbreak of falling short that trips us up. It is the fear of success.

I do not understand this fear, yet, but it is real. I have watched many people struggle and climb out of their misery, take a look at how far they had come, and stumble. Sometimes they fell all the way back to the bottom. So, it is with caution that I advise reflecting on progress and hoping for success.

Personally, I don’t think one should attempt to climb any mountain unless something up there calls them. I hope it calls you. And I hope you get help for your climb.

 

Easter Bunny Died

For many in our culture, spring is the time of hopeful expectations. Lambs are born, flowers begin to grow and even bloom, darkness retreats. Combat PTSD is a condition threatened by expectations. For me, the Easter Bunny died in Vietnam—right there in the jungle with Santa Claus.

Some of you know that I am applying for a job. It is a good job, one for which I have prepared my whole life, and it is right here in Yuma. For weeks, I discussed it with family and friends until I decided to go through with the application process. I have come to know that I really do want the job.

That’s the problem. One of the symptoms of PTSD is a sense of dread, a feeling that something is going to go wrong. Wanting something—anything—leads to an expectation of things turning sour. We sometimes stop wanting just to avoid the dread.

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

Dr. Hart refers to naïve psychology as viewing ourselves differently from the way we view others (or they view us). We infer other people’s (or, animals’ for that matter) internal states of mind based upon observable traits and actions. We read body language and decide if this person is friendly or not, kind or dangerous, happy or angry. Others do the same to us; however, we see ourselves differently. We look at our behaviors as responses to the environment, things or events that trigger us. “They” make me mad.

Recovery is a learning process. By learning that my actions are consequences of my states of mind, and learning how to be aware of my state of mind, I can reduce the frequency and severity of PTSD symptoms. I can behave more like the kind of person I want to be.

I am vulnerable. I have placed myself on paper (well, electronic documents, actually) for all to see. My grades, my evaluations, my past, my skills, resources, talents, and potential…it’s all out there to be judged. “The greater the sense of vulnerability the more likely this will lead to an automatic arousal response, a dinosaur dump.” (Hart, 2000, p. 40)

I am not sure what happened last week in Afghanistan, but it sounds like a dinosaur dump, a brain limbic system disregulation that resulted in tragedy. While multiple murders is an extreme example, it is the kind of thing that happens when a sick mind loses a grip on the edge and sinks into an abyss of despair switched to rage.

So, why do I put myself in vulnerable positions like publishing a book, speaking on PTSD (as I will Friday), and applying for jobs? I do it because I am learning how to let go of the edge a little at a time—and with the help and support of family, friends, and a professional psychologist specializing in Combat PTSD. I do it because I want the life on the other side. And, I do it with the tool of a Clear Space.

Some of you learned relaxation techniques in my classes. You were introduced to your own personal clear space, that quiet, peaceful, and beautiful place in your mind where you feel, well, powerful. Yes, the clear space is our respite from vulnerability, and we have many ways of getting there. Morning walks with a Labrador Retriever named Serenity helps me. So does working the newspaper crossword puzzle with a wife named Nancy.

Santa Claus may be dead to me, as well as the Easter Bunny. I may look for all the things that can go wrong so that I expect misfortune. I may even awake with an undefined sense of dread. But, I do not have to live in that terrible choice between vulnerability and rage.

Looking around at my life today, enjoying the beauty of the moment in my clear space, I cannot deny that good things happen for me every day. Choosing to go to my clear space, to savor the blessings of this moment rather than the fears of expectations, I can walk through the vulnerability without rage. Only the myths died in Vietnam. Nothing real changed but my perception, my state of mind, and that is a reversible change.

BREATHE, and enjoy the journey.

Clinging to the Edge

Feeling trapped between a sea of vulnerability and a mountain of rage?

Trauma exaggerates feelings of vulnerability. Skills of coping with our world are overwhelmed. We are in danger, in peril of losing something precious to us (including life) and feeling helpless to prevent it. How do we react to helplessness?

One common reaction is learned helplessness. We stop trying. We stop fighting. We become victims.

Another reaction is resolve. We commit to fighting back. We tilt at windmills, blame others, and pledge that nobody will do that to us, again. We will die, first.

Sometimes we find a moderate path, and sometimes we vacillate between the two.

Reminder: For the next few months, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

I wear a mustache. In younger years, it was some expression of style, masculinity, or self-image. Now, it is a mask. Periodically, I shave it off to see how I look.

I look angry. I have no upper lip—just a thin line. Trying to make it reappear with an Angelina Jolie expression fails. The strange thing is I still recall thinking, when I returned home from Vietnam, that I wasn’t going to talk about it. I would be tight lipped. Odd.

In Dr. Hart’s groups, we refer to this as The Edge, a chronic anger (hopefully, low-grade). It is an adaptive technique, a useful coping mechanism. While not wonderful, it is better than the alternatives unless and until more cognitive coping skills are learned.

The sea of vulnerability means depression, despair, learned helplessness, and possibly suicide.

The mountain of rage means conflict, loss of family, employment, and freedom, possibly through homicide.

The edge is a crutch, a way a wounded warrior copes with feelings of vulnerability and rage. It is not pleasant, but it is healthier and preferable to the alternatives. It is also not a life sentence.

It is possible to let go of the edge, to grow out of this trap. We cannot climb the mountain of rage and we cannot swim the sea of vulnerability—without help.

The rage is what we refer to as a dinosaur dump, that wild ride of adrenalin-induced emotion that lasts for three or four days of pain and anguish and leaves us weak and more wounded. Bad things happen on these wild rides—irreversible things—that destroy lives. I know of no safe way over that mountain.

Vulnerability is equally debilitating. Trying to swim across the ocean is not possible. There comes a point of no return, where it is impossible even to get back to the shore. We drown in our own misery of vulnerability. I do know of a way to cross the ocean. But, why?

Happiness. The blessings of life are on the other side; however, Maslow’s being needs cannot be satisfied until more basic needs of survival and safety are met.

Do you want to help a Vet? Be happy. Give us your hope, a vision of the other side, a reason to cross that ocean. Oh, and give us a boat.

No, check that. Don’t give us a boat. Teach us how to build one. Then, teach us how to sail it, how to navigate, and how to survive the journey.

That’s the purpose of this blog. I’m trying to give you the plans to build your boat or to help a loved one build his or hers.

By relabeling triggers (of arousal) and becoming comfortable with our surroundings, we can begin the process. We learn to use some thought-stopping techniques (e.g. Einstein, talk to Harpo), breathing and relaxation, EMDR, and other cognitive restructuring processes. We build our boat and learn to sail it.

Then we practice. We try it, letting go of our edge. We experience vulnerability for short periods of time. We train with increasing lengths of exposure. We learn.

Note: I’m going to add a personal thought not found directly in Dr. Hart’s book. One solution to feelings of vulnerability that seems to work for many people is some Spiritual power, some God, Creator, Supreme Being upon which one can rely.

 

Recipe for Joy

Science of Joy IV: Re Quest

I invented a great recipe for acorn squash. It may not be the best recipe in the world, but if you like squash, you will likely enjoy my recipe.

Several years ago, I created an acronym to teach an order of survival. I took the Sacred Order taught by Tom Brown’s Tracking, Nature, and Wilderness Survival School and added one thing up front. What I did not teach high school students is that this order is also a recipe for living joy.

First, a little aside: Life is not supposed to be easy. Comfort, abundance, and security are not requirements for joy; in fact, they may make it more difficult to experience joy. Trials, tribulations, and danger are opportunities for personal growth and success. There is joy in a lifeboat.  Okay, back to the recipe.

B. S.A.F.E. The term, SAFE, represents the Sacred Order: Shelter, Agua, Fire, and Eat. (Actually, I was taught shelter, water, fire, and food, but SWFF makes no sense to me.) I added the B to stand for Breathe, a rather obvious survival requirement. Let’s leave that for last as we apply the recipe to Joy.

Shelter – Protect yourself from all things that steal your joy. If Fox News or MSNBC causes stress, turn it off. If crowded rooms trigger hyper vigilance and irritability, avoid them-or, shield yourself with friends, focus, and planned avenues of escape. If caffeine causes or elevates anxiety and agitation, drink decaf. This takes a little diligence in recording experiences and a lot of honesty in evaluating consequences. Joy is worth it.

Agua – Okay, this may take some mental gymnastics. The majority of our bodies is water. The majority of the biosphere, the thin layer of Earth occupied by most life, is water. It is our connection to each other and to Earth. Moreover, water is literally shared as we recycle, drink, and urinate it. We also create and destroy water through respiration and photosynthesis. Earth is a water-based planet with carbon-based life. Life happens only in water (even in the desert) because our chemistry is occurring only in water. Using water as our metaphor, connect to others. I find two ways to do this: First, I touch nature (a sunrise, desert verbena, my dog’s humor, or a thunderstorm); Second, I touch people. Okay, this one is more difficult for me. Without Nancy, I would be a recluse. With Nancy, I enjoy time with family and friends.

Fire – Another metaphor, but common. Find your passion. There are volumes, maybe libraries of volumes, written about this subject. It comes down to admitting what lights your fire because, when on fire, little annoyances and very large obstacles diminish to insignificance. Life is an emotional sport. There are many pathways to enlightenment, but passion is the key to enjoying the journey.

Eat – We are what we eat, and that includes everything we take into this thing we call self. Sugar makes me feel yucky. Caffeine makes me grumpy. Self indulgence makes me pity myself. Basically, our joy depends upon what we do to feed our minds and souls. If we eat a diet heavy in conflict and discord, joy will evade us. Try a diet of charity. You might enjoy it.

Breathe – This reminds me to live in the moment. Breathe in and breathe out with intention. Focus on the moment. That is where joy lives. Fear lives in the future and resentment in the past. You go to either at your own peril (See Shelter, above). Sure, this is a reference to meditation. Have you ever considered living your entire life in meditation?

Some great recipes are this simple. Bake the squash as usual (inverted halves on a Pammed cookie sheet). Turn up and sprinkle with Sea salt, pepper medley, and pumpkin pie spice. Add butter or margarine. Warm in oven until hungry.

If you dare try either of my recipes, especially B SAFE, I really would like to read your comments.

Live in the moment, and enjoy the journey.

Does Writing Have to Hurt?

Ernest Hemingway has been quoted: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

A cursory search reveals a number of such references to pain and writing. As a journeyman writer, I have a few thoughts on the subject. I am writing about these thoughts in an attempt to place them in some cognitive structure of my muddled mind.

Many past writers of renown seem to have been troubled souls. I cling to a notion that reflection and introspection lead to trouble, and trouble arouses emotions. Many of these emotions hurt, especially if suppressed. They fester into anger and guilt.

Writing is an art form that allows expression of emotions through words on a page (or screen). Fiction is creative expression of emotion with the pretense of being imaginary. The writing of fiction becomes cathartic as suppressed emotions are vented through a narrative medium of characters and literary devices.

Instead of talking about myself, these other guys have this problem. How do they deal with it? In the labor of writing, I also process my own feelings. At least, that’s my journeyman’s hypothesis.

Readers love emotions. We like to identify with characters and partake in vicarious feelings with the detachment of fiction. We temporarily feel the pain of fear, rage, betrayal, and loss only to look up and close the book. I suppose we feel better, but mostly we feel without getting overwhelmed.

My conclusion is that emotions sell books.

The craft is the creation of art that expresses life so that readers can swim in emotions without drowning. The more realistic a story becomes, the deeper the experience (and the danger of drowning). I suggest that is why some readers prefer cozies and fantasies, lest they realize the story is about them. There is comfort in deniability.

Enough of what my friend calls Seventies Psychobabble. Why must the emotions be painful? The honest answer is, because in my case, I’m just not that funny. And, I am not nearly joyful enough.

Essentially, only pain motivates me to sit at the keyboard and bleed. Comedy is a substitute for the bleeding. If I could write humor, I would.

Joy is an emotion. I can, occasionally write that, but I am not motivated because I am comfortable enjoying my own moment. Then, readers seem to seek out their own cathartic “pleasures” in reading material (and other art forms). Joyful people don’t seem to find a need to read joyful material the way perfect melancholy personalities seek painful reads. Blood sells books.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey (even though painful). It beats most alternatives.

Seasons of Sorrow

Science of Joy III: Public Rug

How do we teach joy inside and outside of our institutions of learning?

I left for college in 1964 and never went back home other than short visits. I even worked during Christmas break cleaning dorm rooms. Still, I remember spending time with family during the holidays with a cloud over my head. The semester did not end until January, and I had final exams to take. While this insanity of school calendar seems to have passed for most college students, it remains in many public high schools. We place an academic damper on the joy of our students.

Winter holiday time is stressful; evidence abounds in suicide rates. I wonder why that might be. I have heard some speculations about seasonal affective disorder, expectations of failed expectations, people missing family, and so on. While all of these may be true, I suspect the root cause is much simpler. We do not teach our children how to be joyful. It is not part of the curriculum. I suppose schools are leaving that up to the family.

Our larger institutions seem to lack joy, as well. Especially when Christmas comes during campaign season—and that seems to be every year, recently—we are inundated with everything that is wrong with our country, real and imagined. News cycles focus on tragedy, conspiracy, and calamity.

Fear is not conducive to joy.

We seem to believe we can buy joy.

Science seems to indicate otherwise. The more stuff we accumulate, the more we seem to fear losing it, and the more we seem to believe we need. We teach our children by our actions. Gluttony of mammon is an inherited disease, and there is no joy in it.

Grim post, isn’t it? It doesn’t have to be. This is the season for giving. Giving without any thought of thanks or reward is a certain pathway to joy. There are other avenues, but all have one thing in common: humility in diminution of ego. Sorry, I don’t have scientific evidence at hand to validate this claim. Do you? I would love to read your comments.

Maybe we need only remind ourselves to enjoy what we have. Certainly, material security in air, water, food, and shelter is important. Joy, however, comes not from our security or other blessings, but in our opportunities to share. Isn’t that the real message of the Season of Joy? Let us teach this to ourselves, families, friends, and strangers through our actions.

All I want for Christmas is time to share a little joy.

Whatever your faith, I hope you enjoy the journey.

What Is a Story?

By definition, a story is an account of real or fictitious events (as history) usually narrated (told) as by spoken or written words, pictures, symbols, and/or artifacts. History is the root word from which story is derived. Narrate is a term grounded in a word meaning knowledge or knowing (as Gnostic). So, a story is some account of events told by someone having specific knowledge and point of view. Yeah, well…

A story is trouble for somebody about whom we have some care and concern. At least in the American Novel, there is some expectation of conflict escalating to climax and resolution. We might say there is a kind of recipe or format. A specific pattern of format for story expectations might characterize a literary genre. Readers look for very different plots in Romances, Mysteries, and Erotic Novels.

A story is a promise (Bill Johnson, www.storyispromise.com). The author presents a situation in which one or more characters face personal conflict which escalates to seemingly impossible conditions. Action and tension increase. Trouble abounds. Defects in personal and/or group character traits complicate the troubles. Outcome is not certain; however, the audience demands satisfactory conclusion.

Oh, one more thing. The story must stretch the audience’s belief without breaking it. Genres differ, here. I cannot become a fan of Horror or Science Fiction because it is very difficult to maintain the suspension of my disbelief (I am a skeptic). Erotica and Romance escape my naïveté. Military and Nature milieu stories must be accurate or true to my experience else I stop reading.

One example is a famous book that claimed the moon was visible in different phases at different places around the world simultaneously. I set up a sun-Earth-moon model in my living room and learned that the author was wrong. I discounted everything else in the story. It became unbelievable to me and the author not credible.

Similarly, characters must be believable. Fortunately, the range of normal and abnormal human psychology is so vast in my experience that little could be more extreme than historical accounts of real Wisconsin residents. Still, a character must stay in character unless that kind of abnormal psychology is part of the story.

Plot trajectory must also follow some generally predictable patterns with a few surprising specific twists. Random conflicts and resolutions (strangers appearing, magic events, unexplained coincidences) are believable only within limits of context. It breaks the story promise.

A story is a promise kept. The writer offers a promise of interesting characters with believable traits including defects, a milieu of setting and circumstance offering trouble, and a sequence of events with plenty of building conflict. The reader/audience has a right to expect all of this with some unpredictable events and a satisfactory outcome. And, the promise must be offered in the first few pages. That’s all.

In fairness, I remind you that my views come from on-the-job training. I have no formal education in narration or novel writing. You can get your own training by writing, reading, and searching views of successful writers you appreciate. You can find all sorts of discussions of story, narration, myth, and symbolism online. One topic I am interested in investigating is the range of emotional appetites of various audiences with regard to characterization and story structure (plot or conflict curve). We read to experience emotions.

One last thing: Feel free to teach something, to make a statement of observation regarding the meaning of the experience of life. You can tell a story that adds something to the great narrative of human history.

With all of this formulation, remember to be original. Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.