TO WAKE WITH A SIMPLE THIRST

To wake with a simple thirst for clean water and know that it can be quenched is a glorious thing. I hear this in the stories of recovering addicts.

In my own experience, impatient hunger upon rising—to say nothing of an immediate reach toward stimulants of one kind or another, however benign (chocolate, tea)—is a sign of imbalance somewhere in my system, be it merely the aftermath of the preceding day’s choices or something more involved. I’m grateful and happy when, like today, I only want water first thing, or water with lemon. It seems a good sign.

Such a thirst is also educative, or can be. There is edification in true satisfaction. What really matters in life? Those of us fortunate enough to meet our simplest biological needs are also caught up in a maelstrom of confusion about thousands of things we’re persuaded to want. Said confusion, said flurry—including the internet sidebar and popup ads that you don’t find here—occupies precious time and resources, with global ramifications.

Clean water, quenched thirst—these are too rare for large swaths of the world. I’m making an obvious point, I know, but it’s easy to forget. And how to live with such knowledge? I do my small part by supporting organic agriculture as often as possible (to spare the water system, as well as the health of farm workers, bees, etc.) and try to buy local and fair trade when I can (to support genuine livelihoods here and elsewhere in the world). I aim, when I’m able, to invest in ethically vetted mutual funds and donate to fiscally responsible nonprofits.

Before thirst is the need for oxygen; after thirst is the need for nourishment. As a graduate student, I had little time for proper cooking. That’s still true, actually; but I have more time to daydream about it. As soon as I finished my last paper, I subscribed to several highly regarded and/or popular food blogs. A number of them even slant toward the traditional food preparations (like lacto-fermentation) that increase nutritional content. Still, the frivolity of commerce—individual cupcake stands?

There is that part of me that finds the gracious living of the past appealing—with its special cutlery and egg cups. It evokes ritual and a stately pace for living. But of course, gracious living has always, in various ways, involved the exploitation of others, as the docent in Frederick Wiseman’s National Gallery so importantly states to a young tour group: we have to acknowledge that this preserve for the art of the ages, was funded in large measure by slave labor. Nor am I even talking here about that kind of calm institution, those old-fashioned niceties. I’m talking about the ceaseless contemporary inundation that says Indulge yourself and Buy, buy, buy. Exploitation is not a thing of the past.

To return to the beginning: I was once over-served at a New Year’s Eve party—I was inexperienced, and the friendly bartender poured with too generous a hand. I savored the tonic, the lime, and unknowingly drank so much vodka that I lost all track of time, place, and myself. The next day I could barely move—not just from my bed, but in it. However, it was a period in my life when I regularly drew with my non-dominant hand, a method that yields surprises. Somehow, I drew in bed that day. Desperately hung over, with sick lucidity, I drew a glass of water with angel wings.

Angel water

EARLY MORNING GIRAFFES, AND A WELL-MEANING NEIGHBOR

I love taking walks, as I’ve mentioned before, and usually find some bit of magic in them. There was the time, as a dramatic example, a bald eagle swooped low over me on South Street—South Street!—as if to bring me the courage and invigorating sense of benediction I then needed.

The two small giraffes I saw ahead of me at 6AM today, on the steep grade I was climbing, were not magical, however, but merely a trick of light, perspective, and my eyes, still full of sleep. They were greyhounds, just nosing about, as I saw when I got closer. (They possessed their own mystique, of course.)

My thoughts were occupied by a well-meaning neighbor, who planted many of the shade trees on my street, and who cleared all our parking spaces with his snow-blower these last two colossal winters. I rarely see him, so when our paths crossed recently and he asked how I was doing, I mentioned I’d graduated. Graduated from what? “Social work, for counseling,” I said.

“So you wanna work with the crazies, huh? That’s burnout work right there.”

“Well,” I said, “it probably helps that I don’t see them that way.”*

I’m frankly baffled as to why / how such stigma continues to exist. I know this isn’t an original thought, nor even the first time I’ve made the comparison, but is it really that different from the old confusion of epilepsy with demonic possession?

There is no person of such sound physique or character that he wouldn’t be affected if dosed past his own personal threshold for drugs. There is no one who wouldn’t fall into a stupor; or panic; or see, hear, and feel things, based on whatever chemicals were circulating in her brain and blood.

Even when we are healthy, we feel good and clear and sane because our own personal pharmacies are generating the right balance of chemicals. For many people, that balance gets thrown.

Mental health, like all health, exists on a continuum, or something akin to one. If that scares people because it seems too fragile, I think it ought to give them hope for the good that can be done. I could write about this at length but will have to take a piecemeal approach, given the limits of time and my ability to organize my thoughts and research. My approach, in brief, is holistic.

One important point to make is this: genomes can be mapped, and consequently we’ll see more attempts at targeted medications; but what about epigenetics? A person whose liver has been compromised from birth by a toxic water supply, for example, will likely be more vulnerable to all sorts of things (and possibly less responsive to treatment) than those raised on clean spring water or reverse-osmosis carbon filtration. We’d all do well to a) value our health from the inside-out, and b) demonstrate humility and compassion. Mental health professionals included!

I was thinking of these things as three police vehicles passed me, turning into their parking lot up the way. It so happens that the neighbor in question is a retired police officer, and I’m sure he saw many things in his time on the force to darken his view of humanity. I myself feel pretty grim about it anytime I find myself near a television, which thankfully is fairly rare. The work of law enforcement is psychologically stressful and legitimately dangerous, however small the town, however easy the precinct, and I mention my neighbor’s profession not to incite antagonism against cops, but to encourage the use of mental health sensitivity training among all first responders, so that dignity can be preserved and lives can be saved.

As I write these last words, inside a small office next to a rest home, an old man with dementia is out making the rounds of the parking lot, checking all the license plates. I’m told this was once his job somewhere, and that he’s allowed to continue it here because it settles him. The people in charge even give him a fluorescent vest to wear. I have to smile as he limps along—he looks so purposeful. He’s doing his work.

* For the record, I have never personally worked with those known as the severely mentally ill; but my sense of the ethics of care holds for them as for the kids, inmates, and addicts with whom I’ve interacted.