Hello again, let’s talk about loneliness

It’s been a while. If you’re a returning reader, thank you for being patient. If you’re new, you’re in for a wild one. 

I want to write about what influences my writing. I’ve extolled the virtues of Bob Ross before and today I’ll talk about Kurt Vonnegut. But first I need to address the long spell between blogs. I’ve made it a point to commit to more regular posts, to keeping a regular schedule, but I haven’t followed through. Life gets in the way for everyone, that’s no excuse. The last few months have been difficult and I’ve been struggling to keep symptoms of depression from shutting me down completely. 

There have been lots of ideas for topics, plenty of opportunities to write, but the motivation has not been there. The sense that anyone really cares about what I have to say, or that I’m adding anything worthwhile to the non-stop torrent of garbage on the Internet, has been absent. A general apathy started to engulf me, and that’s when I know depression is setting in. I’m lucky that it’s not worse, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t keep me from getting things done. That in turn just makes me feel worse and less motivated to do even the most mundane tasks, let alone sit down to the keyboard. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of days where I’m happy. The energy to do anything beyond what is necessary just isn’t there. As much as I want to be writing some days it just isn’t something that I can find the time and headspace for. When this lingers my apathy extends to a general ambivalence towards life. I don’t get suicidal (for that I’m grateful) but there are times when the idea of death just doesn’t seem like that bad of a thing. I imagine lots of people get like that from time to time, but I wonder if it’s as normal as I rationalize it to be. 

That’s a scary place to reach. The self-awareness of it all makes this feeling seem like I’m watching somebody else. My inner monologue seems more like a narration of a character that I’m imagining rather than a person who is actually living. It feels like…. like being unstuck in time.

So it goes. And so I think of Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse 5 typically is the first book to come to mind. But also Palm Sunday. I think about Vonnegut’s post-war life and his own struggles with mental health and loneliness. Vonnegut was not physically isolated, but it’s  clear that he fought with mental isolation. This is almost worse as you are close to people you love and who love you back, but you feel distant. It’s hard to describe and harder still to break out of. You want to, but the words aren’t there. You mumble responses, shrug instead of speak, alternate between averting your eyes and staring blankly at nothing at all. 

I think about what Vonnegut meant when he wrote of smelling like mustard gas and roses. I picture him at his blue typewriter with an ashtray full of spent cigarettes and a glass of whiskey, neat. He’s finished writing for the day. Getting up from one chair, balancing a cigarette and the glass in one hand he walks to another chair. Set the glass down on a small round table top, take a drag from the fag, and pick up the phone to call on someone who might understand the queer things running through his mind. The things that scare him. Things that need to be said out loud to make them less terrifying. So that they may be outside and beaten down rather than inside and beating up.

I think about what Vonnegut thought of these troubles. What did he think of how other WWII vets were most certainly dealing with similar feelings and how they dealt with them? So much time has passed, but the isolation and loneliness reach across time. Vonnegut knew this, and that’s why he talked about it so much. Staying silent creates a feedback loop of loneliness. Speaking up isn’t so much about making myself feel better as much as it is about letting others with the same affliction know that they aren’t alone, even though they feel lonely. 

There was a time when I’d cover up the loneliness with a blanket of booze. A bottle or two of wine isn’t a thing as long as you wake up for PT and outrun some people. Having to stop at the store for another 6-pack after work each weekday isn’t really that big of a deal. It’s not a problem if it’s not a full case. Facebook will keep me connected to friends, no need to make new ones. And who doesn’t love getting a drunk dial from me!?

It can be a challenge to see your struggles when your head is up your own ass. Looking at the cover picture I selected for this post I don’t laugh at it like I did when it was taken (Korea, 2007 or 2008). It kind of just makes me sad. I get a pit in my stomach. In spite of all the fun I did have in Korea it was still one of the loneliest times in my life. It was an odd mixture of excitement of being in fucking Korea (!) and having my own platoon to lead, and also feeling so utterly alone at times. Anger was ever present at Camp Casey, alcohol about the only way to cope for any of us. It was just normalized. That picture is the face of so many people who served at Camp Casey. It’s honest if ugly.

The pain and the creeping feeling of isolation don’t stop, but you find better ways of dealing with them. I binge on comics and Star Wars books now instead of booze. Instead of looking at the bottom of a bottle, I look for inspiration and something to create hope. And sometimes I just need to show myself some compassion and allow for the time to work through the darkness without adding on guilt for lack of accomplishment. 

Darkness is an old friend for many of us. Simon has no monopoly on that. When I feel it creeping I reach for comfort from healthier means now. That is something to at feel good about at least. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those things and it seemed appropriate to put that on paper, so to speak. I hope to soon make a trip to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which is in the process of relocating. Check the link out for details, and if you’d like to help them here’s another link. This isn’t any kind of sponsored content and I get nothing out of it. I only feel a deep sense of gratitude for Vonnegut and his work. If this helps others find him then I’ll have done something to fight that bastard called loneliness.

Thank you for your attention.

Until we meet again.

Bob Ross as a spiritual guide

Indulge me if you will. This will be a meandering missive, but I promise a few gems (not the Infinity kind). This has been a week full of frustrating news and to counter this I turned to an old friend, Bob Ross. Amazon Prime now streams seasons 10 – 31 of The Joy of Painting, and it really saves my mental health some days – thanks Bezos. Sometimes I just put it on for background noise, Bob’s soft voice never fails to return positive vibes. As a kid I would watch Bob whenever I was home sick, now I make it a regular part of taking care of myself. There is something so pleasing about the sound of a fan brush striking canvas to make happy little trees. Or the sharp scrape of a painting knife scratching in some happy little twigs. All these audio stimuli combined exude calmness, serenity, tranquility.

As I binged on Bob a couple nights ago I was struck by how many of his witticisms, which can seem goofy at first, are very much like the lessons I’ve been learning from my dive into Stoicism. I started jotting down different Bob sayings, ideas, and other lessons to be gleaned from this gentle afro-grandpa. By the time I finished for the night I had 14 separate bulletized notes. For ease of reading I’m putting my notes in quotes to distinguish them from the rest of the post’s content (suck it, grammar). Here. We. Go.

“You need the dark to see the light” – This of course was always in reference to creating contrast in his paintings, but Bob would occasionally point out how this applies to sorrow and happiness. During the life of The Joy of Painting, Bob lost his mother and his wife, yet he kept bringing light to all of us. At times it seems like creating paintings to share and seeing others experience the joy of painting is what kept Bob going. Taking the sorrow and using it to create happiness for others brought light back into Bob’s life. That’s powerful.

“On the canvass you control all. But nowhere else, so don’t stress over what you can’t control” – A major teaching of the Stoics was that to be happy we must recognize what we control, accept what we do not control, and only concern ourselves with that which we have control over. Bob would joke that when he left the studio and went home all he was in charge of was taking out the garbage, but when he painted he had absolute control over that world. Painting provided a medium to channel frustrations with the outside world, to enjoy having control over something so that he could accept the things he did not control. How much more joy would we all have if we all practiced this in our own way? Lately it seems many people are consumed with their anger, often with things outside their control. That is sad and dangerous. What I can do is to refuse to live like that and share these thoughts with you all in hopes of spreading these ideas.

“Give voice to your thoughts – sounds, naming anything, it’s why we write!” – OK, this is slightly disjointed, but hey, it’s my notes! The lesson here is that the quirk Bob had of putting voice to what he was thinking, even down to making his own sound effects or naming inanimate objects, is healthy and spurs our creativity. My wife will often ask me ‘Are the sound effects really necessary?’ Well, yes. Maybe all those hours of watching Bob when I was a kid is what formed this habit in me. Try it out sometime. Being a weirdo is essential to personal freedom. Keeping everything in your head all the time will take a toll on you, share your thoughts and ideas with the world. We all have something to add.

“No mistakes, only happy accidents” – Possibly my favorite Bob-ism. It’s pretty simple and carries so much power. If you screw up, there is always a way to make something positive out of the situation. It can be difficult to see how or what good can come from some of life’s bumps, but there is opportunity for good in every bad situation. This too is strikingly Stoic. The idea that our perception of an event, rather than the event itself, is what is good or bad was often talked about. It is challenging to live this every day, but that’s the point! The more we are able to live out this idea the better person we become.

“Importance & impact of a gentle touch “2 hairs & a whisper”‘ – Some elements of Bob’s painting technique (wet on wet) required a very delicate touch. He would say “2 hairs and a whisper is all you need” to emphasize just how little pressure was needed at times. To me this also speaks to how our own small, seemingly insignificant actions can make a profound impact. We all face adversity in our lives all the time, often not sharing it. Suicide prevention is a hot button issue for veterans, and really the US as a whole. ‘Check your buddy’ is pounded into your head in the military, but really it’s just a good thing for all of us to do all the time. So be kind to each other. You never know when a gentle word or a random phone call will save a life.

“Aggregation of many small things, that on their own are indistinct, make something beautiful” – Bob’s paintings usually looked like a toddler’s scribblings until about half way through. Then, all these weird, ugly smudges and criss-crossing brush strokes started to coalesce into a gorgeous landscape. The jumbled up picture in Bob’s head (he also had a model painting off camera to his right) would develop and give us all something to marvel at. Bob would say we all have that ability, and it’s true. The greater point here is that all of our small actions eventually add up. Make your actions good and just, take care to do the small things right and the big picture will take care of itself before your eyes.

“Caring about all life. Equanimity to all.” – Bob loved nature and would often show off some birds or squirrels that he and his wife would care for until they were ready to go back to the wild. Peapod the Pocket Squirrel was a favorite. Even after being let loose to nature he would return each day to Bob’s house for a visit. I try to emulate this with bird feeders and putting out food for the squirrels in my backyard. Now that winter is setting in here in NY the visits are less frequent. Spring and summer bring so many different creatures to my backyard zoo though, and it’s a great joy to just watch them. It’s a great way to develop compassion and empathy, things I’m sometimes lacking. Each day is a new opportunity to work on this and to live up to the Franciscan ideals of serving all.

“Believe that you can do it and you will” – Bob loved the wet on wet technique for its ease and mass accessibility. He believed anyone could make paintings just like his. Knowing that people still felt intimidated or uncertain, he frequently reminded us all that it is possible and that the first step is to simply believe in ourselves. Attitude is everything, right? Having the confidence that we can succeed is more important than any natural talent. I have struggled with this so much in my transition to civilian life. It’s easy to remember my failings. At one point I counted up 14 different things I had tried and failed at, or just quit, since leaving the Army. It may have taken longer than I wanted, but I’m here writing this blog now. I’m building up towards this goal of writing a book, post by post.

“Spreading joy/goodness is self-reenforcing” – Another concept that has been explored pretty broadly. For as much as this is talked about it’s odd how often we fail to follow through on it. We all know it, when we make someone else happy we also gain some happiness. Certainly something I need to keep in mind and live up to much more.

“All of us need a creative outlet” – Touched on this a bit earlier. Finding a constructive outlet for our emotions is essential. We’re still in the early days of this blog, but I immediately recognized the benefits of getting back to writing. One day I will try painting, when I have the space to dedicate to paint flying everywhere. For now this bit of writing that I am sticking to is helping me to focus my thoughts, get the noise out of my head, feel productive, and make tangible steps towards a big goal. I’m thrilled whenever someone reads my posts or leaves a comment, but first and foremost I’m here for myself because it’s good for my mental health.

“Dissatisfaction with your painting is a blessing. If you ever make a painting you’re completely satisfied with you might as well stop painting because you have nowhere to go if there is no more improvement to be made” – This is one of those needing dark to see the light things. If you achieve perfection, why continue? Don’t be upset at yourself for having shortcomings, look on them as chances to keep improving yourself. Again, we run into that Stoic idea of our perception, rather than the situation, bestowing value. We are human, by nature we suck. Embrace that and find ways to be better. Maybe, just maybe, that’s the meaning of life?

“Don’t be afraid to make big decisions. They can always be altered with some effort” – Bob would reach a point in his paintings where it was time to ‘make a big decision’ or that it was ‘time for your bravery test’. This would mean that he was about to put a large tree in the foreground, or begin to set the peaks of a mountain range. These were essential elements to the painting, pieces that would draw your attention and provide something dramatic to admire. In the world of that canvass, these were life and death decisions, something to terrify the inexperienced painter. Bob’s way of helping us get over the anxiety was to remind us that if something didn’t go as we wanted it to, there were ways of fixing our happy accident. There is always a way to mend what we foul up. It may be difficult, it may take time, but we can always turn the bad into good. So don’t be fearful. Don’t let your anxieties paralyze you into inaction. Make the best decision you can, have faith in yourself to see where you can do better and know that you will.

“Everyone needs friends, even trees” Bob gave everything in his paintings friends. No tree stood alone, not even fence posts were solitary. While we must find the strength to do right within ourselves, we all need support. We all need help and to have good people around us. Humans are social creatures, and while we might not all want tons of friends or to even be around other humans very often, we do need friends. They help us grow through life, they are there when we need support or even just to help us work through a problem. Don’t forget to be a friend, and remember to say “thank you for being a friend.” (You just sang that, didn’t you?)

“If what you’re doing isn’t working change your technique/approach” My last note! Bob would mention, from time to time, that he originally tried to be a traditional painter. The wet on wet technique that he became known for was derided as amateur. It was looked down on by critics because it was easy and for the masses. If art isn’t exclusionary then what’s the point!? Well, the point is to express yourself and to enjoy the practice. Ignoring the critics, Bob embraced the wet on wet technique and found his niche. I think we all encounter this dilemma in our lives. Don’t be afraid to change course, and don’t let yourself be anchored to any dogma. I tried several times to start writing a full length book from start to finish. That never worked for me, for many reasons. I changed up my approach though, and progress is being made.

There you have it. The wisdom I gleaned from a night of bingeing on Bob Ross. I hope you liked it and can see why I view Bob Ross as a spiritual guide in life. If you’re still wondering why I love Bob Ross so much I suggest watching this and this. Hopefully I’ll do a better job of living up to everything I just wrote! I’m certainly glad you joined me today. Bob would end each show by saying “Happy painting, and God bless”, this wouldn’t make sense for me to say. So instead I’ll just steal from another artist I admire and leave you with “Be good and you will be lonesome.”