Second Guessing: The War Within

I have a tiny whisper that goes in and out with me,

And what can be the use of it is more than I can see.

(with apologies to Robert Louis Stevenson)

My tiny whisper goes in and out with me,  such a steady companion that I’m rarely conscious of hearing it. But I react to it, oh, yes! I react to it. What I wonder — before I tell you about it — is whether you sometimes go about accompanied by your own tiny whisper. This is what mine says to me:

How do I feel? How do I feel about this?

An innocuous little whisper, no? And then I dutifully stop, and ponder, before I go to the gym, or begin exercising, or even brush my teeth (full-scale version, with tiny pick and floss as well as paste and toothbrush): How do I feel? How do I feel about this? My tiny whisper is second-guessing me. Giving me another chance to decide something already decided..

And as often as not, my response to the whisperer is to take off the sneakers, to put down the brush and toothpaste. Later. I’ll do it later. I don’t feel so terrific, I don’t feel like doing this right now.

I’ve teased it out for you here, but mostly it goes automatically. The voice, the second guess, the response, mostly negative. Mostly working to reverse an action I’ve already decided on doing. That’s the killer, of course, that’s why I want to bring that tiny whisper’s existence into the spotlight. I, the conscious thinking I, has pulled myself together to do something I think is a good idea. But between the idea and the execution falls, not T.S. Eliot’s shadow, but my whisper.

Which actually is a shadow, of course, at least in the sense that Carl Jung, that great anti-Freud, posits that everyone has a shadow side. It’s our dark side, that’s turned away from our rational good sense and straightforward actions and best intentions. The dark side harbors ugly thoughts, ill-wishes and ill intentions, and hurries to sabotage both others and oneself.

Yetzer hara, yetzer hatov

Monoprint, Judith Bruder

Quite a long time before Carl Jung, Hebrew folklore posited two basic impulses that dwell within each person, the yetzer ha-ra and the yetzer ha-tov, the evil impulse and the good impulse. I’ve always pictured them as two tiny angels, one sitting on each of my shoulders. My better self, my worse self,  arguing back and forth: Do this, no, do that. The war within, a civil war, in effect. And which one wins is a toss-up, every time.

More frequently than I’m happy to admit, it’s the yetzer ha-ra that prevails. The cutting remark that didn’t need to be made. The generous word that was never spoken. The stint on the treadmill that didn’t happen this morning, the teeth quietly accumulating some more plaque — those purely physical phenomena are the tip of a much larger iceberg.

I once was given very sound words of wisdom by a spiritual advisor. “Follow your instincts,” he said. “You have good instincts, so follow them.” But it’s amazing how difficult it is to follow such a seemingly simple instruction! The tiny whisper, always there, below the level of my conscious attention, always second-guessing those good instincts, often subverting them.

It’s only in the past few months that I’ve really become aware how omnipresent this tiny whisper is. It’s only recently that I’m learning to recognize it,  to coax it or chase it into the light, and thereby learn to manage it, and regain the freedom to say yes or no with an undivided heart.

Always a late bloomer, I wonder if I’m the only one. Do any of you have your own tiny whisper? Your own second-guesser? If so, what imaginative shape does it take?  How do you fight your own war within?

And those for whom this is a non-issue, know how fortunate you are, and rejoice!

Posted in Angels, Challenge, Doubt, Failure, Freedom, Mindfulness, Personal Essay, Wisdom | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments


It’s late October. We’re past the blue and gold, and into the fallen, fading autumn leaves of ocher, beige, dull red and brown. They’re EVERYWHERE!

Autumn Leaves

On the patio:

On the Patio

Sitting on the chairs:

Patio Chairs

It’s clearly time to wrap up outdoor living for the winter, so we took advantage of hale and hearty visitors to do so. Now we’re prepared, until springtime comes around again:

A Melancholy Sight

A melancholy sight!

To solace ourselves — music. Sweet, melancholy music, the strains of Autumn Leaves, originally written as Les Feuilles Mortes by French surrealist poet Jacques Prévert. There are about as many versions of this ballad available on Youtube as there are fallen leaves on our porch. There’s Natalie Cole’s and Frank Sinatra’s and Barbra Streisand’s sophisticated rendition. There’s Edith Piaf, singing in French, with her tremolo working overtime, and the incredible French version by Yves Montand. Nobody could hold a cigarette — or a note — like he could. But I’ve chosen for you my very most favorite version. Snuggle down in a comfortable chair and let the inimitable Nat King Cole break your heart a little bit:


Posted in Autumn, Loneliness, Memory, Music, Nature, Pioneer Valley, winter | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

After the Deluge

October being what it is, autumn in New England, we have mild days and cold, gold and gray. We also have not infrequent deluges, and yesterday was one of those. The rain approached Biblical proportions. Worcester, not so far from us, broke 50 year records. Ours was not bad either, what the Hub calls “dancing rain”:

The Rains Came ---

But at sunset time the weather began to clear, and turned mild and amiable, as if it had never raged during the day:

A Mild Sky, After the Storm

The crimson of the tree next door survived, mostly intact:

Mostly Intact!

And even the fallen leaves metamorphosed into a kind of mosaic that cheered my heart!

Nature's Mosaic

Not for the first time I understand just how two-faced Mother Nature is, giving with one hand and taking away with the other.  It’s a struggle often to appreciate both faces, but worth the effort. (And what choice do we really have?)

Posted in Autumn, Color, Nature, Pioneer Valley | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

King Midas in Northampton

One day the big twin-trunked tree in the back yard was covered with bright green leaves. Then the very next day when I awoke, or so it it seemed, King Midas had come by in the night and touched it, because there it was, glittering with October’s gold:

October's Gold

October at its best and brightest is the month of blue and gold. Here is some blue:

October Blue

A brave and beautiful prelude we’re having to November’s too-hasty farewell to autumn!

(King Midas, in the ancient Greek myth, was blessed — and cursed — by being granted the power  to turn everything he touched to gold. Which was swell as long as he stuck to pots and pans and household furniture, but turned to disaster when he tried to eat breakfast, for example. Solid gold oatmeal — no way! And then his little daughter rushed to him and hugged him — Does the story end there? No, but you’ll have to travel elsewhere to find out if there was a happy ending to this tale of wisdom overcome by greed and avarice —)

Posted in Autumn, Color, Nature, Touch | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

A New Strain: “Last Gasp” Morning Glories!

When my gardening neighbor planted the vines on the other side of the trellis shared by our patios, I was delighted. The quickly climbing green leaves made no distinction between thine and mine. They clambered through the lattice to my side as eagerly as they climbed on hers, softening the hard white plastic, and bringing an unaccustomed anticipation of flowers for this non-achieving gardener.

“Are they morning glories?” I asked in a hushed voice. (I ADORE morning glories.)

“Yes,” she said. “But I bought them at a farm stand — I usually grow them from seed — and I don’t know what color they’re going to be.”

“Oh, I hope they’re blue!” we exclaimed in unison.

Blue morning glories are the very color of heaven. The color of the sky on a perfect unclouded day, limpid and pure, the essence of blue. Oh yes, I hope they’re blue.

The vines grew and flourished and rambled and twined.

Buddha overseeing vines ---

Buddha overseeing vines —

And grew and flourished and twined some more, until they were so luxuriant they began to look like they would engulf both patios! But there were no flowers, blue or otherwise. It seemed as if our vine was like a disappointing baseball prodigy, all field, no hit.

The days passed. And more days. Weeks. Still vines only, no flowers. The sands dwindled swifter through summer’s hourglass. Still no flowers. We looked at each other, my neighbor and I.

“Do you think they’ll make it before the first frost?”

“I don’t know. I hope so!” she said.

It was weeks now since the vines had begun their Jack-and-the-Beanstalk act, and still no flowers, not blue or pink or even, heaven help us, white!

Then, at last, with October and the first frost nearing, this greeted me early one morning:

Blue, by heaven, blue!

Blue, by heaven, blue!

Blue! By heaven, blue! Even if it’s only one. The next day:

Sky Blue

Only in the nick of time, it turns out. The vine leaves are already turning to autumn yellow:

At the Last Gasp

It had come through. But why all this angst and delay?  If I had planted the vine, black thumb that I have, it wouldn’t even have made it to the green twining stage. But my neighbor is a skilled gardener. She was unhappy. She asked questions, and made a discovery.

Turns out that morning glories come, not only in more than a single color, but more than a single blooming habit. This variety was a late bloomer, a “hairy stem” or something exotic like that. Not a variety to be planted in New England, where frost comes early and hard. But true to the stubborn nature of New Englanders, it had come through. At the last gasp, yes. But it had come through.

We now had our own name for our shared plant. It would officially be (at least to us) the Last Gasp Morning Glory.

Posted in Autumn, Buddha, Challenge, Color, Flowers, Nature, Pioneer Valley | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Not My Circus?

This morning, on fellow blogger Stef’s Daily Delights, I encountered this Polish proverb: Not my circus, not my monkeys!

Oft-quoted Polish Proverb Well! I promptly decided to adopt the proverb as my mantra-of-the-day. Enough of the silliness, enough of the small stuff (I thought we agreed not to sweat it, didn’t we?). People want to hang on to the nonsense and carry on like a bunch of monkeys, let ‘em!

And I felt really good. There’s lots of ways to take that proverb. One is, don’t sweat the small stuff (see above).  Just because everybody around you is going nuts doesn’t mean you have to.  For me, it’s a call to let go of grandiosity: do I really think I’m qualified or capable of solving the problems of the world?

But then I did something dangerous. I started to think more about it. For the first time in our lives, we’re living as part of a community, not solely individuals on our own. So far that’s felt really good. It’s meant unaccustomed support in adversity, a source of strength and comfort and companionship. That’s the good stuff. But then — what about the nonsense?

There’s always nonsense. People in any group larger than one get involved, embroiled, carried away. I get really impatient when that happens, say, at community meetings. (Heaven knows it happens in families all the time!) My immediate instinct is to cut out, mentally if not physically. What a boost for me the proverb is! Not my circus, not my monkeys.

But what if it is? Sometimes it actually is, isn’t it? My circus, my monkeys, my family, my community. My political party. My country. What then?

There’s the uncomfortable part of belonging to something more than oneself. Things aren’t so simple anymore. What’s good for me may not be good for all. What I want might be the opposite of what you want. What I need might interfere with what you need. It gets tricky very quickly, when we’re all under one Big Top together.

As for the monkeys — Well, I’ve got my wild and crazy side just like you do. My irrationalities, my stubbornness, my mischievous energy. My restlessness, my boredom, my impatience. Much as I’m loath to, I’ve got to claim some of these monkeys as my own.

The proverb, then, is sometimes right, but oftentimes tragically wrong.

The world is the way it is (oh, today’s headlines! these terrible headlines!) because the circus is out of control. The monkeys have taken over, and all the ringmasters have disappeared.

So what do we need? We need some grownups. (Heaven knows there are more than enough monkeys to go around!) What we need are grown-up human beings with the capacity to reason as well as feel emotion.  With self-control enough to be flexible.  With humility enough to value compromise.

And maybe some of us (I’m looking in the mirror here) need reminding that sometimes it IS our circus, and it IS our monkeys, and — for better for worse — it’s up to us to do something about it.



Posted in Challenge, Doubt, Personal Essay | Tagged , , , , , , | 24 Comments

Today’s Portrait: FIREFIGHTER

No, today’s portrait isn’t a flower! It’s occurred to me that other objects besides flowers can emanate presence and personality. Can demonstrate QUIDDITAS, the quality that Aristotle meant when he wrote of “thatness,” or “whatness,” or “what it is.”

When I was painting still lifes, that was the quality I was always trying to capture. The quidditas, the essence of the thing or things.

Admittedly it wasn’t what I had in mind when I offhandedly snapped this photo. I didn’t really have anything much in mind beyond, Hey, I wonder what the camera will do to this. And then, to my amazement and delight, there it was. There HE was.

The Firefighter

I can see him clear as anything, his silver helmet, his sturdy right arm ready with the hose. Not simply a fire hydrant down the lane, but The Firefighter!

Well, maybe it is isn’t quidditas. Maybe it’s another Greek concept. Maybe I’m dealing with metamorphosis. Whatever it is, it’s mythic, and it startles and amuses me. Maybe it will startle and amuse you too —

Posted in Art, Photography, Wonderings | Tagged , , , , , , | 23 Comments