New Rule

The alarm is set for 8 o’clock. It’s just past midnight, and I am staring at the ceiling, my eyes glued wide open. For once, neither I nor the ceiling or spinning, but nobody has managed to get the gremlins in my head to stand down.

The last few weeks have been defined by bouts of Ménière’s-related vertigo that have forced me to use a wheelchair to keep from falling down at work and to depend on other people to get me from point a to point B. At home this translates into far too much time spent on the couch watching reruns while mindlessly doom scrolling through text and images that I’m far too nauseous to absorb beyond a headline here or there.

When the fog clears, I try to paint – especially when the gremlin are keeping sleep away. Sitting and scrolling are becoming far too habitual, however.

This morning – it’s morning now –– I’m out of thinner for my paint. I’m desperate so I get up and fill the tub, grab the first book I see in my office and sink into the bubbles.

It’s not a novel. It’s a book about the history of English which turns out to be great. I expect to be engaged, entertained, and sooth, when I read fiction, but I’m surprised how relaxing it is to learn something new at two in the morning. I’m having the age old problem of not being able to put the book down, but it’s a different sensation from scrolling through toxic pages of social media posts.

Scrolling is turns my body into a clenched fist.

Each turned page, however, slows my heart rate. Each new factoid relaxes another muscle.

The book may keep me up all night, but I’m not worried about being worn out in the morning. The clarity that comes only from calm has helped me make a new rule. The next time anxiety tempts me to pick up the phone and scroll, I’ll grab a book instead.

Who are You?

When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.

It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.

“What if I’m not actually an artist?”

We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.

The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.

Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.

Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.

The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.

It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.

So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.

As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.

In the Moment

Today we got the veggies into the garden, And Mother Nature got into the act, coaxing bees into fruit blossoms and sending breezes through the sunlight trees. I admit, when I had to take a break between loads of compost or a stretch between planting rows, I let the siren call of social media pull me out of this long, glorious moment.

The irony was, that however anesthetized I may convince myself I am after a few minutes of doom scrolling, there is no social media post that can generate the sense of peace that comes from simply being in the moment with mother nature and all her glory. 

All too easily, I tend to drift into daydreaming, telling myself that I’m meditating. it’s an act I recognize quite often in my students, many of whom are dealing with trauma or their own mental health issues that keep them from being fully present. As The afternoon sun cast a spell on the forest around me, however, I am reminded that Any daydreams, any veering off into the anxieties produced by focusing on all the things beyond my control, is not meditative or productive.

In this moment, I’m focusing on the bees as they help get spring going, on the new leaves that are fairly glowing. And even though meditating on the wind traveling through the forest produces feelings of utter peace, it also makes me feel blessedly awake.

A Way Out

I was already stressed by the time we got to the checkout line yesterday. 

It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that both boys and I had been to a store together, and standing in line made the afternoon feel like a holiday. We chatted with another middle-aged mom and a younger mom carrying a 6-month-old in a snuggly. The mundanity started to soothe away the anxieties wrought by a frustrated job search, financial worries, and waiting for further news of my mother who was in the hospital two states away.

The summer has been filled with the same stress that millions of people are feeling — job searching, isolation, illness, and, this year, a void. 

Circumstance has tied my life in knots, strangling my creative life. My garden has been a practical canvas of sorts, but, for most of July, my easels and my laptop (except during job searching) have been closed.  Lung pain made painting physically impossible for most of the spring and early summer, but lately a different pain has kept me from writing or painting. 

Mania makes me powerful as it burns out unpleasant details, but my depressions throw them into sharp relief with every disgusting reality glaring back at me. I see our planet melting. I see the powerful sacrificing the weak on the alters of profit, making me wonder if any lives — especially those as trivial as my own – matter. The clarity is painful, and the pain feeds on and expands my void.

Thing1 and Thing2 were waving at the 6 month old who seemed fascinated by their brotherly banter. Above their masks, I could see the other mothers smile. Covid-related cleaning extended the wait, but everyone seemed to recognize the preciousness of this bit of normal. 

Shouting from the cell phone section a few hundred feet away shattered the normal.  

At first we thought someone was arguing over masks, but Thing1 and Thing2, towering over the shelves in the checkout aisle, reported an argument between a group of shoppers and a manager.  A thud echoed through the store as someone threw something, and four men, one of them carrying a well-stuffed black garbage bag, ran toward the exit near the cash registers. Someone yelled to call 911 as a manager yelled at his employees to lock the doors. 

Realizing we were witnessing a robbery, I tried to maneuver my kids behind me and looked for the younger mom who was also looking for a place to escape or hide her baby. Thing1 and Thing2 have never witnessed or survived an armed robbery. I have. Knowing the prevalence of guns in this country and not caring how many phones or electronics might be in that garbage bag, I held my breath as the fleeing men got closer to the doors and the registers and prayed the employees wouldn’t be able to lock the doors. 


The men and the garbage bag barreled through the doors before the employees were able to force them closed. Cashiers returned to cashing people out as supervisors called 911 and tried to get descriptions. I asked the boys and the other mother if they were ok and noticed my own hand was shaking as I retrieved my credit card from the card reader. 

We left, and the boys focused on burgers more than burglary.  Adrenaline got me to the take-out place safely, but it also became a filter. Sometimes a story on the news will trigger a flashback to another robbery twenty-eight years ago when, lying face down on a beer-soaked carpet, I wondered if our assailants would shoot us in the head or the back before they left with our valuables. I’ll feel damp and my limbs will go numb, but, as I sat in the car, watching my kids eat and goof off, trading inappropriate jokes, I stayed with them. I stayed in the now. 

New blog post ideas started popping into my head.  As I started the drive home, I noticed, for the first time all summer, the layers of green and gold and white in the landscape. Suddenly the landscape – and life – didn’t seem trivial. 

I’ve navigated my depressions for years using cognitive lifelines, but responsibility to my kids, rather than creativity, is usually the first one I grab. Yesterday, our trip through the ordinary and the newsworthy knit those lines together and gave me a stronger way out of this depression.

Covid 13

When he was little, Thing2 was Prozac in Pampers, a tight bundle of goodwill who could tease a smile out of Ebenezer Scrooge. As he got older, he was a flight of fantasies, a constant comic, David winning over Goliaths with a well-timed burp or fake fart instead of taking them down. Optimism as hard as a colored-candy shell was Thing2 (a.k.a Superdude’s superpower), impregnable even in the face of impending teen angst. 

But the era of Covid 19, with its empty hours is threatening to become his Kryptonite. 

Thing2 started the lockdown indulging his love of computer games in between online classes, but, as Spring Break rolled in, even the little remaining social outlet provided by classes laboriously organized by dedicated teachers dried up.

Superdude quickly exhausted his favorite reruns on Netflix, tired of zapping the last space invader, and started surrendering to the chosen time-killing strategy of depressed teens everywhere — sleep. He still joins in the family walks, playing catch with Goliath (Thing1) as we take our laps around the house and sometimes deeper into the woods, but in the absence of social stimulation, the boy who scripted fan-fiction videos, casting his friends and adding digital special effects is still.

We’re reinstating nightly card games (a fertile venue for burp and fart jokes). We work to entice him away from the land of Nod, but the part of me that abhors hovering also believes he needs to navigate some of this brave new world on his own and learn how to make new adventures. 

He’s doing some of this already — watching online cooking classes and connecting with the Big Guy over a shared interest – but the marathon has just begun. 

Go Work, Young Man

One of the bonuses having lived with bipolar disorder for over 40 years is that you can see the signs of creeping depression in others. I see it in my students when they have trouble showing up to class for weeks at a time or sleep through most of their school day. I see it in myself when my energy level plummets despite having had plenty of sleep, and, at about 11 o’clock this morning, when I went to announce that pancakes were on the table, I saw it creeping over a still-sleeping Thing1.

The young man who takes most things in stride, who rarely admits to anything bothering him, has been quiet for the last two days since he came home for the semester. Some of the time has been spent texting friends that he won’t see you for a few months. Other moments have been spent looking for jobs that, because of the nationwide effort to socially isolate, won’t be available and, for him and his compromised immune system, are extremely bad ideas.

My first instinct is to S(Mother) him with love. To try to take away the sadness.

But that’s not what he needs.

Trying to get myself ready possible home working and needing more space for books, I’m organizing my study and art space again. The target destination for my desk and books hadn’t been repainted in over 13 years, so I made a coat of paint and some new flooring my project for the weekend.

The ache in my recovering foot, however, reminded me early in the morning that climbing on ladders and spending too much time rolling paint might not be such a great idea. Thing2 wandered into the office asking if he could help, and I suddenly realized I had a cheap workforce just waiting to be put to good use.

Since T1 was still in bed, I decided to let T2 (younger and hopefully less business savvy) do the collective bargaining for T1&T2 Handyman, Inc. I laid out my business proposition — The paint and, with a bit of supervision, lay down the floor, and we agreed on a price.

I texted “pancakes“ to T1 and then mentioned the job. Getting no answer I decided to climb the stairs to his room and drag him out of bed before the day was gone.

“Are you awake?” I asked.

Groan.

“Want pancakes?” I asked.

Another groan.

“How about doing a job today? I texted you about it earlier,” I said.

Suddenly I saw a little bit of movement under the covers. A muffled “what job?” could be heard.

I laid out the deal that T2 had negotiated for the two of them and got a verbal handshake from the senior partner before heading back downstairs for my breakfast. It took him 10 minutes to get dressed, load up his plate with pancakes and bacon, and head into my study to help T2 who was already painting.

He painted quietly for the first few minutes, ignoring his brother’s cheerful attempts to engage him in high minded debates about The Rise of Skywalker or the latest in video gaming furniture. It’s pretty tough, however, to stay detached when T2 is trying to be social with you, and soon they were chatting about the job and how they would spend their money. They had the room painted in less than an hour (T2 turned out to be a better negotiator than I gave him credit for) and were starting on the flooring almost before I could give them a quick tutorial on “measuring twice, cutting once.“

Thing1 commandeered the bringing in of the flooring from the car, perking up even more as he realized he was the only one of our trio who was strong enough do that particular job. As the day has worn on, he has chatted more, sounding more positive about the job outlook and asking what other projects he could do. And I realized that it isn’t just the money that he’s after.

For the last six months, living away from home, he’s been mostly independent. He’s done well in his classes and suddenly become an extrovert. He’s been tutoring and looking for jobs. He’s made plans for the next six months and the next six years. He’s been becoming a functioning and useful adult.

For the last two days, sequestered from society in the embryonic embrace of home, he’s been comfortable, but he hasn’t had as much opportunity to be useful. Right now I’m sitting in the living room having a snack to recover from the hard work of supervising my two young men and coming to terms with the fact what they are going to need over the next weeks is not to be protected.

They are going to need opportunities to be useful and a lot of them.

Rest for the Working

During the first week of my recovery I wrote constantly. When the second, unexpected week of incarceration began, I still wrote more than usual, but, after teaching for almost a year now, I discovered I suddenly missed being around people. Ten years of working at home once had me trained to prefer solitude, but last week I went searching for social interaction in the worst possible place — social media.

At first it was a quick check of the latest news from friends and family. Then it was looking for silly memes. And then it deteriorated into watching videos about all that’s wrong with the world and how to be afraid of it making me wonder if it’s just an accident that S&M and Social Media ended up with the same initials.

After a day or two, despite the exhaustion of living with the pain in my recovering foot, I began having trouble sleeping. Then I started getting antsy when I opened my laptop to write. I started kvetching over homework assignments from my online class and all the things that we should be fixing in the world.

Monday I got back to work — to my girls. There were the initial hugs and greetings, and then it was back to the usual, constant redirecting and behavior management that goes with working with students with emotional disturbances. For the first time in two weeks there was drama and tears, occasional profanity and impromptu after-school meetings. There was still homework online and more comforting of teenagers.

There was suddenly far less time to peruse the feed telling me what’s wrong with the world — or at least I stopped worrying about trying to control the things I can’t. There’s still a daily dose of S&M (or is it SM?), but, like backing off of percosets after surgery, I’ve stepped down. And, diving back into work, putting my effort into the things I can control, or at least influence, is suddenly enough good vibes to start putting me right to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

Walk With Me

It’s my second week of being bed or chair-bound as my foot recovers from a total overhaul. It’s been really inconvenient, but, ironically, it’s give me a chance to take a different kind of walk with one of the best people I know.

This time last year I was still writing mostly about Thing1’s journey with Ulcerative Colitis. We thought, at the time, that journey was almost over and that he was starting a newer, more adventurous one. Then his body recently reminded us that a diagnosis of a chronic illness is a permanent one.

His chronic illness is classified as a disability. It took me a little while to really understand why it’s classified that way, but as I watched his disease derail a year of his education and govern so many other major and minor life decisions, I gained a better understanding of how invisible illnesses can cause impairment. It wasn’t until the last two weeks, however, that I understood how that feels.

As someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can sympathize and empathize with some of the impacts of invisible illness. Depression can impact your ability to function at work and your ability to parent effectively. It does not, however, turn the simplest activities, such as showering, into activities that need extra equipment or preparation. It doesn’t keep you from reaching the microwave. It does not have you planning your schedule when you might want to go to the bathroom next, let alone how to return to work.

Thing1 is less than half my age and wrestled with all of these issues and more in the last few years. These questions have determined where he would live and if he would go to school on any given day. They are determining if he may miss yet another year of school and when he will begin his adult life.

Spending a few weeks navigating the activities of daily living that are usually take for granted has been a pain in the neck, but it’s also given me a chance to walk with T1 in a whole new way.

A Little Night Mania

It’s 2 am and Jim-Bob is trying to decide if his lumpy human will be still long enough for him to pad a nice tummy wallow to sleep on . I’ve tossed, turned, shut off my screen and turned it back on half a dozen times since I first crawled into bed for some desperately needed sleep two hours ago. I know he thinks I’m about to fly right out of the room.

In my head, I’ve been flying for hours.

For hours I’ve been playing with the possibilities in my head. How hard would it be to do two master’s at the same time? I’ll finish the drawings for both books this weekend. I can finish this assignment , design that database and then check another online illustration course. Ooh, that story would be great as an animated cartoon.

For most of the last few weeks, I’ve been still, seeking sleep whenever possible. Depression wraps me up like a wet carpet, and I’ve been a good human to sleep on.

But living with bipolar is like living with a volcano. It rumbles in the darkness until it’s time to explode and let the steam and fire out. Sometime heat is power. It drives me out of bed into my office to write and read and paint. It also, however, can become a wild fire easily out of control, coaxing me to take on more commitments than I handle in a lifetime, spending on things no one ever needs, and torching anything in its vicinity.

So even though the screen is off, Jim-Bob knows my tapping hand is a sure sign the mania is still burning, ready to send this lumpy lady back into space, and he decide to stay put until the fire cools.

It’s Not Them

Winter at Heart

Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”

But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.

Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.

Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.

And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.

I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).

I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.

Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:

“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”

It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .

Is art selfish?

I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.

Poem – Stopping Down

I stopped all the way down

And now my field is deep,

Focused and sharp,

Too treacherous to roam.

Something New

Depression may inspire creative bursts of energy once it’s gone, but, more often, I’ve found that giving into creativity has to happen before the depression can truly start to recede. Sometimes, that surrender starts with trying something new.

I recently stumbled onto a quote by Plutarch that goes, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The quote has been rumbling around in my brain for a few days now, seemingly more accurate each time I recall it.

I often paint because I cannot find words that vent emotions without being destructive. Whether or not it leads to good or bad art is irrelevant. The creating on canvas is the path away from hurt and from hurting others.

Lately, I’ve been writing more and painting less (it goes in cycles), But there are still nights I struggle to distill churning feelings and events into text. Last night, watching our orange tabby embrace his carefree, hedonistic identity and, as always, still wondering about my own, I got stuck between picking up a brush or opening the keyboard. Then, instead of sitting and stewing about it for another half hour until I was too tired to do anything useful, I got up and retrieved a journal from my office and decided to try something new.

I decided to try and make a painting that spoke.

I’ve written maybe three or four poems in the last seven years. It is certainly not a forte. As with the act of painting that leads me away from hurt and hurting, however, trying to write poetry was not about making something good, it was about actively surrendering to creativity.

Poem: The Business of Being

Fat, orange, arranged on the table

Like an idol on an altar,

The tabby invest his life, without reservation,

In the business,

Not of being born or changing or dying

But of being the libertine he is.

And I, still changing, still searching,

Craving substance, loathing indolence but filled with envy,

Can feel the faith of one who’s found

A business of being meant just for him.