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.

Better than Before

The girl had received bad news for the umpteenth time in the last few months. Her sobs of despair reverberated down the hall as she asked the powers that be, “What’s the point?”

“You’re the point!“ The cosmos answered in the form of a lanky young man charged with keeping order the school. “People like you are the point, “ he repeated. “Don’t you know that you all make us better?“

I smiled as I leaned my head towards the doorway to listen from my classroom. I was on standby for hugs and comfort, but my young coworker was already working his magic. And, as he elaborated on the ways our students make us better, I thought about how Thing1 and Thing2 have done that for me every day over the last 19 years.

Just before Thing1 was born, I still didn’t have a handle on my bipolar disorder. My depressive episodes sporadically threatened jobs, and manic phases spurred spending sprees and other self-destructive behavior.

But then Thing1 happened, and I knew I had to be better.

“Every day I go home after work and think about how to be better,“ my coworker said to the girl who was now listening quietly. “You do that for all of us.“

I thought of all the ways I have tried to be better for Thing1 and Thing2 over the years. I thought of the therapy I’ve sought and the examples I’ve tried to set.

Then I thought of all the ways our students spur me to be more organized, to learn more, to be better for them. It made me smile as I thought of how no matter what we will ever do for our own kids or for the ones we take care of during the day, we will always owe them far more for every day making us a little bit better than we were the day before.

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.

Presence

I mentally patted myself on the back as I got out of the driveway only 5 or 10 minutes late. The town was covered with a fresh 6” dusting of snow, and, as I made my way down the mountain and my favorite scene came into view, I had to stop and snap a photo and then remember to breathe again. The world looked – and, thanks also to my cargo, felt – a lot like Christmas, but something nagged at my spirit.

The backseat of my car was filled with orange drawstring knapsacks, each filled with art supplies (art kits) for kids in need. This delivery was different from others I had made in the past because I know the girls who will be receiving the kits. I teach them every day.

About three years ago, I started raising money to buy art kits for kids in foster care and for recently-arrived refugee children. When Thing1 got sick, I pushed pause on the project. This month seemed like a good time to hit play again, even if only for a few days.

Most of our girls are in the custody of child services because of myriad family issues. Some of them may go home for brief holiday visits. There are more than a few girls, however, who will wake up in their dormitories on Christmas morning.

The school works hard to make the season bright for the students, but, as we prepared activities for them, I became much more keenly aware of how many ways this season can be difficult for a lot of people. Almost every movie celebrates this as a season of family, but all of our students are at our school because of family issues. We can’t replace their families, but we can remind them that they are cared for, that they are precious to someone.

I’m giving the art kits anonymously, hoping they get some enjoyment out of them. I know, however, that what these kids need is for the adults in their lives – parents, teachers, caretakers — to be present, physically and emotionally.

They will have caring staff with them on Christmas Day, but, as I’ve heard so many other teachers say over the years, these kids are, in a way, my kids. There’s more than a small part of me that wants to spend some time with them on that day (a few other teachers at school do).

Our family will be out of town with extended family, keeping a biannual tradition, but as I took in Mother Nature’s holiday finery, I made a silent promise to make sure that my next Christmas will include these kids. It will be as much about being present as it is about giving presents.

Bodysurfing

Friday night, after a great day at school, I drove home determined to write or paint something. I had gone to bed early each of the previous two nights, and I wanted to make the most of a non-school night. Friday, however, was about to be another part of a nagging pattern.

I got home not long after the sun went down, but, even knowing I would sleep late the next day, I headed right to the electric blanket instead of my studio. Saturday Thing1 came home for an overnight from school, and, even after what would normally be an inspiring evening of dinner and catching up, the light in my studio stayed off after dinner.

I know this pattern. In the past, I have confused this creative coma with fatigue. Now, it may take a few days, but, now, I can see the apathy for the skimming of the Mariana Trench of depression that it is.

Most of the time, writing has enough tow capacity to keep my head over water in spite of a strong under-tow. As long as I create, the gulps of air it generates are enough to deal with the buffeting waves of inexplicable melancholy that, in the past, have had the potential to push me under. When I stop, I sink.

There are times, however, when the waves hit faster than the keyboard or canvases can keep up. These waves don’t stop me from thinking of of anything to write or paint. They hit so hard or fast that I forget that I need or even that want that next page or piece to float above the flotsam.

This morning I got up early for an appointment in town, and every tree in Vermont was bejeweled with frozen mist. The sun shining through through the crystal coating made it feel like I was driving through a set for Dr Zhivago, but, even though I snapped a few bad photos, I knew I wouldn’t paint any of it later.

The bending light, however, refracted through my brain and reminded me that I’m not tired. I’m bodysurfing, and climbing back on top of the waves means ignoring the ‘fatigue’ long enough to snap, sketch or scribe absolutely anything.

Selfless self-care

One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.

All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.

I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.

I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.

This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.

When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“

and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.

Flying in Formation


Even after 49 years, I can still take surprisingly long time to recognize when a manic episode is starting. It’s not telling every person in town I’ll be happy to come over and answer that computer question after work or even right now. It’s not acceding to all of Thing1’s needs and wants for college and groceries. Nor is it when I’m googling every graduate program and trying to turn the lemons of a stable but unsatisfying day job reality into a Tom Collins of academic and professional success by planning a succession of degrees at schools I could never afford and which would have dubious value for a middle age Hausfrau who already has too many responsibilities and dreams.

No, usually it’s about the time I look at my bank balance and say, “Oh shit,” that I realize mania may be in full swing.

Today I was in the shower when I realized I my flight was ending, sending me knocking at the door at the back of my mind. That door is the place I go when the world becomes my demon, often made worse by maniacal flights of fancy. It’s a gateway to a vast, rich fantasy world as layered and complex as the ‘real’ one everyone else lives in. Sometimes I crash through it as I fall out of the stratosphere, other times, I slink through it.

There’s usually no logical reason for the flights and falls. The wrong screw is loosened, and then up and down and up I go until I find a way to pound my octagonal peg of a personality into a round hole of life.

Over the last few years as I’ve become better at managing mania and depression, a few cobwebs have grown over the door. I may peek through but don’t really go inside. That morning in the shower I rinsed the soap from my eyes and found myself fully on the inside, peeking out, but realizing the kids, my husband and my job require active participation in that outside world.

The lifeline back to the other side, this time, came from an unusual source — common sense. It took the form of a small, almost unrecognizable voice in my head.

“Let go,” it whispered.

Those two words were so simple and clear, more meaningful than just saying no to the drug of trying to do everything because it sounds good. Don’t just fly after every idea. Learn to fly with one or two dreams in a single direction.

So the next morning, I looked at all the creative projects I’ve started over the last year.

The words ‘I have an idea’ can strike fear into the hearts of husbands and resignation into mentors. My sun-singed ideas languish in half-filled notebooks and devices. An almost-finished children’s book marinates on my iPad as I view yet another video on how to write children’s books. Another waits to move from the rough sketch book to the painting table. The pages of still another non-fiction book have started forming. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to explode into the sky and catch every idea for a novel or comic book that flutters chaotically over the fields and mountains, often following their trajectory until I’m blinded.

And then, “Let Go” echoed again.

It reminded me that chasing every dream, soaring towards the sun, may make it hard to tell the difference between the glow of opportunity and a goal going up in flames. Letting go means nurturing a few meaningful the ideas that may already be getting off the ground.

So I’m letting go of the degree research and lining up the writing projects so that I can more easily follow one at a time and stay on course. I hope it means I’m learning to fly in formation.

Food, Glorious Drug

Food and I go way back. Almost fifty years now. We’ve had a great relationship. I mean, don’t all great friendships include an all-controlling dominant half (food) and a sycophantic lickspittle (me) or, in my case lick-whatever’s-left-on-the-plate?

I have started to question that relationship in the last few years. I’ve tried to take the upper hand by counting calories, cutting out certain kinds of food colored chocolate with labels like ‘Abandon all self-control here, ye of little self-respect’. A few years ago, I started to dominate the relationship to the point where I’d lost fifty pounds, which helped my five foot three frame look more like a short pear than a cantaloupe.

I controlled intake. I exercised. It lasted a few months.

A broken foot knocked me off my fitness routine, and soon I was back on the Bernaise sauce. And the steak and asparagus. And don’t forget the garlic mashed potatoes. Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff..

Last week I had an inkling a depressive phase might be setting in when the mental call of the country store round table took on a decidedly fried sound. My day of work and deep-fried self-medication wasn’t the first over-indulgence, but as I got home feeling sick from over-eating and somehow still willing to eat more to feel ‘better’, I realized, my relationship to food was more like an addict’s to a pusher.

Yesterday, online, I caught the headline of an article in the Guardian about not just changing the relationship with food, but breaking up with it for a few weeks. By taking it out of the equation.

After read the first few paragraphs (always a good idea when making a healthcare decision) about using traditional meal-replacement shakes that have been around since the 60s and 70s to turn food from emotional balm into pure function, I knew what I have to do. I headed out the door to our favorite British-style diner for a last supper.

Okay, maybe today will be the real last supper.

But I didn’t have to read the rest of the article to know that this sounded right. I need to break up with food. I need to get the upper hand and find another, more constructive emotional outlet like writing or painting (I hear some people swear by it).

So today, like the dozens (maybe hundreds) of Sundays before every diet I’ve ever broken, might be a free-for-all (okay, it will be), but tomorrow, we’re breaking up. I’ll make sure the calorie count is sane and that a bottle of multivitamins is handy, but for the next eight weeks, food won’t be what’s for dinner or for celebration or inebriation.

Food, I’ll call you in a couple months, and if you want to be friends, things are going to have to change.

Not Depressed

The Big Guy has been fasting after lunch each day, so I text him early in the day to see if he wanted to break his fast to go to hibachi for dinner to celebrate two kids with honor roll and a full week of no hospital visits. He texted back ‘Zes’, in the mangled affirmative that had emerged with Thing1’s first words 16 years ago.

It was my last day off during the kids’ spring break (the term Spring is used very loosely in Vermont to describe a mythical concept based on the absence of snow). While the Big Guy got done with work, I played Monopoly with Thing2 so Thing1 could drive himself for the first time since his anemia was diagnosed and treated over a week ago to see SuperGal.

The morning felt normal, but normal doesn’t mean permanent.

I was still recovering from a bad property trade with Thing2 when Thing1 got home. He was pale and weak and complaining of pain that had all the hallmarks of a resurgent flare up. The Big Guy had arrived, and we debated staying home, but Thing1 insisted we carry on with our dinner plans.

“I have to eat,” he said. It was true, but his earlier excitement for a meal of celebration had devolved into determination to not surrender a favorite meal to his condition. The Big Guy and I voiced our concerns about his endurance, but he answered, “I just don’t care anymore.”

I have no doubt that’s true on a lot of recent days, and when he’s too tired to care, we know it’s our job to account for the deficit to get him through. As we packed everyone into the car and headed to the restaurant, however, in the rear-view mirror I could see his eyes close as he rested his head against the top of the door frame.

A worried crease appeared between his eyebrows, and I knew I was seeing a kid that is losing hope. I’ve seen that expression before. Usually I promise him we’ll keep searching until we find the right drug, but last night, as we drove, all I could do is promise him a delicious meal where we would all have fun.

We did have fun, and, for two hours it was a good drug.

When we got home, Thing1 had enough energy to crawl into bed. I went to the bottom of the stairs to his room several times during the night to make sure his breathing was normal, wishing I could give him my healthy organ.

It’s 6am as I write this, and we’ll head down to the hospital shortly for blood draws and more phone calls.

A lot of days I look for the silver lining. Thing1 has grown wise beyond his years. We have all gained empathy for people with long-term illnesses and appreciation for the privilege we enjoy in being able to seek out treatment option. This morning, however, I am focused on the lessons.

I’ve written a number of times about my own issues with mental illness and about the depression that invades life independent of any events, but what I’m feeling — what Thing1 has expressed he is feeling — is not that. There is an ongoing event.

This is not depression. This is understanding the new normal and its impact now and on the future. This is sadness. Last night, even when we were celebrating, it was grief.

There have been many times over the years when the only things keeping me from literally throwing away my life were Thing1 and Thing2. You can convince yourself that the adults in your life would survive and even thrive if you died, but no one can honestly tell themselves that a child would be better off with the knowledge that a mother willingly abandoned them.

So I’ve picked my battles with life, even when I didn’t really want to, and, even when life was awash with depression, it was worth it.

As I’m learning to understand the gulf between sadness and depression, I’m also learning that even if Thing1’s battle has to be fought indefinitely, I will fight it for him for as long he needs us to because he gives my life meaning.

So much is written about happiness these days. There are the happiest countries and the best paths to happiness. Life doesn’t have to be filled with happiness all the time to be worthwhile, however. As I’m slowly learning, filling it with meaning may be more sustaining in the long term.