Presence

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

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

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

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, 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.