Categories
Memoir

Oatmeal

On a cold morning, Mamma makes oatmeal while my sister and I wait for the dusty ovals to soak up salty water and turn into food. Only Martha and I are eating this breakfast. Ruth and Kristin have left, Ruth to junior high school and Kristin at the forever-away high school. Martha and I go to Green Valley Elementary, across from and above the curved parkway outside our front yard. We can see our house from the school yard. Looking down through the chain link fence, our red brick house looks tiny. We can’t see school from our house, only the twin lines of cars snaking in different directions, and the steep concrete drain that sometimes gushes muddy rainwater into the low, paved creek bed.

My mother’s back is to us while she stirs the boiling oats. She looks big in her zip-up robe that hangs like a capital A from her shoulders down to her slipppered feet. She has smoothed her brown hair with a comb, and it lands exactly at the collar of her robe. Turning toward us, she has her cooking face on—cheeks pink, lips in a straight line, and concentration tugging her dark eyebrows together.

How do I know she is beautiful? Is it the way her eyes balance perfectly in her face? Those eyes that can be extra blue or extra green depending on the light? Is it how carefully she pulls herself together for the world, putting makeup on before she goes out to the grocery store? I know she is beautiful because she is my Mamma, and she takes care of me. She is special because she is Icelandic. I see how other people look at her, their smiles of admiration, or of envy.

In the kitchen, when she turns around and looks at us, her sixth and seventh children, the hungry girls of her second marriage, her smile brightens the air around us. My sister and I stop arguing and notice the sparkled air. Without any makeup, Mamma’s face looks easy and free. Her eyebrows let go of each other. She is all soft morning, the promise of warmth and fullness.

Breakfast is ready! She reaches to pull juice glasses from the cupboard. Martha and I have been distracted from our waiting by stirring the orange juice, concentrate slowly blending with water in the oblong Tupperware pitcher. Daddy lets us do this every time, telling us the two meanings of the word “concentrate.” He is at work or maybe asleep after a night shift.

Mamma gets tired of listening to us talk about the melting chunk of orange ice. We can argue about anything—who has had the best turn with the long-handled wooden spoon, who was right about whether there were any ice chunks left to stir or poke at, who wants to watch the thick orange goo melt to the bottom of the container or keep taking turns stirring. We argue about who gets the fanciest spoon, maybe a silver one from Iceland. That’s enough, Mamma says, patient today. She takes the pitcher we have argued over, snaps the plastic lid on top, and shakes it smooth, with no layers, no clumps.

She fills our glasses, and we drink greedily. The juice clears a sleepy taste from my mouth, paints my tongue bright for the day to come.

I fix my steaming bowl the special way Mamma once showed me, with a snow-layer sprinkle of sugar over the top. I lift the edges of the smooth oatmeal to dribble cold milk between it and the edges of the bowl. Melted sugar glistens on the surface as milk floats my breakfast like an island: it looks perfect.  But by the time I have finished making it just right, it is stone cold. I don’t want it anymore. Mamma tells me to be careful, that if I don’t eat my breakfast, the wind will lift me up and carry me away like happens sometimes in Iceland when children don’t eat enough. I look up at her, startled, but she has turned away. I spoon a few bites into my mouth and swallow them with a tight throat, seeing myself stuck in a tree like a lost kite, wanting to get back down to the ground. After we put on our coats, she kisses us goodbye, and the two of us step outside into the chill air. I don’t understand my mother. She was telling a lie, Martha explains. The wind can’t be strong enough to blow us away. Maybe it can in Iceland, but not in America.

I snap back at her, I know that! I wasn’t scared! Silken relief wraps me in warmth. Martha lets me walk with her all the way to the corner of Catskill Avenue before she runs ahead. I wish I could be in third grade, and fast like she is, smart enough to not be scared by made-up stories.

Categories
mental health Skiing

More Bumps, More Beauty

As an anxious adventurer, I have to play tricks with my nervous system, use shortcuts to get down mogul runs free of halting fright.

Recently, riding up the Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin, I confessed to my unflappable ski buddy Carl just how nervous I had been, how downright shaky, on a run we had just finished. He was surprised when I reminded him how anxious I felt on the slopes. You don’t seem scared. Just very determined. A typically kind response.

When I ski down to Carl and exclaim, Beautiful! I am not just catching my breath. I say beautiful because acknowledging beauty burns off my crackle of anxiety and turns down my self-criticism.  

When I say beautiful, I mean that I’m scared out of my mind, but I can calm myself by looking at the trees, at the sky. I say it knowing that if I face my torso downhill and plant my left pole firmly, my legs will have to swing my skis around into a turn.

I say beautiful, feeling the semi-wilderness around me and the eternal blue above, knowing that the mountain and I are connected.

Beauty is why I ski, why I ride my bike in the mountains, why I want to be in this messed up world. Hearts break every day. Wars rage. The human family appears beyond dysfunctional, downright broken.

And as part of this world, far too often, I forget beauty, forget generosity and grace. I fret about the busted pipe in our cabin. Sheltered and warm, I worry about the weather. I look at the news, and look away again. Then, out of nowhere, magic happens.

Last night, for the first time in a quarter century of looking out at these woods, the husband said, Bobcat! I have heard him say deer, elk, moose. One memorable morning, he even said bear. But never, until last night, bobcat.

She was graceful and still, square face lined in elegant geometrics, black ear tips twitching. We watched her in the early spring dusk as she sat stock still, perfectly camouflaged in her white and brown coat. After listening intently, she made a quick pounce for a mouse tunneling underneath the snow—a near miss. With the confident serenity of a predator, she watched us for a few minutes, as we watched her. She made a few strides toward us, took a showy turn or two, then stepped gracefully over the hard packed snow into the silent woods. Beautiful.

Categories
humor Writing

New Publication, *82

A December email from Alisa Golden, editor at Star 82 Review. She wrote: “Yes. I love it.” An acceptance! Da, da, da da DAH da da!! I skipped through the dining room, past the Christmas Fern, singing the I Love Lucy theme song.

Kiddo, kiddo, kiddo!  I chirped to my grown son as he came down the stairs. I caught my breath and announced:  I got an acceptance from a magazine I’ve submitted to five times!

Way to wear them down, Mom!  Funny man.

Not really. I just had to send her something good. In fact, I’d submitted to Star 82 Review not five, but eight times, over three years. After seven kind rejections in a row, I feel lucky the editor opened the last submission. Rejections pile up over time, of course, given my determination to keep sending things out. This time, I made the cut. It feels good.

I will try to do at least one slow, celebratory twirl when the next “thanks but no thanks” hits my in-box. Like all the others, it will remind me that I’m committed to the process, with its rare orchestral celebrations and its long fallow periods. Meanwhile, the publication of Beginning of the End of the Dream Job is a lovely reminder that the more I write, slowly but surely, the better I write.

 

Bonus: A real paper copy!
Categories
humor mental health Skiing

Subzero

This is the kind of cold that kills people. Astronaut wear:  Gore-Tex layered over down, over wool. Neck gaiters under helmet. And still a shiver. Eight thousand feet above the far-away sea, searing wind has pushed snow into wave-like patterns. The chair lift rises through a bleak gust. Taos ski valley. Birthday number next.

Breathing in, she puts her mittened hand over the small gap where wind blows through her goggles. The wind sucks warmth away from her thrice layered neck. Relentless. No one should be out in this weather.

A snowmobile bores its way uphill, small siren wailing, lights flashing into the white-out. Tugging a rescue sled. Please god, she murmurs, not today, not me. A group hikes skyward, skis shouldered, to launch down a couloir. They are crazy. This is crazy. This is killing cold. Raising a layer to cover her face, feeling only ice on the crusted fabric. Wind bites like fire at her nose-tip. Too cold to breath in, too scared to breath out.

At the top, in front of the ski patrol hut, and look! Everyone! Down she goes, left hip bouncing off hard scrape. Embarrassment bolts her vertical again, sliding onto the lip of a run called Honeysuckle.

Chair seven to Bob’s run to Walkyries Glade. Do not explore black trails alone. Do not enter the narrow track, or pass the sign with a pretty name for treed moguls. Do not be lulled by this hush of trees weighted with snow, by this spotlight of calm. Time falls away. Look down, turn once, turn again into perfect cushions of soft white between oval humps. Just a person, skiing.

Too fast! Trees narrow on the steep. Traverse! Angle against the hill. Knowing she will die this time. Launching into the air.

And both skis land firm. Heart pounding, looking back. Six inches off the ground, at most.

Adrenalin surges, recedes. Up to go down again. Down to go up. From death by wind chill. To a tea stop in a crowded lodge.

Legs ache for days. The slow-motion tumble? Too much thinking, too much pulsing fright? Or doing, as happens, a bit too much. Afternoons huddled on the blue couch, soothe reading Austen under hand-crocheted blankets. Pushing away, and into, this next middle year.

Categories
Memoir

Sunrise, 2014

It was, objectively speaking, a terrible time. In eight years, I’d grieved the deaths of both of my in-laws, of my mother, and of my sister Kris. One friend and a counseling client died by suicide. Another friend, not yet forty, was felled by a stroke at a Christmas party. In the middle of it all, the horrors of the Aurora theater shootings ripped through the university counseling center where I worked. Crisis after crisis, sorrow after sorrow—even now I refuse to list them all. But my body took every blow.

Just as had my mother and her mother before her, I grew a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go away. My Icelandic grandmother had died from complications after a thyroidectomy; my mother’s thyroid cancer had been successfully treated when she was in her fifties. As my own nodule grew, swallowing became more and more difficult, and my voice weakened like a drought-choked river. All the while, my widowed father lived joyfully into his 90’s. Just weeks before he developed his final pneumonia, I scheduled the thyroidectomy that I had long dreaded.

A few days before my surgery, the husband and I flew to Florida to say goodbye to Dad. He slept on his back in a bright room, under clean white sheets, as if resting for a journey. When I leaned over to kiss the warm dome of his forehead, his eyes opened, baby blue as a late spring sky. Oh, Yenny! (He always called me by the Icelandic version of my name.) Yenny, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here!  As he drifted back to sleep, I knew that had been our moment, that after my own death, I’d open my celestial eyes and say, Oh, Daddy, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here!

My endocrinologist described my common papillary thyroid cancer as indolent, a word Dad would have appreciated. By the time he took his last breath, I was recovering from surgery. My tumor had been successfully removed–no radiation, no chemo, just a Viking-boat shaped scar on my neck and replacement thyroid hormone every morning. I was resting–sore throated and groggy–when the husband stepped up to our bed, phone in hand. Concern edged the corners of his mouth, and his eyebrows furrowed with sadness. Is Dad gone? I asked, and he nodded. I cried the bitter tears of an orphan, shocked at how raw such expected—even gracious–news could feel.

The next day, I woke at 4:30 to the echoing call of a back-yard robin. I wanted to go outside, to see the open sky where my father had gone. In the darkness, I quietly opened the heavy wooden door of our old house and made my way the half mile to City Park Golf Course. Full of energy and purpose, I felt like I could walk forever. Eastern clouds shone pink and mauve as a faint glow appeared on the horizon. I threaded my way past the empty driving range and crested a hill where raked sand traps and geometric greens cast long shadows. Soon, sunlight touched the snow-white tufts of pollen heaped at the feet of hundred-year-old cottonwoods.

I felt the balm of my father’s presence and the morning joy he savored. A childhood hymn echoed in my mind, Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the Everlasting Arms!  When I was small, Daddy would hold the hymnal for me, running his fingers along the words that he sang by heart. My father, who wept as we sang in church. The same father who told jokes too vulgar to repeat, and whose capacious mind was our Google long before the World Wide Web.

Tears stung my eyes. Suddenly, I felt bone tired. My legs trembled. Thirst scratched painfully at the place where my thyroid had been just three days earlier. I found a bench and watched electric golf carts line up at the club house. I waited until a low current of strength returned, then stood up and slowly began the walk home. I had lost my father, yet begun to breath more easily. A long and gentle set of years began that morning, a miraculous stretch of time with no hospital visits, and no funerals.

At Mom and Dad’s 40th wedding anniversary dinner cruise, circa 2000.

Categories
humor

Cabin, No Fever

On the last day of 2021, we woke to hills transformed into gigantic piles of soft cotton. The snow in the meadow covered all but the tips of tall yellow grasses. Even under cloudy skies, a sunny glow suffused the meadow. The husband and I had arrived early for our New Year’s cabin retreat. We satisfied a dream–to get snowed in with our cross-country skis. It was a blissful get-away, even if one of us did go a little crazy. It wasn’t him.

On New Year’s morning, I woke to a Covid exposure notification on my phone.  Of course, I said to myself, that scratchy throat, I knew it!  A home test was negative, and my throat settled down, but a too-familiar Covid anxiety squeezed my cranium. Triple-vaccinated, I wasn’t worried; I was just in the mood to not get sick. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool not to get Covid during this vertical wave, this tsunami of contagion? When we texted our friends who had breakthrough cases, none of them wrote back, Hey, this is fun, you should try it!  

We had hoped for a road trip to Arizona, but mean Mother Omicron shook her finger at us: “Oh, no you don’t!” A day at a hot spring pool also felt risky, so forget that. Instead, we wrote and we read. We slept hard, watched shooting stars before dawn, and skied. Even four days of great skiing, though, only ate seven and half hours.

First cheerfully, then with an edge of disagreement, we discussed what animals may have left the distorted tracks around the cabin and in the woods. Coyotes, he said, and I said moose. He guessed coyote again. The strangest prints turned out to be from snow blobs that had fallen off of the bare branches. Back in the house, I start pacing.

On day five, running low on fresh food and drinking water, we headed to Prather’s market, commercial hub of Fairplay. The store was full of people, none of them masked. Wide-eyed, we snagged some frozen spinach and only a few gallons of drinking water, which quickly ran low. I stepped in and out with a big pot and scooped up snow to melt on the heat stove. I was glad to have this little chore–it greatly expanded my pacing route.

I settled down with a book, and the husband immediately walked down the stairs just to say, Oh, it’s chilly down here. Half an hour later, I got restless again and found him.  It’s really warm up here, I say. We did this again and again.

One day, we chatted outside with a neighbor for a few minutes. I found myself wanting to cling to his arm, to ask, Must you go? Marrying and keeping one favorite person is a great thing, but, honey, I think we might need to start talking to other people.

A howling wind storm scoured the snow into hard drifts on our driveway. We ate quinoa for lunch, followed by oatmeal for dinner. I fantasized about sushi, about traffic jams and air pollution, while my introverted sweetie got happier and happier. I’m never leaving, he intoned as he gazed at the winter sky, his face serene. He said this every day. Every. Single. Day.

The gusts calmed. I cleared the driveway and escaped over Hoosier Pass to Arapahoe Basin for a downhill ski day. After a few runs, I sat at picnic table in the sun and giggled at a sweet email from a writer friend.

Now you have to tell me what’s so funny, came an unfamiliar voice from the far corner of the table. A conversation with a stranger! Do I remember how to do this? I asked him where he’s from, and he asked for music recommendations in Denver. I haven’t been out to music in a really long time, I said. I wonder why? He parried back, and we laughed together.

After a few minutes, I stood up, my sandwich finished, and said It’s been lovely talking with you. It really was lovely. I took a few fresh stories back for our last night at the cabin, suddenly full of hope for 2022.

Categories
mental health

Yeerk Pool

When my boys were young, we read K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, about alien worms who crawled into people’s ears in order to take over their brains. These interstellar slugs were slowly conquering the world. At regular intervals, the alien worms, called yeerks, returned to their collective pool to regenerate. Human hosts, controlled by the aliens, would lean down at the edge of the goopy water as the slugs oozed out to do their yeerk thing and strategize about how best to control the universe, one slugged brain slug at a time. Luckily, a group of intrepid young humans had gained the ability (from good aliens, of course) to morph into animals. So, as soaring hawks or hive-brained ants, they waged covert battle with the yeerks.

When my son, now thirty, has bipolar depression, as he does today–immobilized by invisible neurostorms–I think of the Animorphs shouting to each other, as they prepare for yet another impossible mission, Time to kick yeerk butt! And off they go to save the world.

Screen shot of one of the first Animorphs book covers. “Some people never change. Some do.”

When I meet someone who might become a friend, I often take the risk of disclosing that my son carries a bipolar diagnosis. Then I brace myself for the harshness of the typical first question:  Is he taking meds? Or recently:  Is he taking drugs? “Drugs?”–that one stumped me. Were they asking if he also has addiction, as so many folks with bipolar do, or were they blending the term for prescribed medications and street drugs? In these conversations, I often hear about someone’s sibling, ex-partner, or parent who struggled with mental illness. But the medication question almost always comes first. As if medications are a fix, as if surrendering the brain to psychiatry makes bipolarity disappear.

The “take medication, be fixed” way of thinking is familiar. I thought that way myself a dozen years ago, when my son was an intellectually gifted teen with a rebellious streak. Before his first real manic episode bloomed like toxic algae, before our family’s genetic pattern was revealed. Before I visited my elderly mother in the psychiatric ward, and before two of her other grandchildren were also diagnosed. For so long, I didn’t know I was thinking, why don’t people just take their medications? But I was.

Every year that goes by, I am more and more grateful for the miracle of modern psychiatric medications, for the lives they improve and the lives they save. And still, more than once, more than twice, my son has been following every recommendation of a complex treatment plan—medication combinations, support groups, highly skilled on-going psychotherapy—and boom, he is hit, as if by a stray bullet. Up he goes like a shining, untethered balloon. Or down he goes into the dark pit of depression. These cycles leave him facing yet more lost opportunities, yet more go-rounds of self-blame. The yeerks are at it again.

How to be a mother on days like this? I want to morph into a bull elephant and drain the pond where the alien yeerks strengthen, where they strategize ways to rob humans of their freedom and self-command. I try instead to stick to my known super-powers, encouragement and food. Every day, I tell him I love him and ask if he’s eaten his vegetables. I text him funny memes, even when I know his phone is off. I buy organic spinach and kale, heaping it onto his plate at every opportunity. Of course, no amount of mother love can banish symptoms. I beat back my grief and helplessness. I battle my destructive impulse to make everything right by sheer force of will. Then, slowly sink into the hard-won understanding about my mother, my son, myself: all of us, always, are doing our best. Yes, it helps to take medication, and no, even the bravest heroes are not always cured. But on they go, day by day, season by season, kicking yeerk butt.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Not Just Quiet, But Peace

Wherever I am, every day is a tug-of-war between cranky anxiety and inner peace. It’s more than quiet here, the husband says, as dawn lands in shining patches atop the Buffalo Peaks. We watch from the cabin couch as pink sky brightens to clear blue. December already. We’ve been kept away from this sanctuary for many weeks by his bruised ribs–mountain biking giveth and mountain biking taketh away–and by my lingering bronchitis. We’ve missed these wide-open views and sheltering circles of aspen. Even in this retreat, the quiet morning harmony is not guaranteed to last, not if I’m involved.

In November, I went to DC and to Connecticut, soaking up time with some of my favorite people. One day, my morning Course in Miracles lesson is “Let all things be exactly as they are.” This message speaks directly to my perfectionism, my hyper-criticality and impulse to control. So I do it: I let all things be exactly as they are. I sit up in bed and breathe deeply, cradling my cup of coffee like a chalice. Yes, I will remember this one. This one is perfect, my mind crows. And then. And then: other people, the news, bronchial irritation. I am annoyed by not having slept well, bothered by how quickly my caffeine high fades. I write a little, but hate the sentences I produce, then I scan the headlines and seethe. What ails these politicians? Why do people make the simplest things so hard? My jaw clenches as I wonder if I will ever sleep without a cough again. A typical morning–basking in serene intentions at dawn, then falling flat on my spiritual face by nine am.

Setting my notebook aside, I drive along streets overhung with fiery maple and birch leaves to the Cornerstone Athletic Club in West Hartford. I sigh with pleasure as I lower myself into the hot tub. I relax. Then a slender young woman, blonde hair cropped short, annoys me. In response to an older man’s question, she says My ballet background informs my yoga teaching. Just two people making friendly conversation. I blend Yoga and Astrology and Art, she says. Oh, please! I think. I fight down the disdain, the eye roll at all things new age. This person needs to just stop: stop being so young, so well-rested, so graceful and sure of herself. Oops. Then I remember: let all things be exactly as they are.

I shake my head at myself and plunge into a deep swim lane dappled with sunlight. Quickly, the sheath of warmth cloaking my body dispels. I move through cool quiet, watching bubbles form under my fingernails as I push my hands forward. There is no quiet like underwater quiet, no view like underwater sunlight. My jumpy mind stills, and on I go. Back and forth in the pool, back and forth between my wandering thoughts and my steady beating heart. Every day, I set peaceful intentions, then forget that serenity exists.

Today, I meditate and look at the mountains. I write a sentence I don’t hate. I breath in the beauty, then criticize my privileged self-indulgence. Back and forth, back and forth. Even quiet that is more than quiet doesn’t guarantee peace. And while I’m deep into my post-religion adult life, I can’t help think of an illiterate Jewish peasant, his egalitarianism so threatening to the authorities that he was murdered, his calls for justice and connection so compelling that his friends somehow kept his story alive. I’ll go up to the mountains (forgive, forgive, forgive), down into the water (back and forth, back and forth). I’ll do the small things I can for my loved ones, for strangers. And as I used to sing in church every Sunday, I will ask: let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.

Categories
biking Memoir Writing

Beetle Murder & Bipolar Disorder

Japanese beetles are iridescent green, shiny–and beautiful. I admire the engineering genius in the strong grip of their tiny claws and the protective shell of their winged backs. I murder them because they feast on all my favorite garden plants: Virginia Creeper vines become laced skeletons; rose and hibiscus blooms are hollowed out before they can unfurl. Day after day for three summers running, I killed the destructive fliers by the hundreds–shaking them into drowning bowls of soapy water.

This summer was bountiful, disorienting, and full of noxious invaders. Covid 19 seemed to be exiting stage left while we adjusted to socializing and the smiles of strangers, then—well, you know that story. Between visits from long-missed friends and during breaks from clouds of wildfire smoke, I was on the couch or on a bicycle. My write-ride-repeat summer plan quickly became a ride, read-a-little, ride-some-more reality. Then all of a sudden, there was snow on the deck, and I hadn’t written in what seemed like forever.

I had fought a losing battle with hungry beetles in the city, and with noxious knapweed in Fairplay.  Knapweed is a thistle that sprouts in soft green tufts in the spring only to morph into two-foot high shrubs holding hundreds of needle-sharp seed heads. It has been my enemy roughly since the time that my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was around the same time that my mother was dying. My therapist then heard a lot about knapweed. And she once asked me to say out loud the names of each person I loved who had died over the previous eighteen months. I only made it to four, about half way, before losing track and crying. But I pulled a lot of knapweed that year, grateful for one thing that I could destroy back.

This August, while I was obsessing about beetles and knapweed instead of writing, Sunlight Press published an essay of mine that included more about bipolar disorder in our family than I’d written before. Encouraged by the journal’s editor, and with the full blessing of my son, I connected the dots between my mother’s illnesses, my own first major depression, and my son’s bipolar diagnosis. (Have a look if you missed my post about it on Facebook: https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2021/08/22/colfax-and-monroe/).

The more I write, the more I learn to write about (if not publish about) the hardest things. I step into those memories and experiences not out of self-pity, but because they are the truest stories I have. They help anchor me to my current happiness, providing contrast, expanding my gratitude. Maybe those stories also have the most potential to help others.

I chose to become a therapist many years ago because I wanted to be part of transformational conversations, and to be genuinely helpful. Maybe I was most helpful on days that I felt like a failure in my own life, when I was blind to the generational patterns that look so obvious in retrospect. Maybe the counseling I offered on days when I showed up to work confident and energized were my least helpful days in the profession. Possibly, the days I needed to cry in the parking lot for an hour before I could walk into my office were my days of most lasting service to clients.

No shining cosmic memo will tell me that something I did as a therapist or wrote since that time made a real difference to another person. But, like the genuine practice of psychotherapy, a genuine writing practice shifts me away from my petty, narcissistic side and toward a vision of a better world. Beetles and knapweed and bipolar and all. Looking deeply inside ourselves and telling the truth about what we find there, is, I believe, inherently healing. And the more I write, the more of that I want.

View from an evening ride.
Looking toward Kenosha Pass
Late summer sparkle.

Categories
biking humor Writing

Shame List

So what are you working on today? My writing friend asks over zoom the other morning.  Oh, I’m working on my shame list. You know, things I’ve been hating on myself about, just a couple of small things that I can get done. The list had two items: re-post the Dunes memoir essay that had gone out via email but not “stuck” to the blog site, and write for ten minutes about the weather. Notebook weather reports are a “way in” when I’ve not been writing, my word boat becalmed. The currents of a reopening world pulled me into travel and bike rides; the weeds in my garden begged to be pulled before the heat of the days set in.

That recent morning, though, I managed to repost the essay and write these sentences in my notebook (lightly revised—I’m compulsive that way):

The weather is so hot! The sun beats down from an ozone sky, orange sunrise bakes the back yard by 7:30. Hot light seeps in through the edges of the kitchen blinds and bounces off the shine of the counter top. Weather is what happens outside but it feels personal. It feels like an assault, this heat, like a pummel. Like someone is holding a magnifying glass between the city and the sun. And soon the dot of magnified heat will move to a dry stick west of here and the conflagration of parched forests will begin.

End of writing day. Two things are marked off the shame list, but self-loathing remains.

The next day, after not writing at all, I text my friend, I’ve been feeling mildly brain dead on couches. Maybe it’s a mood thing or ozone pollution or not having a job? Or just something to wait out? Blech.  And then, Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s Maybelline! I hug a blue couch pillow and say to the husband, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. He laughs, familiar with my dark side. We both know that his patient laugh is medicine.

I start to text that same sentence to my same friend, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. Suddenly, I’m afraid of how depressed, even suicidal it sounds. I’m not depressed, I add to my text, or suicidal, but I appreciate that you would ask me if you thought I might be. I delete the text—it feels like too much. I wrap my arms around the pillow and roll over on my left. I think about failure. If I hug this pillow long enough, I ask the husband, will I start to feel like a person again? His response, so admirably calm:  Probably.

I don’t want to be a mood ball. I look at my ups and downs and wish I were different, wish I were steadier, more reliable and responsible. When I can see my moods dispassionately, I appreciate their relative mildness. I wrote here a while back about how I never “qualified” for a bipolar diagnosis, which is true. But over the years, I qualified for plenty: General Anxiety Disorder (my therapist at the time found this diagnosis less stigmatizing than PTSD), and my two post-partum depressions were officially Major Depressions. All this before the genetically-driven family pattern of bipolarity became clear.

When I’m down, every small thing feels effortful. Not doing my laundry makes me sad, makes me ashamed. But I can’t put my whole neurology on the shame list. Because, really, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a human with a messy and beautiful brain. Almost everyone has felt this way at some point. If you feel this way today, I salute your ability to feel, to be exactly as you are, right now.

Still, I hear my mother’s critical voice telling me I am spoiled and lazy, lazy and spoiled. And I may be spoiled and lazy, but I’m not bad or wrong or morally flawed for losing time to moods. I say this today. Two days ago, I felt unworthy of personhood.

Whatever shame said to me that afternoon, I was able to kiss the couch goodbye for an hour and ride my bike under trees clothed in baby-leaf green. I was able to feel sweat gather at the ends of my hair, and to stop for breath while looking at clear sky. I came home feeling better, tired in a different way. This morning that sky is indeed smudged with smoky haze from distant wildfires. And this morning, I’m writing again. Shame be damned.

Before

After