No, it’s 4:40, your phone is messed up. We have to go back to sleep. Let’s curl up. Ooof, if I’m on my left side, my knee hurts, if I’m on my right, my shoulder hurts and my vertigo turns on.
You are a wreck.
I am a wreck. I need to call Frank Azar. Remember? Been in a wreck? Call Frank Azar!
5:40. Actual 5:40
I think I went back to sleep.
Yes, you did. I had an imaginary conversation in my head with a holocaust denier. That took a long time, so you definitely slept.
All night, the full moon poured itself in the windows. All night until the sun came up. My friend has told me it is an agitated full moon, with mars snuggled close. I say, not sleeping, if it weren’t so cold, I could sit outside and knit in the moonlight. I say, to me, standing by the propane stove at midnight, clouds scuttling north at high speed, covering the moon to reveal a pocket of dark sky dotted with stars: Dear God, how is so much beauty possible?
Dry means dry, I think to myself, as I watch a big metal cylinder flip my clothes around and around. I’m frowning, arms crossed, in a July-hot laundromat in Chesterton, Indiana. The husband thinks that dry means done, which means he takes clothes out of the dryer when he’s tired of waiting for them, even if the necks of my t-shirts and the toes of my socks are still damp. How wrong he is to not understand that dry means dry! How frustrating when he does things wrong! I watch myself agitate, feel my shoulders and jaw turn to gravel. At that moment, dear reader, the husband is six hundred miles away. His laundry misdemeanor occurred a week earlier.
Cranxiety: the crunchy combination of grumpiness and worry.
Everywhere I go, cranky mixes with anxious into a new kind of miserable. On a hushed mountain morning, the husband walks by as I write, on his way to the kitchen for a cup of tea. His footsteps and the kettle’s hissing jolt me into worry that I can’t write, not now, probably not ever again. Why can’t he just be in the other room until I’m done? And why must I be so ill-tempered?
Crankxiety is what happens in my head when the wifi goes out. Where does the wifi go when it goes out? When will it come back? I ruminate on how wrong I am wrong to focus on what is wrong. I am supposed to be sweet, happy, and productive. I am not supposed to flip out when the husband makes tea or the wifi goes for a walk.
Cranxiety is part of what led me to re-start therapy last spring. A few weeks in, I got into an argument with my therapist. Jenny-Lynn, he said to me, so kindly that you would have thought he was a nice person. Hot tears were streaming down my face. Damp tissues were wadded in my left hand. Jenny-Lynn, he said, it is all right to feel. My objection was immediate and visceral—opposition from my toe joints all the way to the hardest part of my skull. I only wanted know why I was crying so I could stop. But I didn’t know why, and I couldn’t stop, and for some reason, I hated that he told me it was okay.
For me, anxiety is a despairing and physical need for everything to be different, inside and outside myself. It is a belly churning worry over the past and the future, including how much worse the anxiety might get, and how much crankier it might make me.
A few days after my laundromat diatribe, I tell my doctor, Crankxiety is a new circle of hell. She nods sympathetically as she fills my first-ever prescription for an anti-depressant. I’m not depressed, I report, I am just miserably irritable. Eight weeks after starting a low dose anti-depressant, crankxiety still rears its ugly head, but its talons don’t grip my belly for hours or days at a time. I can shrug and go on with my next, more helpful thought. I don’t have to be different, and neither does anyone else. These days, I say to myself, Jenny-Lynn, it’s all right to feel sad. It’s all right to feel anxious. More than anything, I feel more like myself, complaining and sweet in turn, and just exactly good enough.
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.
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.
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.
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 meif 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.
Halloween morning, three days until the election, and I ask the same question I ask every year—isn’t the world scary enough without putting goblin heads on our front doors? Even without Trump and Covid–two frights that only make each other worse–I am a chicken. Don’t say Boo to me—my startle reflex is so tightly wrapped that seeing the word carved into a pumpkin can make me jump out of my skin. And I worry. I worry about so many small things (mice, socks, humidifiers) that I can barely make room for the big things (elections, democracy, climate). But the big things pervade, and nothing dominates the aptly-named “Breaking News” today than the soaring number of Covid cases. Rising community spread in Denver is enough to keep me home on a sunny day, but it’s time to refill my Ativan prescription.
I’m lucky that Ativan works for my anxiety (along with exercise, meditation, and the occasional self-hating rant). It’s a drug that is easy to abuse, and I know it helps me most if I use it only a couple of times a week and don’t think of it too often. It’s the difference between, say, a cute acquaintance at the coffee shop and a full-blown romantic obsession.
Today, I go to a neighborhood pharmacy where, two days earlier, they gave me someone else’s medication. (Yes, I worried about that person, and no, I didn’t mistakenly take their pills.) The only problem with my prescription is how much worry it causes me to stand in line at the pharmacy, so this second trip, on a busy Saturday morning, has shallowed my breath and dampened my palms. I have picked up a couple of bags of candy for possible trick-or-treaters, some worry-reducing ballpoint pens, and sensitivity toothpaste because I’m a very, very sensitive person. Before my turn in line, I realize that in my bike pouch outside I have left my cell phone, neatly bundled with all of my plastic and $70 cash. It’s still there when I go back for it. I resume my place in line.
The pharmacist is kind, apologetic, practically oozing with her own concern that the person behind me in line is my lawyer. I verbally confirm my name, birthdate, and phone number, but the small beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead confirm my diagnosis: anxious AF. The pharmacist hands me a $25 gift certificate and a $10 cash refund. I hand them back to her to pay for my purchases, then sanitize my hands and thank her profusely.
Making my way to the exit, prescription and pens and Halloween candy in hand, I pass less than six feet behind an older white man and say, I’m right behind you, so sorry. He turns to me and loudly replies, nose jauntily uncovered by his mask, Why are you sorry? I’m not afraid! Me either, Mister, me either.
I was never, ever going to have two dogs. Two dogs is a pack of dogs, not a pair of dogs. And I was absolutely, positively never going to live with a shedding canine. Of course, life being the unrelenting teacher that it is, I am now living with two dogs, one an epic shedder. Our grown son has been staying with us and brought his dog along. The idyllic retirement of our adored standard poodle–hypoallergenic, dignified, and mellow–has been disrupted by a border collie—hyper-driven, ill-mannered, and needy. The only things these two have in common are four legs and a water bowl.
Our poodle’s name is Nyx, in honor of the goddess of primordial mystery. The border collie is named Ptera, short for Pteradactyl, a flying reptile. When my son brought her home to Denver from the cattle ranch where she spent her first ten months, Ptera had to learn about glass doors: they are invisible things that hurt when you walk into them. Stairs also took some getting used to, as did leashes, men in hats, and magpies. In the early days of her new life, Ptera looked at us befuddled, as if to say, You people seem really nice, but where are the cows, and when do I start? In her eight years, Nyx has never slept in a barn or thought much about livestock. Her first language is play, not work, and if she spoke, she’d have a slightly patrician accent.
Our sweet poodle hates getting her feet wet—she steps delicately around water whenever possible. But the energizer collie has never met a dank puddle that she didn’t want to jump into, then drink from. Ptera is a groupie, a black and white ball of let’s-be-friends. She loves the cool kids, and Nyx is not only a cool kid, she’s a goddess. When Ptera isn’t in over-achiever mode, neatly arranging extracted shoe insoles, she likes to snuggle close. Very, very close. Early on, this involved walking over and plopping down on top of Nyx. Appalled, Nyx would stand up, shake her head, and move to another nap zone. Eventually, she tolerated a bit more togetherness—poodle and collie hindquarters almost touching. I might have taken a picture the first time that happened.
Nyx has taught Ptera the fine art of eating snow, grazing cold white crystals off the chairs in the back yard. Ptera has taught Nyx a few new wrestling moves, including what I call the “under-over”, in which the younger dog ducks under the older, then jumps up as high as possible. When they play together, Ptera bows and dances until Nyx decides to give chase for a moment. Then the dignified poodle watches as the collie leaps and twirls, then becomes momentarily distracted by the scent of squirrel.
A dog trainer told us, I had a border collie once. I’ll never have another border collie. She explained that they are bred to work, not to be social. Despite her sweet temper and eagerness to please, Ptera was anxious with strangers and almost impossible to tire out. The trainer said, Forget this idea of the more exercise, the better. Too much intense exercise just puts more cortisol in her system and makes her more reactive. The anxious over-exerciser in me could relate.
She recommended more intellectual stimulation, including puzzle feeding, which involves a few gadgets. There is the snuffle mat, a felt shag square that you tuck kibble into so the dogs can forage. A rolling plastic tube that drops one piece of food at a time also entertains while feeding. Finally, we have a wobble Kong, an eight-inch, rounded plastic pyramid with a hole in its side, like a food-dispensing bobble head. Border collies are technically smarter than standard poodles, but Nyx is more strategic, standing by to nibble food that Ptera puzzles free.
The little collie has come a long way, and taken me along for the ride. As I write, she is fast asleep on the living room couch, almost hip to hip with the show girl. Ptera is absolutely never allowed on the couch—it is a designated poodle sanctuary. But there she sleeps, shedding all over my never’s and my absolutes. The neurotic little love-ball is family now, curled up in her own messy corner of my baffled heart. When she’s back at my son’s place, we return to our quiet habits with relief. But after a couple of days, even Nyx starts to yearn for more barn girl shenanigans.
Sometimes it takes the loss of those who live close-by to really appreciate what great neighbors we have. Demographics have changed in my old Denver neighborhood since I moved here in 1989. Take Wilma and Lupe, for instance, who moved in next door about five years ago. They were colorful friends who loved to wake up early and roam in their garden, especially after a summer rain. They would pull at a weed or two, then yank up juicy earth worms. And devour them.
Wilma and Lupe were chickens, good layers and sweet cluckers whom I came to love. I was chicken-sitting on the night an owl swooped into Wilma and Lupe’s narrow enclosure, and—not without a fight—took them up, one at a time, to another neighbor’s porch roof for a midnight snack. There was a lot to explain to the kids that morning, as that neighbor taped a net to a broom handle to pull down the feathered empties.
On the opposite side-yard, other neighbors also have a coop, with hens whose names I never learned– not after I’d let myself get so attached to Wilma and Lupe. I enjoyed their eggs that were so kindly passed to us, and the sounds the chickens made while laying. Imagine a dog yelp tethered to a crow caw, with a bit of a sigh at the finish. But those hens, too, met a violent end. Recently, a racoon broke into their coop and absconded with two of its three residents. That masked bandit enjoyed its meal on the transparent roof of our bike shed, where dark feathers and faint blood stains will remain for a while.
So, remember to count your blessings, neighbors! And you might also want to count your chickens. Stay safe out there, feathered and other friends.