A Sense of Place – and Race

When planning a trip to the shore, one usually worries about which towels to bring, bathing suits, sunscreen.

I did.

I thought of all the fun we’d have.

I also thought of what was outside the idyllic beach town to which we were headed.

See, we were headed south.

Where the weather is warm and the palm trees sway easily, but there is an undercurrent of racial tension that never went away and now pulls taut and bursts at the seams.

I didn’t want to bring my children to the whitest part of town and let them think these were the only faces that made up the fabric of place. This place. That this place, its history was all sunshine and roses – everywhere, for everyone.

Unable to curb the [English] teacher genes in me – no matter how many years remove me from the classroom – I dug up book lists, fiction and nonfiction, free verse and narrative, poetry and expository, picture book and novel, to give my girls a sense of this place to which we were going. Graeme Seabrook, a fellow Warrior Mom, posted Sara Makeba’s blog about her experience as an interpretive guide at a plantation that actually tells the story of the slaves’ experience. That became a destination and informed book choices for my girls to prepare them. I happened upon the online teacher’s guide of African American Historic Places in South Carolina. I read article after article. I planned discussions to have with my girls.

A week out from our trip, Charlottesville happened.

I’m not naïve enough to think that all the ugliness of our racial story is in the past. In my thankfully expanding circle, online and real world, it becomes ever clearer that, overt or insidious, racism is and has been alive and well. But in my bubble of privilege, I was still insulated from it.

As much as I wanted to open my children’s eyes to the injustices around us, my husband and I actually discussed revising our route to stay clear of Charlottesville in our drive south. How lucky, how privileged we were to be able to make that choice. It is my duty as a parent to keep my babies safe, but time and circumstance shouldn’t preclude all parents from having that choice.

I was headed back to the history of today’s problems, but still didn’t have a sense of the ‘unbending line’ between the two until our guide at the plantation finished his interpretation. He pointed to the rows of Sea Island cotton growing behind us, to the shore far behind the trees where slaves were expected to dig and drag mud to fertilize the soil, to the barn where they would’ve tended livestock, to the places they’ve would’ve picked seeds from cotton and jumped down into a huge sack of it to tamp it down. He described how nearly the very same jobs were expected of them as tenant farmers and share croppers. How ‘freedmen’ could be arrested for vagrancy while looking for jobs for which no one would hire them and then have a criminal record which would preclude their freedom. To the subpar education that followed even desegregation. To racial profiling. To white supremacy come full circle.

I approached him afterward with tears in my eyes and thanked him for speaking the truth. That it isn’t all history – even if some people think it is. That my friends are scared for their babies. He said he is, too; that he checks his friends’ tail lights before they leave meetings at night so they won’t have the chance of being the next statistic.

After the tour, my ten year-old daughter told me she understood all he said, but didn’t know what to say about it. I thought that was about the wisest thing she could have said.

On our way home, our highway route took us through Charlottesville. There was no sign of the violence two weeks earlier. In fact, the sun filtered through the clouds in an unworldly way. I hoped that meant God’s protective and healing powers were also shining down.

And yet, as I looked at those gorgeous green hills, I no longer saw just the beauty.   I saw the evil beneath the surface. Just like the palms and oak allees in the miles behind us, the natural beauty was tempered by the horror that took place right alongside it, within it.

I will never be able to unsee it.

It makes my heart ache for the injustice – and for the easy ignorance I’ll never regain.

But it’s a pain that people of color have been feeling and keep feeling everyday. With no choice. No chance to look away or deviate route.

Where I was born and the skin I’m in have given me the opportunity to not even realize there were atrocities happening all around us in the name of race. Without even realizing it, I’ve committed wrongs. I thought simply by giving my family a sense of the place to which we were travelling, I was helping us not to come in and exploit the area and people, but we were still privileged tourists – albeit sensitive ones, but tourists just the same. We drove through Charlottesville, but we continued on home where I can let my girls roam our street without fear of accosting or questioning. Where neighbors and even strangers won’t think they’re too loud, too much, too dangerous. Where I can sit behind the safety of my laptop and think this post will do anything to change anything.

Like my ten year-old daughter, I understand, but don’t know what to say.

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Driving through Charlottesville, August 2017, Jennifer Butler Basile

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Post Script

The following is not advisable, nor is it recommended or endorsed by any of the information herein; the anecdotes serve as a reflection of my personal experiences. Do not take the same road I have.

 About three and a half weeks ago, I weaned myself off my antidepressant of seven years. For all the advice I’ve heard saying not to do so without medical supervision and all the times I’d poo-poo’d those who abruptly stopped medications – I weaned off my meds without medical supervision having made the decision totally independently.

I’ve written before about the panic that ratchets up watching the tablets dwindle in my amber colored bottle of sanity; about the same reasons I take them leaving me overwhelmed enough not to call the doctor for a new string of refills. It happened the same this time.

Except this time, I’d been growing ever more resentful of that daily bitter pill, something to remember, something to lean on heavily, something to possibly poison me.

In an as-yet-to-be-seen brilliant realization, I decided to space out my tablets to make them last longer – ‘until I got a refill’. I think that was my rationalization. I went down to one for several days, half for several more, and then a quarter.

Also around this time, however, I began reading A Mind of Your Own: The Truth About Depression and How Women Can Heal Their Bodies to Reclaim Their Lives by Kelly Brogan. Now, if the rest of my follies here are not endorsements, this most certainly is not an endorsement of this book. It took me an awful long time to swallow – pun possibly intended – what Brogan had to say. After years of coming to terms – mostly – with taking antidepressants, here was an in-your-face account of how they were absolutely unhealthy and unnecessary. The whole first half of the book told me in no uncertain and sometimes holier-than-thou terms that I had been duped and made a terrible decision for and possibly irreparable damages to my body.

As I said, I started reading this book around the same time I was weaning. I did not read one ‘expert’s’ book and change my entire life regimen around it. As I was already tapering these ‘evil’ meds from my system, however, I was curious to see what other options could help me complete this process.

The second half of Brogan’s book is the best; the part where she gets to the heart of her mission: helping women live healthy and whole lives. I don’t know that her tone was less sanctimonious or I was better able to temper it with my own decisions of what would/would not work for me. Her plan focuses on a four-week implementation of diet, detoxing the home, meditation, exercise and sleep – a four-pronged approach to keeping the body and mind on track.

There is a lot in this book that resonates with me – some of which I already do, in fact. However, the four-pronged approach makes that panic rise in my chest almost as much as the rattle of fewer and fewer pills in the bottle.

When I started meds, feeling so like a failure for needing them (no projection, just my own neuroses), my therapist said, “this is the tenor of your life right now. Whether or not you were previously suffering with a mental illness, you were able to cope. Now, mothering several children, there are significant unalterable circumstances that make you unable to cope. Your medication can help you do so.”

Tenor still untenable.   Nothing new there. Well, actually there is a new kid.

So perfecting diet, sleep, mindfulness, exercise, clean living – all factors dependent on me, everyday, in my imperfect life is a little terrifying. Especially considering that failure, which is inevitable really, means a depressive state. No big.

Back to weaning: Brogan advises her 30 day detox before weaning to reset your system first. Ha. That may have helped. It also may have helped if I didn’t wean in the last week before my period as I prepped and embarked on a week-long trip with all four kids solo only to return, take two weeks to prep for school, and pack for one final vacation that ends on the eve of the new school year. Timing is everything.

There were times I wanted to scalp myself or my children that first week; times I wanted to scream louder than the baby refusing to just.go.to.sleep; scared that the crying jags meant my depression was coming back; irritable and snippy with my husband; and in a much lesser, yet slightly amusing development, America’s Got Talent’s package materials and any high note hit by a contestant made me well up.

Brogan warned me the withdrawal symptoms might present as a relapse of the original condition. Who’s to say I was struggling because I desperately needed the pill to supplement my body or give it a crutch?

I didn’t complete a long yoga session last week seeking clarity of mind in regards to all this. I was finally sick and scared enough at the skin and muscle getting looser around my frame and the big kids were shoe shopping with their grandparents. The amount of tension in my muscles shocked me. I sobbed at even the slightest release of it. Not the wet, slimy tears of a betrayal or breakdown, but the semi-silent, breath-catching heaves of chest with a few slick tears sliding down from the corner of eyes when I unsquinched them long enough to let them fall. I didn’t realize how much I’d been carrying until I tried to let it go.

And that was just the physical.

As trite as it may be, I had an epiphany on the yoga mat that morning. Even if I was taking medication to take care of my mental health, I wasn’t taking care of my self. I’d forgotten to force time for the things that keep my soul alive. Stretching, meditative thought and moments, reading, writing.

Did I need to stop meds to hit rock bottom hard enough to make the burning fire of my calves burn a hole in my consciousness? Perhaps not. Would I recommend cessation of meds as a path to clarity? No. But stopping meds to see where my mind and body were at this point in my life, nearly eight years out from the offending episode of postpartum, and then having such a visceral reaction to the stress in my life and body – that sent me an important message.

Regardless of what my decisions are in regard to lifestyle and care, self-care must be part of it. Placebo or perfect chemistry, a pill isn’t a miracle. All cylinders of my life, my soul must be firing.

Life will never be perfect. Even if I decide to follow Brogan’s regimen or another with or without meds, there will be times I fail. I can’t control circumstances outside my body, my sphere – hell, even in my sphere. (Did I mention I have four children?) But perhaps with the balance of self-care, I can temper the abberations. It’s a tall order, but right now, it’s keeping my mind centered on care – not maintenance or even just keeping the lid on.

That’s a pretty compelling read for me.

Above and Below

Stand at the foot of the hill.

Gaze at the crest as it looms above,

Silhouetted against the night sky,

Suddenly light in comparison.

A streak of cloud, the rounded edges of treetops.

To feel small in the furrows between the tall corn stalks

To feel broad and expansive in the dampened dark of night

A Late Summer’s Night

Crisp air punctuated by the smell of pine

Crickets in the thickets of roadside grass

Their calls cycling faster and faster as I pass, like a card in bicycle spokes

Highbeams illuminate the trunks of trees lined up like the walls of tunnels

Unclear whether the fog films the windshield inside or out 

In the cool of night, summer falls away

Gloaming

I love that there is a line of light on the horizon,

a gleam just beyond

A glow of grey at the billowing edge of green,

the globes atop tree branches

It is dark in the corners –

But there, far away, it is bright.

For All Mothers

Three years ago, Kelly Kittel began her journey of book tours and signings, publicity and PR for her newly published memoir, Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict.  I’d journeyed with her, on parallel paths, in a shared writing group for months before.  Kelly has journeyed today to Washington, D.C. to advocate for appropriate allocation of funding for maternal health programs.

In December 2016, the Bringing Postpartum Depression Out of the Dark Act of 2015 was signed into law.  Today and tomorrow scores of women visit the Capitol to discuss how to enact programs highlighted by the legislation.  It’s wonderful to see my news feeds filled with faces I’ve met in my maternal health circles, gathering together at the core of our country, for the health of mothers.

Kelly and I have had different journeys in motherhood.  She will be speaking to bereavement and infant loss.  She is speaking from her own personal experience.  My personal experience is with postpartum depression.  I was honored and touched that she asked me to give her my take on the care I’d received postpartum and what it may have lacked; to bring a firsthand account of what mothers in Rhode Island might need to recover and thrive despite postpartum depression.

To be a mother is to know the utmost joy and deepest despair.  While our manner of grief might differ, we all embody the emotion.  I thank Kelly Kittel for taking hers, and mine, on her latest journey.


More info on this initiative:

http://mmhcoalition.com/advocacy-days/

http://mmhcoalition.com/impact/

String Theory

The baby is screaming.

She fell asleep during her bedtime feeding, exhausted from the non-nap she took, but woke as I dressed her in pajamas. Two of her sisters came to her crib-side to stem the tide of tears, only prolonging the cry-it-out of which she is desperately in need.

My husband has finally comforted her and there is silence. I’m not sure it will last once she leaves his arms.

I’m sitting in the living room in the dark. In a singular armchair in the corner because it’s the farthest away from couch command central I spend those hours of nursing/napping with the baby during the day.

I screamed when I saw the previously smooth comforter on my bed had been rumpled like the ridges of wet sand left by a receding wave. I swore when I saw that said rumpling slid most of the clean load of laundry I’d dumped on the bed for folding onto the floor.   I flung dirty, yet previously sorted, clothes back into their piles from where they’d been strewn across the hallway. I didn’t even know what to do when I found one of my few personal care products had been removed from the basket on my dresser and moved to the baby’s.

It’s all a violation. After a long day of doing everything for everyone, to have even one little bit of it undone is a slap in the face. Or a turning of a screw tightening my already taut strings into a discordant twang.

Especially in my room.

Do not take what little I have for myself. What little sanctuary I have.

That being said, if the sight of one misplaced purple hair care bottle disturbs me so, I think it’s safe to say I need a break.

It’s time to scale back. Sit apart. Self care.

However, I realized earlier today that, except for two, all of our weekends throughout the entire summer are booked. Summer hasn’t even started yet! A good number of those are family time and travel, which is, of course, good. But it’s a major weight on my ever-forward-looking and always-cognizant-of-what-needs-to-be-done mind.

It’s also a reminder that a place where I’ve fallen short is discriminately choosing what absolutely adds to the quality of our lives and what would just be nice if we had time; that I need to clearly and effectively communicate my desires and capabilities – for what works for me and us, not others.

Because I’m obviously feeling stretched to the limit tonight and stuff like this shouldn’t make me break.

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Simply See

Home again, and Jane and I are going walkabout.  I have her rigged on my shoulders in the backpack.  Distributed throughout the aluminum frame and snugged straps, her weight dissipates to nothing.  After all, she weighs little more than a good-sized chicken.  As we step into the yard, I twist my neck to get a look at her face and find her looking out over the valley below.  Her eyes are wide and steady beneath the brim of her floppy cap.  How far out of infancy do we lose this gaze, with its utter absence of expectation or prejudice?  What is it like to simply see what is before you, without the skew of context?

from Coop: A Year of Poultry, Pigs, and Parenting by Michael Perry

Aspect Ratio

I can put myself in the labor bed for the birth of my third child.  I can see the scene unfold.  I can hear the conversations with my midwife.  I remember how, even at the height of contractions with delivery imminent, I still hadn’t come to grips with the fact that I was pregnant.

I remember thinking, but wait, I’m not ready.  I haven’t reconciled this with myself yet, with the universe.

The universe didn’t care.  Nature didn’t care.  My body and the baby didn’t care.  It was time – whether I was ready or not.

I think on a cellular level I knew that pushing out that child without owning the pregnancy would only lead to trouble.  The basest parts of the body do not lie.

I grew that baby with the utmost care.  Once she was this side of the womb, I was only attentive.

But my soul was squeezed by internal pressures; my own mind that couldn’t accept this path only because I hadn’t carved it.

And so, I was amazed by the wonder that accompanied an unplanned fourth pregnancy.  Simply bowled over by the joy that flooded me when they placed her on my breast.  While I had been afraid to plunge into the depth of my love for my third, for fear that someone would take her from me, it just happened with my fourth.

And yet, because any footprints make deep imprints on the psyche, a year later now, I look at my pregnant self and cannot believe that is me.  Was that my life?  Was that a mere year ago?  How can I reconcile that exhausted, frumpy, wallowing-in-her-own-skin IMG_20160430_150358162person with who I am just a year later?  I hate that I look so miserable when pregnant.  Because of my problems in the past, I look at any such photo and second-guess myself.  Was I feeling that same way then?  Struggling the same?  So paranoid, scared, to fall into that trough – even on a timeline that has already elapsed – I doubt what’s right in front of me.

My grey matter muscle memory worries that if I have a hard time measuring this last year of my newborn’s life, that I look at this picture of me a mere year ago and see an alternate reality – am I not in just as much denial this time as the last?  If I am still getting used to the idea of having a baby and she’s turning the corner to one year-old, doesn’t that mean I am putting up some of those same walls?

NO.

Will I forever be haunted by the dark feelings and stilted growth of my postpartum depression?  Yes.  Will it make me paranoid and second-guess myself?  Right now anyway.  Is it possible to have mind and heart blown during any childbearing and rearing experience – ‘normal’ or otherwise?  Yes.

It’s so easy to let past experiences form new fears and worries.  Just like losing it with the older kids or having a low day makes me worry I’m having a relapse.  Knowing the signs and how to help ourselves is key; expecting perfection and punishing ourselves is crap.

So maybe I’ll just look at those pregnant photos of me and say, no wonder I look like rough; growing a kid is rough work.  Maybe I’ll just seal them in her baby book and never look at them again.  I certainly need to stop looking at them trying to find signs of trouble.

Notice, though, that I haven’t even begun to look at the newborn photos for this go-round.

On This Day

11 months, 2 weeks ago, I was trudging through the day-to-day like an elephant on two legs in an animated film.  I was full with pregnancy, with baby, aches and pains, in bladder, daily chaos, and exhaustion.  I was in some sort of suspended stasis; neither did I want to be pregnant any longer nor did I want the onslaught of labor and care of a newborn.

Thanks to the equally annoying, nostalgic, and awe-inspiring features of technological devices and their applications, I can see last week, this week, today in tidy little boxes of unasked-for updates.  That me has tired eyes, a wan smile, the ruddy mask of pregnancy fingering its way across my face.  Except for the dropped weight, that me hasn’t changed much in the last near year.

And yet, looking at that me, it seems like another life.

Looking at this other life in my arms, I feel like she’s just arrived and yet, that other, older me in the photos is saying she’s been here for eons.

For the growing she’s done, I’ve done.  For the countless hours of lost sleep, the endless ribbon of days and nights spooled out and folded in and around each other.

It’s time to celebrate her first year of life, but she still feels brand new to me.  How has this time elapsed without my say so?  For all the holding and staring and loving, I couldn’t hold her trapped in time with my gaze.

But if I stay focused on her in this day, all the others, past and present, will fall away.

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