2018, 500, 1

In years past, WordPress has provided a neat little summary of the past year’s writing accomplishments on my blog.  I didn’t receive one this year.  Whether that’s because it’s no longer their practice or because my level of writing activity dipped below their radar remains to be seen.  I did, however, receive this neat little notification the other day.

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500 posts.  That’s a lot of writing.  In my six years (wo)manning this blog, I have written many posts.  My aunt recently asked me which post or posts were my favorite(s).  A few came to mind instantaneously, of course, but once I started digging through, I realized just how many there are –

which helps provide balance to the writer’s remorse that I haven’t done more lately.

Once upon a time, Tuesday and Thursday were sacred posting days, with Fridays as an occasional musing on craft (my weekend write-off).  I’m still unpacking the irony that my writing on mental health paused or ceased when things got really crazy last spring and by the end of the summer/fall when I’d ceased my medication.  It didn’t help that I had another small human pulling at my pant leg.  I’ve also tried to reignite a dedicated writing regimen for my young adult fiction and personal memoir.  Something’s gotta give, I suppose, in my anxiety-ridden, mom-of-four, only-24-hours-in-a-day world.

Still, when I didn’t receive the adorable fireworks animation comparing my readership to the size of small countries, the writer’s remorse kicked in big time.  What were my dedicated readers doing whilst I whiled time away with laundry and survival?  How were my fellow bloggers doing since I’d checked in last?  While the schedule of blogging can be daunting, especially in the midst of daily overwhelm, the process of crafting and posting and interacting is therapeutic for my writing and mental muscles.  I miss the community – and the potential that the blog has.

I have chopped lots of potatoes over the years.  I’m going to keep chopping.  Some days may produce uniform little cubes; others hackneyed hunks.  But it’s good to be back – even in a smashed capacity.

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Decluttering’s Demise

Starting this past Sunday, I embarked on a five-day quest to rid my life of clutter.  Okay, even I knew the hook was way too shiny and easy to be for real, but I actually thought the short time span would make it more manageable and therefore, my efforts, more successful.

I had seen Jen Riday’s teaser on Facebook.  (Thank you, user activity logarithms.)  I didn’t follow her, hadn’t heard of her, but if she could give me practical, doable tips, I was in.  I needed baby bites because my house had become more than I could chew.

Sunday, the first day of the challenge, I was actually disappointed.  ‘Shut off notifications on your phone’ – that’s way too easy –  and I want to slay physical clutter!  Five days later and I’m still figuring out how to shut off those pesky Facebook and Twitter notifications.  Neither in-app or phone settings are getting it done.  I hadn’t realized how mouse/cheese I was with the stupid phone.

Monday, I had to clean out my toiletries, make-up, etc. in the bathroom (and top of the dresser if you’re me).  Make-up was easy; I have little to none.  I did finally throw away the measly remains of the tube of lipstick I wore on my wedding day.  I figure if I haven’t even purchased the lip brush to dab out the dregs in the last sixteen years, it’s a safe bet I won’t.  Plus, my pale skin just doesn’t have the dewy glow that matched the shade anymore anyway.  As always, I hit that point in organization that makes things look worse before better.  I still have three piles on my dresser of things awaiting new homes.

So while Day Two isn’t completely complete, there are at least plans.  Then, came Day Three.

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from Jen Riday’s 5-Day Vibrant Happy Declutter Challenge

As soon as I read this, my heart dropped into my stomach.  Or my psyche’s shoulders slumped.  Clutter, while harbored in my bedroom, is not what’s keeping my room from being a sacred haven.  It simply cannot be a space to “collect your thoughts [that] will help you be more patient and calm with those you love.”  I cannot shut the door to the chaos whirling outside to regroup.  Even my room is not my own!

I share a room with my baby.

I know, the horror.  A first-world problem is ever there was one.  A cozy crib tucked into a recessed nook in the corner of my room.  I could have no roof over her head.  I could have all four children in my bed while my husband and I sleep on the floor.  There are worse things.

But, psychologically, sharing physical space with the lovely little parasite who feeds off me all day, all through the night, is demoralizing.  Even in the quiet, supposedly restful hours of sweet, dark night, I am not alone.  I do not get to recharge.  Hell, I don’t even get to sleep alone.  Every night, she wakes and senses our presence and will only sleep once we’ve nestled her in with us.

So a few minutes of shuttered peace in the middle of day to regroup in my bedroom oasis, ha!  “A list so you can work methodically through it in days to come”, ha!  It’s going to take major construction and socialization to make that happen.

At the baby’s 18-month appointment, the doctor asked about her sleeping habits and arrangements.  ‘Does that work for you?’ she asked.  No, doc, what would work for me would be snapping my fingers and making the uber-expensive and logistical-nightmare of a house addition appear so I could get said baby in her own encased block of darkness each night, but yes, that’s what our reality is right now.

I wish I could say that our babe is still in our room due to my deep-seated philosophical belief in supporting her best self.  But the fact that I can’t read anymore in the dim light of my bedside table kills me.  I can’t journal my swirling thoughts into a sleepy stupor.  I can’t even roll over in bed without worrying about a squeak waking her.  Hell, if it weren’t for the laundry baskets I haven’t yet put away littering the rest of the house, I wouldn’t be able to get dressed early in the morning.

Jen Riday’s Day Three Challenge totally took the wind out of my sails.  Not because she asked unreasonable things.  Because I’m not in a space where I can have them right now.

I did clean out some clothes I don’t wear anymore.  I have plans for a smart little tray to hold less items on my dresser than the big dust-collecting basket.  It crossed my mind that this should be the impetus to find an architect or follow up on that builder I’ve been meaning to call.

But it just seems so daunting.  After all, the sign on my door says it all:

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Jennifer Butler Basile

 

 

Dialogue 101

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes by Anna McPartlin9781250093851

My most recent read, devoured well into the wee hours of the morning because I haven’t yet gotten off my holiday schedule and accepted the fact that I have to be up soon in the morning.  And because it was that compelling.

Rabbit.  Johnny.  Juliet.  There is so much that’s good about this heartbreaking and hilarious book, but it’s a particular scene of dialogue I want to shine the spotlight on today.

So tight, so fluid, so funny.  One of those scenes you read and instantly know it’s gold.  The kind of writing you strive to achieve.  The fact that it’s got some great Irish wit just endears it to me even more.

Grace walked through the front door with her suitcase.  Before she had her coat off, Lenny was halfway down the stairs.  When she saw his face, she covered her eyes with her hands.  ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said.  ‘I have no idea what happened.’

He held her close and kissed the top of her head.  ‘You lost it.’

‘I hurt you.’

‘It was an accident.’

‘I threw a mug at your face on purpose.’

‘I should have ducked quicker.’

‘If this conversation was the other way around, you apologizing for hurting me and me making excuses for you, people would call it domestic violence.’

He laughed.  ‘Oh, for fuck’s sake, Grace.  We’ve been together for twenty years and this is the first mug-in-the-face incident we’ve had.  I think I’m safe enough.’

‘I’m so, so, so sorry.’

They walked together into the kitchen.

‘I know,’ he said.  ‘Now can we forget it?’  He put on the kettle and she sat down on a stool facing him.  ‘Toast?’

‘Yes, please.  I’m starving.’

The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, Anna McPartlin, 2014

New Year’s Anxiety

I don’t like New Year’s. There I said it.  Bah humbug on me.

I can’t quite put my finger on it.  There are many reasons, actually; perhaps that’s why I can’t choose just one.

It could be because, for years, it signaled the end of vacation.  One day left to recover from a whole week’s worth of revelry, never mind one night of staying up late.  But also, the start of a new cycle of anxiety.  First, back to school as a student after no routine, no work, no peer pressure.  Then, back to school as a teacher after no lessons to plan, papers to correct, or kids to sass me and throw my class off course.

I never even knew exactly what I dreaded.  And I guess that was precisely the point.  The unknown.  I was out of my groove and didn’t know what to expect upon jumping back into it.  That was what terrified me.

And then I had kids.  Little babies at home who depended on me and only me when Daddy went back to work after the holidays.  Where I’d been easy breezy and in control with him home, the thought of doing the same things without him under the same roof made my muscles clench.  Not because I couldn’t or hadn’t before or wouldn’t now, but because of the unknown.  What if something happened I couldn’t handle?

On December 31st, I shovel enough calories to counteract the headache-inducing powers of the bubbly I’m sipping and learn just how out-of-touch I am and how sad the state of popular music is by the broadcast performances.  I eat and sip and flip channels to force myself awake till the magic hour when all I’d like to do is curl up and go to sleep.  And for all that build-up, all that empty effort, all that’s left after a sweet kiss with my hubby – is a void.

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Outside my house, barely lit by the moon.  Lack of light fits the theme. Taken December 30.

The absence of a year past, the new one not yet started.  The hole where merry holidays once were.  A cold, dark, silent winter stretching before me.  Exhaustion.  Let-down.  The unknown.

 

 To say I ponder the absolute unknow-ability of an entire upcoming year in one night would be false.  At least not consciously.  But perhaps that’s part of why I hate New Years.  Each year, with December 31st, I’ve closed an expected chapter in that point of my life.  I’ve made it through the holidays, with all the tradition and routine that comes with.  I’ve made it to the end of the calendar year.  Even if I’ve not completed all the to-dos, I can rip that page out of my proverbial planner because that time has passed.

To what? Is the question.

To a person with anxiety, a new beginning, a new chapter is not a fresh start.  It is a worrisome reworking of the same fears and uncertainties that plague her at the outset of any unfamiliar venture.

When these same feelings return at the end of each holiday break, I wonder if I’ve ever grown up or grown past the fears I had as younger versions of myself.  I haven’t taught for ten years – why should I still fear returning to work!?  Well, I do and I don’t.  A nightmare classroom doesn’t await me.  But as one of the highest stress times of my life, that scenario is my psyche’s go-to when it fantasizes fear.  And in that all too familiar low after the holidays, it’s easy to build the set for the familiar script.

Now, both consciously and subconsciously, I get to ponder what I want from this portion of my life.  I get to question my worth as a mother, why naptime may be the favorite part of my day, why I don’t get down on the floor and play blocks anymore.  Why I swear, why I say things I judge fictional mothers for saying, things that make me sure I’m killing their spirit but utter anyway.  I get to think about how much I want to write, and what, and how I don’t have time for that.  I get to choose how to mete out my volunteer time and what I feel I have to do, not what makes my soul sing because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.  I get to think about how the days fly but are often filled with crap.

This has been a New Year’s tradition for so long, it’s hard to separate out what is holiday ennui and true anxiety.  I’m beginning to think the anxiety is the one sure thing that isn’t going to change from year to year.

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

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/

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