Light and Dark

As the joy of the holidays subsided, the dark days of winter took hold.  Truly, the last few days of 2016 brought death to a close and disconcerting distance.  It stepped in and stayed until as recently as last week.  And still, it lingers.

I’d pulled my black leather pumps from their shelf high in the closet.  I’d arched my inner soles into their uncomfortable embrace.  I’d released my tired, swollen toes from their pinch at the end of the day.  But I’d yet to return them to their box; death would not let me store them away for the next black dress event.

There was another, and another.

A year of new life was marred by the loss of three precious ones.

Death is always waiting in the wings – but I’m comforted by the thought that their spirits fly in the wind that catches our breath and reminds us we’re alive.

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At the Intersection of Love and Passion

If a human being closes her eyes hard enough and for long enough, she can remember pretty well everything that has made her happy.  The fragrance of her mother’s skin at the age of five and how they fled giggling into a porch to get out of a sudden downpour.  The cold tip of her father’s nose against her cheek.  The consolation of the rough part of a soft toy that she has refused to let them wash.  The sound of waves stealing in over rocks during their last seaside holiday.  Applause in a theater.  Her sister’s hair, afterwards, carelessly waving in the breeze as they’re walking down the street.

And apart from that?  When has she been happy?  A few moments.  The jangling of keys in the door.  The beating of Kent’s heart against the palms of her hands while he lay sleeping.  Children’s laughter.  The feel of the wind on her balcony.  Fragrant tulips.  True love.

The first kiss.

A few moments.  A human being, any human being at all, has so perishingly few chances to stay right there, to let go of time and fall into the moment.  And to love someone without measure.  Explode with passion.

A few times when we are children, maybe, for those of us who are allowed to be.  But after that, how many breaths are we allowed to take beyond the confines of ourselves?  How many pure emotions make us cheer out loud, without a sense of shame?  How many chances do we get to be blessed by amnesia?

All passion is childish.  It’s banal and naive.  It’s nothing we learn; it’s instinctive, and so it overwhelms us.  Overturns us.  It bears us away in a flood.  All other emotions belong to the earth, but passions inhabits the universe.

That is the reason why passion is worth something, not for what it gives us but for what it demands that we risk.  Our dignity.  The puzzlement of others and their condescending, shaking heads.

 

from Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Silver Insomniac

There’s a pool of light in the backyard
It spills over the tree tops
but appears to be carved out of the grass
an oval grotto of white,
silver amongst the shadows

If it weren’t for insomnia
I wouldn’t have seen it,
Wouldn’t have seen the cool, clear light
bright amidst the dark

Being awake at this hour seems unnatural,
is unnatural
in terms of the real world

But in the magic of these moonbeams
I am wide open

No Time like the Present for an Epiphany

I’m sitting here reading about New Years’ resolutions in August.  No time like the present, right?

Seeing as how most New Years’ resolutions don’t make it out of January, maybe it’s not so bad that I’m considering fresh starts now, but the irony does not escape me.  

I’ve always loved the word ‘epiphany’.  My friends and family used to poke fun at my exuberant use of it and my claims that I’d just had one.  But they came fewer and farther between as I got older.  When I fought and focused for one or was unexpectedly blessed with one, I remembered the joy and wonder and how much I benefitted from their presence in my life.  Yet life always seemed to ramp up again and they fell away – or at least my vision did.

Now as I read about all the meanings of the word – including the feast celebrating the arrival of the Magi twelve days after Christmas – I’m reminded again of how worthy a quest this is.  

In her article discussing epiphany, Effie Caldarola has this advice for fresh starts:

How about just resolving to keep our eyes open for the next epiphany God sends?  Do you think those storied Magi were expecting to find a poor baby at the end of their journey?  What an epiphany for them, the meaning of which they probably spent the rest of their lives trying to figure out.  Don’t ‘expect,’ just pay attention.

How simply profound.  And it means I have the rest of my life to keep looking.

Many Peaces of Mind

By sharing our stories, we encourage others to do the same.

This was a major theme of the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series I attended yesterday. By breaking the silence surrounding mental illness, we also break the stigma. We allow people to admit and accept the struggle and begin recovery.

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As an anxious person (also mere weeks away from delivering a child), attending a day-long event with hundreds of people I’d never met solo was a little nerve-wracking. But I’d been awarded a free ticket through a generous contest by a local mental health facility, Butler Hospital. I’d been following and loving the organization sponsoring the event, PeaceLove Studios, for several years. And the format of the event, like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, sounded pretty cool. As a writer, I am a little obsessed with stories, after all. Add the mental health aspect and I was hooked.

Once the speakers started rolling out, I realized this was not just like our state’s own local version of TED Talks, it basically was one. The speakers hailed from around the country and world. They ranged from college students to policy-makers and changers to international celebrities. While I hadn’t recognized all the names beforehand, I was impressed by the vitae of these individuals – and even more so by the enthralling stories they shared.

wp-1463799329728.jpgLike Faith Jegede-Cole who said mental health has to do with the health of your soul. Michael Thompson who said the goal is not to focus on just the 1 in 4 who suffers from mental illness, but all 4 – to get the others to listen. Kate Milliken whose own family’s silence over mental illness moved her to create a platform for patients and caregivers living with MS to share their experiences. Amelia Grumbach wishing someone else would take control of her life because she couldn’t/didn’t trust herself to do so. Philip Sheppard, a soul-stirring cellist, urging the attack of any creative endeavor without the fear of creating crap. Simon Majumdar saved by love of food and its serving of soul. The rhythm of Steve Gross’ (left) spoken word carrying the buoyant message of the right attitude affecting everything. Butterscotch following her heart’s desire without compromising for anyone. The mother’s love of A.J. Wilde holding her son, Devin, as he found the key to unlock his autism. Ryan Brunty’s lovable yetis expressing the depression he’d been living with silently beforehand. Stephanie Prechter’s fierce devotion to learning as much as possible to support and treat people like herself and her father who suffer with bipolar disorder. Mark Hedstrom moving Movember into the mental health space. Ross Szabo creating a curriculum so that mental health is not something we look at only when something’s wrong, but taught much like physical health education from kindergarten to grade 12 and beyond.

The wide range of experiences of these speakers broadened my perspective of mental illness and health. One of the speakers said, after all, we all have stuff; we’re all human. There are different brands and flavors and struggles, but one thing we all have in common is trying to walk this world with grace and contentment – at least most of the time.

All of these storytellers did so yesterday with beauty. Through their various creative presentations, they gave swell to that part of the soul that makes one glad to be alive, through the ugly and transcendent, the low and the dizzying highs.

The Peace of Mind Storytellers showed in a grand way what PeaceLove Studios is doing everyday: using expressive arts as a therapeutic device for all individuals languishing, battling, flailing, and/or surviving life with mental illness. What ninety participants got to take part in after the series of speakers. Myself included.

I was transported back to the first PeaceLove workshop I’d attended with a friend a few years ago. While in a different space with different people, the atmosphere was the same: a safe place to create, process, emote, and share. Several participants commented that they didn’t consider themselves artistic, but due to the open-ended nature of the activity and low-pressure environment, they enjoyed creating. Another said that while she hadn’t started with any idea in mind, a plan slowly took shape on her canvas – and that it was symbolic and cohesive. I felt similarly. Exhausted at the end of a long day, I didn’t think I was up for any grand metaphor. But what rose to the surface in that quiet, stream of consciousness state was perhaps exactly what my psyche needed at this time. Indeed, what came out reminded me of my constant struggle for balance. But in that gentle unfolding, it wasn’t frustrating as it usually is, but a quiet reminder that it’s a process, about maintaining peace of mind, not achieving it and moving on.

In the grand and small movements of my day at the Peace of Mind Storytellers Series, the ebb and flow of life was reflected. The entire day was a reflection of life at its best and worst and the journey we all make together. Bound by our stories and in the sharing, we can achieve peace of mind indeed.

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Painting by Jeffrey Sparr, PeaceLove co-founder

Not in Vain

Before my third child, I never dropped the JC.

I was no pure linguist, but I did not take the name of the Lord in vain.

In the months and years following her birth, it became a regular part of my vocabulary, satisfyingly venting my rage and frustration at things gone wrong. Stupid things. Teeth not being brushed. Butts not being wiped. Nothing that should unleash rage, but they were the proverbial straws.

I knew its use signaled a loss of center, of control.

Perhaps it was a desperate plea. But it came out sounding like a kid forced to say please and thank you. Totally inappropriate in tone and timbre.

Finally, one Lent, I decided to make a focused effort to stop saying it improperly. Keeping track of my missteps, I counted eight uses during those forty days. A significant reduction. I never did decide what would be an appropriate penance for each of those eight uses, but my non-JC oath habit stuck.

So here I am 32 weeks into pregnancy #4 and I’m being pelted with more stupid little straws.

My six year old has decided this is a fabulous time to assert her independence. Not in a dig-your-heels-in toddler sort of way, but in a snotty teenage you-can’t-make-me sort of way. Holding a stuffie I’d told her to put away at least three times, I stood over her as she sat on the bathroom floor fully dressed and not making any attempts to prepare for bed. I had to fight the urge to bean her over the head with it. After numerous non-oath reminders, I unleashed a torrent of reprimands peppered with choice words (though no JC – does that earn me some credit?).

Having to remove myself from the situation, I stalked in our bedroom, where my husband stood.

“This kid isn’t even born yet and I’m already swearing!”

He laughed. I think he appreciates seeing me get as frustrated as he does sometimes.

But his laughter also signaled to me that perhaps my reaction, while a bit overblown, was natural. I may be hyper-vigilant to signs of rage due to my postpartum experience last time, but that doesn’t mean that every freak-out is a bad sign. It could just be a bad day. Or a bad moment.

Just as uttering Jesus Christ in a proper context is not a bad thing, expressing anger or frustration in an appropriate way is not either. I need to watch the tone of my words and actions to see whether I’m struggling. It may not be a spiral, but a slight dip in the mood of the day.

I know many postpartum women – or anyone who’s suffered a mental health crisis – who see a bad day, a down period, a low point as a relapse. But even if it is, having been where we have and coming back from that place, we are equipped to do so faster, better, and with the proper supports.

We also are entitled to the same bad days our “normal” counterparts have all the time. Not every infraction is a sign of our condition, a harbinger of more to come.

Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Ironically, the organ we must rely on most strongly to convince us of our strength and resiliency is also the one most affected by our illness.

In that case, perhaps a call to the Lord would not be in vain.

Netflix is Depressing

Netflix is making me depressed.

Ok, I can’t in good conscience blame all of my troubles on on-demand television services, but I can make a good case for their use attributing to my condition.

I’ll be the first to admit that I find cable television seasons highly annoying. You wait an inordinate amount of time for a show to start up again, only to watch it whisk by in five to six weeks. Each episode ends on a ridiculously frustrating cliffhanger, leaving you lunging at the TV for more, an urge you must tamp down for the following week. This manipulative cycle of desire and gratification has got us viewers trapped hook, line, and sinker.

Enter the world of on-demand services.

They don’t solve the week’s wait between new episodes, but glom onto a show just past its prime, and all the episodes are there for the taking. Want to see what happens next? No problem, my addictive friend. Binge away.

Such binges lead to a glorious few days or a week, depending on how long you stretch it out, but leave you – at the end of it – in the ubiquitous showhole. My kids don’t get that commercial. I find it eerily accurate. The fact that I recently learned to knit adds to the effect.

 

But choose a show so popular, there are scads of episodes, and the showhole never becomes an issue. I’ve recently fallen under the spell of Criminal Minds. I never watched it when it initially aired on network television. I missed that highly popular boat. I discovered it on one of the four over-the-air stations we were left with once we cancelled cable – the only one not airing paid programming or home shopping. However, the marathons I loved so much on Mondays and Tuesdays gave way to other crime shows I enjoyed much less the rest of the week. I searched Hulu to no avail. When we added Netflix a few months later, I was so excited to see all seasons represented. I could watch whenever I wanted and start from square one.

I would settle onto the couch with my pregnant morning snack or lunch or under the afghan when I needed a rest, my BAU friends entertaining me while I vegged. I could rationalize sitting there vegetating as long as the episode continued. Just until this episode finishes, just until they find the unsub, just until they solve the mystery.

However, when motivation is not high to begin with, and I haven’t been sleeping through the night, and I’m growing a child, and whatever low-level mental health issue is ailing me come together and Netflix plays their shows on a constant loop, it’s easy to stay on the couch for the next episode and the next and the next . . .

About half way through the third episode, the show isn’t even that scintillating anymore. It’s the construct and the comfort that leave me there, rooted to the couch, all semblance of productivity drowning in the abyss of my mind and pool of my guilt.

There is definitely a pleasure seeking/reward system at work with any media viewing. We seek solace, relaxation, a treat in our favorite show. But just as that huge bowl of ice cream eventually empties out, so our show ends, leaving us wanting and needing more to fill that reward center. With the overzealous access of on-demand services, it can become very easy to remove oneself from time, place, social connection in search of an elusive endgame – whether it’s escape, entertainment, distraction, avoidance, or happiness.

Holding Netflix responsible for my lack of mojo and self-control is about as ridiculous as suing McDonald’s for getting fat. I need to set up fail-safes and proactive measures to keep me from swirling ever closer to the rim of the showhole. But it’s so easy to drift along on the gentle current of complacency, detachedness . . .

At least I only have ten more seasons to go.

Looking for Signs of Life

A brown curled claw
skittering along the ground

Singular movement amidst
the frozen expanse of pavement

Only when you get close enough to see the fingers,
knuckles scraping the rocky surface,
can you distinguish the knobs of an oak leaf,
stem protruding like a tail

Propelled by the wind

a legion of birds wrapped in wing
a chipmunk
a squirrel,
a lizard scampering by

All alive according to the eye

But in this cold raw place between snow and spring
dry, brittle leaves are all that dance
born on the rhythm of weather patterns and wishful thinking

Sick Daze

My friend told me her children had been on holiday break for 17 days – 17 days!!!

I can’t believe we didn’t hear about them on the news.

No, that is not a judgment on my friend’s parenting style. Nor is it a commentary on her children’s behavior. But Good Lord, 17 days – out of routine, out of school, in each others’ faces!

Today is my first day of vacation.

School started back up Monday in these parts, but my eldest decided to vomit all over her bed Sunday night. She looked miserable Monday and Tuesday morning, saying her stomach hurt and she felt like she’d be sick again. Wednesday morning when I threw down the gauntlet of ‘no vomit, no fever – go to school’, she dressed and ate breakfast only to vomit it all over the kitchen floor. Shortly thereafter, my youngest awoke with an earache, glassy eyes, and continued congestion. My middle was not a happy camper as the only one of her trio boarding the bus that morning. She announced that she wanted a sick day. I told her we’d quarantine her as the only one who wasn’t sick.

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Think you can come up with a fun word for this phenomenon? Click through for the challenge!

So today, Thursday, fourth supposed day of school – my whole crew returned to routine. I’m as giddy as a school girl myself. Well, maybe one who skipped school. For I was able to return to a quiet house, which even with its piles of detritus left from stretches of sick days (did I mention I’m sick, too?), seems somehow calmer, cleaner, more zen.

I don’t know what I’ll do today. Maybe get started on pulling down those Christmas decorations that have overstayed their welcome. Maybe de-germ all community surfaces. Maybe turn over a New Years’ leaf and write some more pages of my lonely manuscript.

But right now my eye lids feel heavy. I might just take a nap – and wait for the call from the school to come pick up a sick child.

The Music of the Morning

The distant beep beep beep of a backing-up garbage truck
Residual rivulets of rain on the roof
Ringing in my ears

A Benedictine monk was told to repeat a Psalm over and over in his head
When it was all he could hear, he asked his superior what then.
Repeat it until you become it.

Without the outside distractions of beeping and running water,
the ringing becomes all consuming.
How can I turn down the dissonance and resonate with the truth?

psalmist

thegospelcoalition

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