Monday, December 19, 2016

How My Girls Showed Me that Life is the Shit

Photo courtesy of J.H. Fearless/Flickr

My children have recently embraced the potty-mouth phase of childhood with a dedication they've only ever reserved for macaroni & cheese, "Frozen" and leaping on freshly folded piles of laundry (Lily calls it taking a walk through laundry forest. I call it infuriating).

Their craptivities usually revolve around the word "poop" and with a butt reference here or there. Peak potty-mouth generally hits after Lily gets home from school until bedtime – giving me a full three- to four-hour window to document just how many times references to No. 2 can be made. Jovie, in particular, has turned poo and bottom references into an art form.

A recent (fecal) sampling:

Jovie: Lily, Pretzel pooped on my head. (No, the cat did not defecate on my child.)

Jovie: What are we having for dinner, Poo-getti?

Jovie: If you do that, I'm going to poop on you.

Jovie: Lily, wanna have a poop fight? I'm gonna spray poop at you from my butt.

Lily (Looking at Facebook): Is that a picture of Papa?
Jovie: You mean Poopa?

Jovie: Knock, Knock.
Lily: Who's there?
Jovie: Pencil sharpener.
Lily: Pencil sharpener who?
Jovie: I'm a pencil sharpener that pooped.

Then there's been the festive array of holiday-related references, too ('tis the season!):

Jovie: Merry Buttmas!

Lily (to the tune of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"): We won't go until we get poop.

Jovie: Jingle poop, jingle poop, jingle all the waaaay!

As you can see, the potty talk isn't clever so much as prolific. Still, there are moments when I can't stop myself from giggling. Like that time when Lily referred to one of their favorite fast-casual dining establishments as Poo-nera. Or, when Jovie singing "Do You Hear What I Hear?" in the voice of an angel, trilled "A star, a star, dancing in the poopy ..."

In the realm of developmental stages, the crapload of poop references I hear on a daily pale in comparison to the days of their infanthood when I was wiping up actual excrement from their tiny behinds or the days of their toddlerhood when I'd periodically have to fish out floaters from the bathtub. I try not to put up a big stink about it – only asking that they limit their pooversations to our house or the car – definitely not in school or in public or around strangers or grandparents. They've been granted a deuce-pensation at certain friend's houses whose parents, like me, have crapped out on enforcing manners.

Sometimes as a parent, in order to keep your shit together, you have to pick your battles.

And of course, as adults we're not immune to talking toilet for shits and giggles. When those Poo Pourri commercials first came out my sisters and I were rolling in laughter (I imagine one or two of them were ready to buy company stock, too). You can imagine my glee when during closing for our York house (we don't need to talk about that right now) our real estate agent started sharing about a traumatic experience from his childhood (complete with pantomimes) whereby he had to use a shared toilet in the middle of the nursery school basement while a line of 20 or so kids stared at him.

Then, of course, there's a a tale that will go down in the anals -- err annals -- of family lore about the time when my sisters and our cranky kids all went to a water park at the beach on the hottest day of the year and chose to not make eye contact with a little log leisurely floating across the pool. Don't judge us. Earlier, as soon as we'd arrived at the waterpark and slathered sunblock on the kids (and you know that's no picnic) they closed the pool on behalf of a wayward doodie. By the time they reopened the supposedly clean pool, the kids were bouncing off the walls. We soon discovered the pool wasn't clean. But by then we were all in. Did I mention it was really hot? I mean, it was a big pool. Like, a really big pool. And we kept our distance from the uninvited guest. As far as I know, nobody suffered any gastrointestinal distress afterward. 

You know what? Let she who has never had an unfortunate poopcident cast the first turd.


Moving on.

It occurred to me in the midst of this recent kid-induced shitstorm that my sense of humor had returned. I'm not claiming to be any sort of comedian. Only that I have the ability, once again, to laugh at my little shitheads instead of just feeling like shit all the time.

The depression I'd been experiencing earlier this fall had completely flushed my ability to be silly. There was no space for joy in my brain. It was too cluttered with darkness. And there was no hope that the darkness would ever, ever go away. It felt like a permanent state of being.

I wrote in my journal that I felt as if my soul had left my body. That the fire that used to fuel me had been extinguished – or at the very least was the smallest of dying embers. I know this all sounds very overdramatic. Very 16-year-old theater student discovering the true depths of Hamlet's grief or something. So many feelings. All the feelings. Well, not really. Actually just a select few of the feelings – Sadness, Desperation, Apathy, Hopelessness – building pathetic outposts and miserable little settlements around my brain. All allowed to grow unfettered like the crabgrass in my old back yard.

In yoga today, we were asked to think about contentment. About being content in this moment. Allowing that feeling of contentment to roll over our tongue, down our throat and fill us. 

Our instructor asked us to reflect on contentment. Several people raised their hands and offered thoughts about finding inner peace or making the choice to be optimistic. Without thinking too much I raised my hand and started talking about moving and depression and the realization I had recently that I was OK. I had a bit of mouth diarrhea (sorry couldn't resist). But saying out loud what I had been thinking in that space really helped affirm its truth. 

I'm OK. 

As we were breathing through different poses, our instructor made sure that we paused. Sometimes we'd pause in an uncomfortable place, but we'd pause just the same and look for contentment in that moment. And often I'd find it. 

It occurred to me that in the midst of depression, my brain tells me I'll feel awful for always. Like it was where I would always land. And that in moments of happiness, my brain always seems to remind me it's fleeting. 

This contentment our instructor spoke of, it felt both lasting and fleeting. I could feel it in moments of discomfort just the same as I could feel it in moments of happiness. It could be my new baseline. I could laugh and land back there. Or, I could be sad and land back there. And that feels like a huge gift.


Earlier this week, the girls and I were decorating sugar cookies. They frosted and sprinkled for a record amount of time, but, as is usually the case, got tired of the job before all the cookies were done.

First Lily told me she was done. Then Jovie.

"Here we go again," I whined. "Every year I get left to decorate the rest of the cookies all by myself." 

Jovie paused on the stool she was about to hop down from. And then you know what my little shit stirrer did? She looked me in the eye and said, "Not this year mom," and decorated with me until every last cookie was covered in technicolor sugar.

My girl might be full of shit, but she's also made of sugar and spice.

She's always reminding me that while there are plenty of times when life is crap, it's also a pretty wonderful life.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Treating Myself to Myself On My (Almost) Birthday

Here's a picture of me with Amadeo.
I generally hate pictures of myself and
 avoid sharing them, but I like this one.  

It's the eve of my birthday, so naturally I'm feeling a bit reflective. I'm also feeling like a bit of a flight risk as  Santa's Marching Band has been in full concert mode for the past 20 minutes, Jovie's shouting about her plans to defecate on Lily in between begging for candy and Brad (i.e. bringer of sanity) just texted to tell me there's an hour-long backup on his drive home. 

And this is all after I spent 15 minutes running back and forth in front of my house in the dark attempting to apprehend an escaped cat who is lately obsessed with bounding out the front door each time it's been opened. He'd dart across the two yards to our right, forcing me to sneak up behind him like a total creeper (I mentioned it was dark, right?) while praying that particular homeowner was not so fanatical about his second amendment rights. Then, just as I'd get close, he'd leap away in the opposite direction. 

I'm sure I offered fantastic entertainment to the family next door sitting in their car on the driveway as I dove into bushes, tripped over the tethers of our giant inflatable yard snowman and generally made an asshole of myself trying to nab a cat who, apparently, has no interest in being a member of our pride. I grabbed the cat twice, only to have him wiggle free of my grip, tearing away for vagabond adventures in the wilds of the Northern Virginia suburbs. 

Meanwhile, the girls were sobbing at the front door afraid that I would never return from my pursuit down the block and also concerned that I'd give up the chase completely and return without the cat. 

It was all very suspenseful. 

I apprehended the cat, eventually, scruffing him and tossing him back into the house to the relief and delight of my children (who, between crying, I could hear shrieking in laughter inside the house each time the cat hightailed past the front door with me calling in my sweetest voice the phrase cats worldwide willfully ignore: "Here, kitty, kitty, kitty"). 

This is (almost) 35. 

And, like, I know it's no big deal. People in their 70s would say 35 is young and people in their 20s would say 35 is eons away and people like my children would spit water across the dinner table at hearing I'm almost 35 (yeah, that also happened tonight). Like I just told them that I was really the Princess of Herdondale and I'd only pretended to be a grumpy, hairy, perpetually exasperated stay-at-home mom. Or, that this Christmas, everyone was getting unicorns.

I'm not so fixated on the age thing, truly. In fact, I've always sort of felt that my spirit animal was a mini-van driving soccer mom in her mid-30s, even when I was younger. When I asked my sister what age she thought represented her truest self, she said she felt like a 7-year-old boy trapped in a grown woman's body.

If anything, I'm finally coming into my own. 

But the past couple years haven't felt so much like that. I felt like I've been warring with myself. Frustrated and angry and sad that I haven't figured out what it is I should be doing down here, feeling as if I've failed at the things I thought I was supposed to be doing down here. I'm not sure what came first, the war or the depression. They keep each other company in some sort of twisted, dysfunctional sisterhood.

We're kind of programmed to find significance in anniversaries, right? So every year that swings by of my life, I check in on the state of affairs. And the past few years the answer has been kind of the same. Still under the cloud. Still unable to locate the joy. Still finding plenty of reasons to be disappointed with myself.

As an objective, outside observer, I know that the stories I'm telling myself are just that, stories. Depression loves a good tragedy. But, unfortunately, day to day, I'm not an objective outside observer. I'm very much entrenched in my life. So, as logical as I try to be, I'm entering my 36th year annoyed by the fact that my mental health hasn't fixed itself. That I'm back on antidepressants. That I'm unpublished and uninspired. That I haven't figured out suitable alternative aspirations.

"Oh, we're still doing this?" I'm asking myself. To which myself replies, "Looks like it!"

I just started reading "Furiously Happy" by Jenny Lawson based on the recommendation from a friend and the ridiculous grinning taxidermied raccoon on the cover. 

In it, Lawson writes about her own experiences with being "a bit crazy." It's both really, really funny and really, really relatable. And today I felt like she was writing to me specifically when she discusses using medication to treat her depression and anxiety:

"We hear it from ourselves. We listen to the small voice in the back of our head that says, 'This medication is taking money away from your family. This medication messes with your sex drive or your weight. This medication is for people with real problems. Not just people who feel sad. No one ever died from being sad.' Except that they do. And when we see celebrities who fall victim to depression’s lies we think to ourselves, 'How in the world could they have killed themselves? They had everything.' But they didn’t. They didn’t have a cure for an illness that convinced them they were better off dead. 
"Whenever I start to doubt if I’m worth the eternal trouble of medication and therapy, I remember those people who let the fog win. And I push myself to stay healthy. I remind myself that I’m not fighting against me … I’m fighting against a chemical imbalance … a tangible thing. I remind myself of the cunning untrustworthiness of the brain, both in the mentally ill and in the mentally stable. I remind myself that professional mountain climbers are often found naked and frozen to death, with their clothes folded neatly nearby because severe hypothermia can make a person feel confused and hot and convince you to do incredibly irrational things we’d never expect. Brains are like toddlers. They are wonderful and should be treasured, but that doesn’t mean you should trust them to take care of you in an avalanche or process serotonin effectively."

Now, I feel like I should reassure people (i.e. mom) that I'm not suicidal. And I feel like the rest of the world should feel reassured, too. Because we're all a bit crazy. It's not a statement of our character or our abilities or our sturdiness in this life. It's OK. And it's OK to talk about. 

Lawson's reflections seem perfectly timed for my end-of-year check-in with my psyche. An early birthday present, really. 

If I can be gentle with myself about the depression, maybe it's also time I stop berating myself for not having figured out my purpose on this Earth. Because maybe that's a question that's already been answered anyway. 

I was listening to an interview with Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest (apparently he's well-known, I'm not churchy), on "On Being" (where else?). 

In it, he reflects on how he was called to the priesthood (he started out his professional life in business) and how the rest of us can figure out what we are called to do.

"Everyone has a vocation. I mean, the most fundamental vocation is to become the person whom God created. And it’s both the person you already are, and the person that God calls you to be. And I think we find that out through our desires. What moves us? What touches us? What are we drawn to? Part of that’s career, but only part of it. I mean, it’s really who you are called to be, and that’s why that question really spoke to me. But yeah, there’s a popular misconception that having a quote/unquote 'vocation' means that you have to be a priest or a sister or a brother. But a vocation is your deepest identity, and as well, being called to married life, or being a lawyer, or a teacher."
OK, so for me at first read/listen, the phrase "God calls you to be" comes off as a bit, you know froufrou and the glowing haloed white Jesus cuddling with lambs. That disembodied voice in burning bush telling Charlton Heston what's up in "The Ten Commandments." 

"Susan, thou shalt be a catcher of wayward felines..."

But while I might not be particularly churchy these days, I do absolutely believe that we are constant communication with the stuff of creation. ("Whoa, Sue, let's just go back to cuddly Jesus," you say.) We do each have a purpose. Just as each cell that makes up our whole being has a purpose. And Father Martin's direction to discover what that is through our desires feels natural and intuitive, and therefore probably spot on.

I've been thinking about the times I felt moved, things that I've been drawn to. And I feel like my heart sings the most when I'm able to connect with people -- whether they're family or old friends or near strangers -- about the things we don't always feel comfortable talking about. And creating that space for conversation. 

I think two of the most soul-filling moments of the past year have been the day on the beach when I used rocks in the sand to express the Love I felt for our world and the evening I shared my story about that day on the beach. Both moments were magical -- the first because I learned that big sentiments can be shared in quiet ways, not just grandiose ways. The second because I was able to share a message I believe deeply in my heart with a community of people who are out there in the world expressing their messages of love in their own ways. 

In thinking about this and thinking about Father Martin's words, I realized that I'm already doing the things that move me. Right here in this space. And I'm attempting to in my conversations with people I meet in the world. 

I started this blog more than four years ago with the goal of holding myself accountable to finish that novel I was working on at the time (remember all the way back then?). I finished the novel, but this site has persisted. And transformed into something I hadn't expected. A home for sharing the ridiculousness of child-rearing and sorting out the difficult questions I'm facing in life. I always look forward to coming back here and writing about what's happening in my world in hopes that I can find kindred souls who can help carry me through this adventure. And I haven't been let down.

Perhaps that question about being the person I was created to be has already been answered. 

I just need to be myself.

So maybe this year I'll give myself a gift. Remember that that's enough. That I'm enough.

And so are you.

Monday, November 21, 2016

God bless this American mess

Last week, the girls and I met up with my friend Ellen at the National Building Museum in D.C. to check out a dollhouse exhibit.

We were talking about the election while wandering through another exhibit that showed artifacts from decades of home life -- old wood stoves and vacuum cleaners, pink flamingos and baby pools, grandfather clocks and sleds. Everything felt blanketed in coziness and safety – scenes from simpler lives in simpler times. 

Of course, that wasn't the reality. It's so easy to look to the past so wistfully while sitting in the hideous present. It's always been complicated here. Always messy.

As we were museuming, Ellen requested I write a blog post about the election results. I groaned and told her I couldn't. I've specifically avoided the topic, for what I feel are obvious reasons. Also, because I don't know that anything I have to say about it would be especially original or novel or insightful. There's been so much said already. All combination of words have been used to try to make sense of what happened two weeks ago. (It's already two weeks ago? Can you believe that?)

So I'm not going to write about the election. Not really. But I will write about some thoughts I've had since the election. And while you're welcome to read them, too, you don't have to. They're for Ellen because she asked so nicely (and because she indulged my kids by pretending to be a waitress in the middle of the museum and because she didn't steal their pizza when we were in the bathroom – something I know was really, really hard for her.)

Dear Ellen,

Thanks so much for meeting up with us in D.C. The museum was a great suggestion - the girls still talk about how they want to go back an play restaurant again, I appreciate you humoring them. It's always funny to see how they react to different people in my life – they took to you as if you'd been friends for years – they've always had a good barometer for kind hearts. 

Remember how you said you wanted me to write my thoughts post-election? Well, I've been thinking about it. I have wandering thoughts. 

I find myself wishing I could talk to my grandmother who passed away when I was in high school. Nanny was born in 1913, which meant she witnessed two world wars, the Depression, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. She lived through Prohibition, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, the Kennedy Assassination, the Moon Landing, Watergate, Woman's Lib, the War on Drugs and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was Lily's age when the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women – her own mother – the right to vote.

We like to put ourselves in the center of the universe. To magnify the problems of our world to the 100th power without the context of all that happened before. We want to know the hindsight of history while we're still living it. Which is, of course, impossible. For better of for worse, we have to just wade through it.

So here we are, wading through the stuff our own grandchildren will want to ask us questions about one day. "What was it like?" They might ask. "What did you think about it?" And what would we tell them? "It was a total surprise." "People were protesting in the streets." Will we remember where we were when we found out the results of the 2016 presidential election the same way we'll always remember where we were on 9/11? Maybe. But I think our memories will be sanded down by years of experience. Reshaped by what happens next. What feels massive today will be tempered by passing time.

Life is short and precious. It's just as short and precious for Trump supporters as it is for Clinton supporters. For Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus. For straight people and gay people. For black, brown and white people. Right?

And so here we all are, shaped by our various families, cultures, religions, countries and history itself, doing the best we can to make the most of our short precious lives along side the 7 billion other people trying to do the same. Sometimes we're pretty good at it. Sometimes we let the car into our lane and spend an extra five minutes listening to a co-worker gush about her obsession with bulldogs. And sometimes we're not so good at it. We spend more time looking at our phones than looking at the people surrounding us. We spout off awful things about people whose political views don't match our own. 

Ideally, overtime, we grow as a society. But this growth is painstaking. We want it to happen at the speed of the next iPhone release, but it's slower – more like at the speed of a generation. Right now it feels as if we're stuck in the adolescence -- all raging hormones and self righteousness. But we'll settle into our acne-prone skin. Our voices will change from shrill to steady. And the mood swings of our youth will stabilize. 

Months ago, in the midst of my move, I wrote about that yoga class I took where the focus of the class was transition and the lesson I learned was that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was reminded of this again, when a new friend handed me a gift that was unexpected, but well timed:

This is applies to me as I settle into my new life in Virginia, but I think it also applies to our country as a whole. We are exactly where we are supposed to be. That's not to say we're exactly where we want to be. Or exactly where we will be forever. It's just where we are right now, and right now there is work that can be done.

If the past two weeks -- or the past year or more even -- have taught us anything it's that there is a lot of pain in our country. There are voices of all stripes that are aching to be heard. People who feel as if they haven't gotten a fair shake. Haven't been able to live out their short precious lives in a way that's fulfilling for them. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We, as a country, feel as if the very foundation on which our country was built is being shaken. But maybe we need to be reminded that we can't take these ideals for granted. They're a skill to be learned, not just written about. Sometimes the most important lessons can happen in the most painful ways. We've all just put our hand on the hot burner. Now we need to heal. 

We can all take part in this healing. And we all need to take part, because it is our country - no more Donald Trump's than Hillary Clinton's, Bernie Sander's, Gary Johnson's or Mickey Mouse's. We are all pieces that make up this whole. 

Yesterday, I read this interesting piece in the Washington Post about how Derek Black, the founder of a white nationalist site for children came to the decision to separate himself from his family's racist agenda. Black's father, Don Black, founded the country's first and largest white nationalist site and Derek seemed destined to assume the mantle of the next generation of white supremacy in the U.S. When his college classmates learned his identity, Derek was ostracized for a time. But then one of his classmates, Matthew Stevenson an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to a his weekly shabbat dinners where guests were white, black, hispanic, atheist and Christian. Derek began to question the beliefs he'd held since childhood and eventually rejected them.

The lesson is a simple and age old. We do this work by listening. By being genuine and open. By following the example of the quiet leaders among us. The ones whose tribe is a tapestry of people who don't have to look, talk or think like them. The Matthew Stevensons of the world.

They're doing the work already. 

I know I'm not sharing anything new, Ellen. Everyone's writing about how we need to listen to each other more. Instead of writing about listening more, all the people writing about listening more (like, say, me for instance) should probably just listen more. We'd probably get somewhere.

I took the girls to visit my sister, Laura, Saturday. The weather was so strange Saturday, wasn't it? One minute it was 70 degrees and sunny, the next, the sky clouded and the wind started howling. We all went inside to grab our coats. As the storm blew in, these gusts of wind whipped leaves off trees and blew them over to the swing set the girls were playing on with their cousins. Lily looked up in the sky with such wonder on her face – we were inside this cyclone of leaves. Like a snow globe. It was magic. 

Then the rain came. But just as quickly it stopped. The world was bathed in this red-gold glow. Like an Instagram filter -- but reality. And Lily, looking out the back door began jumping up and down and screaming, "A RAINBOW! A RAINBOW! THERE'S A RAINBOW!"

And there it was – arching across slate-colored clouds.

There can be beauty in the chaos. 

We have to navigate life with this in mind. It's the only way to pursue that happiness we're always looking for. We won't find it in utopia. We'll find it right here in this mess. The mess that we, as Americans, have the privilege and responsibility to wade through.

So that's what I think, friend. We have to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open. 

And on the days the work feels exhausting and futile, just go have pizza with a friend (her kids will probably just let you eat their crusts).

Let's get together again soon, OK?

Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Keeping it in Perspective

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center

Tonight, we're inundated with numbers.

There are polls closing in seven minutes in one state and in another 45 percent of precincts are reporting that one candidate has 51.2 percent of the votes needed to capture 13 electoral votes which will put them closer to the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

The numbers are being updated by the minute. Tick tock. Tick tock. Flashing across the screen in red and blue.

All of the furor of the past week, month, six months, year – all the ads and the rallies and the signs and the Facebook posts and the tweets and the articles and the dinner table conversations and the late night debates and the head shaking and the pride and the self-righteousness the rage and the dismay and the fear -- it's all coming to this tea kettle shriek right now.

It feels so massive. So consuming. The brontosaurus in the room.

I've been trying to keep it in perspective though.

We have to, right? In order not to lose faith. To succumb to the futility? 

So I've been looking at different numbers. 

Bigger numbers. For instance...

The universe is 14 billion years old

The Milky Way is 13.4 billion years old

Earth is 4.5 billion years old

Dinosaurs lived on Earth for 175 million years, dying out 65 million years ago.

Our ancestors came into existence 6 million years ago

Modern humans have been around for 200,000 years

Civilization is 6,000 years old.

In the scale of one year, the entirety of our existence has occurred in the blink of an eye. The last 60 seconds before midnight on Dec. 31.

All of the sudden, I feel very small. And all of this fury feels very small, too. An amoeba sitting on the head of a pin.

So here we are. The average human life span in the U.S. is 75.8 years.

Just a wisp. The tiniest fraction of the entirety of the universe.

In our country – one of 195 in the world – home to 318 million of the 7 billion people on our planet  – we've been deluged with all that divides us in the past year. 

Yet we are all made of the same stuff – the cosmic dust that exploded from the Big Bang. 

And if we could just, for a second even, remember that my cells are much the same as your cells, than whatever numbers are showing up on the screen at this moment in time, don't really matter so much. 

Because we are the same, you and I. 

And when we wake up tomorrow morning, no matter who got what percentage of what, we'll still be the same more or less. All things considered.

With this in mind, I go back to love. This thing that fuels creation, that powers revolution and evolution. If we spend more of the seconds, minutes and hours of our 27,375 days on Earth focusing on loving our neighbors then we're living more of those 27,375 days loving ourselves.

This is not to diminish the gravity of whatever happens tonight (but then again, gravity isn't as strong as we like to think it is.) Certainly, there's significance here in our lifetimes, anyway. But as you're going about your life, you know, dropping your kid off at school, shopping for your groceries, heading to work, etc. go about it with love. That's the strong force. 

It might not be quantifiable data, but it's what holds us together. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Being Mr. Bucket

Kristopher Avila/Flickr
The other night, while screwing the cap back on to the toothpaste I had an epiphany.

I am Mr. Bucket.

Poor Mr. Bucket,as you might recall from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," is the sole provider for a family of seven, including two sets of bedridden parents, a wife and one soulful little boy.

"He worked in a toothpaste factory, where he sat all day long at a bench and screwed the little caps on to the tops of the tubes of toothpaste after the tubes had been filled."

OK fine. I'm not the man of the house. I'm not caring for two sets of elderly, invalid parents. I don't have a son. And I don't work in a toothpaste factory (though I might argue that working in the content marketing factory is no less tedious).

Mr. Bucket is representative of so many parents at a certain stage of life. The endless cycle of doing in order to provide. Feeling swallowed by the mountain of toothpaste caps and the mountain of toothpaste tubes (the laundry, the bills, the dishes, the meal preparation, the commute, the email inbox, the what have you). Avoiding eye contact with the futility because confronting that would surely cause a psychotic breakdown. 

And anyway psychotic breakdowns would be ill-advised and inconvenient because there are people you love and who interrupt the assembly line to deliver little boxes that when opened spill over with giggles and joy.*

Mr. Bucket's character isn't really fleshed out too much. Which is probably fine for a children's book. I don't think that as a kid I would've cared to read more about the tedium of Mr. Bucket's days. Not when Willy Wonka was around.

I feel kinship with Mr. Bucket. I'm sure as a child, he had dreams of being a Wonka – maker of edible grass, chocolate rivers and lickable wallpaper. Isn't that what childhood is about? All the possibilities? And even as an adult, I have to believe that Mr. Bucket, like me, still imagines building magical, beautiful things. But then the sun comes up and the day and its distractions slam into me in waves I attempt to swim over or under. The space for making gets pushed further and further back into the day until it's the night and then it's time for sleep.

Elizabeth Gilbert would tell me to just do the creating anyway. That it's not just the thing to do to pass the time, it's the thing to do to fill that part of your soul that's murdered daily by those damn toothpaste caps. 

It's an investment in your spirit and so an investment in humanity as a whole. The act of creation sending ripples of inspiration and empathy and beauty to the collective.

I think it takes tremendous courage to be a Wonka. And I think that our society doesn't value our Wonkas enough. We value them as far as the next cool gadget they design for us, maybe for the diversions they offer us from our own lives as Mr. Bucket. But I think if we really valued the Wonkas in a meaningful way, we'd all be Wonkas. 

Because It would be impossible not to be inspired and absorbed by the power and possibility of creation. More so than the allure of consumption.

Wonka knows.

"We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of the dreams."

I'm forever amazed by the Wonkas I know. And not just because of the things they create, but because of how they live their lives -- dedicated to things that bring them joy regardless of what the rest of the world might think. 

Like my friend Ellen who wouldn't think twice of wearing the sequined pizza shirt I found at Target (if only it came in a grown-up size) and our mutual friend Sam who has built an entire art empire around her obsession with bulldogs. And Beth and Megan whose dogged pursuit of fiction never ceases to amaze and inspire me. Or my cousin-in-law and her husband who have made art as essential to their lives as pants or water or (in my case) ice cream and who are raising their two little wild-haired girls to do the same. 

She shared this video, which says better what I'm trying to get at here ...

I imagine the Wonkas I know have moments (maybe many moments) when they feel like a Mr. Bucket. And I know I have times when I'm more Wonka, less Mr. Bucket. We are all both characters. Both practical and impractical and all the things in between. It's maybe a matter of whose voice we choose to listen to on any given minute on any given day. 

Ultimately, I think creation is an act of love. So then living creatively is living a life centered around love. And maybe that's why I struggle so much with feeling as if I'm sitting on that bench in the toothpaste factory. It feels more about survival than love. 

Over the summer, I attempted to do one act of art a day -- maybe it was just coloring something silly with the girls or writing a few words that weren't work or dancing in the kitchen. Nothing big or deep or anything. Just little acts of joy. 

I should probably get off my bench, get on that glass elevator and try that again.

*Today's little box of giggles came in a conversation with Jovie about our fish. I was attempting to determine the genders of the five baby fish we now have when Jovie informed me they'd already named them all girl's names.

"It's OK," she said. "If one of them's a boy, we can just change his name to Josh."

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

In search of serenity in the suburbs

I've been craving nature.

Well, more accurately, I've been craving solitude in nature. After reading "Wild" last year, I've been fantasizing about running away on an epic toe-nail dropping, armpit hair growing solo trek through the wilderness in search of my inner Earth Mother/Goddess/She-Ra (Princess of Power). It's not about running away so much as trying to run into myself.

Anyone else with me here? Anyone? Anyone? Is this thing on? 

In York, whenever I wanted to be away from cars and people, I visited the farm, which always felt well removed from all civilization, even if it was only minutes from a Walmart.

Northern Virginia never feels far removed from anywhere. No matter where you go, you'll always finding yourself stumbling over a subdivision or tripping over a strip mall. A Starbucks around every corner.

I've been wanting to feel away, away. To be swallowed by a forest, travailing narrow dirt paths -- like those hikes my dad used to take us on as children (we called them death marches at the time ... ahh ... hindsight) or the long walks I used to take that summer I spent in Duluth -- finding endless trails through endless trees where it felt like there were no other people in the world. Just me and the unraveling paths with peeks of Lake Superior. And bears. There were probably bears. I didn't think about them too much though.

But it's hard to do that here in the few hours I have before it's time to pick up Jovie from preschool or Lily from Kindergarten. (See: All the Traffic)

Strangely enough, this place is covered in trails. Asphalt pathways for running and biking and stroller pushing. They run alongside wide roadways and tall fences past neat shrubbery and tidy trees. And it's all very nice and clean and well appointed. 


But ... but ... but.

Today I took Jovie to a park near our house I'd driven by a few times. I was saddened to see the standard black asphalt path leading into the yellowing woods. But as we walked, the asphalt gave way to gravel and the gravel gave way to dirt. Then dirt rippled by tree roots and rocks.

I kept choosing narrower and narrower paths to go down, hoping to find what? I don't know. Absolute quiet? Absolute stillness? The divine?

It wasn't buried in these woods – so close to the airport you can see the landing gear of the planes overhead and glimpses of grills on the decks of houses surrounding this (kind of) wild place.

Choosing the rockiest paths did not lead to grand vistas or untouched wildernesses, but it did make us slow down. To tread carefully over unearthed rocks and roots. To scrape by thorny vines and grabbing sticks. Here it was that I had a thought about stillness, about slowing down. Maybe it didn't matter much  where the path led, only that it forced me to take my time. To stop and check for rocks in shoes and the best way to cross the creek. If we had been biking or running or even walking at a faster pace, we might have missed the cardinals on the creek bank and the turtle on the branch and the salmon-colored mushrooms growing on the toppled tree.

The green spaces here and their warren of asphalt paths might ease our journeys and keep our feet mud free – but I don't know, isn't the whole point of disappearing in the woods to find your way back to the earth, grime and all? Even if it is only a scrap of trees between your neighborhood and the grocery store. Can't we pretend to be even a little wild?

There were no grand adventures in the woods today. It was sun dappled and beautiful -- littered in gold leaves and smelling sweetly of the changing seasons. 

We took the path less traveled and it took us to tennis courts and a playground where Jovie could ride a giant chipmunk and climb a plastic rock wall like the pioneer girl she was born to be.

It wasn't so depressing actually. The woods seemed to giggle along with me at the absurdity of it all.

Guess I'll be keeping those toe nails for now. 

They grow chipmunks big around here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Be still my raging brain

Photo courtesy of

Last week, given the overall dismal state of my mental affairs, I decided I was long overdue for a yoga class. The last class I'd gone to was in York and I came out of it with a new way of thinking about my then-impending move. The instructor had focused the whole class around transitions and it left me with a feeling of ... maybe not peace with  ... but at least in acceptance of the move. 

A month later, here we are. Moved. 

I found a studio that offered a class while Jovie was at preschool, so I went. Power I with Megan. The studio was much warmer than the classes I'd been going to. And the class was active. Like, Yoga as designed maybe by Tony Horton Lite. It was heavy on movement and sweating, and a little less focused on meditation. I spent some time in Child's Pose as the rest of the bendy, stretchy ladies around me powered through planks and Eagle poses. I'm probably a little out of shape. 

As we were going into half-pigeon, Megan reminded us to think about stillness. That because of the awkward nature of the pose, we often found ourselves wiggling and readjusting, when really we just need to stop and allow ourselves to stop moving and be still.

Still. This word stuck out to me. 

I'd been sending my sister Laura long mopey texts about how tough it's been to feel motivated here. And how strange its been not having the girls at home. Lily is gone all day at school and Jovie is gone for three hours in the morning three days a week. Next year she'll be at kindergarten all day, too.

I wasn't prepared for this transition. In York, Lily was going to half-day kindergarten. I've been home with them full time for five years now and I figured I'd have another couple years at least with at least one kid at home for most of the day. 

Not so, though. All the sudden those long days of tending to babies then toddlers then preschoolers is becoming something else. And I just have the two of them. I don't see foresee more babies on the horizon, so here I am on the eve of the next phase. And completely lost as to what I do next. I can't quite envision myself going back to work full time at a regular job (god, if for no other reason than I loathe the thought of shopping for professional-looking pants and sitting in a cubicle devoid of windows and natural light). And I can't quite envision myself doing the freelance work I do now forever and ever. And I can't feel that creative drive I'd felt so strongly in years past. The one where I could be a professional writer of real, live books. And I can't quite envision what the compromise is. What that "something else" could be because mostly I feel like I, as I told Laura, "a big sad sack of human bones who isn't even trying to transcend." (Maybe that's the depression talking ...)

"Sue ... I think I have experienced this panic. It's hard to be still with yourself," Laura texted me.

There's that word again. Still.

And yes it is. We as a species are not particularly good at being still physically or mentally.

Our culture doesn't value stillness. We value productivity and perseverance (especially if there's data to prove just how productive we are). 

But stillness? Stillness is almost a vice. Evidence of laziness or lack of drive. Like when we're not busy doing, we're just busy dying. 

Jokes on us though. 

As I settled into half-pigeon in that very sweaty yoga class, I got to thinking about stillness. I kind of yanked myself into the position and then started sinking. Trying to avoid excess wiggling and readjusting and fidgeting. I was still. But I noticed even in my stillness there was subtle movement. Not intentional on my part, just gravity slowly tugging me down further and further. 

And I thought about how stillness might not mean the absence of progress or change. Just a willful quieting of our bodies and minds. It's not as if we are ever truly still – our heart keeps beating, our neurons keep firing and my muscles (at least in half pigeon) keep shaking. 

The words still has multiple meanings.

There's being devoid of motion. Uttering no sound. Free from noise or disturbance.

But still is also used to describe the continuance of something.

It's both ceasing and ongoing.

I found this great quote from David Foster Wallace:

"Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still."

So the stillness of right now, this small moment of my life, does not have to be about a failure to change or to grow – the real source of my panic. 

After my sister texted, I thought about the still things I know are forever changing. I thought about a trip to Utah I took years ago with my dad and uncle. There, we visited Arches National Park where millions of years of wind and rain have carved the desert sandstone into some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes you will ever see. Even those monolithic, seemingly immovable rock formations are ever-changing and impermanent. They, too, sink with the endless tug of gravity

The stillness of the arches allows us to admire the artistry of passing time, even as they're perpetually sculpted into something new.

So here I am. All the mania and stress surrounding the move is slowly filtering away (well, sort of, the house goes on the market tomorrow, so that will add another level of nail biting and gastric discomfort and sleeplessness to the proceedings).

Most of our things are put into their new places. The walls are still bare, but over time we will cover them. The house is becoming more lived in (i.e. covered in fur and figurines from various Disney Channel shows). 

We have new morning routines and new afternoon routines that are already starting to feel old. The system has been updated and rebooted and is now running along on its own.

And here I sit at my old dining room table in our new, borrowed dining room. The girls playing on their own – one in the living room the other in the sun room. I can only hear them, not see them. The house is a traditional Colonial - divided and subdivided into neat compartments of activity. As if we live in a bento box. I will myself not to think about our cozy little house in York, where sometimes it felt like we could barely escape each other. 

As I sit here, I start to think. Even here, immobilized as I am by what was and what will be, I am being reshaped. And who that person will be? Well, I guess only time will tell.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Here's where it hurts

Photo courtesy of Jon/Flicker
So, a couple weeks ago, I turned on the kitchen sink and heard a long ghostly howl coming from somewhere in the house. 

Someone flushed a toilet elsewhere in the house and another long ghostly howl shivered the house. 

Naturally, I headed to Google and found it probably had something to do with air in our pipes. Luckily, we had a plumber coming by to check on the water dripping from our kitchen ceiling, so I figured we could solve the problem then. Only when the plumber came, the pipes stopped howling. 

And then when he left, they started again (they're bashful I suppose.)

The pipes howl when we do laundry or run the dish washer or take a shower or brush our teeth. While not super loud, the howling is distracting. It's not like the white noise of the air conditioner. It's the incessant moan of a medium-sized animal dying a slow, painful death. So anytime the water is running (which, is surprisingly often) it's difficult to concentrate on anything productive.

While visiting York this week, I asked my very handy (former) neighbors for their advice and they, too turned to Google and found detailed instructions for fixing the problem, which involves bleeding the air out of the pipes in a very systematic fashion (it all sounds very violent and medieval, but I'll give it a whirl to be free of the pain-stricken pipe Wookie that's not quite dead yet). 

I bring up my noisy pipes because they offer a really great illustration for my mental state these days, whereby I am myself and the pipes are depression. This near-constant, distracting entity preventing me from fully engaging in life.

Grooooooooan you say (not unlike my pipes). I thought we'd talked that all to death last year. Funny how cyclical life is. 

See, around late spring/early summer, I was feeling pretty good about life. So I thought it might be time to see if I could stop taking my antidepressants. My doctor had suggested I stay on it for a year -- and it had been about a year more or less (OK, maybe a little less ... but not much). And I figured life had settled and I was steady and on we go. Did I talk to my doctor? Of course not. I'd only seen him once before (to get the prescription in fact) and didn't feel much like delving into my mental state one-on-one (I save that sort of stuff for the internet). I felt confident that I would be OK and so I weaned myself off over a month or so. 

And I was OK.

Then we decided to move. 

And that has taken some ... adjusting.

I've struggled with whether it's the move or stopping antidepressants or something else as to why I'm so weighed down lately. I'm not racing to any conclusions, just waiting for the dust to settle here for now.

The other day I was reading the Point After column in a recent Sports Illustrated. 

It featured the story of rower and Paraolympian Blake Haxton who almost died when a flesh-eating disease took  his left leg and most of his right. He endured six weeks of more than 20 operations, his heart stopped and he was on life support, but he survived. 

"He would live, but he was missing most of his legs and neither hand was working. He couldn't sleep and couldn't roll over. Eighteen years into his life, Haxton woke up as an infant," columnist Michael Rosenberg wrote. "Depression could have sunk in. It never did."

Oh. Here we go, I thought to myself as my blood pressure rose. Now this kid is going to look the misery of his situation in its face, stare it down with sheer force of will and mental athleticism. 

But that wasn't what came next. Instead, Blake showed tremendous compassion and understanding of mental health (whether he realized it or not).

"I say that a little reluctantly," he says. "I don't think it was any act of will or violation on my part. I think I just got lucky in terms of chemistry. I don't think I'm prone to [depression]. The last thing I want to say is that I just toughed it out. I really didn't."

My anger about what I thought was going to come next came from an unexpected place. I guess I didn't know how tired of that narrative I am. The one where anyone can overcome depression simply by developing a better attitude. That if I were just strong enough. Just willing enough. If I just tried a little harder, I wouldn't feel this tired and this worn down. If I could focus on gratitude. And the small, beautiful things life leaves at my feet each day.

Because I do see those things. I see the lovely, warm smile my teenaged neighbor offers me when we cross paths. I see the patch of pink and lavender petunias creeping on to the sidewalk when I walk the dog. I see all the children waiting in line for their bus waving at us "Hi Lily! Hi Lily! Hi Lily!" they yell as we walk by -- and Lily with her grin. I see all the texts my siblings send. Checking in to say hi. Checking in to see how I'm doing. Checking in to share a funny photo or anecdote. I see these things and I'm grateful for them, too. 

For me, depression is not the inability to see beauty in the world. It's not the absence of gratitude. 

But sometimes that beauty can be painful. Because of the realization that it might be the only thing propping me up. And I wonder for just how long that thing can stand before it buckles under the weight of me. 

I'm grateful for this life. For my two healthy children and supportive husband and my amazing extended family. I'm grateful for having the opportunity to work from home so that I could stay at home with those two healthy children. I'm grateful for the walk home from Lily's new school – even when the kids whine about how far it is. I'm grateful for the cat door in our rental house that prevents the dog from binging on cat poop. I'm grateful for Wegman's Chocolate Nutty Cone Ice Cream. I'm grateful for sleep.

That's the rub of depression. All these things to be grateful for. Yet still so defeated and being constantly conscious of the fact that your defeat feels unearned somehow. Unwarranted. Unnecessary.

My defeat has not made me less conscious of how awful life can be for others. I'm an exposed nerve, so how can I not watch this video of a Syrian-Finnish man smuggling toys into Aleppo and not be heartbroken by his words:

"We inside Syria have lost our faith in the outside world. We think we are totally deserted. We are not even human. We are bombarded by everybody. We want this war to end. We want these atrocities to end."

We are not even human. 

Or not be affected by the power and beauty and desperation of the words of public theologian and Civil Rights veteran Ruby Sales when she talks about her concern about the spiritual crisis in White America on On Being: 

"I really think that one of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality? And this goes beyond the question of race. What is it that public theology can say to the white person in Massachusetts who’s heroin-addicted because they feel that their lives have no meaning, because of the trickle-down impact of whiteness in the world today? What do you say to someone who has been told that their whole essence is whiteness and power and domination? And when that no longer exists, then they feel as if they are dying or they get caught up in the throes of death, whether it’s heroin addiction. 
I don’t hear any theologies speaking to the vast amount — that’s why Donald Trump is essential, because although we don’t agree with him, people think he’s speaking to that pain that they’re feeling. So what is the theologies? I don’t hear anyone speaking to the 45-year-old person in Appalachia, who is dying of a young age, who feels like they’ve been eradicated because whiteness is so much smaller today than it was yesterday. Where is the theology that redefines to them what it means to be fully human? I don’t hear any of that coming out of anyplace today. 
And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were."
Or listen to the furious, baffled cry of Rakeyia Scott: "Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him? Did you shoot him?"

Or watch the presidential debate and wonder how on earth we got here. 

I don't mean to elevate my struggle with depression to the levels of all the pain in the world today. Not in the least. But it's a real, human part of me in a world where being human all the sudden seems in jeopardy somehow. As if we're not really seeing each other. We're always looking over the shoulder of each other's pain rather than looking it in the eye. 

So here is my pain. My brain is wired such that some days I wake up and don't want to get out of bed (but I do). And I can't quite tether my brain to my body and be present in my life. And I can't quite find hope that I will ever feel any different than this darkness. I can't quite locate the hope in all the misery (I imagine this is a shared pain). 

Ruby Sales asks the question, "Where does it hurt?" The same question we ask our children when they fall down. It's a question we need to ask each other more, without judgment of the answer. It's a humanizing question. (And in fact, On Being is asking everyone to answer it here).

Moving forward here, I'll attempt to bleed our literal and metaphorical pipes and continue to look for the things to be grateful for. Like that the toilet in the master bathroom has stopped leaking (hell, that I even have a master bathroom! The coveted en suite!) and that we've managed to reduce the population of fruit flies in our kitchen (as it turns out in our house, you can actually catch more flies with vinegar than honey). 

And that there are so many people on this earth willing to listen and to love over all that howling.