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. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Homecoming and Hopecoming

I was sitting at Jovie's preschool orientation last week and I wanted to disappear. I wanted my face to not by my face. To somehow melt off into some nondescript other. Someone else. I wanted to take up as little space as possible.

Last year at preschool orientation I was friendly. I was open to conversation. I waved to parents I knew and sort of knew. I smiled widely and often. Confidence bred from familiarity and comfort. 

It is unnerving being in a new place. Even if it's a place I'm kind of familiar with. A new old place.

Peanut Butter, our cat, sequestered herself in her cat carrier in the laundry room, which reeks of other animal smells. I poked my head in periodically and invited her into the rest of the house and she just stared. "I'm good here."

And I got it. Being in a new place (or a new old place) can make you want to crawl into the smallest space with the most familiar smells and wait out the apocalypse. 

During our first few days in Virginia leaving the house to run to the store or visit the school felt like gargantuan, exhausting tasks. Nothing was rote anymore. Nothing looked familiar. Even those universal places like Target weren't quite right. Bizarro world places where things aren't where you expect them to be. 

But we're creating new pathways trip by trip. 

The walk to school is marked by two hills and the house with the wind chimes in the tree and the house with the lambs ear plants near the sidewalk that the girls must pet each time we go by. There's the man with the cowboy boots and wide-brimmed hat. The gorgeous, impossibly tan and fit gym teach greeting the kids with perfectly curled hair. 

The dark-haired children hopping off the bus in their jewel-colored dresses from where? India? Pakistan? They're much farther from home than me.

The route to preschool takes me through a neighborhood that looks so much like the one I grew up in I half expect to see younger versions of my sister and I on our bikes racing to the pool. 

It's such strange de ja vu returning as an adult to place you grew up. Or, at least a least a place near where you grew up. How could I have forgotten about the crunchy black crickets jumping around the crabgrass and in the kitchen? Or, Anita's? Where you can get the most delicious breakfast burritos ever. The crab grass here sends up long, skinny fronds I remember tickling my legs during gym class. The dark brown hinges on the doors to Lily's elementary school are identical to the one's at my elementary school -- I was always afraid they'd pinch me.

Life feels foggy right now. 

Last Sunday, after moving all day Saturday, I returned to York to pick up the fish. It's just this little 10 gallon aquarium, but the logistics involved with moving it were almost as hive-inducing as fitting the entirety of our lives into the back of a U-Haul.

You have to catch the fish and put them into a portable container, reserve as much of their water as you can so you don't shock them in their new setup, keep the filter wet, empty the rest of the aquarium water, transport all that into the car and reset everything back up in our new house in a two-hour window (what happens to the fish after two hours? No idea? Implosion maybe?). Refilling the tank in Virginia stirred up all sorts of debris and waste from the bottom of the tank. The fish looked like they were swimming in a snow globe. Well ... a fish poo snow globe anyway. 

And that's kind of how it's felt around here a little bit. I mean, not that I'm swimming through actual fish poo -- but moving has stirred up all kinds of physical and mental debris and trying to wade through it is trying and tiring. The stuff in the tank settled back into the gravel -- and the water is clear again. And I know that will happen here, eventually. 

In the meantime, I feel a bit stunned wandering around here. Disoriented -- like I've just left a dark building into the blinding noon sun. I can't see quite right and my brain and body are slower, like they're swimming through syrup. The sounds inside the house and outside the house -- all the chirps and motors and dins and buzzes and beeps and hums -- they're all different. 

And I've lived here before. I mean, I lived near here. It was more than a decade ago, but still.

Driving back from visiting my sisters the other day (returning to Virginia means returning to all my sisters. And my little brother. Not without its perks.) I was thinking about moving. How I had hadn't anticipated this feeling of otherness in a place I used to know so well. Had it really changed all that much? Or had I? As with most things in life, it's probably both things.

I admit I'm a huge wimp when it comes to major life changes. I mean, I'll do the thing, but not with a lot of hemming, hawing, whining, crying, foot dragging, etc. (This is obviously not news to anyone who's been reading this blog recently). And this is returning to a place that, eight years ago, I was actively trying to return to!

I know. I know. Ridiculous.

How do people survive bigger moves? Moves to totally new places? 

Last week on the preschool playground, I was chatting with Elizabeth, who moved here six or seven years ago from Puerto Rico. She spoke English well, but she said it can still be tiring, constantly having to translate and assimilate while simultaneously pining for the life she had -- hoping to share part of her heritage with her son. 

What drives someone to not only leave their town or their state, but also leave their whole country behind? Arrive in a place where it's not just a matter of figuring out the layout at a new grocery store, but navigating entire cultures and new languages. 

Chasing new opportunities? Escaping unbearable situations? Something in between?

It strikes me as a really brave thing to do.  

What does that say about our country -- this melting pot -- that so many people willingly give up what's familiar for something so foreign?

I often get too focused on what's wrong about this place. Because, let's face it, as a country, we're kind of a mess right now. We're fearful of our neighbors, while feeling desperate for community. We've replaced dialogues with self-righteous monologues. We're so focused on black versus white that we no longer see gray.

We make the average eighth-grade boy look like reasonable, sane person.

Yet, despite all the flaws, people from all over the world still want to come here. To build a life among this lunacy.

And my best guess for the question of why is simple. 


Our raging, rageful adolescent hormones notwithstanding, we still offer hope. 

And that's enough for them to swim through their own metaphorical snow globes of fish poo. 

Coming here is still a worthwhile endeavor.

I realize I'm a long way from where I started. Back when I was trying to disappear among the parents at preschool or bunker down in a cat carrier in our smelly laundry room. 

That's usually what happens when I get to thinking about things. The road from Point A to Point B is filled with detours through poo-filled aquariums and bypasses near my sister's house and U-turns around the state of the country.

Here's how you survive a move. You do the heavy lifting. You allow the dust to settle. You You leave the house and you hope that the next time you return, it becomes home.

And you know eventually it will.

Because that's the great thing about moving here. 


It's part of our identity as a country. And so it's part of mine. 

The Virginian turned Pennsylvanian turned Virginian again.

Ever the hopeful American.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Goodbye York

Photo courtesy of Lauren Siegert/Flickr
In the great big state, there was a lovely old town
With a statue of a strongman, spinning around.

And a beautiful park with giant stuffed bears
And a carousel at the crowded York Fair.

And parades of full of green things
And shiny, candy-coated cars.

And a Christmas forest to amble through
Where lights twinkle like stars.

And a market house, near a smelly soap shop,
Where you’ll always find lots of bubbles to pop.

And a cozy house with a purple door,
Near friendly neighbors
And squirrels in costumes galore.

And a farm full of silly critters
And a school full of friends.
 And a library full of stories.
We wished would never end.

Goodbye town.
Goodbye strongman, spinning around.
Goodbye stuffed bears.
And goodbye York Fair.

Goodbye parades. Goodbye cars.
Goodbye to the Christmas lights twinkling like stars.

Goodbye market house and the smelly soap shop.
Goodbye all the bubbles, we love to pop.

Goodbye cozy house and goodbye purple door.
Goodbye friendly neighbors
goodbye costumed squirrels.

Goodbye farm.
Goodbye friends.

A new story begins, where another ends.