Missives from The Green Study in Quarantine

This is the 11th draft blog post I’ve written that may never be published. What do you write when every person you know is some combo of depressed/okay/depressed/not okay?

I went for an early walk this morning. I’ve been having a bad couple of days mentally, while stalking news on the internet, Twittering angrily, otherwise feeling paralyzed and despondent. Our family had been getting a lot of good news recently, the cupboards were stocked, and I’d been doing some writing work about which I was mildly pleased. Still, I found myself just turning over and over in my head the idea that things would continue to decline in this country, that the boiling point would just keep boiling. That there was a reckoning ahead for even the most mild-mannered and conscientious among us.

The only way to step off of this incapacitating ride is to shut the information off and do one concrete thing. Something tactile, something with a start and a finish, something mundane and ordinary. One thing at a time, doing it only for the purpose of doing it. I found this difficult. My mind was bouncing from one subject to another, all with a sense of alarming urgency. I brought my mind back to the dishes. I thought: I am doing the dishes. This is what I’m doing, I’m washing this thing, then the next. It was a relentless battle to pull my thoughts back into the moment.

I did that one thing and then I sat down and wrote a thank-you note to my daughter’s oncologist. She’s been doing well, scans are coming back clean, and she will go off the chemo drug in a couple of months. A year ago, the tumors had come back with a vengeance. Two months later, she was in surgery again. Right now, she’s a high school junior taking full online college courses. She passed her driving test. She got accepted into a university orchestra. She looks well and healthy and happy. I had to send gratitude to someone for that.

For the last few months, I’ve been on Twitter. I’ve opened, closed, and reactivated my account numerous times. It really is quite the shithole. As an unknown writer, social media is a must in terms of marketing and finding markets. I’m not adept or prolific enough for it to have much worth right now. On occasion I’ll come across another writer, a cause worth helping, or something that makes me laugh. I haven’t yet learned to avert my eyes from politics, which is the most ugly, polarized conversation one could ever see. I don’t think I wanted to know this much about the country or its citizens. But you can’t unsee it. Many of us are really quite stupid creatures.

I’m reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. Much like reading about the 1918 pandemic in Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World, I’ve learned there is an incredibly steep learning curve for humanity. Even crows manage to pass on generational lessons. Humans? We make a good show of it, but as soon as we get scared, we revert to unevolved amoebas. Don’t argue with me, biologists – I do know there are better analogies.

So perhaps that is the crux of the problem – the focus on human foibles and flaws. The nihilist in me has gleefully shouted see, nothing matters!  This is where religion might have proven of some use to me, but once you stop believing, you’re no longer going to leave cookies out for Santa Claus. I’ve tried to explain this to my handful of religious friends. There is no mechanism in my brain that will allow me to believe in a grand puppeteer. I’d have to pretend and that seems like a lot of wasted energy.

Yesterday I read an excellent article in The Atlantic by Ed Yong titled “America is Trapped in a Pandemic Spiral” talking about conceptual errors in our thinking. Really worth the read and bizarrely reassuring to me that what I’d been feeling and experiencing was common. I finally stopped washing my groceries after reading Derek Thompson’s “Hygiene Theater is a Huge Waste of Time“. We still don’t go into retail stores. We use Shipt for Target and pick up our groceries already shopped for us from the local grocery store. No one outside the vet who put our cat to sleep in May has been in our house. Even then, she was in the garage.

Today I showered in the 15 minutes between my husband’s work calls (the bathroom is next to his office). I vacuumed upstairs on my daughter’s break between classes. I haunt the space between her bed/classroom and his basement office. Some days, I work in the garden, but the joy of that usually dies in late July with the emergence of bugs and heat. Some mornings I drive out to a regional park and take pictures of birds, quickly putting on a mask when surprised by a hiker rounding the path.

I participated in NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Competition and did fairly well on the first challenge. Waiting to hear back on the second in October. I am pitching a novel at a writer’s conference in October, doing NaNoWriMo in November, rejoined an old writing group, am working with a fantastic writing partner, and generally getting my writing groove on – between or through bouts of self-doubt, artistic pretension, and self-loathing. Feels about right.

I’m finding it hard to get into the blogging groove. Every well-formed thought is mired in sludge. I keep moving forward  – so slowly as to be undetectable to the human eye. But I’m here, you’re here. Let’s make the best of it.

Make some new blogging friends for starters. Check out Stephe Thornton at Manuscript. Head. Drawer. Snack on some enjoyable book reviews at Bookmunch. Enjoy historical bits and bobs by writer Victoria Blake. And lastly, drop the link to one of your favorite blogs in the comments to help make more connections.

Insolent Joy

Today I’m going to be daring. I am, in the middle of a global pandemic, national and local rioting, personal sorrows and tribulations, going to write about joy. The last 8+ years, this blog has been a bit of a chronicle. For much of the last couple of years, I’ve felt like a woman of constant sorrows. It would be an easier place to stay, short term. Over the long term, should I become less practiced at experiencing pleasure, joy, light, it will ruin my health, perhaps my relationships, and will fill me with regret at the time wasted. We do not know what tomorrow brings. There is only today. And today, I’m going to focus on joy.

amenonmememeIt’s a fine balance between refreshing the inner sanctum and recognizing the pain in the world. It is possible to do both. I know I could break and then I’ll be no good to anyone. And I want to be useful in this world, not just a handwringer or an ostrich. I have some basic tenets to keep myself from going off the deep end (and these coincide with how I deal with depression).

Deal with Your Own Reality

SparrowatFeederI should be protesting. I should be volunteering. I should, should, should… I have these thoughts fifty times a day. My reality is that I’m exhausted. My reality is that I have big worries on my plate inside my own house. My reality is that I’m barely figuring out how to help myself, much less anyone else. I need to accept that I have limitations. Once I do that, then I can figure out how to help someone else on terms that I can meet.

And I did.

Help Someone Else

Through Pandemic of Love, an organization that connects people in need with people who can help, I was able to help out a family hit economically by the pandemic. On top of that, they were living in an area where the riots had blown through. They’d just gotten back from cleaning up some of the mess. I asked “What are you most worried about this morning?” and I was able to offer help. The beauty of helping someone is that it is never entirely altruistic. It takes you out of your self, out of your own sorrows.

Look for Beauty

BeeI’m learning photography the hard way. For all these years of gardening, I decided I’d learn how to take pictures. I got the kit. I have the instruction manual. I am awful. Enjoy as I start seeding pictures into the blog. Look for the blurry and slightly blurry plants, ghost birds, off-centered bees, and flowers I can’t remember the names of. Enjoy. I know I will.

I’ve been listening to Traci K. Smith on The Slowdown podcast. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t take in as much poetry as I should, considering my love of language. These snippets of living language have been inspiring and comforting. I turn to books that are balm for the soul like Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights or a collection called Poems to Live by in Uncertain Times. I’ve also watched Some Good News (hosted by The Office’s John Krasinski) and listen to the Kind World podcasts. Anything to balance out the onslaught of bad news.

Keeping up with the news, or not.

As glued as I’ve been to the news, I’m focused on learning. So far, I’ve learned that there are more whackadoodle conspiracy theorists posing as normal humans than I first suspected. The fact that they’ve remained hidden as long as they have is suspicious. I think it might have to do with Cornflakes, a confederate battlefield, and pitching signals – especially the right ear tug.

dandelionI’ve met a lot of racists in my life, but I’ve never met someone who belonged to an antifa organization. I’m an organization of one, decidedly against facism. That this president wants me to be designated a terrorist seems right on point for 2020. He’s Tweeting from his bunker, which I imagine to be full of toilet paper, blaring televisions, and blubbering sycophants.

Watching the news, drinking in the feeds, trying to sort the loons from the dimwits, it really can make a reasonable person quite nuts. If you’ve hit the angry, spluttery stage (me about three years ago), time to step back and give yourself a break. Let your brain settle into normalcy, use good judgment, call a friend, take a nap, do a logic puzzle. Then when you return to the news, you’ll realize how absolutely nuts the world is and stagger off the grid for even longer.

In the face of uncertainty and anger…

There is something revolutionary about focusing on solutions, on what we want as a society and doing things that help that. There’s no point in arguing with people who are proud of their accidents of birth – in what country, with a particular skin color, with whatever anatomical arrangement. There’s a lot of weird braggadocio on the internet. That’s how they’ve chosen to see themselves and how they classify others. That’s not your problem.

GaliumEven though we’re being pummeled with political rhetoric, life is not politics. Your minute-to-minute isn’t red or blue. It’s who you are as a rational, compassionate human being. You get to be that. This is why I think of it as insolent joy. It’s defiant. People would like you to be unhappy. They’re unhappy and they can’t think of any other way around that than to ensure that others are miserable as well. You can be impassioned about the world. You can work to make a difference. But you don’t have to be miserable 24/7. No victory will happen with that kind of energy.

Holy cow. I’ve talked myself into being uber-positive. Sometimes people like me make me sick. It’s how I do my pep talks to myself – I write to you. I’ve been in the dumps a long time and the world is not about to lend me a hand out of that. We rescue ourselves, we rescue each other – that’s really all the world has to be.

Falling Apart, Blogging in Place

It’s been nearly a month since I’ve written here. For some people, this would be an indicator that they were being wildly productive elsewhere. For me, it runs parallel to everything else in my life. So I return, disorganized and unkempt, my decompensation complete after a year of crises.

canstockphoto8316983I woke up two weeks ago feeling as if every joint in my body was inflamed. My hands were stiff and painful. There was stabbing nerve pain in my knees. I walked as if I were 82, not 52. It sent me into a depression. After so long of keeping a stiff upper lip, of caregiving, and chauffeuring and tracking down medical research and working hard to make sure everyone in my circle was cared for, fed, loved, paid attention to over the last year, my body and brain said enough already.

Writing stopped altogether. I buried myself in books, frequent naps, and long stares into space. I walked a lot and when my feet hurt and my eyes stung from the cold, I walked some more. I slowly unraveled the strands of my depression. It’s February in Minnesota. I consider it the worst month – 4 months of winter behind, 2-4 months ahead. As I’ve written about numerous times, this last year was situational hell with medical crises and family losses. And menopause has got me in its grip – miserable and unpredictable. So, there are reasons.

canstockphoto29330425.jpgIn this Instagram marketing world, there’s a temptation to wait until everything can be repackaged into a neat story, complete with a moral and pics to prove it. But sometimes the only way to find one’s way through the story is to write about it, to just start telling it. We’re in love with stories of redemption and miracle outcomes, but those are movies and reality shows and late night commercials, not life. Life continues in all its uneven messiness, where the best victories are slivers of light – moments when we are able to exhale.

Things are quiet now. My daughter’s health is stable and we have a month or so before the next battery of tests. I’ve got a long list of self-care things I must do to regain my health and sense of purpose. I approach everything the same way (which can sometimes be an issue): Make a list of problems I’m trying to solve, do research, break it down to concrete steps, line up resources, and start walking the plan.

It’s time to exhale.

The Troubled Path

Almost eight years ago, I published my first blog post. It came on the heels of challenges I had created for myself – training in Taekwondo, learning how to climb rock walls, pushing myself to write publicly. I’ve given up martial arts and rock climbing, but I’m still writing. My challenges are different now. They usually involve trying to get a good night’s sleep and not letting my anxiety overrun my sensibility.

12934562I just finished reading Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. It’s a short, inspirational read – a reminder of some basic tenets of being a writer. I’ve been thinking a great deal about a quote in the book by Ezra Bayda: Your difficulties are not obstacles on the path, they are the path.

My path in 2019 was the most difficult of my life. It started off with a family death, spiralled into personal health problems, the loss of a pet, crescendoed with my child’s medical crisis, and has now found an uneasy holding pattern of doctors’ appointments and testing. I’d begun sleeping, finally, in this last week for more than three hours at a shot, loaded up on melatonin, soothed by a white noise machine. Maybe, my brain said, things will get back to normal.

We found out yesterday that the chemotherapy drug refill my daughter needs is out of stock. One company in the world makes it. I had a panic attack while on the phone with the specialty pharmacy. My heart was pounding louder than the hold music. How often had I been here in the last year? Anxiety steamrolling me, brain racing to problem solve, catastrophizing in “what if” land.

Normal? What the hell was I thinking?

“When/if…then” thinking always catches me off guard. I realized that I’d been telling myself when things got back to normal, I’d get back to a stricter writing practice. I’d exercise more regularly. I’d be more careful about what I ate. I’d catch up on correspondence. I’d sleep better. I’d be able to think more clearly – be less hostile, be more compassionate – be a better person.

canstockphoto14061639While I’m not someone who is inclined towards drama, it occurred to me that this waiting is a living death. Because what if “normal” never returns? I’m getting older. My peers are getting older. Illness, death, change – it comes to us all and it accelerates as one ages. Time is a finite resource for a human being.

This morning, I re-read a 1993 Paris Review interview of Toni Morrison. She talked about her early writing life. She was a working single parent with small children. She wrote in the early hours and no matter her level of organization, she always ended up writing on a small square of her desk or table. Within those limitations, she created beautiful works of art.

I think about her writing in that little space with limited time – creating a universe of love, joy, hate, pain – weaving together the threads in a poetic yawp to the world. We can make choices in the spaces between troubles and limitations. I’d gotten so overwhelmed by the big, scary stuff that I’d stopped making the small choices that would bring me joy. Writing in that 15 minutes before the next doctor appointment, going for a short run, napping near a sunny window, digging out a recipe book and cooking a good meal, writing a thank-you note to a friend, sinking into a book.

canstockphoto2904213It’s hard to unravel the idea that to write, I don’t need a huge expanse of time, a clean desk, the recommended amount of sleep, an uneventful day or ten. It’s hard to believe, that after so many years of an interrupted life, that I still allow circumstances to override this visceral need to put chaos on paper. This forgetfulness is always how I arrive here: depressed, cynical, often simmering with a vague, low-energy rage.  Writing is how I survive, even thrive when life eddies about me.

So this path, full of potholes and thorny briar patches and distracting squirrels, is the path. And the only way forward is mindfully, pen and notebook in hand.

Human in Chair, Writing

Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.

If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.

This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.

Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.

Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?

7902654I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.

Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.

There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.

canstockphoto16849001
The only tolerable memes.

If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.

The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.

38746152I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.

So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.

The Happy Depressed Place

Perhaps I’ve learned to cope too well with depression, that it has become this natural place within which I can comfortably reside. I felt the descent last week and knew where I was going without a navigation system. The Bird Box of emotions. Unlike the idiot children who have attempted to drive blindfolded as a challenge, I have learned to feel my way through without, potentially, doing damage to others. I know what I need. Solitude, some good books, sleep, and a to-do list that can wait. I need to roll in some bubble wrap, stick myself in a dark corner, and commune with the latent voices of words on a page.

canstockphoto0322864It is likely no coincidence that as the temperatures fall below zero in the middle of a Minnesota winter, the gray skies serve as a tipping point. The furnace runs nonstop like the recitation of personal failures that tugs me into a downward spiral. Being older and marginally wiser has helped me read the signposts, rally the troops, and downshift to self-care. This is, I suppose, the luxury of my life – it is now slow enough to sense the slightest change in mental breeze and to respond accordingly. I no longer have to hit bottom to take action, which is rather surprising to this procrastinator.

Admittedly there are still lessons to learn. One must not be on Twitter if one is depressed. I need to embroider that on a pillow somewhere. It should be said I spend most of my time on Twitter blocking people or reporting them…and then blocking them. They’re not even remotely near my timeline. I just see their comments on other people’s posts and do it, in the hopes that someday, the comments will be filled with erudite, complex thinkers with impulse control. Who’s the idiot now?

36679056I finished reading a book and started another over the last few days. I read R.O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries. It was an odd read in some ways. So many of the newer writers have a staccato style of writing and I wonder if that isn’t a reflection of our Tweeting/texting culture. Still, the story was compellingly told and like most good novels, I finished it feeling rather unsettled – it will stick with me for a long time. This morning, I spent several hours reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I’d never read any of his work (it was on the should list), but found myself silently grinning at his wry observations.

That’s a sign that the slump is ending – the ability to find pleasure has come back. I will have to crawl out of my hole, reconnect with others, get myself back on track. Part of me wishes to stay a little longer, out of sight, unconcerned with social expectations, but I have work to do. Work that does, in the end, contribute to my sense of well-being. Back to editing novels, back to volunteering, back to my writing group, back to striving and struggling to be better at the things that matter to me.

watercycleIn my earlier years, I would likely have benefited from medication. Perhaps I would have been less self-destructive and less difficult to deal with in relationships. I just didn’t have the knowledge or understanding and life from 20-40 goes at a much faster clip. I never knew I was depressed until I’d blown up a relationship, had a confrontation at work, or drank/eaten/smoked myself senseless. Even then, I had to focus on picking up the pieces – mending or grieving the relationship, working twice as hard at my job, berating myself for binging. The cycle I could never see because I was drowning in it.

The thing that often strikes me about a well-written novel is the eventuality of the characters. The novelist builds, word-by-word, to the outcomes of the characters’ lives. If they’ve done it well, you nod your head knowingly when the character abandons their life, killstreecloudsgrasshill someone, joins a cult – does something extreme or awful. You see the choices they made or how they reacted to the events in their lives, bit by bit, one word after the other.

If I think of my life like a novel, there are so many points where I turned one way instead of the other. My story does not build to a dramatic climax and then ebb back out to sea. I’ve learned to build up to a plateau. It’s neither exciting nor riveting, but it is a safe place – a plateau where I hang about, memorizing the landscape, so I can find my way back the next time.