Bone Weary

When the ambulance pulled away from our house the night before last, my shoulders slumped forward. The painful spasms that wracked my daughter’s body and impinged on her breathing had passed and she, with my husband, were chatting away, as if she’d not been screaming a mere half hour before. I locked up the house for the night, kissed and hugged them both and crawled into bed.

I fell asleep to the rhythm of their voices going back and forth, wondering if I’d ever feel well-rested again. I’m exhausted and this morning I’m trying to remember how I find my way back to a life where saying “I’m tired” is not an auto response.

canstockphoto10766394There are always the basics. Sleep. Movement. Hydration. Nutrition. Giving the body alternately the rest and fuel it needs to function optimally. So I start there. Beyond that, depression looms, a shadowy companion of sleep deprivation and constant anxiety. I can’t afford to indulge it at this point, so I try to remember the basics of taking care of my soul: solitude, writing, reading, music, gardening, running, the meditative braiding of words, movement, rhythm, silence – the solemn tending of Wordsworth’s inward eye.

Great art is often more about what you remove or leave out than what you add. Life, too, can be like that. I’ve started the process of cutting things away. It’s easier to do this when something dramatic happens, because priorities crystallize. Everyday life is full of scope creep. The hours are siphoned away by social media or fussing with picayune details of housework or being lured into further consumerism with artificially planted ideas of need.

Sometimes the jolt of fright that comes from a major life event can pull you out of the morass of mindlessness. Sometimes you choose to drown in a cesspool of distraction. It’s 50/50 for me these days – a push-pull of adrenaline and numbness.

canstockphoto16093077It is telling that as a child raised walking on eggshells, I become more placid as the stakes rise. I am deadly calm in the face of screaming, blood loss, hysteria. I’m the person you want with you during a mugging, but not necessarily there to help you through a cold (shake it off, dammit). My bedside manner is perfunctory if you go on too long. I’m wired to pull you out of a fire, to put salve on your burns, but irritable if I have to hear your retelling of the tale once again. I am the flow chart of next steps.

After the dramatic peaks have passed, the landscape flattens. I recognize the topography – a land of dulled-down plateaus, of depressive vulnerability, of self-recrimination. I try to re-frame the perspective, seeing it Edward Abbey-like, as a wilderness that is a necessity of the human spirit. It’s necessary to go through the desert in order to recognize the need for replenishment – to appreciate the small oases that one encounters.

canstockphoto3611259We’ve had the kind of emergencies lately that require a go bag. It sits in the corner, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice – toiletries, a change of clothes, critical medical documents, and that ubiquitous need of modern living – a tangle of chargers. I had thought about unpacking it over the last week, but after having to call 911, it will remain.

When I was in the Army, we used to be put on readiness alert duty. Wherever we were, whatever we were doing, we’d have to be able to report to post within 30 minutes, in uniform, with our packed duffel and gear. We’d sign out our weapons and be ready to head to the field for an unspecified duration. We were a ragtag lot, showing up disheveled and occasionally hungover, depending on the hour of alert. The relief was palpable when we could stand down.

I was young then, responsible for my own readiness, and there was an assumed end. Now I’m older, responsible for a child, with no end date in sight. Now is definitely canstockphoto11858226.jpgharder. Tired is the default mode. Sometimes I buy into the bootstrap myth – that whatever state I’m in, I should pull myself out of it.  But the real trick and wisdom is knowing when to ask for help, when to lean on others, when to let go.

Sometimes too, it’s just allowing yourself to rest for a bit. Sure, rally the troops. Reorient yourself to the mission. But first, a nap.

Surviving the Holidays: An Introvert’s Guide

It happened in rapid succession. The emails landed with a resounding thud on my psyche today. “Hello Everyone, We’re thinking that for Thanksgiving…” and “I know it’s early, but we’d like to coordinate the family Christmas…”

I am an introvert. I find human contact only manageable in small doses, before I need to run away to a dark hidey-hole to process the interaction. Extended family celebrations, with the enforced captivity, doubly so.

Does this get-together feel as awkward as it looks?
Does this get-together feel as awkward as it looks?

If you’ve been reading this blog over the last few weeks, you know I’ve been finding my middle-aged spine. It’s a little angry and resentful and involves me inadvertently shouting “NO!” at random strangers. I’m usually not gracious about the holidays, but I suspect this year, it will be a torment unlike any I’ve ever known. Relationships will be permanently altered. Gifts will be taken back.

I’m trying to come up with a survival plan. I believe it involves duct tape and a plane ticket to anywhere else. Not as useful as you’d hoped, right?

Here’s some tips for surviving the holidays of the next couple of months.

Be picky about the time and place for celebration.

Have your holidays at a restaurant with a long wait list. That will force a reservation end time under an hour and 15 minutes. Perhaps if you’re lucky, your wait staff will be irritable and clumsy, which will make for an abbreviated, but entertaining meal.

If you must go to someone’s home, engage in passive-aggressive hostilities immediately upon entering the host’s house.

“Do you have slippers? I don’t want to get my socks dirty.”

“Maybe I’ll just hold onto my coat.”

“What’s that fish smell?”

Partake in uncomfortable family traditions with authenticity.

Random bossy relative: Let’s everyone go around the table and say what we’re thankful for.
Me: Um, I’ll go first.
Random bossy relative: Wonderful. Quiet everyone! Michelle will be starting us off.
Me: I’m grateful that I only have to see you wankers twice a year. I’m grateful that I already ate before I got to this salmonella-fest. I’m grateful that…what? What’s she crying about?

Reminisce, especially if there are newlyweds or out-of-town visitors.

“Remember that time when Aunt Betty’s sweet potato pie gave everyone the bends for days on end? Oh, would you look at that, I see you’re using the family recipe.”

“Didn’t you bring Cathy last year? She was really pretty. Who’s this one?”

“You’re looking good, Mitchell. That stint upstate did wonders for you. Did they ever find the body?”

Be boorishly entertaining.

Re-enact scenes from “Soylent Green” while walking around with the cheese cube tray.

Start a lively political discussion by calling everyone something+the word Nazi.

Insist that your child, who has just started playing the trombone, perform for everyone. Until he or she gets it right.

Make small children cry.

“I’m sure Santa won’t eat you if you are very, very good.”

“It just broke off! I’m sorry – I thought Barbie was supposed to bend that way.”

“Isn’t it sad that all the Lego people die at the end? Oh, I thought you’d already seen it.”

Make a discreet exit. Do not return.

“Let me get those extra presents out of the car.”

“Oh, it looks like we’re almost out of whipped cream. I’ll run out to the store and get some.”

“Where’s the bathroom?” It’s best if it’s on the first floor and has a window.

Administrative Note: The Green Study “What’s on the B Side of that 45?” Contest is revving up with some very thoughtful entries! You have until Sunday, December 7th, 2014, 12:00 pm (US Standard Central Time) to get your entry submitted.

Unraveling: Fiction as Life and No, No NaNoNette

canstockphoto4401375I put my 5th grader on a school bus this week for the first time. It’s not much to parents who have been doing this since day one, but I worked from home for many years. I felt like taking her to school was an opportunity. I got to know other parents and the school environment. Some of our best mother-daughter talks happened in the car and I was loathe to give it up. But for the sake of her growing independence, give it up I did.

Six months ago, I quit working for the company I’d worked for off and on for 13 years and I stopped training in Taekwondo. A stress fracture ended running workouts four months ago. Two weeks ago, I stepped down as the president of the parent-teacher organization. This week I stopped driving my daughter to school. Today I’m stepping off the National Novel Writing Month ride.

A friend likened my experience to diagnosing food allergies. You delete all possible offending foods from your diet and slowly add them back in, one at a time, to see what causes a reaction. I’ve removed many defining features of my daily life. The parameters have expanded and the responsibility lies with me to shape my days.

All this effort to change my life is an effort to sit with emptiness. And there’s an echo now. Busy is no longer an adjective I can use. I believe living slowly is important. Sitting still has value. But I’m fighting years of indoctrination. You must be busy. You must be useful. You must not be seen to be a layabout. If you do something, go all the way. Work is purpose.

I’ve worked hard at everything my whole life. I never sat still for long. I am nothing without my effort, my discipline, my drive to do my best at anything. This is a blessing and a curse. It has made me a responsible, conscientious and reliable parent, employee, wife, daughter-in-law, volunteer and friend. It has also made me impatient, irritable, moody and fatigued.

My friends and family keep making sly asides. “You’ll fill up the time with something else.” I started NaNoWriMo thinking that, since I’d quit everything else, time was my oyster. It took me about a week to start resenting the pressure. I’ve hated every sentence and I am not enjoying this process. It became that something else to fill my time.

I’ve gone through my life to this point, like most people, rather haphazardly. I survived a rough and tumble childhood, joined the Army, went to college, got a degree and worked, worked, worked. Most big decisions got made with a youthful shoulder shrug. What have I got to lose? I moved, quit jobs, took up a variety of ill-thought out relationships, ran up bills, dug myself out of debt, married, had a child, tried new hobbies and interests.

It seems different now. I’m irrelevant to the young, a caregiver to the old. I’m wiser, but not inherently smarter. Life is swirling and changing around me, but I feel frozen to this moment, disconnected from the lives around me. As an older parent than most of my peers, my fears for my child are darker. I don’t care about what school she gets into, I just want her to live long enough to experience it. I want to live long enough to experience it.

I’ve been immersed in senior care issues all week and my shoulders and neck tighten at the thought that, if I am lucky, I will be there in the next few decades, hoping that my caregivers are kind and patient and that I won’t have to be afraid.

I am still working. My sandwich generation schtick puts me hollering at my daughter to get ready for school in the morning and helping my mother-in-law dress for her day after the bus leaves. Walking the line between burgeoning independence and regretful dependence, I feel like I’m in a canyon where my needs seem murky at best. Food and water and maybe a walk in the park is the best I can manage until I can get my head sorted.

As an adolescent, I lived in a gutted school bus for six months. You can imagine how very wealthy I feel now, living in my little suburban ranch house with a yard and a lovely family. This is how I feel about time, as I watch my daughter and mother-in-law grow older in tandem. I have the good fortune of being done with the awkward, sometimes painful lessons of youth and am healthy enough to still move on my own steam.

The fears I have now are the ones with which I sit in an increasingly empty room. I smile wryly at the thought that I’ve come round to full navel-gazing when that seems to be the cultural trend. Perhaps I’m more hip than I think. The recurring thought is washing over me: Don’t mess this up. Freedom of choice means the freedom to write a better story. Word count is irrelevant.

Holiday Angst Redux – Opting Out

canstockphoto4885238Ever since giving up smoking and drinking, the holidays have not been fun. Having a child was supposed to cure that, but now that the elf has developed her own brand of cynicism (and adds whatever on the end of every sentence), there’s no reason to pretend. Let the snarling begin.

For years, I’ve grumbled over the machinations of the in-laws around this time of year. I’m an introvert, so I generally look like one of the characters of Bring Me the Head of David Dixon at family gatherings. Add an eye roll or fifty, a sullen slump to the shoulders and you have me at the height of holiday gaiety.

When people guffaw, I wince. I look on disdainfully through the flying shreds of wrapping paper, thinking about consumerism and wondering if there is a recycling bag nearby. In the words of one of my favorite comedians, Maria Bamford, I’m “an anvil wrapped in a wet blanket”. A real downer.

Perhaps if retailers hadn’t started piping in “Silver Bells” shortly after I’d inhaled the leftover Halloween candy, I wouldn’t feel so entirely fed up with the holidays before they arrived. Or if I hadn’t received family email directives for where I should be and what gifts I should bring, before we’d even had Thanksgiving dinner, I wouldn’t be so resentful. Maybe.

When I begin this conversation with friends or people standing in grocery lines, everyone nods their head in agreement, muttering about lists and exhaustion. Yet nothing ever changes. This year I’ve changed, but it isn’t easy. No holiday is complete without tinsel-covered guilt and passive aggressive garlands. We’ve come to mistake obligation for celebration.

The Holiday Sloth. Now commonly seen in North America.

For the last two years, I’ve been practicing saying “no” to a lot of things. I’ve stayed home while my husband and daughter have gone to parties. I’ve stopped doing gift bags of goodies for every passing acquaintance. Last year, I didn’t send out holiday cards. I’ve stopped donating to every cause that crosses my path. It may sound counter-intuitive to the generosity I wish to practice, but I donate more when I pick a couple of charities and do lump sums than being nickeled and dimed by cashiers and bell ringers. Retailers have jumped into the charity game, giving themselves the veneer of benevolence.

Essentially, I’ve given up the things that drain my energy to little benefit for anyone else. It’s not easy. Guilt is a constant companion as I practice saying “no”.  Sometimes I have to look outside myself for reassurance. I asked my daughter what her favorite part about the holiday was, bracing myself for the answer.

My favorite part is Christmas day, when we make cinnamon rolls and we hang out in our pajamas, open presents and have a nice day together.

So simple and profound when I look at the vast array of obligations and advertising directed at this one holiday. How easy, how joyful! Yet when we buy into (literally and figuratively) all the ideas and traditions, it becomes a joyless duty that needs to be followed by a nap and isolation.

I fully recognize that there are people who live for this holiday. They start shopping at clearance sales in January for the next holiday. They have a storage closet solely for holiday decorations. Their houses look like Santa threw up candy canes and glitter in every room. Who am I to suggest their joy is any less valid than mine? But I meet too many people who are depressed, not because of the stereotypical reasons of loneliness or poverty, but because of the peculiar first world problem of buying into a program that wrings every bit of joy out of the season.

So here is a gift from The Green Study to your corner of the world. It’s okay to say no to:

  • Holiday cards
  • Family Photos and matching sweaters
  • Holiday parties and/or driving 4 hours to see people you dislike
  • The plate of cookies Shirley brought to the office
  • Perfect place settings
  • Yule logs (aren’t the trees enough?)
  • Marriage proposals
  • BOGO deals
  • Giving your child a Burl Ives’ Christmas
  • Secret Santas, Elves on Shelves and Fruitcakes

Say yes to:

  • Things that give you pleasure and joy
  • Small comforts
  • Nourishing food
  • Spending time with people you really like
  • Making your own traditions
  • Giving to causes that really matter to you

If the no list and the yes list all apply to your holiday celebration, consider yourselves doubly blessed. For my own part, I can only testify that this has been the best holiday season ever. Enjoy yours, my friends.

Forces of Nature, Forces of Nurture

Last Friday, I drove blindly home through monsoon-like conditions. There was no visibility, just the horizontal stream of rain and gale force winds. The storm came out of the blue. I left the Home Depot just as normal rain began. Five minutes later, I was jerking the steering wheel to avoid crashing tree branches and the rush of water across the road. I couldn’t see beyond the front of the car, but I feared rising water or falling power lines would strand me. I knew the roads by heart and could wend myself home at a crawl. Once I arrived home, closed the garage door and shut off the car, I rested my head on the steering wheel, shaken and relieved.

The storm came on the heels of a recent family visit. I drove hundreds of miles to see family members I had not seen for a few years. I had been anxious in the weeks prior. The separation of time and distance had allowed me to become more of who I wanted to be – to have the family that I wanted to have. My fear was that what I had grown, together with my husband and daughter – a family built on respect and love and kindness – would be made less than by an offhand comment or reminder of what kind of person I really was – angry, judgmental, unkind, selfish, fat, ugly, cruel and responsible for that which befell my family of origin.

It seems silly, at my age and with my life experience, to be turned into a sulky 14 year old with an axe to grind (albeit not the Lizzie Borden kind).  I’m perceptive enough to know that it might happen, intelligent enough to run through the emotional tools at my disposal and yet I still want to run away and hide my nose in a book. Every family has its history, both negative and positive, but as I recounted mine to a friend over coffee the other night, I realized that no – my family is pretty damned weird. Suicide, murder, mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions, unwanted pregnancies…some people would call it colorful. I find it weighty and gray and have spent my life trying to separate from it.

I once read that dealing with people who have mental illness is like dealing with a force of nature. Without blame, without negative characterization, with an acceptance that it just is. As a bystander, raised on fear and unpredictability, the best that I can do is to stay out of the way and not put myself in the path of destruction. I have many friends, off and online, who deal with depression and bipolar disorders. The key phrase is deal with. With borderline or narcissistic personality disorders, you, the bystander, are the one who gets dealt with and turned around, until you feel like the problem is yours. They take on a “what me worry?” persona, while you’re left scrambling to find your footing. Acceptance, compassion, self-protection  – it’s the necessary trifecta to come out the other side with your marbles intact.

Like the roads I crept down during the storm, the journey home, to the life I now live, is known to me. The path is well-trodden. The whispers that tell me I’m not good enough, that I should have done more, will sink into the crevices of my mind. I will be depressed and moody for awhile, until the present engulfs the past and I shove it back in the corner. Will I ever feel right? Will I ever feel like I belong in this fortunate life? Will I ever believe that it’s okay for me to be happy? My Buddha mind notices these recurring fears with curiosity and affection and softly reminds me that I have passed through the storm and that I am home. Shaken, but relieved.canstockphoto6502520

Making Family Where You’re At

The holiday season is a great time to realize, once again, everything that is wrong with your family. This used to be a really hard time of year for me. I have a very small family of origin that fled our shared memories of misery and abuse. I haven’t spoken to my brothers in over a decade. My sister, who is considerably younger than I, stays in touch, but we have an uneasy relationship, much of which is tied up in mutual ambivalence about our mother. My normal is like a lot of people’s normal. It’s not.

As I continue to write my novel, Phoenix Rock, the character relationships are complex, alternating between deeply ambivalent and complete apathy. But I have created some loving relationships between siblings – relationships tainted by a secret, but relationships that can heal. It has made me think about my siblings and the past and the complex emotions we have shared. I am revisiting a sadness that I have not felt in a long time. After years of trying to awkwardly, painfully talk to each other, we gave up. There was too much geographical and emotional distance between us. We see each other as the children of thirty years ago, frozen in a time when there was incredible unhappiness.

A friend pointed out to me that I am trying to resolve those issues in writing this novel, but I believe that there is no resolution in real life, only acceptance. Like a Lifetime movie, one of us would need a unique organ transplant before we’d be able to unfreeze and move forward. We’re beyond blame and recriminations. We have lives and families across the country from each other. When what you share is an overarching unhappy story, there is little to motivate you to try and start again. Maybe one of us will need that organ, but like mending the past, it’s a long shot.

Over the years, as I’ve traveled and moved about, I have spent very few holidays alone. Early on I developed the skills to create a family wherever I was at the time. In the Army, I’d organize parties for many of us that weren’t traveling home for the holidays, cramming people into my small German efficiency apartment or serving a holiday meal to 30 people from the closet-sized communal kitchen in the barracks at Ft. Ord. Like my childhood holidays, it usually involved a lot of booze.

When I was single, I’d make a big meal on Valentine’s Day and invite disparate people like me, from work or school or the neighborhood. I’ve had some oddball gatherings. When I was struggling financially and didn’t have a car, I would still make a big Thanksgiving dinner and friends would travel to see me. I learned to appreciate the relationships I had and how to meet my needs for a sense of shared camaraderie – a sense of belonging somewhere in the world.

I have a small family now as well, but it’s a loving one. Even though both my husband and I came from relatively big families, we married late and that determined that we’d only have one child. She’s enough for us, but I often worry about the task we’ve set before her. She was disappointed at Thanksgiving this year. She’s always been the youngest, but the other kids have grown into teenagers who are not so interested in playing with an eight year old. She is an outgoing child who has had to learn how to live in a world peopled by adults. We have a lot of play dates for her, but the holidays are different, highlighting a lack of similarly-aged companions.

My husband and I console ourselves by recognizing that the presence of siblings is no guarantee of friends or playmates. But in the end, when we are gone, they would be the people who would have shared her collective memory of her childhood and family life. I’d like to believe that if she’d had siblings, they would have had happy adult relationships.

There are a lot of ‘only child’ myths that persist, but my daughter has a wide open heart that says she will be loved by people other than her parents. I hope that as she grows up and begins travels of her own that she can make home where she finds it. I hope that we will have helped her develop the skills to seek out those people who would be her family. I hope that she can find her sense of place in the world. I hope…