I wrote this seven years ago and never published. But I’m feeling this today, again, and it seems relevant to post. I just needed to read it too.
I woke up one day last week and the clouds parted. The clouds had been following me for more than a month, I just hadn’t noticed until the sun finally came out.
I told myself, “You’re depressed again.” “No I’m not. I’m just tired and stressed and I don’t feel well, that’s all.” “Yeah, you’re exhausted all the time and only want to sleep. Sure, that’s not depressing,” I mumbled.
A month like this and I started feeling physically weak. My appetite waned. Not like me at all. I didn’t want to go for a walk or run. Or to do yoga. It was that bad. I flogged myself.
“How can you not feel like doing just a few yoga poses? You are such a sad, sad sack.”
I talked to myself like this for a few weeks. I went to my regular yoga classes. I felt awful.
“Oh just give up.”
Then, one night I went to my yoga class feeling weak, restless and tired—as usual. But my teacher started class by telling us that she felt pretty much the same way, or at least felt not great. This was odd to me, because feeling great ishow I generally assume yoga teachers feel all the time, being yogis and all.
My teacher suggested to us that practicing yoga isn’t about becoming someone other than you are (AN AWE-INSPIRING MASTER YOGI!), or better (FITTER, HAPPIER, FIRMER!), or transcending the mess of your current life (A TRANQUIL POOL OF GLOWING LOVE ALL THE TIME!). Instead, maybe practicing yoga is about becoming more fully who you are, no matter how bad you feel right now. Coming to the mat was a way to remind us to seek ourselves more often, even though when we do, we often come up against unpleasant things.
I nodded. Yes, this was partly why I had resisted even one yoga pose while down and out. I felt like I didn’t deserve the yoga experience—and was scared of what I’d find there—because I didn’t feel great.
After that class, I still felt horrible. But I had come to the mat and watched and moved, instead of talking shit to myself the whole time.
I call that progress.
But it’s not just me. My teacher ALSO talked shit to herself for not feeling great. Wasn’t she—a trained, experienced yogini—supposed to be balanced and exuding equanimity all the time? I now truly believe that those two words—supposed to—will drop from the Devil’s lips when he greets folks like us in Hell, if there really is such a thing.
The Devil: “Well, a cretin of YOUR caliber was supposed to burn in Hell for a thousand years, but…”
He trails off when you lose consciousness under the weight of only one hellacious year and the Devil’s own guilt trip.
Well, I wasn’t supposed to get depressed again either. But I did. There are so many things we ignore for the sake of keeping the small self alive and functioning. It ain’t pretty. I cried singing my youngest to sleep at night. I cried in Savasana when the quiet and clarity gave way to ugly thoughts. I laid awake at night thinking and planning, replaying how a million in one things could go, did go, will go.
The ugly thoughts were about writing, and not writing. Working, not working. About a lost summer and time. About my first baby going off to kindergarten. About my youngest’s worsening behavior. Was it my fault? Was it all my fault? I drifted along pretending none of it was any big deal, but I was coming unmoored.
So when the big currents came, they just swept me away. Simple as that.
Yesterday my husband asked my kindergartner what was his favorite part of his first day of school. He said “recess.” Then he said this:
“There were kids running everywhere. Sometimes it didn’t feel like the kids were moving through the playground, but like the playground was spinning around us.”
Exactly. That is exactly what it feels like, with all engines revving, neurons firing, fight or flight. The world spinning around our tiny selves, threatening to break loose from gravity’s grip and spin off forever.
Which brings me back to yoga and going crazy. Yoga is not a cure for madness or sadness or anxiety. Or being overweight, or tired or stiff. Or lazy. Or bored. But I think there are many people who believe the opposite, that yoga can make it all better. Maybe our Western goal-oriented minds just can’t wrap around *this* and *now* being all there is, being enough. I know mine has a hard time doing so.
Yoga is not magic, though it sometimes feels mystical.
In my experience, yoga seems only to do one thing for certain—bring me back to myself, my deepest Self, over and over. It reminds me that I have a heart that’s good and soft and beats all the time, no matter how many layers of shit cover it.
I think it does this because Ye Olde Great Yogi Sages were in fact human. They were so human that they knew depression; wanted what they could not have; were naive; anxious; or consumed with jealousy.
So when I woke up last week and felt lighter than I had in weeks, I wasn’t any different than I’d been before that day. If anything, I was more my Self that day than I had been lately on any other.
Day 3 of One Lousy Hour, for One Measly Month. I won’t post what I’ve written, because these are averaging about 2,500 words or more. I’m not a fast typer but when I am focused, words come. Imagine that?
But I did find a poem in one of my writing practice journals and thought it would be fun to post here because I have no place else to post it. And I’d like to give them some air. These poems are rarely ever edited; I just don’t take the time, except to maybe clean up punctuation. I know I could, but I don’t. I just like them to be a moment instead of an assignment.
Red fox on the road,
The rain like a release,
Tightening the knot between my shoulder blades,
Each nodule alongside the neck.
It’s not easy to be along for the ride.
Windshield wipers battle the waterfall.
A river runs through the driveway.
Our empty black trash can fills;
thank god it’ll be clean inside.
Think: how we are home now,
But everyone afraid to rush out of the safety of the garage.
Just to the front door.
Afraid to get wet,
To be cleansed. They hold the huge umbrella and try to take it right inside.
Now is the time to write. Not when inspiration hits, or when you have more time. After laundry and before dinner. After a cup of coffee I just made. Or after the kids go to bed.
No, now. Now is the time because it is a pause. It’s a break in the order of your day that you’ve ordered in order to accomplish all the things. The ones that make you who you are and respectable. Normal. A contributing member of society. Respected and admired. If you take that time—really take it cuz no one is gonna GIVE it to you—you can write. Probably the worst BS you’ve ever written. Now, the sun is just falling behind the ridge and the booms of vineyard guns are echoing out and into my open window. Sun on October 28 and windows open, and everything glowing from the orange and yellow and russet brown leaves outside. The sun behind them, stained glass fixtures of nature. Dog barking. I sit here with tank top and sweater wrapped around my waist because the walk we just took—short, sweet—was enough to make my inner temperature rise.
Boom again and again. Scaring away birds and destroying a semblance of fall reverie. But it must be done. Or else the birds will eat those sweet shriveling bunches of cabernet franc for dinner. Without wine. Booming on and on. Until harvest finally ends.
The pause can be something that drives you up the wall. A gap in your day, a gap in your shell of busy-ness you’ve wrapped yourself up in since the day you were born. Maybe not. Maybe that was later/ but BOOM, the pause the gap the slightest break—can cause a whirlwind of anxiety like a mini-storm. A tiny tornado, whirling up and up and touching down somewhere near your solar plexus, your gut. Your bowels. The gap can be worse than the busy. What the hell is going to FILL this space? Soon, the boys will come home and I still need to make dinner and clean up and drink that damn decaf coffee and enjoy it —RELAX dammit!—and laundry to fold and my life to decide upon. My life to make worth living. Fill that gap. Fill that hole.
Writing now is an act of sheer desperation. No, revolution. No one gives 2 shits whether I write or not. No on is COUNTING on me to write, or write well. No one CARES whether I write. Whether I string two sentences together NOW or ever. No one is taking my writing seriously—including me. When you have this GAP (and I hear the bus stopping slow and low at the top of the driveway). No one cares whether I wrote. No one. So I have to pause and write now. Not later. Not never. Now.
Until the moment the door flings open and voices enter— “I have no homework!”
I promised myself I’d stick to fiction for a while. My non-fiction reading can become obsessive and repetitive. But I gravitate back and again. So I went to the library and checked out several novels by Ann Patchett. Novels I’d heard of but never read. I’d read her short stories in a collection (re-read them too), but never these NYT best-sellers. And of course, I couldn’t help myself. I checked out her book of memoir/essays, This is the story of a happy marriage.
And of course, the second essay was about writing: The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life.
It is a close, sweet, real account of her journey into writing and growing up. I read happily and hungrily until Page 59. Page 59 of 60.
I held my breath when I got to the bottom of this page, a page with—honestly—the exact same sentiments I’ve read written by a handful of other authors in their “on writing” books/essays. Want to write? Sit your butt in a chair and write.
Natalie Goldberg. Stephen King. Walter Mosley. And now, Ann Patchett.
“Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign-in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that—one month, every single day—to call me back and we’ll talk.”
But she doesn’t stop there. I turned the page.
“Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment. Think of yourself as a high school senior wanting to be a neurosurgeon. Is it possible? Yes. Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found. Writing is a miserable, awful business. Stay with it. It is better than anything in the world.”
You know those times when your entire world shrinks down to a pinhole? When your vision simultaneously recedes and expands exponentially? When a space opens in your chest and a single word, Yes, arises spontaneously?
Let me give you an example. There are yoga types and mystic types and energy workers who will tell you that these times are the Universe speaking to you. You should listen, they say. We almost never listen. I kind of disagree. When I hear these voices (and they ARE real voices in my head, no mistake), I believe them to be my true Self speaking and finally, my Ego having taken a rest, I’m able to listen. I.e., this “mystic wisdom” doesn’t exist outside ourselves. The Universe isn’t external to us, something that talks TO us. Okay, just IMO.
Right, so that moment. Sitting in the car, listening to a podcast while I finish my 1/2 caf coffee in the Wegmans parking lot. Sun outside and breeze blowing into the windows, cracked against the trapped heat. Perfect fall Indian summer day. Drinking sipping thinking about what I’m gonna do next. And then I re-tune into the podcast. A story being told of how this actress (you’ll know her) came into acting. I love stories, so I listened now, putting down my coffee cup. She is Latina, in her first year of college, and she’s already acted in a her first movie. But she’s torn. She wanted to be an actor AND a human rights lawyer. She was struggling. How could she do something as frivolous, silly, vain as acting when so many people were suffering around the world? She was thinking about quitting. Focusing on law. She blubbered to a trusted professor. He listened to her. I imagine him nodding with kind eyes.
Then he told HER a story. About another young Latina college student he’d been mentoring for a few years. How her parents didn’t support her dream of going to college (the first in her family). This woman was distraught, and felt misunderstood. One day, the woman asked this professor, Do you really want to know what my life is like? He said yes. She took him to see a movie, Real Women Have Curves. That, she said afterward, is what it’s like to be me. He understood. He asked her how it made her feel to see someone like her reflected in that movie. It felt good, empowering. And they worked together from there, convincing her parents to allow her to continue her education.
For the young aspiring actress who wanted to be a human rights lawyer, THIS was one of those pinhole/expanding universe moments. In a flash, she saw. She had never considered the idea that her acting could be activism. That her acting could help someone or make a difference in their life. She’d never considered that art could be serious, that in fact, it was always serious if you took it seriously.
I shut off the podcast when the story finished. I sat fixated on the windshield. The sun and breeze were still there. Cars still there. Shoppers and carts. I was still there. But something had clicked into place in my brain. A key had turned, a tumbler moved. Writing. Could writing help people? Could it be activism? Could it make an impact on someone’s life? Could the act of writing be the way I give back?
If I’m honest, reading saved my life. It protected me, gave me a warm safe place to escape to when things got too much for me at home. It encouraged me to dream and create in my head. It encouraged me to suspend belief and take a break from my scared little self. It opened my eyes to a kind of daring I’d never thought possible. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books and writing and feared writing and exposure. Also, I feared that writing creatively was frivolous. Not serious enough. It was a dream. Sometimes, yes, it was a dream burning me down like a house fire. Other times, it was a smoldering pile of ashes. Lately, mostly ashes.
Why could I not take one lousy hour, for one measly month, to write? What else was I doing that was so much more important? Saving the world? Advocating for suicide prevention and adequate mental health services in my rural community? Growing grapes? Teaching yoga?
And then I saw.
“Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there. Think of yourself as a monk walking the path to enlightenment.
Everything I’ve been doing, all paths, seem to lead here. The yoga. The therapy. The teaching. The freelancing. Volunteering. Parenting. Cooking. Drinking. Walking. Crying. Writing.
Keep sitting there.
No, I don’t think it’s the Universe talking to me. I didn’t send an intention “out there” and have been waiting for the “answer.” I’ve just been following my own crooked path and calling it life, hating all the “wrong” turns and mistakes and missed opportunities. Then you turn 43 years old, look back after listening to a random podcast (there is no such thing!, you scream) and see a pattern no one could have planned. No one except God, I guess.
Maybe that’s the moral of this story, of the young Latina actress’s story. You can’t plan who you are. You can’t get a degree in you. No one can be certified as you. Maybe you are exactly the person you’ve been waiting for. Maybe you are exactly the person our world needs. As another wise yoga teacher said, you have to “trust yourself first.” Not only, she qualified, but first.
So the hourly daily writing commences. No NanoWrimo (no offense) or submissions to magazines, or researching for days/months in advance. No contests or contract negotiations.
I stopped by the third floor of the hospital building today, ostensibly to drop off some errant mail that had been misplaced at my yoga studio space. But honestly, I’d seen mail before and not moved a muscle to return it. The hospital is spitting distance from our community building. The third floor houses the inpatient behavioral services unit.
Things have been touchy in our small rural county ever since the hospital announced it was planning to shut down its inpatient services. We don’t have much here, really. And now this was insult to injury, especially with reports of people regularly being turned away while the hospital claimed its services were being “underutilized.”
I don’t know what I expected, but the doors of the elevator opened into a box-like entry. On one side were lockers with tiny round key entries. The wall on the left was papered with a few posters, mostly telling me what I could and could not bring onto the floor. Lots of warnings. The lockers also had a typed note telling me what to do. Homemade food and flowers were in. Coat hangers and shoelaces maybe not.
It took me a while to realize that the doors in front of me, and one wall to the side, were covered in reflective glass. One way. I saw myself, standing awkwardly holding the errant mail wrapped in a rubber band. I looked around.
“Ring bell for front desk.”
I pressed the small round white bell next to the door. A tinny buzz sounded far off behind the doors.
“Visiting hours, Monday through Friday, 12:30 – 1:30 pm.”
And more hours I could and could not see my friend, parent, lover, sister, brother or grandparent on Floor 3.
I waited. I scanned the walls again. In the upper right corner of the entry box — no more than four steps from elevator door to entry door — there was a tiny camera. I moved closer to the door, thinking maybe I was out of frame. I wanted to be seen. On the left wall was a small mounted radio-like box. It was plastic with perforations for speakers, labeled RadioShack (HA! Telling me exactly how old it was), and instructions above. Press TALK to signal you want to speak. Wait. Press TALK to speak. Release to listen. I tried. Nothing.
No answer to my bell. No answer to my TALK.
I stood there, looking at myself in the mirrored doors. Forty two years old, wearing tight yoga leggings in purples and pinks and whites and icy blue. A jaunty white mesh cut-out on each fleshy calf. Running shoes. A long-sleeved t-shirt bought on our ski trip to Utah. I scanned the lockers, the signs, the NOT ALLOWED items, the strict hours and rules and instructions on how to TALK.
I felt my stomach drop. Tears pricked hot behind my eyes.
This was a goddamn jail, a prison. And my brother had spent many days and nights locked inside a hell like this.
On the wall opposite the lockers, there was a larger newer looking poster. Its message was along these lines: Have a complaint about these mental health services? Contact us. Sincerely, the NY State Office of Mental Health.
Why would anyone want to use these services? Even in my darkest hour, I would fight tooth and nail to be placed into a place like this. Treated like a criminal. Would it fucking hurt to have a nice, peaceful, pleasant entryway to this floor? Would it be okay to just have a person I could SEE and TALK to, instead of a mirrored wall and a speaker?
I know you go into inpatient services to stay safe. I understand that security is part of the deal. I know we have to prevent access to lethal means if someone is suicidal. Or if they are a danger to others.
But what about flowers and color and kindness and humanity? Do mentally ill people not need this? Deserve this?
All I can say is that it made me cry. And I’m not a psychiatrist with experience on psych wards but I’ve been in one. I was a teenager. I saw my brother flop inside without shoelaces. I saw him slump to mandated group sessions. And I saw the haunted young girls with eating disorders staring with mortal fear at their plates in the cafeteria.
I was a haunted girl with an eating disorder too.
I took the elevator back down to the ground floor and told the sweet, white haired volunteer at the front desk that no one had answered.
“That place is a prison,” I said, looking down at my shoes, still shaking a little.
“Have you ever been up there?”
“Oh yes, but if I stay too long, that space between the door and elevator makes me feel trapped!” she said.
I nodded. I handed her the mail. I got into my car and drove away.
nipples, though at the time, I didn’t know it. I don’t have flat nipples anymore, thanks to my two children.At the time, the fact that I had flat nipples was devastating. I was trying to nurse my first born. It wasn’t working, because I was told, I had flat nipples. I remember looking down at my chest and wondering: is that what flat nipples look like? I hadn’t seen many other women’s nipples and when I had, definitely didn’t pay attention. So these nipples were not working. I was malfunctioning. Malformed.
We got Chinese take-out the other night and after everyone finished eating—or picking at their food—it was time for fortune cookies. My boys, now 7 and 10 years old, were so excited they jumped up and ran to the counter, grabbed all the cookies, and started ripping them open. Wait! Everyone gets their own cookie. They dole them out. Now: we can open. The youngest opens his first because he just wants to eat the cookie, which I tell him is pretty gross. My opinion, of course, but I felt like it was necessary info. His fortune is something about having happiness and being whole and I forget… My other son eats his and I don’t think even read his fortune. My husband doesn’t eat his cookie and I have no idea what his fortune was because I was probably too busy reading mine.
I threw them all away, but mine was actually thought provoking. It read something like: “The loss of that which you didn’t know you possessed is no loss at all.” Whoa. It’s funny; before I found out I had flat nipples, I never felt like I was missing anything. Or that I wasn’t going to be an OKAY mom. In fact, I felt downright prepared.
We lose a lot of things we didn’t know we possessed, usually finding out only once its too late. I was running with a friend a few years ago, who’s quite a few years younger than me, and complained to her about how slow I was, how out of shape I felt. I told her, “I used to be able to run a 5k no problem under a 10 minute mile!” She had long legs and long brown hair. She was tall and lithe. She looked at me, told me, “But that was your younger self. You don’t need to compete with her.”
She was also a social worker. Go figure.
The Loss You Didn’t Lose
What I’m trying to say is that I spend a lot of time ruminating on all the things I could and should be doing and being. I compete with myself. I try to recapture the moments before I knew my nipples were malformed; in those moments, ever so briefly, I felt whole. Perfect. And not perfect as in “ideal” or “best,” but simply resting in myself, oblivious to flat nipples or the time when I hit 35 that I’d only be able to slog along at a light jog.
I spent a lot of time worrying. Before I knew I was not pointy-nippled enough for my baby birds to latch onto with their tiny lips, I never gave those nipples a second thought. Just like I don’t give it a second thought that my eyes can see, my nose can smell, and I can feel the soft fur of my cat’s coat with not one, but two fully-functioning hands.
Oh shit. I DO possess those eyes and nose and hands. And I don’t give them a second thought. What I’m trying to say is that that stupid fortune cookie fortune was actually good fucking advice. Finally, a reason for those God-forsaken cookies.
You can’t lose—or worry about the loss of—something you didn’t know you had. For example, I kvetch and turn myself into knots worrying about what other people think of me, and whether I’m achieving enough. Doing enough. Whether it “looks” like I’m earning my keep on this planet, in this family. But if I step back, and read that damn fortune cookie again, it becomes clear. I don’t actually “have” the mystical level of supernatural respect and admiration from the masses of which my mind likes to convince me that I do. Nor do those people out there think about me and what I’m doing every moment of every day.
I have nothing to lose.
But my mind tells me otherwise.
This is one facet of living with anxiety. I want to bring it out that I may talk about how I’m trying to do this or that, or trying to get my spiritual house in order, but the main goal here—the main aim of all this shit—it acceptance and clarity. Acceptance of what is happening now. Clarity on what is happening now. I don’t know what I’m trying to say about the flat nipples and the fortune cookie. I really don’t. They just came into my consciousness and I wanted to say, Hey! You with the flat nipples! It’s gonna be okay! The other thing is that somehow everyone is trying to tell us where we’re deficient. Everyone being the voices outside us—media, friends, family. They’re not trying to be mean. Usually it’s masked as advice. And usually it’s rooted in their story, their perceived losses. Like not being good at sports in high school, needing reading help, being lazy, disorganized. What have you. It’s not about you; it’s about them.
So when I’m trying to calm down my breathing, my heart pounding, my solar plexus crunched up into a knot, my stomach roiling—I don’t want to hear about your problems. I’m afraid to even let you know I’m having a problem, because that’s vulnerable. That’s scary.
My yoga teacher said this on one day of our week-long immersion, and it stuck to me. She said, everyone comes into class with limitations. And that can be scary. So, honor your limitations and those of your students.
I don’t usually do that. I don’t think I’m alone. We’re talking physical maybe here, but oh there are mental limitations too. I listen and hear women all around me talking about their physical pain like a weight to bear. I hate mine too. Or used to. I hate it a little less now. But the mental pain we don’t talk about so much. How do I approach my friend and confide in her that I’m isolating myself because I’ve gotten so anxious about leaving the house, or not getting my work done, or how I’ll never stop feeling depressed/angry/worthless?
Where is the space to discuss our mental pain, openly?
It can’t just be inside a therapist’s office (though God bless them). And I wonder, what favors do I do by not talking openly about my challenges? Who am I helping, hurting?
I don’t know what I wanted to say here. I think I wanted to write something that someone else would like and I wanted to help in some small way. In some small way, I wanted to help. To be of service. Instead, I wrote shit. Does that ever happen to you?