A Visit from Some Sh*t in the Past

A poem in the holiday tradition…

‘Twas the day after Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a teen boy was stirring, not even an RGB mouse.
The stockings were flung about God knows where,
In hopes that someone else soon would clean there;
My husband and dog were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of coffee and stuffed Kongs danced in their heads;
And sitting in my slippers, a journal in my lap,
I’d just settled my brain on a family recap.

When inside my head there arose such a chatter,
I held the pen still to see what was the matter.
Away to the past I flew like a flash,
Tore off the shutters and threw out the trash.
The heart in my breast beating too freaking slow,
Gave a faint glow of memory to objects below,
When what to my dry, crusted eyes did appear,
But an immature child in her forty-fourth year,
With an old inner voice so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be a trick.

More rapid than headaches these images they came,
And they whistled, and shouted, and called me by name:
“Now, Lazy! now, Faker! now No-Good and Shame!
On, Critic! on, Crazy! on, Failure and Blame!
To the lot with a torch! in denial we stall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

As emotions about past trauma do fly,
When they meet with reality, free from the lie;
So up to my heart-space the images they flew
A fireball full of pain, and sadness there too—
And then, I had an inkling, I needed no proof
That trying and pleasing had made me aloof.

As I bowed low my head, without making a sound,
Up the throat it all came in one sickening bound.
She was dressed all in black, from her head to her foot,
As if she’d just risen from ashes and soot;
Generations of baggage she had flung on her back,
Emptying it slowly by opening her pack.
Her eyes—how they sparkled! her dimples, how scary!
Hers cheeks were like apples, her nose like a berry!
Her sardonic grin was a tight tiny bow,
And her hair was so wild yet her movements were slow;
The stump of a pencil she held tight in her fist
And the words, they encircled her head in a list;
She had a round face and a child’s round belly
That shook when she laughed, even though she was smelly.
She was chubby and plump, alright being her Self,
And I laughed when I saw her, in love with myself;
A wave of her hand and a twist of her hair
Soon gave me to know that she really did care;

She spoke not a word, but did all the Work,
Filled all the empty holes; then turned with a jerk,
And placing her small palms down in repose
And giving a sigh, back down in she goes;
She drops in my belly, her home made of gristle,
And deeper she sank, like a murderer’s pistol.
But I heard her exclaim, ere she dove out of sight—
“The old stories are lies, and freedom’s your birthright!”

* Of course, my poem is based on the original by Clement C. Moore, A Visit from St. Nicholas. I don’t know why I wrote this, other than the fact that the first few lines have been repeating themselves in my head for two days. And that, for me, the holiday season is a rough time. I know I’m not alone, but this poem kind of sums up both the pain and hope this time of year can bring. Plus, it was super fun to try to follow the rhyme scheme and still make sense. 😊 I also wrote this with the utmost respect for Moore. This poem was the first and only poem I memorized and can recite.

Who are you crying for?

I wrote this draft more than two years ago and never published. I re-read it a few times and always thought I’d revise and edit and polish and whatever. Today though, I realized that I won’t ever do that. This is how it was meant to be. And this is when it was meant to see the light of day: four days before what would have been my brother’s 51st birthday.


It’s easy, walking along the lake shore, to see clearly what is Truth. The wind is whipping from the southwest, white caps popping into spray when they hit the barrier walls. It is so freaking beautiful. It hurts my eyes. I watch a blue heron fly from one side of the cove to another, huge wings beating slowly. It seems impossible the bird can fly, in slow motion. I hold my breath when I watch. I don’t want to disturb. Continue reading “Who are you crying for?”

Awake yet?

person eye
Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

Ah. Here we are.

We are where we don’t want to be.

We do not want what is happening right now.

We are wishing/praying/fighting for things to go back to “normal.”

I’ve spent our first full week of COVID-19 social distancing with a clenched jaw, tight throat and hair-trigger temper. But my youngest son turned 11 years old yesterday. Did I realize until that moment how overjoyed I was, how much love I could feel, that he had LIVED to be that age?

He and his brother asked to eat birthday cake for breakfast this morning (one chocolate and yellow cake layer, slathered with homemade chocolate buttercream frosting).

I felt my throat tighten: This is not supposed to happen. This is not MY way.

Then I looked at my youngest, now 11, and smiled. Why not? What is MY way anyway?

Clinging

This first week home, with the boys out of school, we were inundated with emails and links from teachers and online resources and what we could be doing to ensure our kids kept up with their learning.

I just wanted a nap.

I grasped at those lists and schedules though, like freaking life preservers. Yes! We can do this! Everything will be the same as before but BETTER! My boys will suddenly love school and want to do fun, crafty, outdoorsy activities with me instead of playing Fortnite or looking at Snapchat or picking their nose! It’ll be great!

I sat the boys down: Let’s make your schedule. I set up their work spaces, not noticing the glazed look on my then 10-year old’s face, the faint smile, as we organized. What was he smiling about?

Turns out, he’s very happy about school being cancelled. He doesn’t really like school.

I persisted. I yelled when they didn’t change subjects, I constantly checked on them in their rooms to make sure the 13 year old wasn’t watching YouTube on his laptop when he should have been doing social studies. I made them wipe down the counters in the kitchen after we ate lunch because THAT IS WHAT ALL THE “GOOD” PARENTS ARE DOING WITH THEIR PERFECT KIDS AT HOME.

And boy did I suffer. And boy did my children suffer.

The origin of suffering

The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is popularly translated as “All life is suffering,” but that’s not quite accurate. It does say that pain is an unavoidable part of life—physical, mental, social, universal—but it also says that suffering is different from pain. As Jack Kornfield writes in his book, The Wise Heart, “suffering is our reaction to the inevitable pain of life.” The first Noble Truth is laying out the symptoms of our general dis-ease as humans, which is largely due to our collective and personal suffering; we need to first recognize this truth in order to transform it.

Sure, easy enough. I think we can all identify the ways in which we suffer, in which our planet suffers, especially now. So now what? Maybe you’re feeling heavy and worse than you started.

Thank goodness for the Second Noble Truth, which tells us the CAUSE of our suffering! Huzzah! And the cause is: Grasping. Clinging. Struggling to control our bodies and feelings, or to control the people around us and THEIR bodies and feelings. Struggling to control the world around us, the economy, the laws we don’t make, the length of the lines at the grocery store, the time our garbage gets collected, the Coronavirus, the fact that I can’t visit a friend or my parents right now.

Basically, we want what we want and we suffer when we don’t get it.

Try this at home for maybe 15 minutes. Go about your business and notice how many times you sense tension in your shoulders, neck, eyes, jaw or chest. Chances are that every time you sensed tension, something was happening that you did not want to be happening.

I have this quote from Eckhart Tolle on my fridge:

“Stress is wanting something to be the way it isn’t.”

Do what is possible

Now, imagine this. What if every time you noticed tension arising—your inner 2 yr old stomping its feet with clenched fists—you did nothing? What if you smiled to yourself, took a breath, and said “Yes” to whatever was going on? What would happen?

I let the boys eat birthday cake this morning for breakfast, with a small glass of milk and some juicy tangerine slices on the side. They declared it a wholesome, well-balanced breakfast.

The sky did not fall.

Maybe this kind of allowing is easy for you, but it’s not for me. It’s something I’m constantly learning.

What is the right thing for all of us to be doing now, in this time of complete uncertainty, so many things out of our control? Honestly, the only thing I think we should be doing is WAKING up. Paying attention. Guess what? Before Coronavirus, pretty much EVERYTHING was technically out of our control; we’re just experts at denial. We get real good at failing to recognize the suffering we cause ourselves and others on the daily (by the second!) due to our grasping and clinging.

This week I saw my grasping in its full glory, blossoming out of a cloud of panic and fear. Afraid we’d get sick and die. Afraid my kids’ lives would be ruined. Afraid my depression would take over again. Afraid my aching body was falling apart. Afraid to go to the grocery store. Afraid to let the kids play video games, afraid they’d get sedentary and unhealthy and unhappy. Fear fear fear fear.

I watched as I created more suffering for myself, dug in deeper, spewed it out on my kids and my husband. Then I saw that there was NO problem, really, with whatever was happening until I had made one by clinging to things being MY way.

Instead of feeling bad about myself or defeated once I saw this reality, I felt kind of hopeful and light. If I could SEE this clearly, I could make choices! This, I know, is the only thing under my control. Yet, knowing with the brain is different than knowing with the heart and body. That’s gonna take time, especially if we’ve ignored or wrestled to control our bodies and protect our heart for decades.

Hoarding makes you feel better, temporarily. Worrying and compulsively checking the news gives your mind something to do, when you don’t want to feel what you’re feeling. Running and crafting and cooking and organizing and playing board games definitely occupies you. And none of this is bad.

But I may opt to do less and watch more. To let go of the need to have things MY way whenever I notice it. This ain’t easy. Yet it’s what I can do right now.

What if we collectively let go? What if we collectively stopped denying, stopped posting our gripes about things not going our way on social media? What if we allowed the entire stupid silly weird wild scary range of emotions to simply be?

What if we ate cake for breakfast?

“Pain is physical, suffering is mental. Suffering is due entirely to clinging or resisting. It is a sign of our unwillingness to move, to flow with life. Although all life has pain, a wise life is free of suffering. A wise person is friendly with the inevitable and does not suffer. Pain they know but it does not break them. If they can, they do what is possible to restore balance. If not, they let things take their course.” [Nisargadatta]

— from The Wise Heart, by Jack Kornfield, p. 246

So serious

Gone fishin'If I am not as serious as I usually am,

maybe I will laugh again.

Maybe the tragedy is comedy and the nature of existence is

a joke.

A joke I can laugh at with swelling, swaying belly and gasping for breath.

The punchline, of course:

We’re all gonna die!

Crumpled over with laughter, my back and shoulders rocking up and down,

Abdominal muscles contracting, sore tomorrow.

If I’m not so serious then I can hold

the sacred.

If it’s nothing special,

Snow melting into grainy gray slush,

sun warming and melting into a smooth shine,

then it’s the most amazing thing.

The most necessary thing.

To laugh again.

Even yogis get the blues

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 is how 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.

Supposed to.

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, one lousy hour + poem

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.

Canva - Greyscale Photo of Rain Drops

Commute

Red fox on the road,
The rain like a release,
Tightening the knot between my shoulder blades,
Each nodule alongside the neck.
A strumming.

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

From Be Here Now, by Ram Dass

10-30-19, stealing 20 minutes

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!”

This great dream

Ann Patchett quote
“give this great dream … one lousy hour a day for one measly month”

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.

In that moment, she knew what to do. She did not become a human rights lawyer.

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.

Above all, no fear.

Small Violations

Small violations
Like perforations in tissue paper.
Airy, without weight.

It goes right through you like damp cold
the heavy sigh

The holes are too many, stiff,
ringed with hate.
But when it gets wet, it’s a pulpy mass.
Sun peeks through pinholes, yet, you hide,
Shivering.

The littlest things.
There are no little things.

Silence is calm and comforting
as long as no one speaks
and breaks the agreement.

We don’t call them up on small violations.
Transgressions.
Because everyone makes mistakes.

Pricking pinholes in layers of torn, tattered sheets,
folded and folded into each other.
It’s wrong, but do it anyway.
You simply never trust again.

How could they?

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.

Giddy, because I could.