June 25, 2013

In Defense of Depression

This afternoon has not been an easy one, and the voices in my head would like me to believe that it's my own fault. If I had done all the laundry, run the dishwasher, cleaned the house, washed the floors, spent more time playing with my kids or taken them on an educational outing, then I wouldn't feel a desperate need to do something, ANYTHING to get away from the accusations in my head that I am less than, worse than, not enough.

Since depression is hard enough to comprehend when you have it, I'm sure it's even more baffling if you don't. Shouldn't a bad mood pass quickly? Why can't the person just choose to think about something else -- or just take one of those medications that are always advertised on TV with line-drawn dark clouds of monsters clinging to the victim? Those commercials baffle me. My monsters have never been cartoons. They are more like the watchers that attach to characters in Babylon 5, invisible but able to strangle its host. The days I dread are the ones when I feel more like Miracle Max in The Princess Bride as his wife Valerie is chasing him around the house chanting, "Humperdinck! Humperdinck! Humperdinck! Humperdinck! Humperdinck!" Though the image is funny, I assure you the reality is not. There is no escape from my thoughts and no door I can close so I'm insulated from hurt inflicted inside.

Starting in middle school, I began writing to myself in the third person. Scolding about things I'd said or done, ways I should have been better. No matter the behavior, I didn't measure up and I made sure I knew that to my core. I thought if I made myself feel bad enough, I'd do what I was supposed to do to avoid feeling bad. I know now what I didn't know then: shame and guilt are never motivational.

One night in high school, harassed internally and wanting anything in that moment that would make the pain stop, I opened the bathroom closet, grabbed a bottle at random, opened it and downed the handful of pills I found inside. Suicide may be selfish to the observer, but in that moment I was fully convinced I was doing my family a favor. Someone as incapable, unintelligent, unattractive and valueless as I was better off gone.

The minute I swallowed the pills, clarity returned. I was in terror that I might die without my family knowing why. I wrote a feverish letter explaining it wasn't their fault, but mine. I was terrified to sleep, not knowing if I would wake up or not. I did eventually fall asleep, exhausted physically and emotionally, and woke with only a stomachache as a consequence. I called the poison control hotline in private, and though the woman told me I would be OK, she also said I needed to tell someone what I'd done. My mom happened to be gone, and telling my dad was one of the hardest things I've ever done. It is rare to see my dad cry, but he did that day. I promised him I would never attempt suicide again, and I have never thought of breaking that promise.

It doesn't mean the negative thoughts and feelings are gone.

I still dread late nights when my brain is wide-awake. It is so quick to start cycling through unproductive, accusatory thoughts. I have a habit of trying to distract it with mindless computer games, familiar books, or anything that will tire it out enough so that I fall asleep the instant I climb into bed. I am afraid of wakefulness.

People I know with depression are some of the most courageous people I know. They fight through a host of enemies inside themselves more brutal than they will ever meet in the real world, and they know that a minute can feel longer and more bruising than a month of physical training. Getting anything done at all that they 'should' is a tremendous victory--yet they will be unable to celebrate it, because getting something done so often makes the internal attacks even worse.

Please honor those you know with internal demons. No, they won't reel off a list of what they've accomplished that day, but standing to face the day so often takes everything they have. Make no mistake, though, they are strong and determined.

They wouldn't be breathing if they weren't.

June 19, 2013

Real Simple

I love magazines and organization ideas. I relax when I see order, method, color-coordinated bins and labels, or (joy!) white boards with neat to-do lists.

This is not my reality.

Reality is finding a recipe for corn cakes (how historic! how representative of colonial America! how educational for my children!), 'making' them, [half]baking them, then eating them. I had no idea corn meal + water was so incredibly, inedibly bland. Really. I cannot overstate this fact. Drowning it in syrup was the only way to get the kids to take more than a single bite.

Reality is having my elder child leave the table, then throw up the tiniest bit of historical culinary America. Not on the floor. Not on one of our books. His stomach expressed its opinion of corn cakes on a library book.

Why doesn't Real Simple or Martha Stewart or Pinterest have articles and photos of things like that? Tumblr's "Reasons My Son is Crying" comes closer to my reality. There are so many times in a parent's day when the parent thinks wildly, "Really?! Of all possible responses to this set of circumstances, my child chose THIS? Should I be worried about their mental function? Should I be worried about mine?"

Memory is a funny thing, y'know. I have no memory from childhood of supper being late, thrown-together, or procrastinated. I don't remember a house with toys strewn about, dust collecting, or pet hair accumulating under beds. When I shared this with my mom, though, she gave me a look of deep disbelief and told me that my memory was flawed. My childhood, she assured me, most definitely had all of the above.

This helps me adjust my expectations. Such updates help me fix a skewed perception of 'normal'. These touch points with reality help me understand that though an IKEA spread is great, my kitchen will never, never, never, ever resemble it for longer than 5 minutes together. And that's OK.

The reality is my life contains mess and disorder and unpredictable hiccups--sometimes several times in the course of a single hour. If it comes down to having an air-brushed magazine spread or having life, I choose the unsimple life.

June 17, 2013

A Wrestling

I just finished reading a blog post by a friend, a friend who chose to lay thin-sliced pieces of her heart on the page. In the reading, I realized: writing is a wrestling.

There are many skills and activities that involve striving and attaining. I don't think there are nearly as many that are only a communicated form working out the wrestling inside me. Kneading dough or prepping vegetables with a razor-edged knife (the pleasurable 'snick' of briskly cutting carrot); pounding out a passage of Mendelssohn's "Agitation" or getting into a soothing rhythm of loop and tug, loop and tug, as I crochet -- all of these help me process my thoughts and emotions.

They are never the wrestling for me that writing is.

When I write, and in particular when I sit down with my journal and pen, I bring my internal hairball. Don't know what I'm thinking, don't know exactly what I'm feeling or why, but I know spreading the threads of thought on the page will help me gain clarity.

It is wrestling because I have to find the correct words to trap unknowns, get something unseen onto blank space so that I know what I felt and thought, and perhaps even someone else might understand and identify with my entry, even if I am not there to explain or expound.

Any writer is brave, and this friend is braver than many. Writing on a blog gives the option of editing, of making the words nice and neat, of tying off untidy ends of unfruitful feeling. The best translations of the heart tend to be the ones that leave me more raw in the writing. I'm drained enough after such a piece that I don't have the energy to edit or critique or correct, too close to the feeling to be OK with "making it bleed" with red ink.

I'm proud of my friend. In writing tussles, what counts is getting the words on the page, not pinning the idea neatly to the mat so it can no longer breathe. She succeeded.

June 14, 2013


The bills are piled, high & deep
But I have promises to keep
And words to write before tackling that heap
And words to write before tackling that heap
[with my apologies to Robert Frost]

I'm feeling in a lyric mood. The movie October Sky is a favorite, but I never read the memoir that inspired it until today. Homer Hickam's writing voice is a wonderful one for me. It's very easy for me to get lost in story with that sonorous writing playing in my head.

His father died of black lung, earned from years of coal mining. Homer's relation of a hospital orderly's description of Homer's father's deathbed has caught at me. The imagery holds mesmerizing truth. The orderly described Homer's dad as a small man, which Homer says he wasn't (small, that is) until his father shriveled physically around his lungs, a body shrunk to the size of that which became his primary focus.

Sometimes a thought is powerful enough to stop reading, even reading a story you enjoy.

I've wrestled with (fought with, tried to ignore, tried to analyze, over-analyzed) my internal state. I hate the thought that life might pass by while I'm caught up in navel-gazing, but my organization-oriented mind insists that things going wrong on the surface means that something's awry in the details of the underlying machinery. So I delve. What did I mean by this? Why do I feel like that? Whose responses am I monitoring?

Reading the description of Homer Hickam, Sr. brought a water-splash of reality to all my ponderings. Knowing the who, what, and why can matter. I feel strongly that we are becoming a race of people uncomfortable with waiting and honing wisdom. For all that, I don't want my life to be collapsed around the singular focus of my thoughts and feelings. Not everything that is a focus deserves to be one, after all. I desire to be sociocentric, not egocentric.

I want a life that animates, inspires, or encourages others. A collapsed life waits to be animated or is so consumed with its chosen focus there is no room for others.

I don't want to have a collapsed life. I thought perhaps my mulling might (in sociocentric fashion) help you, too.

June 13, 2013

Ways to Help Moms of Small Children

I'm currently on a high. Why, you ask? For the simple reason that after soccer, my darling bolt of lightning went to go play at a teammate's house until lunchtime. In a move that calls to mind the verse about "cup running over with blessings", the teammate's mom AGREED to this without any hint of hesitation and is even dropping my child off for me around noon!

Which brings me to my point on this post: if you are a mom, you've mostly likely been a mom of small children at some time or another. Even if you didn't journal every detail of the experience or scrapbook it in multi-layered, bejeweled and bestickered splendor, you remember.

You remember that feeling of understanding some days why animals crawl off into the woods to die alone. You remember when whatever food you ate was dictated by what food your children didn't finish. You remember uttering some of your most fervent prayers for just 2 hours -- less than 150 minutes! -- of uninterrupted sleep, when even your mom-dar doesn't have to be turned on for a baby monitor. The memory of changing three diapers in quick succession on the same child, only to have them vomit their hard-fought latest meal all over your shoulder (the day you still, decades later, think of as That Day) -- that memory is still present in your conscious mind.

SO. Instead of giving another mom the stink-eye because her child is acting out at the store in a such a way that the tri-state area hears what's going on, instead of "encouraging" a mom to enjoy every moment because they're over so quickly (which Steve Wiens addresses marvelously here), here are some ways to truly help a mom who has small kids:

1. 1 hour of your time: whether you come to her house or she drops them off at yours (and trust me, she won't mind dropping them off and picking them up), getting time by herself is nirvana. In just 30 minutes, most moms I know could run several errands and possibly even make a grocery run! We're frighteningly efficient when we're operating solo. 'Vacation' means getting groceries alone. Truly.

2. If you know her family's dietary restrictions (depending on allergies, etc.), call her some morning around 10 and ask if she has plans for supper yet; if not, tell her you're taking her supper to her. Better yet, make it something she could use or freeze for later. I nearly weep tears of joy when I know what supper is going to be and it isn't noon yet.

3. In a busy check-out area if you have the time (and no groceries of your own that might melt), offer to hold her baby or watch her kids in the family fun area so she doesn't have to try remembering her PIN number in the midst of questions, tantrums, and pleading. Caveat: this is best reserved for families you know who also know you. It's a little freaky from a stranger.

4. If you have kids who are similar ages, work out a swap with another mom. You both get a time once a week, and no one has to pay a babysitter. Win-win!

5. If hands-on feels more uncomfortable for you (introverts are godly, too), get her a gift card to a local coffee place or non-fast food restaurant (though a gift certificate to a pizza place would certainly work nicely for #2!). She will almost always appreciate more caffeine or a fresh fruit smoothie. Trust me. If the business has a drive-through window, so much the better.

6. If time and money are both tight for you (which I understand and she does, too), seize that moment you see her and say, "You're doing a great job; you really are." Know why you can say this and have it be true? Her kids are likely with her, and she, more than any other person in their little lives, has kept them alive (and allowed them to live) to this point. She's doing a good job. Most moms I've said this to look at me in disbelief, and I see in their eyes the protests that, "You didn't see how loud I yelled this morning over breakfast!" or "I've never made ANYTHING off pinterest for ANY of my kids!" That's another reason you can know that she's doing a great job: she beats herself up regularly most days, worried that she's not doing enough or could be doing more to give each kid their best shot. Many moms I've said this to start crying. God has a way of crossing your path with someone in desperate need of that word you chose to say just that day.

God bless my friend who casually took my hurricane off my hands this morning. I, too, want to train my eyes to see more of these opportunities around me.

June 10, 2013

A Stiff Upper Lip

With the original Antiques Roadshow on the "telly", I end my day as it began, with British accents.

My daughter started soccer camp this morning. As we stood in the group to register her, she informed the coach (unasked) that her name started with a Z. "Zed," he corrected. "No, Z!" she insisted. I intervened to tell her it was called zed in England.

Once she got her size 3 ball (over her protests that she should have a size 4 ball since she is 4), she ran off with a friend and began running, kicking, hollering and having a grand time that had nothing to do with the coaches and group of older kids who were doing warming up routines.

I wondered if I ought to clue in the coaches that she had gone rogue. I kept an eye on the time and tried to tamp down on rising bubbles of angst that rules were being ignored. I told myself that others would need to forge their own relationships with my daughter, for good or for ill. I reasoned with my emotion that we signed her up for the camp to burn energy; playing with a friend was still accomplishing that purpose.

Once all kids were registered, all shirts and balls handed out, the program began. My girl did have a coach who worked wonderfully with her, despite her asking right off the bat why he was wearing jewelry in his nose. Her interest waned right around the one hour end time, which was perfect. We'll go back every morning this week, and I have hopes she might even use her feet more than her hands in handling the ball. The world didn't end because I didn't intervene.

I'm trying to apply that same lesson in my own life right now. Following soccer camp was a consult meeting so I could gain needed information. In the next two weeks, I need to expand a written article (on the oh-so-approachable topic of electrical & construction documentation) by 200-400%.

The feeling of "I have no idea how I'm going to do this" is becoming familiar.

I'm trying to remind myself that many things I worry about never happen. When I question whether I should step in to control or direct things, more often than not the answer is "no". When I grasp for hard facts and figures, I'm trying to predict or ensure a certain outcome.

I'm trying to remember that the whole reason I began freelancing was to become a better writer. No matter how the article turns out (or how long it takes me to write a piece), that goal is being met.

The world won't end when I don't have all the answers.

June 06, 2013

Too Much Manna

I realized something this morning as I was lying in bed, trying to wake my brain up so it could keep pace with my kids, who were up at 7.

I get tired of manna.

In Exodus, the Israelites finally leave Egypt with a bang (Ten Commandments and all that, though I don't think Moses had a voice like Charlton Heston). They get out in the desert--and start worrying about how they'll be fed. Food for thousands of people isn't easily come by on the Sinai peninsula. God's response was to send manna. The Hebrew is manhu, which means "What is it?" That's a word picture that makes me smile, just thinking of someone exiting their tent in the morning, seeing a nearby bush or the ground, a puzzled expression, and: "Manhu?" God provided food out of nowhere, and he did it for forty years. Initial gratitude turned to discontent and complaining, and manna wasn't enough anymore.

Things I have longed for and delighted in become monotonous.

The never-ending nature of so much of being at home full time can be draining. Though you finish all laundry (perhaps even get it all folded and put away), there will be more laundry to do by bedtime--and something "done" turns back into a "to do". It can be hard to motivate yourself to give your best when your investment has little to no bearing on how it's received, such as spending hours in the kitchen to make a new meal--and most family members turn up their noses, leave food on their plates, and leave to go play. I have news for you: telling myself that God loves a cheerful spirit doesn't make me feel better about clearing everything off the table, wrapping up leftovers, and cleaning the kitchen from the meal preparation. A few friends have had kid-free days this week because of summer camp or grandparent visits, and they've remarked on how CLEAN the house remains without kids in the mix.

Too often I look at my daily struggles, the bread of my existence, and tell God I want something different.

I'm tired of manna.

I won't go into the exchange God and the Israelites had about meat, which got heated, but I do want to think about abiding in this situation. Abiding, remaining, being present.

In so many other areas of life, staying in something until it gets boring is actually where the meat begins. Anyone can be pleasant in a relationship for a day or two here or there; the meat of knowing another person is enough time and enough overlap for their foibles to run into yours. Parenting a baby or small child is usually easy for an hour here or there. That's not where I learn the most about myself and my kids. I learn the most during mile 12 of 26: waking at 3 a.m. to hear sounds of throwing up and knowing you're the one on-call; grasping at relaxation techniques as we enter hour 2 of the stand-off at the dinner table, knowing I can't cave and I can't kill my child, either!

The biggest return on investment in life comes when the investment starts to go south, because that's when MY character is revealed. Do I pick something shiny and new and exciting, abandoning a path that's gotten hard? Or do I choose to stay present, sincerely believing that the view from the summit will only get better as the incline gets steeper?

I've thought this morning that I'm tired of manna, but maybe that manna is actually the meat I've wanted all along.

June 05, 2013

Reading Choices

Almost every time I visit a library, I emerge with an armful of books. Books I saw and felt I 'should' read, books that seduced me from an end cap stance, books by authors friends vowed I would love... I feel at home with books.

At the same time, I do not become friends with all books I encounter. In high school, I started reading Grisham's A Time to Kill. The opening scene revolted me enough that I put the book down and didn't pick it up again for 6 months. I had never done that before: chose to sever my relationship with a story and resume it (or not) when I chose.

My senior year in high school I decided so calmly, so naively, to work my way through a typed list of "Classics Every College-Bound Senior Should Read". Not even half-way through the list, I hit Voltaire's Candide. Mid-story, I thought to myself how stupid and irritating the main character was, then had a bedrock thought: Just because someone else considers a book a classic doesn't mean I have to read it. This thought was wonderfully freeing, and I have referenced it again and again.

When my husband came to bed shortly after we married and found me bawling over an inspirational fiction work, he asked me what was wrong. Between sobs, I explained the character's arc that caused my tears. I'll never forget his expression of incredulity as he asked, "All of that happened in one book?!" It pulled my emotions to a screeching halt, and I haven't been able to read that author since, because my mate was right. So much tragedy in such a short time is only credible if you're telling the story of Job.

The book I'm reading right now is another in my list of "I may not finish this" books. I liked the author's prior book (both are memoir-style), but this one is describing choices and character plunges that are hard to read. I don't feel pity or condescension for her, since some choices I've made are of similar shades. I think it's more that calmly reading such choices and continuing on makes me feel complicit or enabling of those choices. I haven't decided whether to finish the story, skim it to get just the gist without all the gritty mess (my psyche feels dragged through others' gutters when I read through too much; it's why I don't ever see myself reading Room, etc.), or return it to the library unread.

Here's something not many bibliophiles discuss: it's OK not to like books. I don't admire someone who loves every single book they encounter without discrimination, any more than I would admire someone who eats every bit of food they find and insists it all tastes good. Lack of discernment is never a positive thing. Despite rave reviews from many people I trust, I have never read any Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Cather, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Plato, Euripides, Salinger, or many other 'classic' authors. (Please note that my life has, amazingly, not ceased to exist on account of this.)

In Louisa May Alcott's book Rose in Bloom, Uncle Alex tells his teen-aged ward, Rose, "Finish [the book] if you choose--only remember, my girl, that one may read at forty what is unsafe at twenty, and that we never can be too careful what food we give that precious yet perilous thing called imagination." Though closer to forty now than twenty, I still try to weigh the food I give my mind. Not all of what's available is good for it. I still carry within me struggles that are legacies of unwise choices I made in reading decades ago. There are books I might like to read (like GRRM's massive Fire & Ice series) that I know are unsafe for me. There are some I can read that are perhaps unsafe for another person.

I hope you've been lucky enough to find a book (or books) that you love, that help you hear the siren song of who you are meant to be more clearly. If you do read, one way to know where your heart resides is to look at what you re-read. Most writers speak more about what they read (and re-read and re-read) than they do about what they write.

I've resisted setting aside my current book because it's teaching me something I don't already know (who doesn't want to learn the fine art of butchering?); my heart, though, is anxious about what relational messes it could be dragged through to gain that knowledge. Just writing this out, getting the words on the page, helps me see that for now, finishing the book isn't worth it.

Maybe I'll finish it when I'm sixty.

June 04, 2013

Let Him Dream

We signed up for our local summer reading program yesterday. The library was a melee of kids, books, herds of eager desire surrounding the iPads (our library has a few of these for patrons to use), and understanding smiles from adults.

Our family is comprised of readers. When I was expecting our first child, I worried what I would do if he or she didn't like to read. I shared my fear tentatively with a co-worker, and he reassured me with a smile that our kids would tend to be interested in what they saw their parents doing. Were time travel in my power, Nick, I'd come back and agree with you! Particularly since that child's first word was 'book'.

One child is in the grade school reading program, one in the preschool program, and mom in the adult reading program. Three methods of record-keeping and three systems of getting 'prizes' for reading. I don't know how non-administrative moms do this, frankly. It could drive ME nuts. The grand prizes in the grade school program are an American Girl Doll (for the girls) and a Star Wars Lego set (for the boys).

A fire has been ignited in my son's soul.

Because he, too, is an ordered soul, he has taken a timer to the couch in the living room and times how long he reads his various books to himself. He logged 3 hours, 15 minutes and 14 seconds yesterday, went to bed, and went back at it at 6:30 this morning. He stops after every 15 minute chunk of time and colors in another space on his reading log sheet. He told me last night that he wants to turn in 38 sheets by the end of the reading program, which would represent 190 hours of reading.

I adore him for attacking reading so thoroughly, but my maternal instinct is tingling. I don't think he's ever been part of a drawing before. We explained that each completed sheet means he can put a slip with his name in for the drawing, but that only ONE person out of all those names will win the set. Despite the explanations, I still think there might be tears if the one name isn't his. -His odds will certainly be higher if his name is in the drawing 38 times; I just wonder if I should be doing more to press the understanding of probability in this.

Then I remember my baby brother.

My senior year of high school as I pondered colleges and majors, I asked my 6th grade brother what he wanted to be when he grew up. "A professional football player," he replied.
"No, Dan, seriously; what do you want to be?"
"A professional football player."
"Dan, you know the odds against that happening, of having the skill and ability to succeed at even a college level, let alone a professional level! There really isn't a chance of you playing professional football."

I've never forgotten his response: "I'm a sixth-grader, Suze. Let me dream."

So often I seek to protect my kids from the
unkind bumps and bruises of life. If I'm not careful, I will also strip them of chances to soar, to hope, to dream, just because I don't want them to risk falling. Does my boy look statistically likely to win a Lego set for reading? No. Will life continue if he doesn't win it? Yes. Will he have a good summer of excitement and anticipation for reading, even if he doesn't win the set? I think so, yes.

I need to let him dream.

June 01, 2013

Head Above Water

We had a downpour last weekend, and our basement subsequently took on water. This doesn't happen often, and there's usually a good reason: a sump pump died, the city storm drains filled and backed up, or the ground water level is high enough that water wells up through any crack in the floor.

After a trip to the home improvement store, my husband returned with rolls of drainage tile, landscape fabric, and specialty plastic-y things. This weekend was going to be several days of breaking up concrete around the basement's perimeter, laying in drainage tile and gravel, then pouring new concrete. The jackhammer and concrete saw were arranged, we were ready to buy 40 bags of quik-crete (which would only be half of what's needed, we think)--then we saw the forecast for the weekend. 50-60% of rain for last night and much of today.

So... no basement tiling this weekend. My husband is disappointed. He was looking forward to the constructive work, solving the problem, and getting closer to using our basement space for our ever-more-energetic kids.

I like that we're willing to undertake something substantial in a short time frame. What I like more is that, even when moving forward at full speed, we can still decide the wiser choice is to wait a bit longer. Frustrating, yes, but it also means we aren't willfully blind about problems.

The basement needs to be fixed, and we have most of the supplies to do it; we're even willing and able to do it. We just need to wait a few weeks for the ground to dry out more.

I'm sorry you're stuck waiting, though, love of my life; I know the hurry up and wait is frustrating.