First, there is no way to entertain yourself when you have shingles. You are so fatigued, you spend a lot of time in bed or sitting in your husband’s chair in his room pretending his Wall Street Journal is interesting. You don’t realize how desperate you are for diversion until you go to the doctor.
You dress gingerly in a loose thin knit skirt and a top that doesn’t match. So what, it’s not a fashion show. You walk funny because the hip flexor nerve is affected but at this point, you don’t give a rip. You prepare for a long wait at the doctor’s office with the really good novel you’re reading, your ever-present notebook, and Nestle’s crunch Easter eggs in your purse. But once you get in there, you realize there are actual people in the world and a great big stack of People magazines. You pick up the weight-loss issue, hoping to feel better by reading about people who weigh eight hundred pounds and who probably stuff an entire Easter basket in their purse.
And then the parade begins and you forget all about your really good novel and page through People as you watch and listen. A very frail old woman comes out and tells her waiting husband and the clerk, whose name is Tammy and who calls everybody “hon,” that she doesn’t have to be seen for three months. She says this with an air of triumph, as if she’s completed a marathon. She wears the typical old lady going-to-the-doctor outfit: Alfred Dunner pants and a sweater even though it’s almost 90 outside. Very thick-soled black Reeboks. She walks with a cane, small shuffling steps but her demeanor never falters. She carries a two-year-old Vera Bradley purse that doesn’t match her outfit but Vera Bradley purses never match anyone’s outfit. Yours certainly doesn’t.
She tells Tammy she’s been keeping her in her prayers and also Tammy’s daughter, what’s her name again? Tammy thanks her and tells the woman her daughter’s name. “I’ll remember her in my prayers,” the old woman says. Then she asks everyone how their Easter was. Hers was very nice. You have forgotten how people can be, the older ones, the good church ladies who don’t cram their religion down everyone’s throats but live it simply and daily. As she walks out with her husband, the woman says, shuffling carefully over the flat-pile carpet, “I wish we had this carpet in our house. I wouldn’t trip so much.”
You watch her leave and think that woman never trips, every step in her life is sure and steady, and suddenly you wish you knew her. She would be the perfect grandmother, the kind who would keep you in her prayers, she’d just add you to her list. You’d probably have to repeat your name. Maybe spell it for her. You even consider asking Tammy who the woman is, what’s her address, you’d like to send her a card. You bet she has wonderful stories, her and her husband both, and you could spend time in her kitchen, eating cookies and listening to them. But if you asked that, Tammy would scan your chart, realize you are a lunatic and tell you to find another doctor.
Next to come in is a man pushing an even older, frailer woman in a wheelchair. He has trouble with the door and you jump up to help him but aren’t much use. You were too busy reading about weight-loss success stories to reach the door fast enough. The man is obviously the woman’s son. She doesn’t speak. Tammy yells, “You got a birthday coming up soon, don’t you, hon?” The woman says nothing. Her son says, “Lessee, today’s around April 25. When’s your birthday, Mama?” “May 15,” the woman says. Then she adds, “I’ve been here before, haven’t I?”
A woman about your age comes in next. She doesn’t have an appointment, but just stopped by to tell Tammy she’s filing for divorce next Monday. You bend your ears as the woman lowers her voice. You get up and move closer. Tammy asked the woman who her attorney is. The woman says, “Twenty-six years. It’s been coming. I just didn’t want to see it.” You think about the couple that just left–both of them with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, but they are still together.
Then, to your dismay, it’s your turn. The nurse weighs you. You close your eyes as she slides the weight-thing toward the right, more, more, Lord will the damn thing ever come to a stop. After reading about all those success stories in People you don’t want to know the final number and you think you might jettison those Nestle crunch eggs. Maybe not. After all, you do have shingles.
The doctor examines you. You have no rash. You tell her to check your chart for 2006–you had shingles then, too, and one teeny weeny rash blister that looked like a flea bite but the pain was so bad you had to go to the emergency room and get a CT scan because you thought you had a kidney stone. No, it was “just” shingles, for the second time. And now you have it a third time. Forget those lies about not getting shingles again after you’ve had it or getting it on the same side again because when it’s the third time you’ve run out of sides and it has to land somewhere.
“I don’t see a rash,” the doctor tells you but writes the prescription anyway.
“You won’t see a rash,” you tell her again. “I have invisible shingles. Trust me, I have all the rest of the symptoms.”
When you leave, you look around the empty doctor’s office. It didn’t matter the doctor couldn’t see your shingles. You saw plenty.
I dream in the Language of Houses, most nights roaming the rooms of my youth. Just last night I dreamed I was rummaging through my childhood closet, looking for a formal to wear to my fortieth high school reunion. All I found was a starchy short wedding dress. [At the moment I have shingles and loose, non-scratchy clothes are my first priority, even before half-price Easter candy.]
I revisit those cool, dark wood-worked rooms, my footsteps loud on hardwood floors. But I never dream about the house I was born in. The brick house my father built for us, back when we were a family.
I often ask my sister to tell me about that house when she’s doing my hair. She’ll run the comb through my hair and tell me the story of Daddy’s dream house.
Built in late ’51, ours was one of nicest houses in Manassas. The finished basement was very mid-century modern. A stone hearth flanked one entire wall of the paneled rec room. My father crafted a leather bar (his first priority). There was a built-in aquarium and a built-in TV set that didn’t work very well, but still, at TV in the basement! My mother washed clothes in a separate laundry room, next to my father’s office. My sister roller-skated around the steps.
Upstairs were two more television sets, one in the living room and one in the master bedroom, unheard-of luxuries in those days. Unlike most post-war houses, our house had two bathrooms and two extra bedrooms . . . one waiting for my arrival. The new furniture came from Washington, D.C. The dining room set was Duncan Phyfe. Two screened-in porches were furnished with gliders. My father built a patio and a large brick barbeque in the back yard.
Not long after I was born we “lost” the house, which always sounded so odd to me. How could you lose anything as big as a house? We moved to a little white house behind the brick house that my father also built. The little white house didn’t have any of the nice features of the big brick house. We lost that house, too, because Daddy left us, and we had to move into my aunt’s house, right next door to the big brick house.
My mother, my sister, and I camped out in a small bedroom. From my crib, I could look out the window and see our house. See it wasn’t lost after all, but occupied by another family. Some other little girl slept in my sister’s room. Some other little girl rocked on the porch glider. Some other little girl roller-skated around the basement steps.
After my mother re-married and we moved to Fairfax, we often visited my mother’s family in nearby Manassas. I’d play with my cousins who now shared the bedroom I once slept in. Sometimes I’d look over at our old house. It seemed hard to believe we had ever lived there. Once, my cousin and I found a plaque hidden in the juniper in front of the brick house, a black metal sailboat inscribed FARRIS. My name. I felt like an archeologist uncovering my own past.
Last week I went to Manassas alone for the first time in many years. I drove past the shopping center once anchored on one end by the A&P, Peebles Department Store on the other end, and Woolworth’s in the middle. I drove past a vacant lot that triggered pink-scented memories of mimosa trees festooned with ballerina blossoms.
I parked my car in the vacant lot. My father’s house was just across the street. It has been occupied by two men the last thirty years or so and they have clearly stamped their mark in this starchy, conservative town. White-painted bicycles and pipes bloom from thick ground cover, a whimsical wedding stage.
I walked through the opening in the privacy fence. The owners were home; their car was in the driveway. This time I wasn’t trespassing or my usual nosy self. I had to see my old house. I had a right to see it.
It wasn’t anything like I remembered or my sister described. The patio had been ripped up, the stately barbeque torn down. Strange statuary and whirligigs gave the place a down-the-rabbit-hole atmosphere. There is a bed in the back yard. Considering how my father behaved, a bed in the back yard wasn’t so weird after all.
I left, dazed and disoriented. I had come poking around for scraps of my past. But I couldn’t find myself here. I glanced quickly away from my aunt’s house next door, fearing a part of me might still be trapped in that cramped bedroom.
On my way out of town, I stopped on Prescott Avenue, a street that has changed very little from the fifties. My grandfather’s house is still there. And my other aunt’s house is still next door. As a kid, I used to stand on the sidewalk between those houses and gaze across the street, lifting my sight beyond another vacant lot to a clutch of bungalows on the next block. My mother and father had lived in the small stone “starter” house when they were first married. My sister was born in that house. But that was all long before my time.
I sat in my car a few minutes, waiting for my younger self to show up. She did. Skinny and crooked-toothed, she stood on the sidewalk in front of her grandfather’s house and looked right through the apartment house now planted on the vacant lot where she’d once picked wild violets. She stared at a revival tent going up. Dying of curiosity, she asked her mother if she could go over and see the show. Her mother said no. Those people were different from us, her mother added, giving one of her unsatisfactory half-answers that may have led her daughter to become a writer.
The revival people couldn’t have been any more different than we were, my grown-up self chimed in. Once, we were the show and all of Manassas was the audience.
If we weren’t a bird-nursery, I would be fixing up our porch to look like it did last year, as in these photos I’ve re-posted. I may still fill containers with petunias and geraniums and set them by the garage until our tenants have vacated.
Meanwhile, yesterday I heard the doorbell ring! I stomped downstairs and there on the porch stood somebody who wanted to pave our driveway. They had ducked under the string.
Me: Didn’t you read the sign?
Driveway Person: Yeah. I looked around and didn’t see no nest.
Me: Did you think it would be sitting on the empty porch floor? It’s on the door, this door that I have to open because you rang the bell.
Needless to say, we did not get our driveway paved. I need to put up a bigger, clearer sign that spells out to stay off the porch because there is a bird nesting on the front door.
However, I did peek into the nest. Mrs. Single-Mother Chipping Sparrow has shifted her eggs all in a neat clutch. I suspect she turns them. I’m figuring 7 or 8 days before they hatch.
The weather is finally warm enough for me to dress our porch. Earlier this month I hung a spring wreath on the front door, brought the porch rabbits from the garage and planted pots of violets and Johnny-jump-ups. Now it’s time for the porch to get ready for summer. It’s a good day’s work to wash the floor, chairs and table, tie cushions in the chairs, plump pillows in the pink swing and shabby green rocker, bring out the vintage Pepsi crate, watering can, milk bottle rack filled with old soda bottles, and old roller skates. I plant pots of petunias, begonias, geraniums in salmon pink and white, my signature colors. And when it’s done I sit on my porch, eat lunch, people-watch, and read.
But not this year.
For the next month or so, our porch is off-limits. A chipping sparrow has built a nest in the wreath hanging on the front door. I saw the bird weeks ago flying out of the wreath and figured she was house-hunting, but decided that wasn’t a suitable spot since we go in and out of the door. Last weekend, my husband told me to come look, we have a nest in the wreath. A nest! How could that be? I’m the family bird-watcher, the one who can identify birds without my glasses by their silhouette, calls, and behavior.
Well, I big fat missed this bird that built her nest right under my nose.
The nest is deep and sweetly lined with yarn and hair. Four blue eggs speckled with brown lay in the hollow. A fifth egg lays smashed on the welcome mat below. Did she determine it was defective and push it out of the nest?
I put a sign on the inside of the door so I wouldn’t open it by mistake. (Though I am dying to peek.)
Generally we have very little company. More like no company. Only the UPS man stomping up on the porch to leave an Amazon box. But last week people streamed on our porch like ants at a picnic. Kids looking for a lost bike. Our tax man. The same kids looking for what they believed was a stolen bike. The mail man. The UPS man. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Our normally quiet porch teemed with more people than extras in “The Ten Commandments.”
My husband roped off the porch and I hung another sign.
The chipping sparrow, a drab plain bird, flits out of the nest the instant anyone rounds the corner. I haven’t seen Mr. Chipping Sparrow and suspect she is a single mother. She will sit on the eggs for about two weeks until they hatch. Then it will be several more weeks of tending the babies and waiting for them to fledge.
The only one with access to the porch is Persnickety. She seems oblivious to the activity in the wreath above her head. She’s stone-deaf and won’t hear the cheeping babies.
And so we wait until we can take our porch back. Meanwhile, I’ll report on the progress of the Ransom Nursery.
Everybody knows writers are shameless eavesdroppers. It’s in our job description. I usually choose places to eat based on eavesdropping potential. Chain restaurants like Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesday, etc. are filled with boring people staring at their cell phones and desultorily discussing Haylee’s soccer game. You want to go to eating establishments where the tattooed woman in the booth behind you says to her girlfriend, “You know my brother? The one that robbed the 7-Eleven?”
But even I sometimes pick the wrong place to sit. Friday we went to Captain D’s, where everything but the napkins are fried and the patrons are suitably greased up to gossip. I batted around the room trying to find an empty booth with maximum eavesdropping probability. But it was noon-time busy and we wound up sitting around a bunch of men talking about cars. On our way out I spotted a table with an aging biker type, an old man with an unusually small head, and two raucus women. They seemed to be having a high old time.
“We should have sat next to them!” I said to my husband as I threw my trash away and tried not to calculate the calories in the chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate sprinkles I had on top of fried fish, French fries, hush puppies, and the fried cracklin’s lining the basket. I hated missing a good eavesdropping opportunity, but I knew I’d make up for it later when I went on a little trespassing trip.
When I was a kid, I trespassed every chance I got, though back then I called it “exploring.” I was (and am) incurably curious (also known as “nosy”) and because I was generally well-behaved and quiet, people didn’t notice when I slipped out of the room to peruse the contents of their medicine cabinets.
I was drawn to abandoned places, mostly falling-down houses in the woods. But also barns, sheds, outhouses, pig pens–if it was empty and run-down, I wanted to explore it. One of my adventures took me to an old chicken coop. The floor was layered with hundreds of black-and-white photographs. I remember a picture taken at night of a skunk startled by the flashbulb. The amateur photographer must have used the chicken coop as a darkroom.
In the interest of devoting more energy to my work, I’ve taken up exploring again, only my husband calls it trespassing. Whatever. Spring is a good time to go trespassing. The bushes and briars aren’t fully grown yet and you won’t come home with your socks and pants legs covered with beggar’s lice and stick-tights.
But trespassing at age fifty-eight isn’t the same as it was at age ten. In case you want to take up nosing around as a hobby, you might want to follow these rules:
1. Be as inconspicuous as possible. It’s one thing to see a young guy or girl ambling along in jeans, a hoodie, and earbuds–they blend in with the landscape in a hip-Jack-Kerouac sort of way. It’s quite another to see a middle-aged broad in Easy Spirit tennies, a pink sweater, and a pink and green Vera Bradley purse jumping ditches, scrambling up steep banks, and edging along busy roadsides.
2. Never interact with the occupants. Some of the most promising trespassing sites are, unfortunately, still inhabited. The other day I went to great trouble to reach a house that seemed to have another entire household on its front porch. I was all set to snap pictures and take notes when an old man came swooshing by on his John Deere lawn tractor. He stared at me standing in his driveway and I rummaged my brain for excuses. I considered telling him I was a really late census-taker. I didn’t happen to have any religious tracts to press into his hand. I could have said I was taking pictures for the newspaper, but my puny Sony Cybershot was a dead giveaway. Unable to justify my large pink-and-green presence, I just left.
I wandered around a nearby abandoned property instead, ignoring the No Trespassing warnings. Those signs are posted for other people, not us. In the back yard I found a lilac bush. Such a waste, those beautiful blooms purpling the April air and no one to enjoy them
I’ve added “petty thief” to my job description.
I’m tired of our sofa. Fifteen years ago it was exactly what I wanted, a cheery blue and cream plaid with flowered-y pillows (to the uninitiated, “flowered-y” is pronounced “flare-dy.”). Now everyone has white linen down-cushioned sofas. I decided to slipcover ours to give it that rumpled we’re-too-hip-for-our-furniture look.
I took myself to Bed, Bath & Beyond, coupon in hand, and picked out a linen slipcover that would fit the contours and particulars of our sofa (most notably, a skirt that goes to the floor–we have another house under our couch). At home I took it out of the package. The directions basically said, “Take slipcover out of package. Spend the next three hours wrestling with yards and yards of linen and turning the air blue with swear words. Give up because your sofa will look like you threw a car cover over it instead of the nice, neat, tailored sofa we show in the picture.”
The directions were almost right. Our sofa looked more like it was owned by someone who once wore fringe and lived in an orange and purple VW bus.
Back the slipcover went to Bed, Bath & Most of the Stuff in This Store is Beyond Me. I was still dissatisfied with my den. The Michael Hague plates had been hanging on the wall for a hundred years. I was tired of them, too. When I took the plates down, I now had a blank canvas (actually only half a wall). I decided to play museum curator and create an installation.
At Hobby Lobby I bought two black wood shelves, half price (almost everything in Hobby Lobby is half price. What do things really cost?) My husband put them up with only a little grumbling:
Him: Why do you have to change things all the time? Just last week you wanted to rip a perfectly good medicine cabinet out of the wall.
Me: It’s ugly. When you said we couldn’t find a new medicine cabinet to fit, I was going to hang a picture over the hole.
Him: And what about that dining room chandelier you wanted to paint white and hang over the bathtub?
Me: It would’ ve looked great, but, noooo, you wouldn’t take out the fan. Bring the bottom shelf more to the left.
Next I went shopping in my house. I pulled together my scattered vintage camera collection and some black and white photographs. This will the Moment in Time wall, I thought. It will represent my new focus in photography, stories, all things vintage.
I didn’t have enough cameras so I went junkin’ downtown and came back with that wonderful old black clock, a 1932 movie camera in the original case, and an early 1930s Kodak vest-pocket camera from the “Rainbow” series. Mine has most of its original green paint. Then I traipsed back to Hobby Lobby because their picture frames are half price.
The above photo shows the finished “exhibition.” The movie camera and a box camera are on a stack of vintage suitcases (five) that hold photo albums, scrapbooks, and DVDs. I love the movie camera for its industrial simplicity, its weight, and the knowledge it once spooled flickering home movies to an awestruck audience.
On the top shelf is a camera with a flash attachment. My sister gave that to me for my birthday last year. It came in the original box and the registry card is dated July 10, 1962, my tenth birthday. The Lucite-framed photograph has a refractive surface, like the games we often got in bubblegum machines, so movie star Lenore Dumont winks and smiles . . . or not, depending on how you move it.
Above on the left is a picture of a young girl holding a Persian cat. I found this photo, along with other photographs, letters, invitations, RSVP cards, and a homemade “mood” sign that must have hung in her room in camp, all belonging to Nancy of Westchester, Pennsylvania, in a dusty box on the floor of an antique shop. I couldn’t bear that her life was tossed away like trash and bought the whole collection. This moment, frozen in time, makes me smile every day.
This table is part of the Moment in Time wall, too. I found photos of my husband as a child and reframed them. The one of him on a tricycle came in that Art Deco photographer’s frame. Thirty years ago, I took the photo out and put it in a wooden frame. [Smacks forehead.] How could I not see that picture belonged in that frame?
If you’re tired of a room, why not clear a table or a corner and install your own museum exhibition? Go shopping in your house. Bring things from other rooms. Dig stuff out of storage. Reframe photographs. Pay tribute to your family, to your love of gardens or architecture or travel, to yourself. Let the table or corner tell a story.
My sofa is still miffed at me. I must write it a letter of apology. Or send it a bouquet of flowerd-y pillows.
Hollins University has so many wonderful student traditions, particularly for the seniors. I’ve often wished I had gotten my undergraduate degree there.
But I never got an undergraduate degree. I skipped that part. Most of my life has been lived out of sequence–I went to “real” school for the first time at age 50. When I was 52, I earned my MFA in writing for children at Vermont College. Then I spun around and went to Hollins for my MA in children’s literature (the degree I wanted for myself), graduating in 2007. In 2008, I marched with some members of my class in the graduation ceremony, and began teaching in the MA/MFA children’s literature program a month later. Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind.
And now I’ve been asked to be the Founder’s Day speaker in 2012. The ceremony celebrates the founder of Hollins, Charles Lewis Cocke, who, in 1857, said that, “young women require the same thorough and rigid mental training as that afforded to young men.” Seniors wear robes of their own design and process up the hill to the cemetery where they lay a wreath.
Then they walk back down the hill and into the duPont Chapel where other students, members of the faculty, members of the Board of Trustees, President Nancy Oliver Gray will be waiting. And me, dressed in a black robe with black velvet insets and one of those funny velvet squashy hats.
I will be speaking about Margaret Wise Brown, famous Hollins alumna, and my research on Margaret for a book I wrote that did not sell. The experience of writing the book was far more important than having another published book on my shelf. Margaret guided me through an amazing four years. She spoke to me at night before I went to sleep. And when I finally arrived at Hollins as a student, I believed I saw her once.
The day of my speech I’ll meet with students. I can’t wait–I hope they let me sit in on the creative writing classes. After my address, there will be a reception in my honor and then dinner with the Board of Trustees. My husband will be there, too. We’ll need photographic proof I wore that hat!
These are the times I pinch myself, unable to believe that the scrawny-legged girl who carried her stuffed elephant around long past the age where it was cute, who scribbled stories and drew pictures and daydreamed so much in school, her teachers wrote complaints on her report cards, who grew up in the sticks and thought fabulous things only happened to people with money or who were brilliant . . . she will be giving an important speech in a prestigious university.
Mama and Howard . . . if you could see me now.
After a few episodes of acute depression, I took antidepressants for several years and did well. But then something happened: my moods began shifting towards extreme agitation and irritability. If you think you don’t want a diagnosis of chronic depression, you really don’t want to hear you may be manic-depressive. From the beginning, I fought the diagnosis. My symptoms did not match the criteria listed in the DSM-IV (the psychiatrist’s bible).
Yet something was clearly wrong. I began a miserable trek with new medications. Some made me more depressed. Others made me toxic. One pill made me collapse like a cheap cardtable within minutes. At the same time, I was trying to find a doctor who understood me and my particular situation. I finally did. Slowly, carefully, he worked with my medications. Then we began pulling me off unnecessary drugs. One med took two and a half years to come off of.
Eventually my mood was stabilized and I did well for years until I began adding stressors to my life. Back to back residential degrees. Too much long-distance travel alone (particularly flying). Too many book contracts. When things slid out of control, I went to a new doctor for a re-evaluation.
After our four-hour consultation, he did not rifle through his DSM-IV but pulled out a new chart often referred to as the Harvard Mood Spectrum. In this chart, mood disorders are laid out linearly, not as lists of symptoms. At one end is Unipolar (depression). At the other is Bipolar I. In between are all sorts of variations and overlapping. The doctor pointed to where he thought I was. I said hopefully, "I’m closer to the middle! Then that’s not so bad, is it?" No, he said, it wasn’t. But as I left the office, I realized with dismay I was still on the chart.
Anyone on that chart has a tough row to hoe. My doctor believes one out of ten people has some sort of mood disorder, undiagnosed and untreated. These disorders are largely genetic. It wasn’t hard for me to figure out that both my father and my grandmother had what I have. As a child I was labeled "moody" and "sensitive," signposts of what would hit me in my thirties and forties.
Moods are affected by so many events. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder and "agitated depression." This means when my mood surges into overdrive, I become irritated. Snappish. Jagged-feeling. Generally a spell of agitation is followed by a long siege of depression.
October, once my favorite month, signals the beginning of a cyclical downward slog that lasts until New Year’s. The minute I slam the lid on my Christmas decorations, I begin to feel better. Because of my particular circumstances, light therapy does not help. Sometimes when autumn approaches, I think about moving to Florida. But l love the change of seasons. Allergies, depression, and all, I can’t miss spring in Virginia.
Depression is insidious. It sneaks up on you like fog seeping under a doorsill. For me, it’s the black dog that follows me, mostly out of sight, but then suddenly there he is, right on my heels. I have learned to recognize the symptoms. First comes the flat feeling. My voice is less animated, too level. Then I feel I’m on the outside of the world, looking in. This isn’t as frightening as it sounds because it’s such a slow progression. It almost seems natural. Almost.
I begin seeing the world through a gray wash. I talk less. I have trouble getting up in the mornings (though with cats, staying in bed is not an option). Eventually my thoughts are delivered wrapped in cotton. These entries are from my journal in fall 2009, when I was working on Rebel McKenzie Will Never Have Big Hair.
It was mostly a hideous week. I felt terrible, mood scratchy and sinking. But yesterday, the first day I could work on Rebel, I was in a horrible mood. So low I sat at the table and then wandered around the house like a ghost, agitated and gray-feeling.
Friday was a pretty good day, but Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were awful. I didn’t feel well–flat, only "half in this world," tired, unable to concentrate. Yesterday I went to Richmond to have Pat [my sister] do my hair and then we went junkin’. Didn’t buy all that much but I talked and felt better.
The first day of fall. It’s so still and quiet outside. I miss the jangle of birdsong and activity. Fall makes me feel melancholy. I have to take down the summer-themed decorations today and put up Halloween and fall. Sigh.
I’ve learned to ward off some agitation by limited by exposure to social media. When my current project is giving me fits, it does me no good to read about awards and big advances. For the most part, I stay quiet and centered so I can hear myself better. I think my stories are becoming truer since I have cut out much of the clutter.
When the black dog creeps closer, I do the opposite. I get out there. I take small trips. I let other people talk, listen to their stories. I also go where I can find possibilities. A quilt shop with bolts of colorful fabrics. My local scrapbook store with new displays of patterned paper. An art supply store. A junk shop with boxes of dusty empherma. Any place where the possibility of other forms of creativity will stir my soul.
During the ups and downs, I have kept working. It may be a struggle but it’s my struggle. I’ve never missed a deadline and never been anything less than professional. I’ve stopped blaming the world for what I have. Pathology of any sort is no picnic. As my mother said, none of us is getting out of here alive. My illness is no different from any other incurable, but treatable, disease.
Every day I can work and walk by myself, I’m grateful. For the time being, the black dog is far out of sight.
In 1990, about a year after my mother had passed away, I took to my bed. To the average person, I looked fine. I got up every morning, ate a bowl of cereal, went to Jazzercise, came home and did my writing for the day (this was during the many years I had one contract book after another). Then I went to bed for the rest of the day. I lay on my side, knees drawn up in the classic fetal position. I did not watch TV or read. I did not speak.
My husband took over much of the cooking, grocery shopping, laundry, and tried to straighten the house. After my mother’s death, I went on a year-long spending spree. Clothes, dishes, books, stuff. When we ran out of room, the stuff was stacked in piles. We never approached "Hoarders" status, but the clutter was depressing. Worse, we got bugs from the cat food we bought in bulk. [Warning: Keep kibble in plastic buckets–these bugs "ride" in the glue of the cardboard boxes.] I let my husband deal with the bugs and everything else.
Years later I learned I’d had a major depressive episode. It wouldn’t be my last.
Depression runs in my family on both sides. My mother once told me I’d been a "melancholy" teenager and that I took after her mother. I suffered bouts of depression in my early twenties. But The Time I Took to My Bed forced me to realize this was a mood disorder I’d battle the rest of my life. My therapist urged me to take antidepressants–that my brain chemistry couldn’t be fixed by "talking."
The doctor who gave me my first antidepressant didn’t consider I was 93 pounds or that my medication should be titrated upward gradually. I popped my first pill one morning, sat down at the computer, and did not get up until nightfall. Without even stopping to eat, I wrote an entire cookbook. In minute detail I recorded the contents of every drawer, cupboard, and cabinet in my mother’s kitchen (in those days my memory was phenomenal), what and how she cooked, down to her favorite fork, added family stories, and included recipes. I printed and bound ten copies of this masterpiece. My family loved it, so I printed more.
When I look at that cookbook now, I see someone in trouble. I’d been given ten times the dosage of antidepressant I take now, but I wouldn’t learn that until years later, either.
In his harrowing account of clincial depression, Darkness Visible, William Styron describes "dwelling in depression’s dark wood," unable to work. Yet I got up every day, completed my daily writing, then went to bed. How did I manage this (and still manage because my depression is recurrent)? In her book The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Alice Flaherty says, "Melancholic depressions, with their drab meaninglessness, their absence of both joy and sorrow, [may] trigger a search for a framework of words to ward off the emptiness that had pressed in on all sides."
Being depressed and not writing was an option I couldn’t face, much worse than being depressed and writing, even if I only produced drivel. I wrote during those times because I always have, since I was seven. When I became toxic from too much medication, I sat down and typed like a demon, instead of whooping it up in a local bar. Episodes of hypergraphia don’t produce the best material, just a lot of it.
For me, depression isn’t a matter of taking Zoloft or Prozac every day to manage my moods and get on with life. The drugs "fail" after a while, or the side effects become too overwhelming. In 1998 I wrote this in my journal:
I feel boxed in by medications, the crippling side effects, time wasted, hopes raised and dashed, and a health care system that has dropped "care" and become all "system." At the gates of heaven or hell, someone will ask for my insurance card before I enter. Though I have always tried to abide by Thomas Jefferson’s advice, I can’t seem to tie a knot in the rope to hang on much longer.
The most frustrating part of this illness is the inconsistency of the drugs. I feel drugged and loopy, can barely get moving some days. On my last visit I talked to my doctor about peace of mind. He said some people regain it but some never do. He thinks I might be one of the ones who will. Underneath my feet I feel everything I’ve trusted shifting with uncertainty. I stand or sit and wait for it to pass. Sometimes it takes a long while. And sometimes I think this is so hard, it’s hardly worth it.
I’ve had other acute depressive periods, but for the most part my depression is like a black dog that belongs to no one. He trots several paces behind me, sometimes closer, sometimes so far back I can’t see him, but I know he’s there. Several times a year, however, the black dog becomes my constant, unwanted companion.
In the last fifteen years, I’ve learned to deal with the times I walk with the black dog, and still manage to work.
Writing with Depression, Part II, will be posted Thursday.