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we show up for our creative beauty

graffiti painted on a wall that of a village at night,stars and moon overhead, trees in the foreground
Homage to a Starry Night, Santa Monica (flickr)

Good morning, good morning. What’s the day opening up like where you are? Here there’s a chill in the air after a too-hot yesterday, and the birds are still recuperating, I think — I haven’t heard a single one wake up yet. Wait, there they are…

It’s been hard to write recently. I sit down at the desk in the morning and all the words evaporate from my head. I try to sneak up on them, the way you might with a skittish cat or a butterfly or a hummingbird resting at the tip of a bottlebrush tree branch, but they slip away from me as soon as I get close enough to see what they might look like. The writing just isn’t coming.

Still, I dutifully show up at the desk most mornings, I sit down with the candle and notebook or this quieted keyboard.  I come down here anyway, even though I’m not feeling the urgency. This is the part about showing up anyway, about being true to the thing in you that’s going to want to sing eventually. I’m not sure what stories or essays are going to want to come next, but I hold the channel open, that’s what someone suggested once: You have to keep the channel open.

I have been feeling very bad about the fact that I’m not “really” writing — developing nothing much new for publication or sharing on this blog, no new submissions, no new words. I rage regularly when listening to the news or reading the paper, but then I show up here at the keyboard in the mornings, and the words slip out from under my fingers, they pull away like a shadow under sunlit scrutiny, they hide under the folds of depression, under the fragments of despair, they leave me to walk in the nightmorning alone. I have been stuck for weeks in the old story, in a painful story, in the story that says I am worthless and nothing I do matters. I have been afraid and lost ever since well before the book came out. And when I’m not writing, I tend to feel even worse about myself. Somedays I come down and just sit in the dark and listen to the nightsounds outside, watch the candle, some mornings I can just rock in the chair and sip my tea. Then I spend the day beating myself up for not writing.

I read a story this weekend about Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night: apparently people are visiting the MOMA in New York  just to take selfies with the painting, not to look at it. Not to see it. What caught my attention in the piece, though, were Vincent’s words, his hopelessness, how he felt unseen, unwanted, unappreciated as an artist: “One comfort for someone who loves Van Gogh,” the author says, “and can’t see over the crowd’s shoulders and heads is to recall the artist’s deep misery that his work would never be noticed. ‘What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity,’ he despaired, ‘an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and will never have.'”

I thought I should cut those words out and hang them over my desk, to see when I am feeling low, when I am in the dark times, when I am in the trough, to remember how many of us feel this way, and how often.

What am I realizing this morning is that, even though the it’s been hard to create much recently, I have still kept faith with the writing. I have kept to my part in the covenant. Even when depression fills me to the brim, even when I am feeling so hopeless that writing can accomplish anything at all — just look at the world; what can this writing possibly do? — I still get up before the dawn, make my tea, light the candles, and open the notebook to a new page or open a blank notepad document here on the computer. I try again. Maybe this morning will be different. Maybe this morning the words will come.

Sometimes I have to force myself to write my three pages. Sometimes I can’t or won’t even do that. But my body is here. The channel is open. I remain faithful to something hopeful in me that wants to be with the words, that trusts they will come back, that still believes in what words can do — for me, and in the world.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been walking with the puppy out by the bay in the mornings after I write. At about 7, she gets up, shakes the sleep off her fur, and walks over to me, leans her head hard into my calves. It’s time, it’s time. So we get ready and go out into the early sunrise. We walk on quiet morning fields, we watch sea lions in the swelling bay water scoop up fish for breakfast, and pelicans land like splashing-down space capsules before gliding off like swans. I move this good body that I have spent so many years beating up. I think about how I’m going to Write More Now Goddamnit. And then I throw the ball again for the puppy, who launches herself up to retrieve it out of the air with so much delight in the Right Now.

I put one foot in front of the other, I keep going, even when everything looks hopeless. And this morning I can recognize the faith inherent in that. the hope there. I can beat myself up for not doing enough, or I can look around the edges of those old voices and see how I have been keeping faith with my creative self, showing up for her even when she is (justifiably) scared that she won’t be listened to or certain that her words won’t do any good — the world is still going to be an awful place when she gets up from the keyboard and blows out the candle. Sure, I think, but somewhere, maybe, there’s someone who wanted companionship in the midst of this awfulness. Somewhere there is a story that wants to live in the world.

We keep going. We show up even when the words are rough going. We show up even when everything tells us not to bother. We show up for truth and our creative beauty even when the world around us looks like all and only devastation.

Thank you, this morning, for the times you take a deep breath and have faith in something tender and necessary: the generosity of your voice, the playfulness your words can bring, the brilliant beauty that wouldn’t exist if you don’t let it emerge through your fingers (and any other creative mode in which you discover beauty and truth). Thank you for your spaciousness with this process, with yourself. Thank you, today, for your words.

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Radical self care as upheaval (part 3) – negotiating depression and its aftermath

(In this series of posts about radical self care and/through major life change, I am finally taking some time to find the words for what I’ve been dealing with over the last month, since the birth of my nephew. I am thinking about how and why we choose to survive and how much effort is involved, how and why we choose to take care of ourselves, and how to allow ourselves to walk with all that life throws at us with even a modicum of grace and celebration.)

(Just a heads-up: there’s some talk in this post about negotiating feelings of suicidality — be easy with yourselves and only read what you want to read, ok?)

And then I slid into a pretty serious depression. I don’t know how much I want to say about that here, except that it was both hormonal and historical — it grew out of the long grief I held about my own loss of motherhood, it grew out of shame I felt around my failures as a writer and facilitator and woman, it grew out of sorrow at how long it took for either my sister or I to become parents — all the work we had to do just to survive long enough for our soul’s to heal enough that we could imagine cradling another’s spirit with any determination or self-assurance, how unfair what our stepfather did was. It seems an understatement: unfair. Of course it is. And it’s true.

And then, too, I was dealing with hormonal shifts, a depression that I fall into for about two weeks a month, every month. I cried and cried, every day, for two weeks. I fell deeper and deeper into this depression, so far in that I started to get scared — what was the point of anything, anyway? What difference would it really make if my nephew didn’t have this aunt? It’s not like he would remember me — and I didn’t have anything really to pass on to him anyway, did I? Wasn’t everyone showing me that — the fact that I couldn’t get anyone to sign up for my writing groups meant that I didn’t really have anything to share. (I offer these as examples of what’s going on for me when I’m thick in the throes of depression — not because I really believe that they’re true or because I need them to be negated here.) The scary voice in me that sounds like despair and loss and nihilism took over; I couldn’t self-talk my way out of its arguments, I wasn’t telling anyone what I was going through, and I wasn’t doing the sort of writing that will often help me notice and shift this sort of struggle.

I didn’t see how it could ever be possible for me to live the sort of life I’d always imagined sharing with a child in some way: a life that looked an awful lot like the one I had as a very little girl living in the country in Nebraska (and that I tried to recreate in Maine) — a small life in a house with a big garden; bread rising in the kitchen; sprouts growing on the kitchen window; herbs drying from the rafters; pantry filled with jars of flours, seeds, nuts, spices; long walks through the garden and the surrounding fields or woods, talking about the plants that grew and what work they did in the earth, what work they did in our bodies;  hours every day spent in physical labor; hours spent writing; hours spent walking and reading — I imagined being an adult who knew about the earth, about our environment, and getting to pass on that learning to the child/ren in my life. And then that all fell apart, and I came to the city, and I would never have a child anyway, so what difference would it make if I never learned the names or the gifts of the plants that grew in this new place I now inhabited? What difference would it make if I never lived that long-held dream? I thought about how I wouldn’t ever really be free from what I’d been through, how it would always be with me, and how I couldn’t protect this new child from all the evils this world has to offer.

I knew that the depression was hormonal, but that knowing doesn’t really help — you can’t think your way out of depression, can you? In fact, knowing sometimes makes it worse; I’m thinking to myself, Jesus, pull it together, this is just hormones. And then, because I still feed bad, I become further depressed that I can’t talk my way, can’t rationalize my way, out of this feeling, can’t (at least, all alone) cognitively-behaviorize my way back to wellness.

I put on as good a face as I could for those around me, even when I talked, finally, about how sad and low I was feeling. And when I began to bleed, and the depression abated, I felt relief — and I felt really scared. What if that low came back? I thought about folks who survive horrors, who live a long time with the aftermath, and then kill themselves after twenty or so years after, who looked like they made it, and then suddenly got taken down by history, or by the long and awful work of living in the aftermath of what they’d survived.

I’m talking about this here for a reason: because so many of us struggle with depression, with these voices inside telling us that we’re worthless and that nothing will ever get better, and yet we feel profoundly isolated when we’re in the grip of this feeling. It seems like no one will understand us, no one will want to hear what we’re feeling, no one else has felt as bad as we are feeling. I want to undermine this experience of isolation. I want you to know you’re not alone in feeling these things, just as I’m reminded that I’m not alone whenever I talk to anyone else about depression.

I didn’t bounce into buoyancy, as I often do when the hormones shift. I felt better, but I also felt subdued — I needed help. I didn’t want the depression to fall on me like that again. Because I can’t really afford to go to an herbalist or a physician right now, I went to the internet, and found some ideas for dietary changes and supplements that folks use to mitigate the intensity of PMS or PMDD, and I am trying those now. Suddenly, I’m one of those people with a handful of pills they swallow every morning (thanks to an amazon gift certificate I got for my birthday). Suddenly I am thinking again (link here) about how to prioritize my own wellness. Suddenly I am wondering what it would look like to really take care of myself first, to put my health and wellness at the top of my priority list. Suddenly I am looking at food differently — as something that can support not just my physical but also my mental wellness, or something that can cause me mental and psychic harm.

The truth is, I don’t want to die. The truth is, I still have a lot of living and healing I want to do. The truth is, I am scared enough by how I felt last month — at a time when I should have been as happy as I have ever been in my whole life — to make some radical changes in my living.

Why does it have to hit me so hard before I decide it’s acceptable to concentrate on my own wellness, that I deserve help as much as those around me do?

(Tomorrow’s post: Walking along the Möbius of  major life transitions, and allowing ourselves to feel turned inside out as we do so.)

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letting the feeling be a feeling

Good morning, writers. The sun has just pushed, a thick orange plum, over the lip of the Oakland hills. Maybe we’ll warm up a little now. How is the day where you are? What is your morning bringing you?

Today, I am caught on the line, deep in the struggle of trying to pull myself out of a depression. What do you do on the days when you are feeling bad about yourself? How do you treat yourself on the days when the triggers have overridden your coping mechanisms and you slip out of normal functioning for awhile? Do you allow yourself to fall apart a little (or a lot)? Or do you try to stuff everything into the shopping bags you carry around labelled Normal Functioning Adult! and pretend like everything’s fine?

On the days when I get caught in the difficult voices, when my skin feels too sensitive to everything, when all the noises are too loud and the tears live just at the surface of my throat, my initial instinct is always to try and figure it out. This is how the inside interrogation begins: What’s going on, Jen?  — never mind that the voice can sound remarkably like my stepfather’s; now I’m the one keeping me late from school or up without sleep, asking the questions. What’s going on with you? Why are you so upset? When are you going to pull yourself together? I go back through the previous days, recounting my actions and behaviors, trying to pinpoint the moment when everything came apart again, the moment when the clock turned over to 0 and my body broke open to depression again. It’s rare that I can find a single exchange or interaction or trigger point — but that doesn’t stop the inside interrogator from looking, and in trying to escape from the interrogation, I sink deeper and deeper into an inside cave.

The rational parts of me do their best at these times: I remind myself that it’s a feeling, and that feelings are always in motion. There will be another feeling that comes along soon. Depression doesn’t let that message in easy, though, does it? Depression throws a bag over your senses and says, This is how it’s always been and how it always will be. Depression makes it as hard as possible for the self-care voices to get in. Depression is selfish and wants you all for itself. Depression doesn’t ask for much — just that you sit on the couch with your tears and bag of Cheetos and terrible television and beat yourself up for not being out there conquering the world. It wants you to then look at yourself from above and tell yourself how ridiculous and self-indulgent you are — are you crying about that again? When are you going to move on? The voice of depression is rarely kind. We are often meaner to ourselves than anyone else possibly could be.

Trying to “figure it out” is often not the most helpful thing for me to do when I’m feeling this way, though it can take me days to remember that. The inside voices that are demanding an explanation are the same ones that are telling me I’m a failure and a fraud. Among the things I can do for myself on these days are: 1) talking to people about how I’m really feeling, and 2) letting myself feel exactly what I feel. Questioning, interrogating, resisting or critiquing a feeling is rarely useful for me — and yet I have to learn that lesson over and over again. Fortunately, as someone who lives with depression and sorrow, I keep getting opportunities to practice.

Some days are bad days. Some days we are triggered, or angry, or sad, or depressed — or all of the above. We’re not supposed to talk about feeling this way, especially if we work in any sort of helping profession. We’re supposed to have our shit together all the time. But the fact is that we don’t. No one does. Some days are hard. Some days we are lost in the long sorrow that we carry through and into this life. Some days we are devastated by everything all over again, and the walls we have casually built to contain our grief come crumbling down, and we can feel it. We can feel the parts we haven’t mourned or assimilated or processed yet. We can do a little more of the persistent work of survival.

Sometimes I can write into these feelings; sometimes I am not able to — I have to wait until they have abated a bit. Being without words to explain or organize or make sense of a feeling or experience can be quite scary; that’s how I process the world. But there are feelings that just want to be felt, feelings that just ask me to live into them. Yikes. Over and over, life gives me the opportunity to try again: Just feel it, Jen. You’re ok exactly as you are. Let yourself be.

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What would it mean to trust your struggle, as the image above reads? How do you take care of you when you’re hurting or triggered or lost? What do loneliness and depression mean for you, or for your character? Can you give yourself twenty minutes today to write into any of these questions — not to get it all worked out, but just to be present to and with your experience?

Thank you for the ways you are spacious with others when they are hurting — and thank you for the ways you are learning to be spacious with yourself, learning to allow others to be present even when you are feeling the most messy. Thank you, of course, for your words.