Self

Depression, Breathing, and the Path Ahead

When something as significant as depression hits, it ought to be obvious, but frequently it isn’t. Instead I manage to deduce it from outside evidence days or weeks after the mire begins. The trickiest part of mental health is that a flare up actively interferes with my ability to identify and manage the flare up. So it is this morning when I realize it has been four days since I blogged when I blogged almost every day for the month prior. I suppose some of that pause could be the Pandemic settling in and therefore requiring less processing. Yet there are other signs, the day I spent mostly in bed for instance. I am tired. I feel silly for being tired and depressed when my current existence is so close to normal. I have my house. I eat food that is pretty close to what I ate before. I still mail packages when orders come in. The things I can’t do are things which I didn’t do often anyway. Yet the not doing of them seems to accumulate.

Howard’s breathing was bad yesterday. Since his illness in January he’s been on daily asthma medication and taking hits on his inhaler multiple times per day. Some days this regimen puts him in a place where he can do light exercise. Yesterday he got out of breath standing and doing a puzzle. Then sitting and doing a puzzle. We were scheduled for a pulmonary function test in mid March. It got rescheduled for last week. Last week it got rescheduled for June. I know the decision is smart, that we must act as if Howard has not had Covid 19. Because if we stack Covid-19 on top of whatever is going on with his lungs, it would kill him. So taking him to a hospital (which probably has Covid-19 patients in it) for a test is ill-advised. But it means we don’t know what is going on. We have no way to know if it is getting worse or better. We can’t be certain if our treatments are optimal. We can’t even consult with a pulmonologist until May 19. That was the earliest appointment they would give me when I called in early March. I’ve ordered a pulse oxymeter so we can see what his blood oxygen levels are, but that won’t arrive until April 17-29 because Amazon has slowed down deliveries of “non-essentials.” (Or possibly because demand for oxymeters has gone up.) So I stand next to Howard, working on a puzzle together, and I listen when he suddenly takes several extra deep breaths in a row because his body has suddenly realized it needs more air. I wait when he has to pause mid-sentence to breathe and try to remember what he meant to say.

I ran cross country in high school. I was never particularly good at it, but I learned a lot about perseverance from doing it. I learned how to keep going even when I wanted to stop. At the beginning of a race there was something of a rush as people tested their speed and tried to get at the front of the pack. (Or in my case drop to the back.) That first pace was always too fast to maintain over the long run. After the first burst of energy, all the runners would settle in to a slower pace, one that they could keep up for two or three miles. That’s where we are with the pandemic. We’ve had our first month’s sprint where everything is jostling around and shifting. We had to adapt and adapt again to changing circumstances around us. Now events have spread out and it is time to settle into a pace we can maintain over the long haul ahead. The finish line is not even in sight, all we can see is the path ahead. All we can do is take one step after another. I remember settling in at the front end of a long run, feeling my body already start to be tired, yet knowing how much longer I needed to move. It frequently discouraged me to the point where I stopped running and started walking instead. The thing which cross country taught me was how to run when I felt like walking, and how not to defeat myself by letting discouragement win. Time for me to dredge up those lessons again. The path is long and I need to keep moving.

Edited to add: Howard has good breathing days and bad ones. The problem comes and goes. There are still more good days than difficult ones, but we’re tracking it.

Filtering the Noise

Part of my daily routine is to open my computer and check my social media and news sources. For a long time I only had about five places that I checked regularly. That was enough to keep me apprised of events in the world and in the lives of my friends. I’ve added a couple in the past weeks, because I am fascinated by the data around our current global pandemic. It is equal parts fascinating and terrifying. All of my usual places have gotten noisier. Pandemic related news updates by the hour and the minute. Government officials at all levels are passing legislation and making declarations. Part of my morning check in is simply to see how the rules have changed today, so that I can alter my behavior and anticipate what my family will need to weather the altered shape of our lives. Grocery shopping and food resource management occupied a lot of my attention for two weeks as I shifted from being able to run to the store any time I needed something to planning ahead for once-per-week shopping. I’m also reading the news, trying to comprehend what is going on, trying to get my mind to understand it when everything I can see from my front doorstep is so very normal. Then sometimes it swings the other way, and everything becomes too frightening.

Many people are going through the same rounds of emotions. Since humans are pro-social creatures there is this overwhelming desire to do something to help others who are feeling the same things we are feeling. So, along with the increased frequency of mandates, news, and pandemic information, there is also a flood of positivity. There are more pictures of animals. People are posting videos of themselves singing. Services are being offered for free. The online world has opened up with a wealth of enrichment possibilities. This is also noise. It fills my head just as much as the hard things. Because while I’m trying to reconfigure the way I manage food, my work routines, and my children’s education, I also feel like I should be taking advantage of the chance to watch Opera for free, or listen to dozens of audio books, or watch series that are suddenly available to me. There is also the sense that I, as a creative person, should also be creating something to help.

Even on a good day, a normal before-the-pandemic day, my mind is a very noisy place. I’m slowly coming to realize that it is just as important to tune out the positive noise as it is to step away from the hard news and numbers. I will never find my center out there on the internet. It lives inside my bones and I have to quiet everything else down enough that I can listen. Listen to myself. Listen to the quiet voices of inspiration. Listen to the divine which is always there for me once I quiet the noise enough to connect with it. I’m doing my best to use religion-neutral words to describe this source of strength in my life, though my experience of it and framework for it is very much grounded in the tradition I was raised inside. In all the noise, I have been distracted from prayer and from studying scripture. This is a thing my life will be better if I correct. Meditation is not an integral part of my religious framework, but I’ve long felt that building it as a practice in my life would help me stay more centered. I don’t need more noise, more stories, more enrichment, more distraction. I need more quiet to balance out the shifting craziness of living through a pandemic and the probable economic depression which has yet to fully hit.

Now I just need to figure out how to make myself follow through on all these grand thoughts. Building a system which requires a daily exercise of willpower is setting myself up to fail.

Grief as a Creative Process

We are all grieving these days. Not just a singled loss, but a multitude of losses both big and small. We grieve for the fast food we can’t eat right now and the hair cut we wish we could get. We grieve for the graduations canceled and the weddings made small, for trips that are no longer possible. We grieve for the separation from loved ones and separation from the lives we used to have. We grieve the future which has diverted so far from what we expected and is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

All of these griefs, and more, overlap and collide in my head to the point where I wish my thoughts would hold still just for a moment. Somehow it feels that if they would hold still, I could see all the griefs and work through them efficiently. That isn’t possible of course. Grief by its very nature is slippery and sloppy. It spills out of containment and colors things it wasn’t connected to before the spill.

In my presentation Structuring Life to Support Creativity I have a section where I talk about creative processes. Any creative process you have will impact any other creative process. Raising children is hugely creative work, which is why it can wreak havoc on other creative pursuits A day job which requires creative effort will make maintaining a creative avocation more difficult. Grief is a creative process. It is the means by which we adapt and change ourselves and our lives. It deconstructs what we used to have and gives us pieces to create ourselves anew. The larger the grief, the more transformed we must become in order to pass through it. I can’t curl myself tight and move through quickly or efficiently. Instead I have to be open to the feeling of it. I have to cry and rage and despair. I have to let it permeate who I am and slop over into places I’m not sure it belongs. In this process the grief becomes part of the fabric of who I am and I carry it with me as I move forward.

At the beginning of this year, I found an image to carry with me (or perhaps to carry me.) It was a cloak of peace and joy. Now I think that grief also needs to be woven into this cloak. Thus the cloak becomes a way for me to carry that grief and acknowlege it while still leaving my hands free to do important work. By carrying my grief with intertwined with peace and joy, everything works together to shield me against anxiety and fear while I transform. Over time painful grief becomes wistfulness and remembrance of what might have been. Also I remind myself how all of the hardest parts of last year were directly causative to the brightest joys of the year. This grief-causing difficulty is source for future joy I can’t see yet.

At least that is the story I tell myself this morning as I try to let go of the way life used to be and accept the realities of living in a pandemic. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll need a different image and a different story. That’s okay too.

Befriending Slowness

Of late my days feel long and spacious, almost empty. I sat with that empty feeling yesterday, trying to figure out where it came from, because when I compare today’s To Do list with one from a month or two ago, I have just as many tasks to do, if not more. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, something that used to fill up the spaces around the tasks and make the days run faster. The missing thing is dozens of small urgent deadlines stacked on top of each other. Particularly order-dependent deadlines: must do item A today because I have to start item B tomorrow and both must be complete before C happens next week. I’ve had urgent deadlines filling my brain since last June. I was running fast, working hard, getting things done. The urgency kept me stewing in adrenaline so I could move despite fatigue.

Then mid January, I ran out of small order-dependent tasks. The big event was complete, leaving only large, long-term goals and small daily chores. I spent nearly a week with my executive function almost completely shut down. I couldn’t hold on to thoughts or plan anything. Slowly that came back online, but I’m still not back up to speed. And I shouldn’t be. The pace I was maintaining was a killing pace. It was draining emotional and physiological resources, as evidenced by the week-long collapse. The part of my brain complaining about how everything now feels slow and unexciting needs to learn how to be comfortable with slowness.

One of the big life shifts in the past year was Howard switching medications for his mental health issues. The one he was on shortened his sleep (which he liked) but also drove up his blood pressure (which was scary.) He too is having to come to terms with the fact that he has to slow down. The breakneck pace he maintained for years keeping up with both the daily comic and side projects as well was exhilarating even while being exhausting. There is a high associated with pushing your mind and body to their limits, there is also a cost. And that cost often arrives in a sudden and overwhelming collapse. I could see him pushing himself toward collapse, so we changed the medicines, which forced a (very frustrating) slow down. We believe that, over time, the slow down will result in better health. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast.

This week I am focusing on the slowness. I am learning to befriend both slowness and a feeling of spaciousness. It is a strange sensation to not have my head filled with anxious planning and deadline tracking. I miss it. I feel alive and capable when adrenaline surges and I can crisis manage lots of organizational details. Just because I miss something, doesn’t mean I should put it back into my life. I’m certain that in the future I will have more moments of adrenaline-driven competence. I will be better at them if I embrace the current period of peace. I’m learning to quiet my anxious thoughts. I’m learning to sit and let my mind wander without media distractions. I’m doing more reading of books rather than websites. I’m recognizing the ways that internet sites and politics thrive on creating urgency and anxiety in people. I’m noticing that despite my days feeling slower and emptier, my house is more in order. I’m finally doing all the non-urgent tasks which were pushed aside and which contribute to happiness and well being. I’m pondering how I can reject imposed urgency when it isn’t necessary. I’m recognizing that frantic urgency didn’t do as much to make my life and home better as this slower care-taking. I’m pondering how these realizations might apply to my citizenship in the larger world and what actions I should be taking to make that world better.

There are a lot of thoughts to sort through, and I intend to take the time to do that sorting carefully and thoughtfully. Because when life inevitably begins throwing urgent deadlines at me again, I want to be prepared to respond to them in a calmer and less anxious way.

Relearning Sleep

My mind is a noisy place. It processes, analyzes, and tracks things all day long. This has lead to frequent problems with sleeping. Sometime last year I found the perfect image to illustrate the problem:

Image courtesy of https://www.reddit.com/r/funny/comments/aht9e8/thats_how_anxiety_works/ Not certain who the original artist is.

Of course I’ve had the problem for more than the past year. Several years ago I found a way to short circuit the problem. I was laying on the couch with Howard watching a familiar show and I drifted off to sleep. Then when the show was over and we moved upstairs to bed, I found myself wide awake thinking about All The Things. So I grabbed ear buds and a small device capable of streaming the show. I listened to the show while falling asleep. It worked beautifully. I could listen to the voices of familiar characters going through a familiar adventure. It was just interesting enough to keep my mind from wandering into fretting territory, but because I already knew the end of the show I felt no need to stay awake and find out what happened.

This became my nightly habit for several years. I made some changes like downloading episodes onto my device rather than streaming, I pick shows with lots of episodes so that I could work through them slowly. If I listened to a single episode too often, it became so familiar that it was no longer effective at keeping my mind occupied while sleep arrived. There were challenges with earbuds and laying on my side, but I figured those troubles were worth it to simplify sleep. I also kept the volume really low, just on the edge of audibility.

Yet in the past six months the number of inconveniences with my sleep system had increased. Streaming apps got much more rigid about allowing downloads, thus forcing me to stream episodes in order to listen. This meant that instead of playing a single episode and then stopping, the device would play three or four episodes, chewing up bandwidth while I was already asleep. Also even when a show has fifteen seasons, I would eventually reach the end of them. And as my device aged, there were more and more nights where I would lay down to sleep only to discover I had to spend thirty minutes or more troubleshooting the device. Late night tech support when all I want to do is sleep, is the worst.

On top of the logistical concerns, I began to be aware that perhaps drowning out the noise in my head with more noise might be treating a symptom without solving the problem. That perhaps I needed to be addressing and facing the noise in my head rather than trying to keep it at bay. So in the space after the wedding was over, when my executive function was burned out, I began to re-learn sleeping.

My basic practice right now is that when I’m trying to fall asleep, I use the meditation technique of focusing on my breathing. I pay attention to my breath, to relaxing my muscles, and to feeling the fatigue in my body. When my mind begins to wander into plans for tomorrow or anxieties about the day just past (and it always does) the minute I realize my mind has wandered, I gently pull it back and refocus on breathing again.

It can take me an hour or more to fall asleep using this method, where as listening to a show frequently had me asleep in less than ten minutes. Yet in the few weeks I’ve been practicing, I’m getting better at it. My time-until-asleep has shortened. The key is to be patient with myself and with my body. I have to recognize that practice is required to teach my mind to let go of being in charge long enough to fall asleep. Yet learning this skill doesn’t only help me with sleeping. Every night I am practicing being calm. I am practicing accepting my body and breath as they are. I am practicing letting go. All of these things are skills that are also applicable in my waking life. Remembering I’m practicing skills helps me to be patient with the process.

I don’t know what my future holds. I don’t know when life will hit me with an overwhelming quantity of things to track that lead to insomnia. But I do know that the work I’m putting into re-learning sleep will help me be more centered and focused in facing whatever comes next.

Anxiety Before Traveling

This time next week I’ll be in Houston for the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. We’ll have a few days on land and then we’ll be on a cruise ship for the remainder of the event. I’ve gone on these trips annually for the past four years, and I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. They aren’t trips we ever would have been able to afford on our own, so we work hard as staff to make the event amazing and thus pay for our tickets with our efforts.

It does mean that I end up spending the week of the trip in something of a liminal space. I’m staff and therefore not able to blend in with the attendees. However I’m not one of the Writing Excuses podcast hosts or an invited guest instructor. I assist with the family programming for non-writers, helping them connect with each other and learn things about supporting their writers. I fit in that role since I am the life partner and enabler of a person with a creative career. However I’m also a writer myself, so I bounce into those spaces as well. Being not exactly one thing or another provides fertile ground for anxieties to grow. So this week I’m spending significant amounts of mental energy weeding anxieties out as soon as they pop up. The minute I realize I’m worried that I’ve disappointed attendees I remind myself that it isn’t possible for people to be disappointed by me when they barely know I exist or haven’t met me yet. When I have thoughts about how I probably shouldn’t speak up in conversations about writing, I remind myself that I have as much right to speak about my writing struggles as anyone else. Anxiety sprouts, I pull it out like a weed. Repeat.

This year I’m going on the trip with a specific writing project and goal. I’m eschewing shore excursions so that I have longer stretches to sit and write. I’m trying to refocus myself as a writer and remember that projects only get complete if I actually put in the time. I’m anxious about all of this as well. Writing is surrounded by a whole garden of anxiety weeds which have barbs like thistles They are thoughts that sting and hurt whenever I bump into them.
What is the point, it’ll never be published anyway.
What do you have to say that hasn’t already been said.
You don’t have the skill to do this.
Who do you think you’re fooling, if you were a real writer you’d… [fill in the blank]

And dozens more related thoughts. I already know the words to counteract these thoughts. I speak them regularly to students and friends. I teach them in classes. I believe them when I say them to others, yet somehow it is harder to accept that they also apply to me. Anxiety is like that. It is a lying liar who lies.
I write the counter argument here to remind myself: creation is always worthwhile even if the only one who is changed by it is the person who creates. I’m very good at nurturing the personal growth of others, and I need to turn some of that effort inward.

Along with the writer anxieties, I’m also dealing with anxieties about the things and people I need to leave behind while I travel. Also dealing with the inherent anxieties around the ways that travel can go wrong. Thus far the all the anxieties (travel, writerly, etc), while abundant, have been low level. More like background noise than something obtrusive. But the volume will increase the closer I get to departure. Writing this post is one of my ways to stare anxiety down and say “I see you. You don’t win.” It may be silly, but it works.

This week I’m at my house looking at damaged flooring, clutter, and bathrooms that need to be cleaned. Next week I’ll have vistas of caribbean water and white sand beaches. Yet I’ll be the same me in both spaces. I’ll carry anxieties with me on the trip and then back again, unless I can figure out how to shed them before I go. And if I want to feel calm, serene, happy I need to not wait until I’m surrounded by loveliness to cultivate those emotions, otherwise when I leave the lovely location I’ll also leave the emotions behind. Travel definitely provides an impetus for me to examine my internal landscape, but it is at home that the real work gets done.

Pants, Holes, Salvage, and Faith

“Are my church pants clean?” Howard called to me from the bedroom. At his words I remembered him asking me last Sunday to make sure that the pants went through the laundry. This was immediately followed by remembrance of the over-flowing laundry hamper which I’d thought of doing but hadn’t gotten around to. I bounced up from my seat to go double check.
“I don’t think so.” I said, “because this week…”
Howard interrupted me. “Yes. This week.”
It was a shared moment of commiseration for a week that had not gone at all according to plan. What we thought was a simple clogged toilet transformed into a massive home renovation project requiring a jackhammer, a pending home insurance claim, and two specialized restoration companies. Most of the actual work is still pending except for the hole that has already been dug through a concrete floor and the hole in my financial plans for the year.

I fished the pants out from the bottom of the laundry hamper. They were wrinkled and musty. Not something he could just put on and feel good about. I eyed the clock, ninety minutes before church. It might be possible to rush a single pair of pants through two machines into a state of clean wearability. I ran them down to the laundry room and dumped them in with soap. It was a last minute salvage operation that echoed many of my efforts in the past few days: Can we save this flooring that I love? Can I save my budget? Can I pull myself out of the hole of mourning that I fell into which seems as big as the hole in my floor?

It seems strange to mourn a solvable problem. We have the resources to cover the costs. We have contacts at the companies who will accomplish the work. The house will be better after everything is done. The only real impact is some schedule disruption and financial cost. Yet I mourned for days. I’m still not done, not really. I think what I mourn is the as-yet-unknown opportunity costs. We were making a push to pay down debts so that we would have the financial flexibility to help out our fledgling adult children with pending expenses. We were trying to do a kitchen remodel. I was trying to create more stability in our lives so that our creative choices were less constrained by financial needs. I can’t know yet which of these things are impacted or how badly. (Though thankfully I do know that we are at no risk of going hungry or without shelter. I’m aware I’m mourning a loss of luxuries, not living in fear of loss of necessities.)

In the middle of the mourning and uncertainty I also find myself besieged with self-doubt. Surely I could have planned better or made better choices in the past so that I’d have a better financial position to manage this sort of unexpected event. We could have spent less on eating out or on impulse purchasing. My mind seems happy to scroll through memories of recent purchases while making snarky comments (or disappointed noises) about past choices. And when I sit down to write, I find myself mired in thoughts about how the effort spent will likely never be rewarded financially. I know that life is full of things that are worth spending time and money on without expectation of financial return. Yet this week it feels like everything has dollar signs slapped on it, including my time. And then there are the parenting tasks which I’m supposed to accomplish this summer to help my kids prepare to launch, which aren’t getting done.

Naturally, I respond to all this mental noise by hiding in distractions. I’ve watched a lot of Netflix this week. If the show is compelling enough it drowns out all the noise except a thin thread of “surely you have better things to do with your time.”

Holding still and hiding are normal, instinctive responses to a wound. This is as true of emotional/mental wounds as physical ones. It is an adaptive response to help us survive. We have to hold still so the pain can die down and so that the natural regenerative capabilities of the body have a chance to begin the process of healing. I actually think this is one of the functions of a depressed mind state (which I’ve had since last Tuesday.) It exists to get us to hold still long enough to heal. Of course like any other process, it can malfunction and linger far longer than is useful, particularly if we don’t recognize it as a response to a wounding and don’t do the things necessary to find and tend the wound. And of course there are some people where the response goes haywire, constantly triggering even though there has not been a wound. That is a whole different can of worms.

The salvage operations of this coming week begin with me forgiving myself for the hide-and-collapse of the past days. I need to extend to myself the same compassion that I would to others and remind my harrying thoughts that it doesn’t matter whether purchases I made in the past were wise or not. I can’t change them. All I can do is pick up from where we are now and move forward. I also need to reign in the catastrophizing lines of thought which would have me making contingency plans for all the ways that the events of last week (obviously) spell our permanent financial downfall.

The pants were clean in time for church, and for once there were enough of us there to fill an entire row. I sat there with my people and had a moment of peace. For a moment I was overcome with a feeling that everything would be okay. This is what church gives me, quiet space and a framework in which I can talk to God and get answers. I sat inside that calmness and peace as the meeting continued. Eventually it faded and my worried thoughts returned, but they weren’t as loud. And I have the memory of reassurance. Sometimes I think that is the core of faith: remembering those moments of clarity in the midst of all the other moments.

We’ll make it through, mend the holes, and continue building from there.

Challenging the Boundary Boxes

This past week I had the opportunity to talk to a young man of my acquaintance about his life and where he would like to be in comparison to where he is now. During that conversation I said “You are larger than the space you have been living in.” The words came out of my mouth because in the moment I felt the truth of them. But the phrase keeps wandering back through my thoughts in a way that asks me to pay attention to it, not just in relation to this young man, but also in relation to myself.

Unless we are in a period of active self-discovery and self-definition (or re-definition,) we dwell inside a set of invisible rules for ourselves. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have them. If we are happy in our lives and self-identity then we wear the rules like comfortable clothes that don’t restrict our motion. However the one constant in life is change. Who we are at twenty is different than who we are at thirty, forty, or fifty. We grow and shift, so if we are not conscious about changing our personal rule-set we can find ourselves constrained, trapped.

I came face to face with some of my unrealized personal boundaries yesterday. This same young man with whom I had the conversation got me and my entire crew of kids to go with him to an air sports gym which features professional grade trampolines, air bags, trapezes, a climbing wall, and giant foam pits. Once there, he demonstrated his considerable expertise in using trampolines to defy gravity doing flips and tricks twenty to thirty feet in the air. After which, he patiently and kindly helped my crew work on backward summersalt/flips right next to the surface of the trampolines. It was a joy to watch.

For decades I spent my outing time as a lifeguard and safety monitor. In a place like this gym, it was my task to know where my children were and whether they were following the safety rules. I had to be alert and not distracted, which meant sitting off to the side and watching while the kids played. “We go places and mom sits to the side and watches” became one of the hidden expectations of our lives. So much so that one day when I got on a bike and took a turn around our cul de sac, my kids were astonished. They gaped at me in as much disbelief as if I’d been a fish using a bicycle. I remember the feeling of having them gape at me and wondering if I’d failed somehow by becoming so boring. When they were babies I wanted to be the cool mom, the one who still did cartwheels and ran around with her kids. But somehow I’d become a spectator mom instead.

My kids are all adults now, or nearly so. They don’t need my supervision. Which meant on our trip to the gym, I wore jumping clothes fully intending to use the equipment. Yet the first moment I got on a trampoline, I could feel the eyes of my kids on me. Except it wasn’t really their eyes that were the problem. It was my own mind. I was watching me. With every bounce I hit thoughts about being too old for this, about what if I get hurt, about looking ridiculous, about doing things wrong, about being sore for days. During one of the breaks between jumping, I listened to my young aerialist friend talk about how he went about learning things. One of the critical things to learn is that you get hurt when you attempt to abort a trick part way through. I witnessed that happening around me. People would run up to an obstacle they intended to leap over and I could see the moment when their brain said “that’s really big, we can’t do that” The thought caused a fraction of a pause that changed their trajectory into a collision instead of soaring over. It is the fear of getting hurt that causes people to get hurt.

I pondered all of this as I gained confidence in bouncing. I got better at feeling the flows of the leaps. I landed more surely. I was better able to correct errant motions. I felt all of this in my body and I remembered being a younger person, who did things for joy of motion and impulse instead of pausing for a mental calculation of cost/benefit/social consequences. The ability to analyze and make considered decisions is one of the gifts of age. I have a lot more experience with life and consequences which helps me to be wise in my choices. However that weight of experience can also slow us down as we age. I could feel the weight of it in my head, telling me to be cautious both physically and socially. I had a constant awareness of risk, not just of physical injury, but also the risk of looking ridiculous attempting tricks and failing at them. Except the only way to learn to do things is to first fail at them ridiculously.

The gym had a climbing wall over a foam pit. I knew I wanted to try climbing it. So I waited for a moment when my people were all distracted with their own activities and I headed over to the wall. It seemed a good balance between avoiding outside commentary on my capabilities and not letting fear of commentary prevent me from doing the thing I wanted to try. To my surprise, the grips felt natural under my hands and feet. I traversed sideways across the wall, not daring to go high. Then I tested falling into the foam pit. After a rest, I tried the wall again and climbed all the way to the top. I liked the way climbing felt in my arms and legs. I liked the moment of apogee at the top of a trampoline bounce. I liked stepping outside of my usual sedentary activities. I liked leaving my usual observer mode to be a participant.

There was a moment after nearly two hours of play when I sat on the floor with three of my adult children and our friend. All of us were tired but happy. I was aware of an internal tension. I don’t feel old. I remember being young and energetic. I remember dancing to music in public and splashing in fountains even though I wasn’t supposed to. I remember running just for the joy of it. Yet there I sat with three adult humans that I’d raised from small. My mind couldn’t quite compute how I got from youthful me, to that spot on the floor with my people around me. Somehow in that moment I was both teenage me and middle age mom me. And I realized that I can be both, so long as I’m willing to collide with my hidden self rules and, through that collision, alter them. I can still be the mom who is active and participates instead of watching. I haven’t run out of time. All it takes is a willingness to be ridiculous.

Sitting here on my couch the morning after, my arms and shoulders are sore. Yet when I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still feel apogee in my core and the grips of the climbing wall in my hands. I can take up a different space than the one I’ve been living in simply by going back to that gym again. I can change my creative existence by being willing to write bravely and risk rejection. I can change the patterns of my family by welcoming new people into the house and by altering our physical spaces. Sometimes we are trapped by situations outside our control, but more often we are trapped by our own unwillingness to take a leap and risk change. I’m going to try to be more conscious of the boundaries in the life I have and the changes I need to make in order to get a life I want more.

Signs of Spring


Despite being the shortest month, this February has felt long. Most years I have blooming crocus by this time. Instead we’ve had an extended run of cold days with small amounts of snow. I’m not complaining, other areas of my state have had lots of snow instead of small amounts. Yet as I look at the calendar and think “It’s still mid-February?” I have to focus on the signs that spring will come. It is already beginning to sprout from among the dried out detritus of last Fall. I just need to be patient and allow things to grow at their own pace. Which is also good self development and parenting advice that I’m consciously taking to heart today.

On Memories, Objects, and Letting Go

I held the plastic horse in my hands, felt the solid weight of it. The touch of it’s smooth and shiny paint brought memory. The horse came to me as a gift from my Grandpa when I was ten or twelve years old. I don’t know if he knew about the collection of Breyer horses that I’d been spending all my money on for the prior few years. I just know that he saw the horse at some flea market or yard sale and thought of me. The horse had a missing leg and would not stand, so Grandpa solved the problem in his practical use-the-tools-you-have-on-hand way. He squirted silicone gel all over the leg, let it dry and then carved a vaguely-horse-leg-shaped leg out of the rubbery lump. My grandpa loved me enough to spend hours on a gift for me. That meant the world to me at the time he gave me the gift and in all the years since.

Holding the horse, I also remember that even while thanking Grandpa and hugging him, I knew that the horse did not fit in my collection. It was the wrong size. Its paint was shiny, not matte like the other horses. Most important to me, the horse had a static pose rather than the dynamic running, prancing, or rearing poses I found so lovely on the other models. It was not a horse I would have chosen for myself. Nor was the repaired leg how I would have chosen to make it. Even carved, the leg was lumpy, oversized, and pocked with the spaces where air bubbles had been trapped in the gel. It wobbled when I flicked it gently with a finger, sproinging like the doorstops found behind bedroom doors in my childhood home. So I carried this horse in my life that was simultaneously not something I wanted and also a representation of love so important to me that I clung to it.

I once saw the title to a novel that has stuck in my mind ever since: The Hidden Memory of Objects. It is a Mystery novel that I never took time to pick up or read, but the concept contained in the title stayed with me; the idea that objects have memories hidden within them. That is how I feel when I pick up a long untouched item like a book or a plastic horse. It is as if the memory was there inside the object and I access that memory by touching, smelling, or sometimes just looking at the object. “I’d forgotten about this” is a frequent thought when I am sorting through old things. The memory would have remained forgotten had I never seen the object again. The storing of memory in objects is the fundamental drive behind the purchase of souvenirs and the acquisition of memorabilia. When we are in a moment that we want to keep, we sometimes seek out an object to store it inside. Our effort does not always work, of course. Another frequent thought as I sort through old things is “where did I get this thing and why did I spend money on it?” Objects which are deliberately acquired with the intent of them being memorabilia are often poorly matched to the task.

I’ve had hours of opportunity to consider objects and their memories as I’ve been participating in the recent zeitgeist of clearing out clutter and minimizing possessions. It is as if people of my generation (and the one just older than mine) have shaken ourselves awake to look around and think “why on earth am I keeping all this stuff? It is just clutter that complicates my life.” Since I’m a willing participant of this Konmari/clutter reduction/minimalist effort, I obviously feel that the decluttering is a good process, but I also feel wary about taking it too far. I remember my Grandma’s last years and how she depended on familiar surroundings and familiar objects as anchors in her slipping mind. The memories in stored in the objects and photographs were far more stable than the fog and lights in her brain that sometimes showed clearly, but more often obscured, her ability to know who and where she was, or who we all were.

Forty-six year old me can look at a plastic horse and say “I do not need to keep this horse in order to remember that my Grandpa loved me.” and she will be right to say so. But what of eighty year old me? What will she need? Of course holding onto objects because we might need them later is the source of much of the clutter in the first place. It is exactly the behavior that the zeitgeist rails against, the desperate clinging to things in the belief that by holding things we can prevent future pain. Which is, of course, false. We have no way to control the future, not with objects, not with actions. All we can do is try to arrange our possessions and ourselves in a way most aligned with the people we want to be and the future we want to have.

I want to carry the memory of Grandpa’s love forward with me, but not a plastic horse that I never loved for itself. So I look around me for other objects which could hold that memory. Grandpa loved me my whole life until the day he died and probably after. That horse is far from the only thing he gave me. In fact, on the shelf next to the not-beloved horse, stands a beloved horse that was also repaired by my Grandpa at my request. The only difference is that one was a spontaneous gift of time and love vs the other being a requested gift of time and love. The beloved, repaired horse is as suitable a receptacle for the memory as the not-beloved one.

So much thought and so many words spent on a simple plastic horse. Most of the things I have let go did not require this much consideration. Not even close. I can feel the impatient observer in my brain huffing and saying “This is ridiculous, just take a picture of it and give it away.” I put the horse in the donation box with a pile of other less-than-beloved horses which are also destined to leave my life. They took up space in my life for thirty years because of the memory of me treasuring them. Now I am ready to honor the treasure of my twelve year old self by keeping only a few extra-special horses rather than keeping them all. With only nine horses, each horse carries a larger portion of memory than when there were thirty of them. I kept the nine whose names I remember.

The other twenty-one were so important to me once, and letting them go would feel easier if I could be certain that they would be treasured again by someone new. But that is me not wanting to fully relinquish. I have a lingering desire to control the fate of these objects. It is a trap. If I seek to control their disposition, then I am continuing to carry responsibility attached to them. If I give them to someone I know, I’ve retained the ability to ask after them, to fret over them. These are the strings that must be cut in order to do the emotional uncluttering work which is even more vital that the simple act of giving away stuff. I’m also ironically aware that in writing more than 1500 words about letting go of plastic horses, I am, in a way, keeping them. I transfer their memory from physical objects into digital words, far easier to store. Also easier to lose track of if I don’t take effort to curate and manage the storage of those words. If, on the other hand, I’m willing to treat words written as a live music performance which is expressed without expectation that it will be retained, then even in writing words, I am letting go.

I’m learning that I don’t have to keep all the things for fear of future need, and I don’t have to keep all the memories either. At forty-six years old I have over 24,177,600 minutes of memory. It would drive one mad to try to retain each of those minutes as a separate, always-accessible memory unit. Instead we have to consolidate, categorize, and blend. Brains are wired from birth to do exactly this. I lose memories all the time. It is a necessary conservation of mental resources, not a tragedy. When I pick up an object and am filled with memory, that same memory could likely be accessed in a different way with a different object, location, or smell. Even if that one plastic horse had vanished from my life years ago, I would not have forgotten that Grandpa loves me. In fact I am certain that I have forgotten hundreds of other events that were evidence of the same fact.

Objects come and go, memories come and go also, whether or not they are attached to objects. For right now I’m in a period of time where what I need is to clear away the accumulated detritus of who I used to be so that I have space enough to grow into who I want to become. This means bidding farewell to less-than-beloved objects and their associated memory clutter.

Edited 2/8/2019 to add: So after spending more than 1500 words talking about how it is okay, important even, to let things go, I kept the horse my Grandpa repaired for me. It stands in a solo space not with the rest of the collection, which feels better as it never really fit the collection. The deciding factor was my daughter poking through the box full of horses and asking to see the one Grandpa repaired. Then she mentioned that she’s always liked seeing the herd of horses on my shelves, a reminder that childhood is a thing to be proud of rather than shuffled away and forgotten. So now I have another series of thoughts on how objects can mean different things to different people and why, in a shared household, it is important to communicate about which things are important to us and why. Two boxes of horses got donated. I have my shelf of named horses. I have the one that Grandpa fixed. And I have about five more in an undecided box. They may be donated, they may go back on the shelves. I’m still thinking.

Edited 5/2/2019 to add: I also have a series of thoughts on how treasures become junk when they are separated from their stories. The grandpa horse currently has a story that makes me treasure it. If I share that story with my children, perhaps someday that horse will become a treasure to them as well. This is how heirlooms happen. But if I donate the horse, it is forever separated from the grandpa story. It just becomes a plastic horse with a wonky leg. The difference between treasure and junk is the story.