Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pan the Man

I honest to God don't know what to say about it. 

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died earlier this year, there was a common thread to online commentary - that he was selfish, stupid, weak. A drug overdose wasn't an acceptable death, somehow; addiction was seen as a character flaw and a choice, a self-centered idiocy, a cruelty inflicted upon others. 

Robin Williams's death, however, is discussed differently. I'm sure there are people (cold, unthinking people) out there who would call his suicide selfish, a decision made on purpose and with complete, unbroken thoughts. But the overwhelming tone of our discussion of his passing is the tragedy of it. He is a sympathetic character - Philip Seymour Hoffman, somehow, was not. 

And it tears me up. 

Those of us with mental illness find ways to harm ourselves - sometimes all at once, and sometimes slowly over the entirety of our lives. Some of us drink too much, because it's the only thing which shuts up the bad parts and gives us the good parts of living. Some of us do drugs, for much the same reason. Some of us engage in what my psychiatrist dubbed "risk-taking behaviors" - frequent, anonymous, unprotected sex; disregard for personal safety; a burning and unstoppable desire to engage in pain, engage in terrifying beauty. 

Living with mental illness is a life interspersed with self harm. And some of that is considered sympathetic, and some of that is considered unforgivably selfish. Depression, it seems, is only okay if it doesn't contradict some abstract morality. It's only okay if we keep it under control long enough to convince other people that we aren't self-absorbed, lazy, and ethically unattractive. 

Sometimes, though, that control is impossible, and we can't keep pretending to be like other people. But we are not selfish. 

The disorders are selfish. The addictions. The depression and the mania and the disassociation and the inability to break through into what other people know as normal life. 

We are not bad, or stupid, or lazy. We are not stubborn. We do not choose to be like this. 

What are we, then?

We are funny. We are talented. We are creative, and compassionate, and inspirational. We are, very often, artistic. 

Robin Williams, the man and his many masks, was a huge part of my childhood - and from what I've seen on Facebook, a huge part of many people's childhoods. Maybe that's because he seemed like a kid, almost, like one of us, and like your favorite uncle who still knew how to laugh, how to be silly, how to goof around; he was the kind of adult who took children seriously and engaged in their play. His performance in the film, "Hook," was a perfect example of the kind of man who could travel between childhood and adulthood and maintain the best properties of both. 

There was something about him which was so familiar. 

He was a grownup who would laugh with you, and not at you - which seems really rare when you're a kid. Some kindness in his eyes was the kindness which all children seek, which we all, from time to time, needed desperately. The stories which have come out in the past twenty-four hours are not just about that time when Williams was funny in some movie, but about the times when young children were facing difficult realities - abuse, neglect, depression, illness, death, and later, sexual identity - and a bit of laughter and that soft kindness was the bright spot amongst the struggle and pain of growing up. 

For me - though only the past day has finally, competely revealed this to me - his familiarity wasn't just his childlike joy but the reason for it. Because, even though I didn't know it, I could turn on the TV and look into the eyes of someone like me. 

We are not selfish. Our illnesses are. 

Robin Williams, from what I've read, had bipolar disorder. It's a horrible thing to add him to the list of great artists who drew inspiration from it and were, eventually, killed by it. I used to go on Wikipedia and look at the catalogue of famous people who most likely suffered from bipolar disorder - it comforted me a little, and made me think that yeah, there's something worthwhile, some reason why we are this way. We can look at the world through a fractured lense and see rainbows. 

But it's a bitter, bitter thing to have to look at that list and think, hey, not you, not you, too. 

I didn't know Van Gogh, and even then, the Doctor Who episode, "Vincent and the Doctor," makes me sob every damn time I watch it. So what am I supposed to do, now - now that some of my favorite movies, some of the films which kept me company when I was so alone and so vulnerable, are shuffled into the pile marked, "bipolar trigger," "in case of cathartic emergency," "Alice, this is your life?"

Robin Williams and his kindness, his humor and his empathy, his mania and his depression, have left such a tangible mark on the world. We have records and films, cartoons, dramas, comedies, and we have the knowledge, more than usual, that mental illness is real. And he's a sympathetic character because we grew up with him, because Peter Pan grew up with us; he defeated bad guys and protected children and the whole time he made us laugh. 

I guess the thing, then, is this - we should take this moment, take this tragedy, take our compassion for this one man plagued by mental illness, and we should be able to give that to others. We can't keep looking at addiction - a health condition, a real mental illness - as an immoral choice. We can't pick and choose who we are supposed to care about and which disorders are acceptable and which are just selfish. 

We didn't choose to be this way. We don't want to end up on any list of great people who did great things and then died because there's something messed up in our brains. 

I started this post by writing that I don't know what to say about this, and despite my above verbosity it's still true - I'm finding it difficult to write about. I keep thinking that it's so bloody unfair. It's just not okay. I feel like my illness is gradually eating up my life, and even my childhood comforts aren't safe. It seems - it seems almost inevitable, sometimes, and I guess that's what I keep coming back to. Art isn't enough, laughter isn't enough, kindness isn't enough. 

And that's mental illness, a lot of the time. 

The illnesses are so selfish. 

We are not. 

Bangarang, my friend. We may have fractured lenses, but when we needed it most, you helped us see rainbows. 






Thursday, June 12, 2014

Not Only

Sometimes I delight in being wrong.

A lot of the best conversations come from two places: FaceBook, and the Second Chance Saloon in Oakland Mills. FaceBook is always a source (albeit, according to my teenage sister, one quite uncool) of debate, from following the comments on the Property Brother's fan page to reading reposts of daily words of wisdom, articles on parenting, feminist treatises, and the yoga pose of the day. People are on FaceBook all day - sharing, tagging, arguing, and talking.

Going to the Second Chance can be like that, though it's easy and lazy the way social media can never be. Nobody is going to butt in on your conversation, but you might find yourself sharing a few words with a neighboring table or cheering over a sporting event, forming a community of food and drink and commonality, life.

I found those two worlds intersecting this evening.

First, at the Second Chance, my husband and I were sharing a meal and watching the World Cup.

Second, at home, I was scrolling through FaceBook and saw the following image:


                                   

While I was at the Second Chance, inspired by the excitement surrounding the World Cup, I engaged my husband in conversation about his history in sports. He has a few under his belt: baseball and soccer at a young age, wrestling and football in high school. I, growing up in a highly musical and highly uncoordinated household, have had no such experience. In fact, my years at a private, all-girls school in Baltimore did quite a lot - by forcing me to play sports for I had no talent and just as little inclination - to reinforce the anti-sports sentiment with which I grew up.

My husband grew up with an ethos of teamwork - teamwork earned in the sun and the snow, with muscle, with dedication, with contributing skills to benefit all, with sharing wins and losses as an emotional education inherent to and necessary for young adulthood.

I grew up with an ethos of teamwork - listening to the people next to and around me, taking direction and then and blending voices within my section, complementing other singers through tone or intention or volume, performing under hot lights and being one part of a whole.

My husband learned individuality through wrestling - yes, being a part of a team, but having a close, personal encounter with his own skill and with his education. Narrowing focus in order to get better. To know more. To do more.

I learned individuality through my years in piano - yes, hearing the delicate touch and the fiery passion of my teacher, but also listening closely from one week to the next to see how I might improve, to understand, a little bit, the coughing release of Chopin and the spiderwebs and glass of Ravel. To hear more. To feel more.

Growing up, I had no idea - would have, in fact, roundly rejected the concept - that anything I learned in music could be learned in sports. Hell, I held fast to those ideas for a long time, for too long. I've been snobbish about music and the arts and derisive about sports and athleticism. And I have come to realize that my stubborn clinging to the arts - to the arts only - made me just as narrow minded and as shallow as the private school curriculum which made me play lacrosse when I wanted to dance.

The above graphic from FaceBook is great, and when I saw it I immediately thought, yes. And then I thought, not only. 

Look, you are never, ever going to be able to convince me that the arts aren't equally important for everyone. And quality art education should be accessible to all, with all students able and encouraged to experience the arts in their own way and to their own benefit. You know me - I am never going to say, oh that kid can't sing, let's throw her into sports. It's not about that.

It's about recognizing that a good, sound education includes everything - an excellent PE program and a helpful, passionate, informative music program. An opportunity for field hockey; a chance to play guitar. A role in the play, a place on the team - an education.

Life isn't about simple dichotomy, it isn't about yes or no, this or that. That would be far, far too easy and that would mean that humanity was far, far too simple. So let's stop thinking that sports has a monopoly on teamwork, and let's stop insisting that the arts have a monopoly on passion.

Because passion is what it's all about. That's where teamwork comes from, and individual study, and harmony, and the perfectly executed play, and every other darn thing we can nurture in ourselves and in our children. Passion is the yes, and the not only. Passion is the opportunity we should give every child to be themselves - kicking a ball or fingering the keys, running and breathing or singing with perfect breath control. Every kid deserves all of that.

I delight in being wrong. I was wrong about sports. If I could put up a billboard somewhere to apologize for being a snob, I might. Being wrong is great, because then I get to learn. Watching sports at the Second Chance is great, because I learn there, too, and I cheer, and I commiserate, and I am human in my casual connections. Being on FaceBook links me up to so many people with so much to say, and I find myself inspired by the sheer amount of communication and closeness available from a distance.

Sometimes it takes a long time for terribly obvious things to become apparent. The yes, and the not only. I am quite grateful for those moments of realization nonetheless.

I find, at the end of the day, that I am a happier person for it. And that the world seems a better place if all things are possible, and if we all talk to each other, and if every child is given a chance to truly be themselves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

To Thine Own Self

Being a girl is hard. 

Being a boy is hard, too, as is being a woman or being a man. But I was reminded today of how much the world is stacked against girls and young women - it wasn't anything big, not some momentous event, but it was commonplace and constant. 

I went clothes shopping with my sister. 

All of the wonderful moms I know who are raising daughters seem to be imparting to them a wildness and a confidence. Be yourself, they say - and it's a classic bit of advice, made seemingly meaningless for its ubiquity. But being yourself for young girls is both necessary and a significantly packed term. It can mean painting and drawing, digging in the dirt, wearing comfortable clothes, speaking and moving fiercely. It can mean being one with nature, and it can mean taking a yoga class. It's not easy, but there is something as yet unburdened in those first years when girls have no other thought than to truly be themselves. 

My sister was like that. Once she started talking she told us absolutely everything. Her laughter was unfettered and her hugs were tight. Her body was a vehicle for her fearless personality. 

Why does that have to change? 

I remember being my sister's age, thirteen, and hating my body. Part of that was family stress, part was mental illness, and part of it was going to a school and being of the age when thin was in, when Abercrombie models were perfection, when I was in daily competition with my best friend as to how little we could eat. It was an unspoken rule: be like the other girls. Be pretty. Be perfect. Starve. 

Fortunately, my sister has a lot more sense than I did. I can't tell you how miraculous it is for me to see her eat. She has a good core of strength and a solid sense of reality. But I'm afraid of the world around her. 

Going clothes shopping for a teenaged girl is a joke. Girls' - and women's - sizing is absolutely arbitrary. There's no standard, no universal measurements, and each brand will use a different measuring tape. Sure, you might come close to some consensus if all you buy is Target brand, but most of the time each item is different, and your top is a different size than your bottom, and your bottom might as well be the last sacred mystery facing mankind. It's ridiculous, plain and simple. 

Helping my sister pick out shorts? Laughable in its inconsistency. She now wears sizes I wore when I was ten and sizes I wore when I was twenty. Four pairs of shorts, three different sizes, many different misconceptions about the female form. I'm so glad that my sister has better sense than I did - I absolutely would have died, if it were I trying on clothes - because she knew she looked great and felt great in those shorts, and that was all that mattered. 

But the deck, as they say, is stacked against us. How can we think of ourselves, and what box do we check off, when it comes to how we measure our bodies? How can we overcome the stigma of size? Of weight? Of shape?

Little girls don't think that way. When I see pictures of my mom friends' girls, there is no indication that they care about the size of their pants. It only matters if they are dirty or clean - actually, it probably matters a lot more that they are comfortable and good to move in. 

When did our bodies become a battleground?  

I'm not saying that the size of our jeans is the only way we understand ourselves. We are more complex than that. But why is it that we have to endure the uncertainty and possible shame which comes with something so basic as clothes shopping? Is it not enough that we are bombarded with fat free, low carb, high protein food advertisements? Are we too jaded, too used to accepting the picture perfect actresses on television? Is the message not clear enough - over size six need not apply? Have we not been shamed enough? 

Do we really think our girls need to be shamed that way, too? 

And beyond that - what is this power, this female body, which needs to be vanquished? Not only does my sister need to find shorts in three different sizes, no; she needs to make sure she isn't inappropriate, distracting, tempting. I understand that clothes should address utilitarian needs (so delicate bits hanging out would probably be a problem) but what is so worrisome about legs? I really do get that her clothes should serve a purpose - warmth, comfort, ease of movement - but, for me, any hint of the word "modesty" makes me clutch at my hair and moan. I find nothing offensive about my sister's body. Again, in the situation of her school making rules about the usefulness of clothes, I'm all for it - but once the line is crossed, once it becomes about covering up a woman's body because of "distraction" or "modesty" or "what's appropriate," then I think we all must wonder -

What is inappropriate now, on a girl, which wasn't when she was three or four? 

What on her body is shameful? What must be covered - not for her sake, but for our own? 

The deck is stacked. A woman's body is an object to be randomly categorized, to be judged, to be covered up in case of someone else's discomfort. Is it any wonder, then, that I at thirteen years old reviled my body, that I starved it, that I both flaunted my too-thin abdomen and did five hundred crunches a day? That I thought of my physical form as both an object and as a manifestation of my internal flaws? That I laughed at diets - not eating was easier - and that I, at the same time, took diet pills? 

I wasn't born that way. We weren't born that way. 

My sister is probably the coolest person ever (though I admit, I am biased) and she uses her body to do things like eat and jump, curl up with a good story, walk around the neighborhood with her friends, go clothes shopping and be, against all odds, okay. But I hazard a guess that her attitude is not common. She's a fantastic young woman who doesn't really give a darn. But how many of our girls look in the mirror and see something both undesirable and inappropriately desired? Sizes and school dress codes. Shaming, coveting, covering. 

This is another topic for which I have no answer. It's taken me - oh, I have no real estimate, because it has been quite a journey - it's been only in the last year that I have come to terms with my own body. And, as much as I am embarrassed to say it, a lot of my own acceptance comes from the praise of others. A year ago I was trying to stop eating to fit into a bridesmaid dress. Less than a year ago I met an amazing group of friends who love every body type. I've internalized the external, and I think that is the legacy of shaming and approval-seeking which is the hallmark of our society. 

And no one wants that for our girls. I'd spit in the face of anyone who would put that burden on my sister. 

For a positive spin on this topic - I, a recovering anorexic, and my amazing mother and father, have managed to teach my sister that her true worth is in her head and not in her pants. That's not only a legacy - it's a promise. We will not judge, will not burden, will not shame. We will go clothes shopping and pick what fits. We will not bestow upon her our society's obsession with weight nor our culture's obsession with modesty. And knowing that I can be a part of that, I feel better able to assert that all of our girls deserve the same education, the same respect, the same love. 

It is possible. Because we were not born hating our bodies, objectifying our bodies. 

All we need to do is help girls be themselves. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Surprises

I've written here, frequently, about my experiences in Columbia - about the differences between my childhood in the city and my adulthood in the suburbs. I've mourned the lack of nightlife and culture, and I have celebrated the benefits of living in a safe environment with good schools, close family, and a growing community. I explored these topics from the perspective of apartment living, which, all in all, was not that far removed from how I grew up. We didn't know the people who lived across the hall, we had little responsibility in the upkeep of the building, and we lived on the third floor without a garden and with no expectation of limited privacy. So, though we had been living in Columbia, there were many similarities to the indifference and anonymity of an apartment in the city. 

I had no idea how much things would change. 

Buying a house in my parents' village of Oakland Mills was a dream come true for me. I couldn't wait - living within walking distance to the grocery and the Second Chance, to my mom's house and my sister's school? Perfect, and just what I had wanted. I thought of walking in my own neighborhood, with sidewalks and crosswalks and flower-edged tree lines, as a slice of the city in the quiet of the suburbs. And I have a deep attachment to Oakland Mills - my mom has thrown herself into the community, both through participation and through her writing, and that passion has been passed on to me because I have seen her fight for what is good, what is changing, what could happen. And through her I have met many other Oakland Mills residents who are equally invested in life here, who are now my neighbors, and who I hope will come to be my friends. When we found this house, this oddly shaped Pacesetter in my desired village, I thought yes, yes! This is my home.

And it is my home, much beloved, but it definitely comes with a steep learning curve. 

For one thing, people are really friendly. 

This is not a bad thing, not at all! But it is a surprise. It seemed like we had lived here for five mintutes but we had been welcomed by so many of our neighbors, whether it was at the Second Chance or in our front yard. The family across the street came over and offered their help - and they had made us a cake! A cake! My husband laughed at me because I eyed it with a good dose of suspicion (this was, after all, a kind of friendliness I had never experienced), but the cake was delicious, and a week later that same family helped us unload our new deck furniture - they're not only friendly neighbors, but genuine. 

Another thing - people are really curious. 

Those same neighbors joked that it was our turn, now, to be the new family on the block. I didn't quite get what that meant, but I do now! Earlier this week I was sitting on my deck - and it was morning, so I was still in my jimjams - when I heard someone greet me from behind the bushes. Now if this had happened in the city I probably would've gotten my butt out of there, but the fellow was quite nice and made chit chat with me as his dog sniffed around and my heart raced in my chest (I was also without my glasses, and I still have no idea what this gentleman looks like). I know he was being nice, giving me a quick welcome, but it further proved to me that friendliness and curiosity go hand in hand. And while there is a level of privacy afforded to us - trees, bushes, a fence in the front yard - there is still some guy out there who saw me in my pink kitty nightgown. Oh boy. 

And it's not just people who are curious - it's the wildlife. I am pretty sure that there's a groundhog living in my courtyard. Now, I definitely prefer groundhogs to rats, but I started googling and oh my gosh, they have claws! And we've got a very frisky cardinal doing his mating dance and chirping at passing females with an impertinent joie de vivre (he announced his presence by pooping on my head within the first week). Bunnies are everywhere. There's a cat which likes to cry at my front door at dawn. It's one part hysterical and one part mystifying. Apartment living did not come with quite this level of local life. 

Now, I'm still a city girl in many ways. While I joke about things like safety and indifference, I know that I'm not painting the whole picture and not being entirely fair. When I told my Grandmere about the fellow in the bushes, she said, I can see Grandpere doing that. My mom said the same thing - that he used to check out his neighbor's houses through their windows. And it wasn't totally unsafe where we lived, of course. But I do feel a difference between Bolton Hill and Oakland Mills - it's a combination of factors, the groundhog, the homemade cake, the omnipresent avians looking for a hot date, the kids playing in the streets, the nosiness I'm taking up like a treasured community pastime as I peer out of my kitchen window. 

There are many, many other things I am learning. Having a house involves commitment - maintenance, vigilance, gardening, cleaning. It's both satisfying and terrifying, because even as I learn how to put screens in the windows and clean out the gutters I'm thinking, what if the furnace breaks? What if a tree falls through my roof? What if that darn groundhog messes with our foundation? All of these things enrich my life as a housewife - I certainly have a lot more to do, and a lot more pride to take in my living space. And these were expected changes, for the most part. 

But it's the funny little surprises, the friendliness, the curiosity, which make home ownership into something wholly different than apartment living. My world is different, now. My world has wildlife and neighbors who have seen me in my nightgown. 

I will probably keep writing about Columbia - but to me, it's a whole new place. All of my previous judgements are, if not invalid, very much altered, in a very pleasant way. I have my afternoon walks to the corner store, just as I did in Bolton Hill, and I have neighbors who are curious and helpful, just like Grandpere. And I think I am coming to realize that there are fewer differences between city life and suburban life than I had thought, and far more differences between apartment life and house life. Sometimes it's the simplest things which change our worldview. A cake, a cat, a bit of harmless nosiness. 

I have looked at this house as a fresh start. Sometimes changing location can change who we are, and I think I've needed that. I'm getting another opportunity to consider Columbia, and a better chance to understand the community. I might have to work on catching critters; I will have to work on being a member of an awesome village. Tomorrow I will be making truffles for our cake bearing neighbors. Today I'm sitting on my deck - with real clothes on! - and wondering if the groundhog will pop his head out of his burrow. 

I'm an Oakland Mills citizen, a handy housewife, and what I lack in privacy I've gained in genuine friendliness. 

I think, even though I miss Bolton Hill and Baltimore, that I'm okay with that. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Heritage, Marginalization, and Pride

Today is a day during which Irish Americans do themselves a great and terrible disservice. 

I've always been a bit of a pain on Saint Patrick's Day. As a little girl I loved it - I danced in the parade downtown, I went to lovely parties, I listened to my parents play traditional Irish music in bars. It was an exciting time, and everything from the green glitter on my cheeks to the proper lacing of my shoes was planned well in advance. I didn't know much about the holiday, but for me, it was a celebration of that place I longed to visit as soon as I heard the name - Ireland. 

As I got older I learned more, mostly due to the marriage between my mother and my Irish stepfather. His distaste at the holiday was a surprise to me; I just didn't get it, because I thought he, of all people, would feel incredible pride, would celebrate full-tilt. But once he explained it to me I began to understand - 

This holiday, in America, has become a mockery of an identity truly worth celebrating. 

And suddenly it clicked with me: I saw sparkling green decorations in school which had nothing to do with Ireland, and I saw adults getting horribly ill because of excessive drinking, and I heard grating fake accents, and I noticed that what I had loved about Saint Patrick's Day as a child - feeling closer to my past, to my heritage - was drowned in liquor, in spectacle, in degradation. 

So every year I made a fuss. 

I wore orange. I hosted dinner parties with homemade brown bread instead of all night debauches with cheap green beer. I talked to everyone who would listen about (what little I understood of) Northern Ireland. I yelled at classmates who joyfully shouted IRA slogans just because they thought it was fun. Corned beef and cabbage appeared on every menu and I educated whoever was closest by telling them the American origins of the dish. I got into horrible fights with one of my peers in high school about Irish politics and terrorism - actual screaming matches, to be honest. 

It's taken me quite some time to realize that, while my message was correct, my delivery was not. I wasn't able to place myself in Irish American shoes, to see things from the perspective of a long line of Irish American ancestors who suffered and toiled and did the jobs no one else wanted and who just needed a link to a homeland far away. 

I think that's what the American Saint Patrick's Day should be about. Not marathon drinking, not offensively and ignorantly parroted IRA rhetoric, not green miniskirts and red wigs. Those things are destructive, they narrow the Irish identity into the small confines of hedonism and stupidity, they make Ireland and Irish Americans alike something to laugh at. 

And Irish Americans don't need another reason to be marginalized and othered. 

How can we participate in this holiday which makes us ugly? How can we knowingly recreate the worst stereotypes of the Irish when those very stereotypes were used against us, and not that long ago? Why must we make ourselves drunk and belligerent when the origins of this American holiday, the parades and the feasts, were supposed to show pride and strength and a continued link to a beautiful and profoundly meaningful homeland? 

Yes, when I was a teenager, my message was clouded by a deep sense of anger and righteousness. I couldn't properly communicate how hurtful this American holiday was without yelling and fussing, and I think most people probably dismissed my arguments because I was such a pain. What I should have done - and what I am trying to do now - is present a single point, emotional but (I hope) a bit more accessible. 

We are doing ourselves a disservice, today. We are letting our heritage be manipulated. We are participating in our own degradation. If all we do on this day, the feast day of Saint Patrick, is drink and vomit and get a bit shouty, we are proving our detractors right. We are not living up to the promise of the Irish immigrant - the poet, the farmer, the musician, the artist, the teller of stories and the lover of beauty. We become our own worst enemy. We are active players in othering, in marginalization, and in shame. 

Today, I'm trying to let go of my youthful belligerence and self-righteousness, and I am trying to look at this holiday as what it should be - an homage to ancestry and a celebration of home. I understand that everyone is going to recognize Saint Patrick in their own way, and that my words here are my own and are not universally accepted. I'm not going to tell anyone to put down the Guinness and somberly refrain from playing Flogging Molly like the penitent before confession. 

But maybe, if you have a pint tonight, or if you find yourself surrounded by cardboard leprechauns and green glitter - a quiet moment of reflection will improve the day. Perhaps thinking about the rich and complicated history of Ireland and of being Irish in America will remind us all that we do have something to celebrate with joy and with dignity. Perhaps we can celebrate the good within us, the strength, the perseverance, the beauty - not the drunkenness, the foolishness, the meanest shards of stereotype and bigotry. 

Go ahead - have that pint, listen to that music, wear green or maybe orange. But do it with pride in what is best about us. 

Do it with the song of our heritage, the poetry of our people, and the ongoing story of what it means to be Irish and American.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

How Do They Do It?

I don't know if I'm going to publish this. 

But first, a disclaimer - more so for myself than for any reader: I am okay. Really. I'm okay. 

I write here, very often, about the results of my bipolar disorder. That is, I post the symptoms of symptoms - I don't go into detail about the way I feel but about what happens after I feel. I've posted about leaving my job with the school system, and I've written about writing, and about housewifery. I write about the things which I love and the things which I rail against - politics, religion, sexuality, football. Symptoms of symptoms. Questions which are derived from the essential questioning which is being mentally ill. 

My mother, sister, and I attended the birthday gathering for Dennis. I didn't know what to write about that, because - as I am selfish, and human - so much of my experiences with Dennis were wrapped up in my personal journey and in my blog post, Shame. In other words, it was difficult for me to remember him without remembering what he meant to me, those few hours he spent acknowledging a girl who was writing and who was, who is, sick. I couldn't bring myself to write eloquently on the subject of a great person who meant so much to others, when to me, his voice meant a groundbreaking nod of acceptance. Others wrote better, and wrote more, than I ever could have. 

Symptoms of symptoms. A man who read a blog post by a woman who was telling a story about bipolar disorder. 

My husband is in bed. We've been having a stressful time, of late, because we are going through the process of buying a house. He was up last night, numbers running through his head, and he's succumbed to the need for sleep and is snoozing away. I went to brush my teeth, and when I came back he had passed out. I could be there, now - there in bed, there with my ear buds jammed in and West Wing quietly lulling me into thinking, yeah, I can sleep. I can do it. 

But tonight I couldn't quite tuck myself in. 

I write about details, about minutiae, about the little parts of my life which reflect the deeper truths. And I don't mince words, exactly - if you've read me over the past year, I've painted some pretty elaborate and exact images of a mind in and out of crisis. And I've never been one to turn a word away when it comes eagerly to my mind - give me three syllables and I'll give you four; give me prose and I will give you verse; assign me consonance and I'll dutifully return assonance. I don't lie. I do elaborate. 

I elaborate the normal parts. 

Here I am, tonight, my husband in bed, and I'm writing this because there's a pretty substantial part of me which thinks I will never publish it. And if you're like me, you're probably wondering where the hell I'm going with this. Dennis and my husband and my illness and the use of big words and the way the letter s sounds on the tongue. And I don't, necessarily, know where this post will end up, but I know that I am caught up in something I haven't felt in some time, which is a starlit madness and the warmth of forty degrees after a windchill of ten below. 

How can I go to sleep when I have such music in my head?

I talked about bipolar disorder in Shame, and I have talked about it elsewhere. There are no simple words to describe it - not just the state itself, but the understanding of an illness without a cure. Shame was about dealing with the repercussions of being mentally ill, about how I feel about myself knowing that I am different, strange. And trust me - I have attempted, again and again, to ignore the fact that I am a bit off centre from the rest of the world. I have had moments when I put it away. I spend time with family and it is all good, all okay, and I have spent hours with my husband and with friends which are colored by laughter and balance and peace. 

But, despite all of that, there are moments which are wholly mine, which are the disorder's, and which are almost physically real. It's not a matter of negative thinking or feeling sorry for myself or any new age terminology for depressed - rather, it is an utter intensity which is unparalleled. It's not being sad, or being happy, or being sleepless. It is being something uncontrollably large and impossible. 

And I cannot sleep. 

And I don't know how to grieve.

Other people in the blogverse have been expressive and honest in the past week. In Columbia, we had our first shooting incident seven days ago, and almost as quickly gathered to mourn and to bolster the optimistic gestalt of this rapidly growing community. We celebrated Dennis's life at Clyde's, and we posted pictures of pastries at the Petit Louis Comptoir. The internet and the Howard County voices therein have done an amazing job, have moved literary mountains, in a time of change and fear and remembrance. 

And I - I don't know, I don't know what I'm doing, because if I let myself feel those things it wil be weeks and weeks of it. And I'm lying to myself, because obviously I am awake after midnight and my husband is in bed and I'm writing and the disorder has taken over, just for these few chill moments on the porch. The truth, as they say, will out. 

I have no idea what it is like to experience these things without mental illness. Honestly - how do you do it? How do you reconcile sadness with the inevitable and dulling pull of time, recovery with the shock of change? How do we, as a community, get over these events when we, as individuals, feel them all so differently? How do people with normal brain function mourn, or how do they celebrate, or how do they spend nights when they cannot sleep and everything they've ever wanted is waiting for them, snoring and wrapped in a quilt?

How do they do it? 

Because I - I've got music in my head, and I've got the smell of wet grass, and I'm feeling every whorl of dry skin in the cold, and I have the color red behind my eyelids, and I am aware that even as I write this I have the laughing jackals of over twenty four hours since my last dose, and there's a scratching in my brain which is not mourning properly and not celebrating the way I should and being very, very alone. 

Does everyone else feel this way? 

I'm okay. I'm fine. In a few hours I will wake up and it will be another day, another reset of the clocks until my meds. It will be a Sunday of minutiae - dip and chips and ice cream and footbal. We will be waiting for news from the sellers after they review the inspection notes, and we will settle back on the couch and watch a game and then go to bed, again, because it will be bed time. Four and a half pills, the West Wing, and symptoms of symptoms. 

But maybe now, at one in the morning, I am taking a time outside of clocks and details and representations of normalcy, and I am feeling the cold on my skin and the way sadness can fall like the last note of a Sonatine. And maybe the blue-black madness of after midnight is a terrible and familiar comfort. 

And my illness is the song of a spring which always comes. 



Monday, January 27, 2014

Working Out the Answers

Nothing fills me with quite the same level of discomfort as telling people what I do. 

And the answers are always different. 

Some days, I'm a novelist. Some days, a poet. On other days I'm a crafter, a small business woman, an entrepreneur. But the number one thing I am - it's a loaded title, groaning with gender norm nostalgia and modern feminist rejection, and it's a bit awkward to share. I never know what kind of reaction I'll get, because sometimes it's accepted, even lauded, and other times people turn their eyes away and I know they've formed some level of judgement because of one simple word. 

I've met women - strong, independent, professional women - who've told me that they'd love to do what I do. And I've met men who seemed delighted by the thought that they, too, could have someone to do the ironing. I've also met people my own age who are absolutely puzzled, like my situation is a problem to solve, a stopgap measure before life really begins. One compound word - a dozen different faces, a handful of assumptions, a glimmer of confusion. 

Housewife. Right now, I'm a housewife. 

When I was a teenager, it was my father who was the king of household pleasures - the cooking, the gardening, the opera on Saturdays and the martinis on Sundays. I remember him expressing how that was the life he really wanted, the life he actually enjoyed. And his romantic interpretation of the realities of scrubbing and dusting and scouring sounded quite pleasant. It seemed like the role of the homebound adult was to sit quietly in a garden with a good book, a stack of CDs, and an endless supply of coffee. Gosh, that sounded nice. Nice for my father, and nice for me, a kid who hated going to school and being anywhere but there, music and drinks and shaded peacefulness surrounded by mint and the smells of the city. 

Now, my father has a job he really loves, and while he still enjoys doing things around the house, I think there's less incentive to escape from any work-related unpleasantness. He has what we're all supposed to have, a career. And I - I'm no longer in high school, and everything inside my head is much better, and I had a career, and I sit on my porch with coffee and music and my writing. 

And I clean. I cook. I fold the laundry. Sometimes I think about that image that I had, that my father talked about, and sometimes it seems like that is my life, and other times I admit that there are a lot more toilet scrubbings than pleasant afternoons in a garden.

I'm not complaining, not at all. Toilet scrubbings and laundry foldings are a necessary part of life, and honestly, I love being able to do them without the mountain of fatigue and stress which accompanied my previous work in education. I do mourn, every once in a while, the loss of friends, coworkers, and kids - but I do not regret my current life. In fact, I am grateful for it. 

Very, very grateful. 

So when I say, even though I intensely appreciate my life, that there's some discomfort when I disclose my "job title," I think the discomfort is mostly mine. Every once in a while I feel like I need to justify what I'm going through - maybe that's because of how I ended up here. I don't know how to talk about being a housewife without excusing it in some way, and my excuse, as it were, is my experience with mental illness. I can't think about being a housewife without thinking because I couldn't continue to work. While I know that my role in the home is very important, I feel that sliver of discomfort when I can't explain to other people - or to myself - that this really is my life. 

But, aside from all of that, I think it's important to note the commonalities between my father's daydreams and my current situation. I've got music, all the time, and I've got cooking. I'm planning to garden in the spring and use fresh herbs in the kitchen. I'm researching projects that I can do around the house - not just painting or decorating, but cleaning gutters, changing locks, caulking siding, refinishing floors. Being a handy housewife sounds awesome, and it's that kind of anticipatory joy which links my housewifery with my father's afternoon musings. 

Recently, I was talking with a new acquaintance. He asked what kind of work my husband does, and a bit later he asked the same of me. And instead of opening with a list of all the "worthwhile" things I do - the writing, the craft shows - out popped an immediate and accurate answer: I'm a housewife.

And some day, just like my father, I might have a career that I love. I have no doubt that I will continue to find work or works which give me joy. But I have to come to terms with the fact that being a housewife is also something I love, I enjoy, and that there is no reason for me to shy away from answering a simple question about who I am and what I do. It doesn't matter what other people connote when they hear me talk about my life. 

I've been writing for an hour. Next up is unloading and reloading the dishwasher. Then, laundry. After that, organizing and packing away my craft materials until I need them next. And in my afternoon I'll be researching the proper way to strip, seal, and paint windows. 

I am a writer, a crafter, and a housewife. And all of those answers are just fine.