Into the Woods

Last weekend my parents visited and Mom and I talked about my recent blog post “Wilderness.” She found my take on wilderness surprising because (1) as a little girl she would rather be alone in the woods than anywhere else, and frequently was, and (2) I’ve done a ton of things that would terrify her to do, like flying alone to other countries and driving long distances by myself.

I asked her if I’d ever shown her the musical Into the Woods. (I haven’t. We’re going to change that very soon.)

In the musical, I explained, The Woods are scary, but all the characters have to enter the woods in order to obtain what they most want. There’s no other way for Red Hiding Hood to reach her ill grandmother. Cinderella’s stepmother won’t allow her to attend the kind’s festival, so she must visit her mother’s grave in the woods, hoping her mother will provide the means for her to attend the ball in secret. Jack must sell the dry milk cow at the next village, through the woods, so he and his mother won’t starve. The baker and his wife want to have a child more than anything, but the witch next door cursed the family a generation ago, so they must go to the woods and procure the items they need to break the curse. (Interestingly, the only person who doesn’t go into the woods for what they want is the Baker’s father, who went into the witch’s garden instead and was cursed for it. Even the lady giant descends the beanstalk and goes into the woods to seek revenge.)

Moreover, each character views the woods differently. To Cinderella, it’s a place of hidden safety, where she can escape her stepmother and sisters, mourn her mother, and later escape to and from the palace unseen. Red Riding Hood takes a familiar route and isn’t afraid, but the woods are not to be explored. To the Bakers, it’s unfamiliar and frightening, but holds possibilities for familial and personal growth. For Jack, it’s just a long path he doesn’t want to travel; if he’s aware of the dangers, he doesn’t heed them.

At times, particularly in the second act, we see that choices made in the woods can be drastically different from what the characters would do in other circumstances. The woods can make us desperate, daring, compassionate, petty, or wise.

“It’s like that,” I explained to my mom. “I have to go into the woods to do the things that I want and that I know will be good for me.” Like those trips I took. Like the new Bible study Tyler and I are attending. Like marriage.

Uncertainty and anxiety is necessary. I can lessen but not escape it. In order for me to live the life I want, I have to go through the woods.

Airports have become a sort of metaphor for the woods for me. They can be confusing, frustrating, labyrinthine, but I’ve traveled enough that I have a strong sense of how airports and flying work. Even if I’ve never been to a certain airport before, I basically know what needs to happen, how to get where I need to go, and how to gain information and supplies (bottles of water and Pringles, mostly). I’ve even earned some hacks/tips/tricks to make the experience of flying better (buy nothing until you’re through security; check the boards before you start walking down your terminal, there might not be another one and the gate might have changed).

I was once on a mission trip to a snowy cabin in the woods outside Pittsburgh and it was a personal emotional disaster.

A small sister church in Pittsburgh was holding a women’s retreat; our team’s purpose was to supply everything they needed, from food to teaching to fresh linens, so they could all rest, feel renewed, and build relationships with one another. We were to work in the background, unobtrusive but helpful, caring for their needs. I believed in the purpose of what we were doing and I was excited to be a part of it.

I was the only unmarried woman on the all-woman team, and also the only one without at least one child. Almost all my team members knew each other from before the trip through their children. And, they almost exclusively talked about motherhood-related subjects. For the entire weekend.

Like, the first night, they talked about breast feeding around the kitchen island while we were preparing dessert and for the next morning’s breakfast. For two hours. An hour and a half into it, the leader of the group, who is the only person I had a relationship with prior to that weekend, realized the conversation was isolating me. She exclaimed, “Oh, Katie! I’m sorry. This isn’t something you can really contribute to, is it?” There were exclamations of “Oh, Katie!” and “Oh no!” from around the island. Like they’d forgotten I existed. Or that silence isn’t my natural state.

I admitted, almost crying but smiling, that no. It wasn’t something I could contribute to. And then they continued to talk about breast feeding for another half hour. Someone had noticed, as I’d desperately wished, but the group hadn’t cared enough to stop isolating me and the leader didn’t do anything further to correct the problem. I finally fled the kitchen so I could sob in the basement bathroom, alone, while cleaning it.

The whole weekend was like that, in that big cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. I felt just as miserable, isolated, and unwanted as when I was a very young child in school. I prayed fervently for strength and humility and a good perspective. I went to retreat attendees and offered to hold their babies during sessions and while they ate, offered to clean rooms and wash dishes, whatever could think of to stay busy.

I tried to have discussions with my group members about the Bible (we were all Christians after all), travel, health, siblings, anything I could think of. And I did manage to draw a few of them into those discussions. They were nice people. But they were thoughtless and self-centered and hurtful. I even learned all the names of all their children, wrote them down, and prayed for each child every night. But I was still miserable and, emotionally and spiritually, felt my threads unspooling as the weekend went on. A few hours before we left town, while out souvenir shopping, the entire group was ooo-ing and aww-ing in a kitchen store. I walked up and down every aisle, feigned interested for about thirty seconds in the mixer 6 of the 8 women were drooling over, and finally stood in the back of the shop watching the kitten bowl until they were ready to leave.

I’d given up watching the Super Bowl with my friends, a long weekend, plus taken an additional day off work, for this. Our service was over, my hands were raw from washing dishes, I was cold. I wasn’t enjoying the snow anymore, even. I didn’t want a single souvenir. And I wasn’t interested in being around these women one more moment. I wanted to be home.

Finally, finally, we reached the airport.

As we walked through the sliding glass doors, I felt myself relax. I scanned the terminal, located the sign we needed, and headed in that direction. The others were still standing in a knot behind me, trying to get their bearings. I turned and called to them, pointing at the sign to the Delta counter, but I didn’t wait for them. Up the escalator, across the terminal, to the kiosks. I was done catering to them and didn’t call them again. But they followed, and after checking in and sending my bag up the conveyor belt, I few breaths, smiled, and helped the others check in.

I was still fighting bitterness at their thoughtlessness, but I no longer needed to be part of this group. I knew where I was and where I was going. Despite never having flown out of that airport before, I was back in the woods. Scary and disorienting for them, familiar and empowering for me. I felt like myself again: confident, capable, kind.

Going into the woods is the means to gaining what you most want. In bad experiences, the woods can provide safe passage home. You don’t have to go through the woods in life, but To get the thing / That makes it worth / The journeying, the woods really are the only option. And the more you enter the woods, the more familiar they are.

Into the wood, you have to grope,
But that’s the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there’s hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go
There’s more to learn of what you know.…
Into the woods,
Into the woods,
Then out of the woods—
And happy ever after!
(I wish!)

Wilderness

I need another week on the proposal story (the second part to last week’s “The Ring”), so I hope you don’t mind a story from this week.

A month or so ago, I was privileged to discover Rev. on the Edge’s daily Lenten ruminations. Every day, she chose a word to explore, and one of them that I immediately responded to was “Wilderness”. The photo on her blog depicts C-3PO and R2-D2 in the red sand dunes of Tatooine, a deeply familiar image.

Even without the droids to put me at ease, desert isn’t wilderness to me. Wilderness is the woods. Wilderness is a place that, theoretically, I could, as a child, wander into and never return from. Areas I could enter, feeling confident of my way, and then become lost in. Wilderness is the big woods where Laura Ingalls lived, where Brian crashed in Hatchet, where Sam runs away to in My Side of the Mountain.

I grew up on an island on the coast of South Carolina. Family vacations were either to my grandparents’ home in rural GA near the fall line or Cherokee, NC. I remember trembling with fear when I watched a TV show’s dramatization about a Bigfoot sighting (and chase) in the Appalachian mountains. After that, I looked for hulking, hairy bodies stalking me from the woods as we drove those routes. I shivered, looking into the dark trees that edged the playground at school, behind the Holiday Inn parking lot, and my grandparents’ backyard. Wilderness was a place I could access and a place I couldn’t understand. Wilderness contained danger (poisonous snakes and poorly marked trails and kidnappers and cold and bears, and maybe Bigfoots). Wilderness could confuse and injure and trap and terrify me. Wilderness made me feel anxious, even if we were just passing through, and no amount of reading or hiking has broken me of the association.

Wilderness can also be a new social situation like the first day of school (oh, how I dreaded the first day of school) or the first day of a new camp or choir rehearsal or club meeting or doctor’s office. Even now, I equate wilderness with a new place and people I don’t know and no clear understanding of what will happen there. I faced this sort of wilderness Monday when Tyler and I went for the first time to a Bible study aimed toward engaged and newly married couples.

My social anxiety and shyness and introverted nature combine in the worst ways in social wilderness situations. I know going the first time is the hardest part. I know I’ll be nervous no matter what. I know it isn’t normal to ask a dozen questions about the format and set up and precise timeline of events and a list of likely attendees, so I don’t ask. Instead, to make the wilderness less formidable, I look up the exact directions, using Google street view to see the outside of the house, how it’ll look from the road as we approach, what the turn onto that street looks like, and back and back until I have a good sense of location and directions beforehand, as well as when we should leave to make it on time. I did this Monday afternoon, though Google Street View hasn’t traveled up that particular road before, and the satellite images were several years old.

I also fight the wilderness by planning details of my appearance so I feel more comfortable and confident. Unfortunately, on Monday I was completely out of clean jeans and my favorite work pants were dirty. I’d been out of town the weekend before, so I’d had no time to do laundry to prepare. It was also a cold day for this time of year, so I had to dig out a sweater and a scratchy coat that would match a pair of work pants that are lose in weird places.

That day, Tyler’s grandmother was admitted to the hospital (she’s doing much better now), and for a while we weren’t certain if it’d be best to visit her or go to Bible study. I found myself hoping we’d visit. You know your social anxiety is bad when the slight wilderness of an hour in a hospital you haven’t been to before to visit your fiance’s ailing relative is preferable to attending a Bible study out in the woods for the first time.

Tyler was nervous too. For days, he’d asked me a lot of questions about what the group studies and who leads and their style and what dinner would consist of. I didn’t know the answers, and with every “I don’t know,” my nerves ratcheted up another level.

On the phone with Tyler after work, as we both drove to his apartment, he told me what he’d learned about his grandmother’s health and that his dad didn’t think it’d be a good idea to visit that night. Tyler said we should just go on to Bible study. My nerves instantly spiked, my voice dropped half an octave, my answers became clipped. Tyler could hear the change.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just nervous.”

“About going tonight?”

“Yeah.”

“Try not to be nervous.”

I didn’t answer.

“It’ll be okay,” he said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be with you.”

“I know.”

When we got to his apartment, taking my hand after we hugged, he asked, “Do you still want to go?”

“No,” I said immediately, “But it’ll be just as bad next week.” The last time he’d seen me this nervous and withdrawn about an event had been before his family’s big Christmas party.

“It’s just one night,” he tried to assure me. “We don’t have to keep going if you don’t like it.”

“I want to like it.”

And I did. I think it’ll be really good for us to be in a study together and with other couples in a similar life stage. But I did, desperately, wish not to go. I would have rather done most anything else.

Tyler held my hand on the drive.

I navigated, relying on the directions from my Maps app as well as my research earlier in the day. As we got further and further outside Macon, the road looked increasingly like my mental image of wilderness: thick trees and long shadows and underbrush, places to get lost in the worst ways.

Then we turned off the main road. At the top of a small rise, the road turned to dirt. I searched through the trees for any sign of the house, but it was too far away or the trees were too close together. Even though I knew from others’ stories that it was hulking, a mix of stone and wood.

We found the right gate and wove through still more trees until we arrived at the house. We backed into a space in a line of cars, right on time, but no one else was outside. We weren’t sure which door to go to. We followed a brick path to the nearest one as twilight fell in earnest, knocked, and received no answer. Tyler turned the knob and it gave. Upstairs, we could hear soft voices, so we let ourselves upstairs, me leading the way, smiling my shield, telling myself it’s going to get better. In just a moment, as soon as the leaders see us, it’s going to be better.

It was 20 minutes later before a face I recognized arrived. By then, we were learning names and wondering how the food situation would work (everything was laid out but no one was touching it) and where in the woods we were exactly. The rest of the night was like that, with no concept of what was coming next until the transition began. It’s a disconcerting way to spend an evening.

Once we were there and found the right room and were greeted by the hosts, most of my nerves calmed. The night was still difficult, and I felt caught in the unknown, but I know it won’t be so hard next time. And it did help, so much, to be there with Tyler. I tried not to lean on him too much.

Just because I’m going to have a husband and we’re going to be a team doesn’t mean I won’t have to go new places and meet new people without him. I need to continue to be able to do that. Resigning myself to the experience and the anxiety helps. So, near the end, I purposefully left a conversation Tyler was participating in to join one with strangers.

The drive back to Tyler’s apartment was much easier because we were more certain of the way. The dark had closed in, but we had things to talk about and the wilderness was slipping away with every minute.

In six months or a year, I’m sure I’ll feel familiar with every hill and turn, most of the signs and minor landmarks. I’m sure I’ll understand the pace and flow of the evening, and will probably forget to tell new people what’s going to happen before it does. But the first time in a place is always wilderness.

And unfortunately, in my limited experience so far, entering a marriage is a lot of wilderness.

“My Winter Solstice”

To the tune of “My Favorite Things” by Rodgers & Hammerstein,
famously performed by Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”

Red stripes on white mugs and antlers on Tahoes,
Bright glitter headgear and fresh trees with fake snow,
Brown Kroger bags hanging from both your wrists,
How are you doing on your shopping lists?

New Starbucks cups and gingerbread castles,
Black boots and gift cards and sweaters with tassels.
Winter solstice is the darkest of days.
Just four sleeps til Christmas. Let’s all dash away!

Friends in short sleeves with ugly socks jingling,
Rainclouds that hide how Orion is twinkling,
Fog that socks in while the river flows on.
Welcome to winter! Look at all the brown lawns!

When the sun sets, when the dark reigns,
When I’m feeling SADs,
I simply remember I could live in Maine,
And then I don’t feel so bad!

Winter is Coming (and I Don’t Want to be Depressed Again)

Last year around this time, I posted about my favorite fall and winter activities. A few months later, I posted about why my autumn hadn’t shaped up to be the favorite season it usually is. Nestled in there was an admission that I’ve spent much of the past year processing in theoretical and practical ways: I was depressed. I was also anxious, though it took longer to figure that out.

This year, I’m giving a lot of thought to the coming season, but without the excitement level of last year. My favorite things about fall and winter have always centered on light in darkness, but last year there was a lot of darkness in my mind (and, I would argue, in the world). As 2017’s days get shorter, I’m preparing in specific ways to give myself the best chance of making to spring without becoming suffering another depressive episode. (I think all 5 strategies are pretty solid ways to enter into the rest of this year.)

1. Simplify. I love knick knacks. Little things that spark a smile and look cool and remind me of fun times or people or characters or concepts. I’m just like my grandmother this way, who lined all her shelves with porcelain and glass figures, and kept them forever. But too much stuff, and things not being neat, stress me out. Not badly, but my mind needs room to consider, to breathe, to be creative. So I’m making space in my life and my schedule. At work, I’m putting resources I rarely need out of sight and rotating out my knick knacks so they aren’t all visible at once. If I feel anything but peace about something I’m asked to do, personally or professionally, I take a step back and reevaluate it. Why am I anxious or worried? Is this something I can say No to and feel at peace? Are their benefits that would outweigh these feelings? If I can’t say no, what’s most bothering me and how can I manage it to minimize my stress?

2. Clean out. A little over a week ago, I cleaned out my drawers and closet, filling two huge bags of clothes to donate to a local domestic violence shelter. Some items I’ve “outgrown” and others I just don’t wear often enough to keep. I’m keeping clothes I wear, not the ones I wish I did. That includes a beloved but too-worn pair of boots, a pleather jacket coming apart at the seams, and an incredibly comfortable pair of linen pants I never want to iron. I’ve been careful to buy fewer clothes than I’m giving away, and only very soft, very practical items. (Other than that one dress, but it’s practically got a cape!) Last year, I only wanted to wear soft, easy, warm clothes, and if that’s helpful to my brain when it’s struggling, it’ll be a better for mild seasonal blues, too.

3. Build good habits. I bought a light therapy box. I know I get a little down in the winter because my element is sunlight (it’s the most relatable thing about Superman, who I generally dislike). And, with shorter, darker days, I’ll need some extra help making sure my body is getting the sunshine it needs. Happy light to the rescue! … I hope! I need to build the habit of using it every day and in the right way. Only then can it do the good, darkness-dispelling work it was made to do. I also need to incorporate a better prayer and Bible reading regimen, which dispels darkness in a different, but equally real, way. Eating bigger breakfasts but fewer snacks are also on my habits-to-form list. And none of this will mean much if I don’t get enough regular, quality sleep. It truly is amazing how much I starve my body, little by little, of these two basic needs: nutrients and rest.

4. Take social media hiatuses. Presumably, an ideologically catastrophic event will not occur this Nov. 8 like it did last year, and so the most serious bout of depression I’ve ever experienced will probably not be triggered. However, accessing social media definitely contributed to my anxiety and depression last November and December, and I’ve noticed that I’ve struggled under its effects since then, too. I’m much better able to absorb terrible news at 11am or 2pm than right before bed or right after I get up. Also, some days are just worse than others, in terms of the type of news or what’s happening in my brain. A stormy mental health day needs a social media hiatus, especially from Twitter. Very terrible news might necessitate a break, too.

5. Choose manageable goals. I want to finish NaNo. I want to do it in order to recapture the joy participating in NaNo has brought me in years past and to help jumpstart my fiction writing life again. I managed to complete the 50,000 word goal last November while depressed, so I’m reasonably confident that I can do it again this year. However, I’m doing this for the experience, not the product, so I’m going to be looser with the rules than in the past: I’ll count blog writing in my word counts and won’t restrict myself to one project. I might rewrite my NaNo project from two years ago (cozy murder mystery with ghosts) or I might try a new idea I’ve been kicking around since the summer (also a cozy mystery). If one project fails on me, I’m planning to just pick up the next one and keep writing. Finishing NaNo requires prep work, like making and freezing meals ahead of time and making lists of scenes and characters and basic plot structures. For me, it also means planning well for the days I’ll need to be traveling and scheduling specific rest times throughout the month.

I don’t want to end with something cheesy like “Stay positive!” but if there is a 6th strategy, that’s it. I’m looking forward to Hallmark Christmas movies, chili, snuggling under blankets, candles, a fire in the fireplace, Christmas trees, crisp air, apple pie with ice cream, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

If you also tend to have more mental health struggles in fall and winter, I’d love to hear how you’re preparing for the next few months!

Rainy Brain Lies

I give a weather report for my brain when I have a bout of depression or anxiety (often both). It usually sounds like “scattered showers” or “pop-up thunderstorms” or “overcast” or just “rainy.” This past weekend, it was scattered showers. I could feel fine, not notice a problem, but twenty minutes later be sobbing in the bathroom. Between rain showers, Tyler asked me what it feels like. One of the first things I thought of was, “Rainy brain lies.”

Depression lies. Depression tells me I’ve failed, I’m worthless, I’m unwanted and unloved. There’s no convincing my brain to stop lying, or stop raining. It’s weather, you can’t control it. The best you can do is dress for it. Depression lies like a bully. After a while of saying “No” and “Not true” you realize that your arguments aren’t making a difference to him and they aren’t going to. But it’s important to keep telling the truth and to not let yourself believe the lies. That’s hardest to do, of course, when they are based on an element of truth.

I told Tyler that rainy brain lies because mine had just told me that I’ve wasted the whole summer. All the warm weather and hot dogs and baseball games and swimsuits and light dresses I’d had the opportunity to enjoy, I’d wasted. True because I didn’t meet all my goals for the summer; false because using my time differently than I had planned isn’t wasting it. False because I did thoroughly enjoy aspects of the summer, even if, truthfully, I never did buy a new swimsuit.

So I know what my brain is telling me is, ultimately, a lie. One meant to hurt me because rainy brain is a jerk and a bully. I catch the lie, then tell myself the truth.

Except, my emotions are brown water barely contained behind a levee. The surging rainwater fills it to the brim, leaking down the earth and cracking the stone. My emotions react to the lie instantly, causing water to burst out as if a huge bar of soap had been dropped into an utterly full basin of water. I tug back against the lie, and there’s no getting back the water that’s spilled over, but the rush lessens. The water goes back to it’s overfull, dangerous, roiling place, lapping at the edge of the levee. But it’s back.

And then my brain lies again.

If I lean into one lie, even for a moment, the water gains strength and my mental levee is that much harder to shore up. That much more water escapes.

Of course, this is when I have access to a range of emotions. In longer, deeper episodes of depression, I don’t. I have the lies. I have fear. I have self-condemnation. I have exhaustion. And I have the rain. Emotions like joy and silliness and contentment and anger and irritation are the chimneys on houses, occasionally peeking over the waves. And the lies are worse. This weekend, the lies were “You failed” and “You can’t do anything worthwhile” and “You’ll never accomplish your goals.” But in longer periods, the lies are, “You’re useless” and “You’re worthless” and “You don’t deserve any of the good things or people in your life” and “No one really loves you and no one ever will.”

One of the weirder things about depression in my estimation—and I’m by no means an expert on depression or anxiety or surviving either—is that because the rain is in your mind, things in your mind can help you. It’s not like breaking your leg and putting an ice pack on it. The ice helps with the pain, and that’s important, but your leg is still just as broken once the ice pack is off. With depression, the ice pack itself helps you heal.

Or, as Andrew Solomon says in one of my favorite TED talks, if you have brain cancer and feel better if you stand on your head for 20 minutes each day, “it may make you feel better but you still have brain cancer and you’re still probably going to die from it.” But if a depressed person does the same thing, and it makes that person feel better, “it’s worked because depression is an illness of how you feel, and if you feel better, you are affectively not depressed anymore.”

Watching a gif of a fox on trampoline can help. Sitting on the porch with your roommate’s dog can help. Listening to your mother’s favorite song can help. A single song isn’t going to suddenly end your depression, but if it helps, you do it over and over. If it doesn’t, what’s the point?

Sometimes the point is that you really, really should brush your teeth if you at all can manage it. Sometimes the point is that you know you’ll feel worse if you don’t eat, even though you aren’t hungry and even though getting up sounds like the most unpalatable thing that you could possibly do. Some things just need doing, and there are people who suffer such extreme mental illness that they are completely incapable of doing them. But for me, during my longest bout of depression, I cut out everything possible so that I could make sure I ate at least twice a day and brushed by teeth twice a day and showered once a day.

Late Sunday night, I watched three back-to-back episodes of Modern Family because it was raining in my brain. Immersing myself in the show, which was familiar and made me laugh without requiring a lot of brain power, helped. So did the end of Look Who’s Talking?, which I hadn’t seen in years. When I got into bed, I played music for a while so I wouldn’t feel so alone and so I could focus on something other than the lies my brain was trying to tell me. And those things helped the rain to stop. But if inclement weather is troubling your brain, when you can’t find a way to make the rain stop, I hope you can find the umbrella and boots you need to keep sloshing through.

The Burden of “Happy Clothes”

The other day I was reading a book, and I’m not going to tell you which one. But, after an anecdote about the author’s mother, she wrote that adults “have the opportunity or maybe even an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit.” She followed that statement by saying adults must “show we can rise above winter’s chills by wearing happy clothes.”

I wanted to curse at her. I wanted to throw the entire book. The author’s a Christian, a long-time Bible study leader, and I wanted to shout “Is this what you teach?!?! Those poor people!”

The world isn’t entitled to a good mood from me. I don’t expect that from others. And I don’t demand that the world look “pretty” or put together or wear “happy clothes”. I’m not just talking about self-expression, which is important. I’m talking about the idea that women are pressured to present themselves, to have it all together, to show no emotion but gratitude, to never make a mistake or need a break. Men face it too.

According to the CDC, white men in this country are three times more likely to commit suicide than white women. Black and Hispanic men are only twice as likely as white women to commit suicide, but they are four times as likely as black and Hispanic women. Black women and Hispanic women are the least likely: half as likely as white women and twelve times less likely as white men. Society is built for white men. They have the most privilege. So why are they so much more likely to commit suicide? A big reason is that we don’t teach boys and men to deal with their emotions and we don’t allow men to appear weak. And it’s killing people. The burden to “convey an upbeat spirit” is killing people.

I’m sure the author, who I really don’t want to rake through the coals, wasn’t thinking in these terms. She was thinking about neuro-typical Christians exuding confidence in their faith to the outside world. Which I also have serious problems with. But I want to talk about the heavy burdens “an obligation to convey an upbeat spirit” and wear “happy clothes” place on a person’s well-being.

Let’s talk about spoon theory. It’s a concept generally used to help people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, and mental illnesses to describe what their day is like. I’ll link you to the whole explanation here, but below is the short version.

Think of the spoons in your kitchen. You have a certain number, and that’s all you have. You cannot wash and reuse them. You can’t use a fork instead. You start every day with a specific number of spoons, and everything you do costs a spoon. Getting out of bed costs a spoon, brushing your teeth costs a spoon, flossing costs a spoon, cooking lunch costs a spoon but skipping lunch might cost two or three spoons.

When you’re well, you have a nearly unlimited number of spoons. But when you’re disabled or ill in one way or another, you have far fewer spoons. You might can borrow a spoon or two from the next day to help you get through your friend’s birthday party or a blown tire on the interstate, but you will go from 15 spoons tomorrow to 13.

Last year when I struggled with depression for two months, the four-minute task of putting on moisturizer, foundation, and eyeliner (what I consider to be my minimum makeup regimen) hardly ever happened. I didn’t have enough spoons. It wasn’t worth it to me to use a spoon to put on makeup for work. I knew it wouldn’t take long, but for once I cared more about the effort involved than I cared about the time it took. I might need that spoon to go to the grocery store later, or to take my car by the mechanic to have a light checked, or to wash my hair (another spoon for conditioner, a third to blow dry). Every spoon counts. Everything costs a spoon. Every email I read, every paragraph I wrote, getting out of bed, arranging a meal cost a spoon. My life whittled down to the bare minimum. I wore the same outfits—incredibly soft, comfortable outfits—over and over. I went to work, went home, laid on the sofa, ate at least twice a day, showered, went to bed.

I literally thank God that my coworkers didn’t bring up my lack of makeup, fifth day with a pony tail, or the third consecutive week wearing that outfit. The conversation would have cost an unexpected spoon and would have increased my anxiety and guilt for weeks about my limited number of spoons.

It’s not an act of service, and it’s definitely not an obligation, to smile and look pretty for the world. Those things cost spoons, and whether I’m struggling with depression or not that day, I may well decide that I don’t have the time or energy to bother with it. Everyone should be free of the same burden.

When I started dating Tyler, I had the energy but chose not to spend the time. Instead, I stayed up later than usual so I could spend those hours with him, and shaved off makeup time in the morning to help me recover some of my sleep. My choice was not an assault on the world. I don’t owe the world a painted face or a fake smile or a yellow blouse. (I’d also like to point out that men aren’t expected to wear makeup because we haven’t been trained to think that men need makeup to look “presentable”. Same with shaved legs.)

I don’t owe the world “presentable” anything. You don’t owe the world makeup or a smile. Other people are not entitled to the facade it expects. Do I care about people and want to be a good representation of my faith and my God? Yes. But inauthenticity drives away the hungry and gathers the shallow. I’m not going to knowingly hurt myself to make a few other people feel more at ease. And I want hurting people to know it’s okay to be hurting. That’s the kind of Christian I try to be.

***

I thought I was done with this post. I just needed a photo of a spoon, which I planned to take at my boyfriend’s, before we went to dinner and a worship service in which I was reading the opening Scripture (Psalm 145:1-3, 10-13). Even before I got to his apartment, though, my plan flew out of my head. After a busy day with little sleep, I was listening to an audiobook, reminding myself to read the Scripture passage a few more times aloud before worship, and carefully planning my nutrition intake so I’d have enough energy to stay alert through the late-starting service without sugar or caffeine crashing. I’d originally planned to go home and nap after work, then to get ready and leave from there, but I was too wired. So Tyler suggested dinner instead.

During the song immediately after I read, I realized that I hadn’t put on eyeliner. Or lipstick. Or even foundation. I’d been in too much of a rush that morning and I hadn’t gone home after work like I’d planned to, so I hadn’t remembered. And I was wearing my comfy work pants—a little high-waisted, a little baggy in the hips—instead of the skinny jeans I’d planned to be in. My loose floral top is exactly something my grandmother would wear if it only had sleeves.

So is presentation more important than the words I’d read? I hadn’t been worried about my appearance when I’d walked to the microphone. I hadn’t noticed my lack of makeup in the bathroom a few minutes earlier. During the song, though, I’d noticed someone else’s eye makeup and all the comparisons rushed to me, all my intentions I’d forgotten just like the spoon photo. I felt God nudging me, Do you owe the world “presentable” or don’t you?

I thanked God for not letting me realize until after I’d read. That’s very God and I. God teaches me something, but not when it might mess with other people’s worship. God often waits until the perfect moment, like when I’m singing the words of a praise song, to let me wrap myself up in my own self-consciousness. Then God reminds me of truth, and in this case of the words I’d written a few hours before. I asked for forgiveness, for my pride most of all.

Refilling the Wells

A few weeks back, I spent a long weekend visiting my best friend. We’d planned to spend most of our time working on our respective writing projects, but by the time I arrived it was clear that wasn’t going to happen. At least, not on my end.

Remember when I thanked Carrie Fisher for giving my desire to publish back to me? Well, it hasn’t been that easy. And the desire hasn’t remained constant. And I’ve still done very little of that work. So I felt a strong need to get over this block and to work like Kayla and I had planned. But I was coming off a very busy past few days at a work conference. I was physically tired, spiritually overwrought, socially drained, and creatively empty. My gracious bestie recognized this and refused to let me feel guilty over it. Instead, she encouraged me to spend the weekend refilling my wells. Here are some ways I like to do that.

Nap. Not kidding. I’m always an advocate for naps, and more and better sleep in general. And I know this isn’t easy for a lot of people. Kids and work and schedules prevent you, or you can’t turn your brain off long enough. But even just trying, even just laying there with your eyes closed can help you breath deeper. Giving yourself permission to take these five minutes or half an hour or two hours gives your overworked brain a chance to slow down a step or two. And if you make it to that space between sleep and awake, something like dreaming while dozing, that’s creative gold.

Read. No agenda, no timeline, just read something you enjoy. It can be a book you’ve read a dozen times before (Lately, Fire by Kristin Cashore or The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh) or something totally new (Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher or Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia). And while you’re at it…

Change the genre. In whatever you’re consuming—TV, movies, writing, the Bible—whatever you’ve been doing, switch it up. Start reading cozy mysteries. Start watching documentaries. Try your hand at poetry. Flip over to the Psalms or Isaiah. This change of pace and topic let’s your brain stretch and play a little. If you need to keep your routine but want to add a dash of newness, this can be a great way to accomplish both.

Color. I’ve been a proponent of coloring as a means of stress relief long before adult coloring books started dominating grocery store shelves and Christmas stockings. Coloring lets your brain focus on something small, manageable, and with clear evidence of progress. But you can also tear it up. You can throw it out. It’s just paper. Other forms of visual creativity, like crocheting or painting by numbers or cross-stitching or flower arranging, can help in similar ways. A college friend could create amazing art pieces on his tablet while watching the Super Bowl and carrying on multiple conversations. Engaging in visual creativity uses parts of your brain that words don’t, so go highlight something! Rearrange your bookshelves or closet until you’ve made a rainbow. Find a Star Wars coloring book, buy yourself a new box of colored pencils, and let yourself color.

Do a repetitive task. I find repetition comforting, which is how I ended up cleaning my hairbrush for half an hour last night. Vacuuming and scrubbing the stovetop involve repeated motions, leaving brain power free, but only if you want to use it. You can whittle your conscious thoughts down to nothing but the whirr of the bristle brush, or you can let your arm keep scrubbing while your mind works on whatever problems and preoccupations have been dominating your headspace. Jumping jacks or a hoola hoop would work, too.

Change your environment. Go for a hike Saturday morning or get out of town for the weekend if you can. Just pick a different coffee shop. Take yourself to your favorite restaurant and don’t be ashamed if all you can afford is an appetizer or dessert. Sit in your car with the windows down for a few minutes. Don’t be here, with all your thoughts running down all the usual pathways leading you to all your usual conclusions and anxieties. And you know what?

Go outside. Even if you only have time for a short walk. Even if it’s midnight and you only have a 3′ by 3′ porch. Even if you just stand in the doorway and let the sunlight hit your face and arms. ​When I lived in England, I walked or took public transit most places, so just getting from point A to point B meant I was outside a lot more than I am now. But being outside was not always pleasant. It could be sweltering hot or biting cold. Once, in October, we didn’t see the sun for five days straight. So what happened the moment the clouds parted at 2:10 that Tuesday? Everyone stopped. Drivers slowed and rolled down their windows to stick an elbow out. Pedestrians took off their gloves and stood to the side. Shoppers and shopkeepers stepped onto the sidewalk. Into the sunlight. Like wildflowers, our faces turned up to the sun. Like we were praying. Those three minutes of embracing the light helped us get through the rest of the day, the rest of the week until the storms passed.

G​ood luck, friends!​

A Moment at Ellis Island

I’m not totally sure what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I just want to share a moment with you.

I was on the 2nd floor of the main building and museum at Ellis Island, and had paused to look at the open diary of a woman who had worked on the island. The diary entry for that day detailed being summoned to escort a teenaged girl into Ellis Island for deportation proceedings. All individual women had to be escorted by female employees (and single women were not allowed to proceed off the island without escort by a male relative). The teenager had an unspecified mental illness and had become violent in the mid-Western town where she’d settled.

As I bent over the pages, puzzling out the carefully looping, neat script, a young man with fair skin and hair, who looked to probably be in college, came to stand a little beside and behind me. I shifted over in case he wanted to see. Instead, he asked in a light accent of strong consonants, “Can you read it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, straightening to face him. “It’s not easy, but I can.”

“Would you tell me what it says?”

I began to explain, pointing to how far I’d gotten, only about halfway down the first page of the spread.

I read on, and the young man stood still, waiting. After another couple of paragraphs, I told him that the judge and other male officials overseeing her hearing asked the employee writing the journal if she was afraid. She wasn’t. She told them she would just lay down on the girl if she became violent so she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or herself.

My fellow Ellis Island visitor grinned at this and looked back at the page. A couple friends came up to him, paused as I kept reading, then moved out of the room. I expected him to go, too, but he didn’t. He wanted to know all those pages shared. And he waited—patient, pleasant, non-threatening, interested—for me to learn myself so I could impart it to him.

When I reached the first description of the girl, I caught him up and read out the traits: brunette, fair skin, seventeen, German.

“German?” he asked, beaming. “I’m German!”

“That’s amazing,” I told him. It wasn’t, in a strict sense. No more than me being born in the US is amazing. But I recognized that his connection to this woman, nameless at least on these two pages, was profound even before he learned of her country of origin. Now, it was amazing.

I read the rest aloud, no longer worried about bungling a word at first or misreading an unfamiliar phrase. He stepped forward, almost beside me, looking at my finger on the clear case as I traced my way to the end of the page.

“She was German,” he said again, when I’d finished. His face almost glowed from delight and awe. “I can’t believe it.”

A little circle of other museum patrons had formed behind us, listening to me read, and were now side-stepping and breaking apart.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wish we knew her name.”

“Yeah,” he answered, looking at the pages again. Then, “Thank you for reading it to me.”

“You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could share it with someone.”

I left the room first, he lingering by the case. I wondered all sorts of things about him, but despite that feeling of connection we’d shared, I didn’t feel close enough to ask a lot of questions of him. “Why are you here, at Ellis Island? Where in Germany are you from? What did your friends say to you when they left you here, waiting for me to read more of the journal and interpret it to you? Where are you going now? What are you hoping for in life?” So I kept going, and even though I tend to take museums at a near glacial pace, I didn’t see him in any of the subsequent rooms. But I keep thinking about him, his rich, full life, and the five minutes we bent over a long-dead woman’s journal and read her words detailing a ten-minute span of a single day in her rich, full life.

Dream: Marked “Undesirable”

Given the events of the past week and months, I have hesitated to post this. I am relating an actual nightmare I had in January but that I didn’t have enough perspective on at the time to be able to write. I’m still not sure I do, or that this is the best time to post. However, I am doing so in order to put words to fears I have and others may share, and by so doing to lessen their power. I am also sharing my response to the events and policies which have given rise to these fears. In this week of Passover, this week before Easter, I am making a commitment to myself with all of you as witnesses.

Trigger warning: Holocaust references and imagery, violence against people with disabilities

I don’t know what to make of it.

I had a piece of green tape stuck to my right shoulder. It was dark green, matte, about as wide as electrical tape with ends where it had been torn. It was stuck so tightly to the cloth of my sky blue floral summer dress that a hand must have painfully gripped my shoulder, the tape underneath, for a glacial and dangerous moment. Four inches long, it stretched from below my clavicle, up and over the top of the dress, just past the seam connecting the front and the back panels. The symbols on the tape looked like a semicolon, a button-sized black circle above another button with the curl of a tail.

The lines in the rough hand had creased the tape fractionally, as had my dress, but the semi-colon accounted for both, like a typed wink two inches long. Others in my group of other green-matte-tape people had wide colon eyes or other halves of emoticon faces. But we all wore the green tape. And we were all sitting in a rough knot of lunchroom-style tables with round seats attached that aren’t supposed to swivel but do. And we were all being held at gunpoint.

In the way of dreams, I just appeared there, knowing things without having learned or been told them. We were free to move around a little in our group, even to talk quietly. The people in uniform holding guns were fascist soldiers, and there would be no legal recompense if they shot me, or all of us. It could happen in a moment.

We were green, meaning mental illness, and the symbols indicated which illness with which we’d been diagnosed. Mine semi-colon meant depression. There were other groups at other tables but we were all “undesirables.”

We were on a cruise ship’s top deck, in the hollowed out slope of what would have been a pool. We were chugging along on a beautiful day, clear skies and smooth sailing, though the surface is a little choppy.

The fascists were standing at intervals around the rim of the waterless pool. We were waiting for their orders to either release us into the population below decks or to kill us. The orders might be jumbled. We might be moved later. We had no idea.

But we knew some of us would die, our illnesses deemed too severe or too noticeable or too shameful according to the State. Some of us had already been killed. A group of soldiers forced one group, the whole group, to line up on the edge of the deck so they’d all fall overboard when they were shot.

A woman, about my age, slid into the seat next to mine. As if this really is the lunch period at high school, I’m sitting in the corner seat, not looking at the fascists behind me or the empty tables between us. I’m eying the fascists in front of me instead, careful not to make eye contact. The woman who joins me is Asian and sits taller than I do, though I don’t know if she’s actually taller. She had an open face, deceptively so, and bent toward me in a mirror of my crumpled posture.

I can’t remember the exact words she whispered to me, but it amounted to this: we have to get out. I had two friends in the group, a married couple. They’d try to slip away together, but the rest of us in this escape cohort—not the whole group—would try to slip away one by one. We’d have to find a map belowdeck to find the right floor, but the plan was to meet in the kitchen of the restaurant on the very back of the ship. There was a balcony and an oven that (dream-logic) we would push out of its place, off the boat, into the water, holding on to it by straps so we’d float along with it and be saved.

We knew we might not all make it. We knew everyone in the group wouldn’t.

I did slip away, though I expected a bullet in my back or chest at any moment. When an annoyed soldier sprayed bullets into the group I was standing in, I pretended to be shot, clutching my stomach as I went limp. While the soldiers argued and the toed a few people over with their black boots, I rolled, then crawled, then ran away.

I hid the green tape with my hair. Barefoot, I crept in stairwells, searched for safe passages, and memorized the map. Once, I ran through the empty casino toward the maze of cabins, air smokey and thick, a riot of dings and whirls covering the shouts and footfalls behind me. Later, I had to climb up to the eleventh deck to avoid a suspicious guard. I burst from the stairwell and encountered four people I knew in middle and high school. Oblivious of what I was running from and what was happening just one deck above, not noticing my sweat or terror, they asked me if I knew a good place to tan. Not sure if they could be trusted, not sure if they were in trouble themselves, I tried to warn them that it was too hot on the pool deck. They didn’t understand and took off at a gleeful gallop, and the hallway was too full to call after them or to warn them more directly. I don’t know if I was sending them to their deaths or not. The State had decided there was nothing wrong with them, and they believed there was nothing wrong anywhere.

I don’t know what to make of it. Not yet. Maybe never. But it isn’t hard to see my fears manifesting. I see the lack of compassion, the lies in the current government. Just yesterday the White House Press Secretary spouted what amounted to Holocaust denials from behind the Presidential seal. And it’s not hard to see how selfish and privileged my fear of being one of the undesirables was. And I haven’t been diagnosed; I don’t know if I should be or if I will be at some point.

How has my internalization of ableism manifested here? Am I so ableist that I fear a diagnosis, and of being branded? Or do I feel solidarity with mentally ill people? Or am I just so afraid that all my Holocaust studies will be acted out before my eyes? What am I not doing that I should to support Jewish, Muslim, disabled, and other marginalized communities?

This is Holy Week, during which Christians remember Jesus’ final week before his arrest on false charges, torture, abandonment by friends, betrayal by the justice system, and then his slaughter. Only later do we celebrate his resurrection, rejoicing that goodness and love cannot be killed.

I follow an innocent Middle Eastern Jew who was murdered after a sham trial.

Dear Lord, show me the innocents I need to help protect. Make me stand up when I see violence and injustice around me. Give me courage and passion as I speak against the dangers others face. Heal, and please let me help. Most of all, forgive me. Forgive us.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher.

Every freshman at my alma mater had to attend a certain number of enrichment presentations—skits or lectures or plays—for our ‘intro to college’ class. Of those I attended that first semester, I only remember two. One was about consent (yay!), the other was about…well, courage, I guess. It was called Major in Success and attempted to get us to buy the speaker’s book (I did) and to think about what really makes us happy. He told stories about other college students he’d met and helped, about gloriously successful people in their respective fields who’d once been doing other things. He encouraged us to find a way to make that really happy, fulfilling thing in our lives our major, and promised success would come.

It’s a little hokey, but the part I most remember was when he asked the question, “If you could do whatever you wanted and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you do?” Talking it over with my roommates that night, I said I wanted to be a novelist. The rightness of that moment solidified in me and has defined by long-term goals in the decade since. Judgeship was out. Law school was out. History teacher was out. I realigned my life and goals and on I’ve marched since then.

Until November 9, 2016.

I’ve had no desire to publish since that date. None. It evaporated. Or exploded. Or was sucked out of me in that single, pain-blurred moment I can barely remember when I opened the BBC news election page and realized Donald Trump had won. My desire to publish had been a constant of my identity and inner world for nine years, and it’d been whispering in my head far longer than that. I felt robbed, horrified, and guilty that people were at risk of losing their rights if not their lives, but I merely felt bereft of my dream.

Then things got worse.

About a week after the election, I was fighting depression and didn’t know it. I lacked vitality, energy, motivation. I could not get enough sleep. I didn’t know why I couldn’t write letters and call representatives like I had the week after the election. I didn’t know why it was so hard to craft a tweet, though I kept retweeting. I had trouble praying. I kept writing—completing NaNo—but took none of my usual joy in it.

As my depression worsened, I would sit at my computer feeling wretchedly guilty for being so inefficient, so distracted, so unproductive, but every email I read cost me something, as did every paragraph of my answer. I couldn’t drive across the street to the store for food and Christmas shopping made me want to lie down and never get back up. In the evenings, I lay on the couch and watched a Hallmark Christmas movie. Or two. Then I went to bed.

I had almost no appetite so I let myself eat whatever I felt like or whatever I easily had on hand. The one time I tried to bully myself into eating an actual breakfast with actual nutrition, I made a dozen breakfast casseroles in a muffin tin and forced myself to eat one standing in the kitchen. I threw the rest away a week later, feeling like a ridiculous failure that even reheating had been beyond me.

Caught off guard by a coworker asking about NaNo, I confessed that I felt like I was dying. He assumed it was because NaNo was hard or I was behind on my word counts. I wasn’t.

I don’t know if the election result was a trigger or just bad timing. The situation was never far from my mind, though. I felt despondent, pessimistic, fearful, hopeless, and unable to face the next year, let alone the next four. I didn’t want to die or be dead, but I wanted to be unaware. Not hiding in a hole somewhere, more like unconscious. I wanted to sleep away the next four years. That’s all I felt capable of doing. And I felt incredibly guilty that I wasn’t joining those who I knew were already fighting for people’s rights.

After about a month of this, I emailed my best friend, telling her I wasn’t okay and asking her to pray for me. Explaining my symptoms was the first time I thought I might be depressed. In her reply, she gently suggested the same thing.

Just having a name to it helped. I read up and talked to more people about it. I ordered books and sweatshirts. I found a graphic novel that made me laugh aloud and read it over and over. One weekend when I had a cold, I left work at noon, went through the drive-thru for a dozen Krystals, got in bed with a book, and read it. I ate Krystals, read, fell asleep, woke up, finished the book. I ate more Krystals and started another book. I didn’t get up more than necessary the entire weekend and refused to feel guilty about it because I had a cold. Nevermind that I was also depressed.

I’m not really sure when I came out of the depression. I got up the Monday after Christmas knowing a friend was coming for the day, but until then the house was empty and still. I organized books, cleaned, started laundry, then met my friend for lunch and had a great day with her. She’d suffered depression the year before, and I could tell she understood what I’d been going through by the way she nodded and leaned in as I spoke, even before she shared some of her struggles. We looped arms and walked and walked, swapping book recommendations and snarking at bad Christmas novels on the second-hand bookstore’s clearance racks. It was the first really good day I’d had since the first week of November.

But I didn’t know if I’d be okay the next day. (I didn’t know that about depression until my first good day, how every new day is laced with uncertainty: Will today be the day it comes back?)

The next day was another good day, except that was the day Carrie Fisher passed away.

So many others have written about what she means and meant to them. I won’t add to it, except to say that I’d been following news of her closely since she first fell ill, and I’d been revisiting some of my favorites of her work. That day, once she was gone, I finally started listening to The Princess Diarist on audiobook. I wanted to sink into her insight and humor and honesty. I wanted to hear her voice again.

Perhaps an hour into the book, my desire to publish surged back. I could feel it returning, slower than it left me, beating in me until it was solid. I don’t exactly know how Carrie Fisher inspired that, but I believe she did. My depression didn’t magically go away—I still had some bad days, but none of them were anywhere close to the bad days of December. I also had more good days than bad, then a whole week of good, then I stopped counting how long since the last bad day. My energy is still a little low and my progress is slow, but I’m working again. And I want to publish one day.

Thank you, Carrie Fisher. If Donald Trump stole my dream, you pulled me back to it.