Since we’ve been in what I like to call, Consideration-for-others-because-I’m-not-an-asshole Lockdown, few of us have bothered much to get out of pajamas, much less dress up. That’s fine by me! I’m a writer so comfy jeans and a sweater are my go-to grabs in the morning. Even when we go out in this casual part of the world, slacks and a little bit nicer sweater are all that’s required. Couture? I might as well dress up and put on a fashion show for the local cows.
It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere like Venice, Italy, where I generally make an effort to dress well out of respect for the locals there who always look fabulous. I also have a horror of being one of those Americans in their Disneyland T-shirts, runners, and yoga pants or shorts that really set off their cellulite. Nothing against having a little mottled fat, we all do, but do we really need to parade that stuff around 16th century palazzos and cathedrals? It’s just a bit…uh…tacky, but mostly it’s disrespectful. If you threw a elegant cocktail party and people showed up in flip-flops and tank tops would you be happy? With any luck, I’ll be back in Italy in December, but luck is wavering like a heat haze in the distance right now and what looks like my jewelled city waiting for me could be a sloppy mud hut of a mirage.
It’s also been a while since I’ve had to dress up all the time, for a living. Personally, I’ll be happy if I never have to wear makeup or get my hair done again. Honestly. Once you’ve spent two to four hours everyday in a makeup chair listening to not always so benign gossip you get realllllly tired of it. Especially when special effects are involved. I don’t even want to go into spending hours waiting for a plaster mold to dry on your face with straws stuck in your nostrils so you can breathe.
Then there are the clothes. The ones you have to get into every day in your dressing room after hours of fittings. Sometimes, like in “On Deadly Ground” I wore the same suit for at least two months. On the soap it was a constant fashion show. Once they left a price tag on a white turtle neck for me to put on under a sweater, and it was Armani, $900. Then of course, there are appearances, openings, galas, award shows and charity benefits where you cannot wear the same thing twice. I spent so many of those events just wanting to get home, throw on my cozies, and wash my face.
When I moved from my home in LA, I left almost all the glam there. I sold tons of jewelry, most of my designer formal wear went to resale shops, and tons of it went to local thrift stores. I was moving into a simpler life as a writer in rural beauty.
Everything I’d ever wanted.
But then Covid-19 happened and we were stuck at home without the option. I, as well as 83.9 percent of the world, got depressed. I was sad and lacking in energy, which, for someone nicknamed Action, is not acceptable.
I needed to buck up and to make other people smile. The grumpy ol’ man inside my head shook his gnarled fist at me and said, “Get off your ass and quit your damn moping, loser. And keep your bad attitude off my lawn!!”
Long ago my voice coach told me that when you feel lost and defeated you just have to do something, anything, just get started. So I decided to dress up and go take pics doing normal stuff. The photos were silly and fun, and harder than it looked. But it worked. I got a great reaction, and the responses were filled with smiles.So I did it a few more times and I will again.
My coach was right. Every time I get off my butt and do something; hike, cook, write, take pictures of nature, whatever, it revs me up, and I can do more.
So do something creative.
Then share it.
And just maybe,
It’ll get a smile.
I know some people don’t like rain, but after living 35 years in Los Angeles, every time it rains at our new home in Washington State I cannot stop smiling.
The energetic atmosphere, the wind, the moisture, and most of all the sky itself thrill and amaze me. Every moment presents a different quality of light on the water, every evening introduces new colors to my visual vocabulary.
The days are shorter here, which works just fine for me. It’s twilight by 4ish, and night by 4:30. Since I prefer to do most of my work in the earlier hours, that just means I get to get up earlier and knock off earlier, leaving long luxurious evenings in front of the fire.
Recently our daughters and their boyfriends visited. I had warned them that they would have to make the most of the daylight, so on the first morning, the surfer among them came bounding down the hall at 7 a.m. in his pj bottoms, arms in the air, calling excitedly, “We have to get everybody up. It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
It was funny, because it’s true. We repeated the line often during their visit and it became the vacation mantra, one or the other of us would attempt to rally the others to get going to lunch or a hike or a trip to the beach to gather oysters because…“It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
It wasn’t until after they left and Christmas flew by that I realized what an apt motto it was. I mean, it’s true in so many ways. The twinkling holiday lights will shine for few weeks only to be packed away, summer’s brilliance dims, youthful relationships that kindled warmth fall away as lives get complicated, and eventually we all wander into death’s shade.
It’s gonna’ be dark sooner or later. Well, soon enough. And while that can be sad, depressing even, it doesn’t have to be. It can actually be comforting in its offer of perspective. We know the sun will set, winter will come, we know intellectually that everything, even the planet, even the universe, will eventually come to an end. All the better to remind ourselves to run down hallways, along beaches, up hillsides, through meadows, shouting, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!” to celebrate the light that we have now.
One of my dearest friends and mentors was a lifelong sufferer of Crone’s disease. I remember, back when he was in his forties, going for a test that would tell him if the disease had flared to an uncontrollable point, one that would mean his untimely demise. He had to wait 24 hours to get the results.
“You would think—hell, I thought,” he told me, “that would be one of the worst days of my life, that pressure, that unknowing.” He smiled and shook his head. “Turns out, it was one of the best because nothing, and I mean nothing, bothered me. Nothing was important. Someone cut me off in traffic? Not worth getting angry about. My soup was served cold? No big deal. My family is fighting? It pales in significance compared to the pronouncement of a death sentence.”
In short, he said, it was amazing. Everyone shone brighter, and he appreciated every small thing. After the news came that he would likely live a few more years, the elation faded, and things went back to being annoying and frustrating, but he could still laugh things off better than anyone else I’ve ever known. Once, when I was bitching about graffiti in my neighborhood, he asked, “Can’t you just see it as urban art?” I couldn’t, so I stressed and fumed ineffectually. But he could. Where I saw a problem, he chose to see beauty.
That was the amazing David Beaird. He was a man from whom I learned so much. One of the best writers I’ve ever met, though he wrote plays and movies instead of books like I do. My favorite of his movies, ‘Scorchers,’ opens with a very brave three-minute monologue given by one of the finest actors I know. The monologue talks about growing up and swimming in a river lit golden by sunlight, yet when he tried to tell grownups in a position of authority that he found this legendary place, they told him there is no such thing as golden river. He was crushed and hurt, but, he goes on to say, they could never make me believe it didn’t exist because, “I swum in it.”
It’s a glorious piece of writing, and one of my favorite acting performances. You should look it up.
This last year, my friend David passed away, the lifetime of pain and disease finally caught up in spite of his amazing spirit. His widow, who is a remarkable human in her own right, came up to visit me a few months afterward. She told me about the long wait in the hospital once he’d lost consciousness, and the vigil of family of friends. The best of those friends was the actor who performed that golden river monologue a thousand times on stage and once for the movie, Leland Crooke.
We talked about the fact that Leland had always been David’s muse as well as his best friend. Then she showed me something wonderful. While she and Leland had sat bedside, unsure if David was aware of anything around him, Leland began to speak those beautiful words in the golden river monologue to the man who wrote them, for only him. My friend very quietly recorded the moment.
The image is something I will not forget. Two men, lifelong friends, one on life support, the other sitting in a chair beside the bed, delivering a private performance. He recited from his heart those words about believing in things that you know to be true no matter what anyone in a position of ‘authority’ tells you. No one can deny the existence of that golden river because, once you’ve swum in it, it belongs to you. It is beautiful, it is magical, and it is real.
I have been honored to love so much, to live so fully, and to have experiences of my own like that golden river. Places and moments have happened for me that I alone remember, that only I know to be true.
So, I think, it’s important to see that night will inevitably fall, bringing an unknown eternity or the sweet relief of nothingness. Life is fleeting, slippery, and finite.
And if you remember that, then you will wonder at all the beauty around you. You can go and search for your golden river every day. Maybe for you it will be a silver mist that swirls around in a forest, or a glint of rainbow prisms through a dew drop. Your moments may be huge, or they may flash past, but if you absorb them into your heart, they will live with you, and no one can ever take that away.
So today, I shall run in the rain, and splash in puddles, and slip into the forest to sit still and listen to the drip of moisture onto moss and leaf, the subtle, soft thump-thump of life.
And tomorrow I will get out bed and my spirit will shout to get up and play, because, “It’s gonna’ be dark soon!”
Because of that perspective, the river will shine a more brilliant gold.
I hadn’t planned to go to Prescott Arizona, but when one of my husband’s few remaining relatives took a fall and relapsed from her brain surgery, I grabbed a carryon, threw in a few sweaters and headed for the airport.
I didn’t want to go to the deep red state, carpeted with sage brush and gun stores in seemingly equal proportion, where the air is so dry and the people are so conservative it makes my nose bleed, but someone needed me—so I zipped up my suitcase and my mouth and went to help. It’s what you do.
I have lots of family, and sadly, as with every family, I have lost quite a few of my very favorite relatives, I’ve sat bed-side at home hospice through the end, cleaned houses turned to hoarders’ caves by senility, and spent endless hours dealing with lawyers, hospitals, insurance companies, and hysterical loved ones who selfishly tried to make it all about them. I’ve shopped for caskets, planned memorials, and visited gravesides and hospitals enough for a lifetime. I have comforted, fought, stepped up, and wept, I have wept as I thought I would never weep again.
Until I did.
Luckily, overall my side of the family is a healthy, long-living bunch. My mom is one of seven sisters and I have a large family on my dad’s side too, so there are plenty of aunts, uncles, first, second and third cousins to keep those photo Christmas cards rolling in. I look forward to seeing how everyone has grown, where they’ve gone on vacation or to school, who’s starting college, graduated, gotten married, pregnant, addicted, arrested, the whole sordid, magnificent, ongoing, family saga.
But my husband is an only child with no offspring of his own. He has only one first cousin who also has no children, so his generation is functionally the last. He wanted children of his own very badly, but instead opted to care for my girls and raise them with me. It wasn’t always a job filled with gratitude or promotion, but ultimately they came to love and treasure him because he adores them, takes care of them, always puts them ahead of himself, but mostly because he treats me like a treasure and they like to see me happy.
But it’s not the same, I know it’s not. I know that he gave up the dream of marrying a younger woman than me (I’m four years older than he and didn’t meet him until I was 40) who could give him children and the subsequent family that flows ever outwards in the form of in-laws, grandchildren, future wives’ second families, ad infinitum.
Okay, maybe only one wife, but you get my drift. Some families seem to keep expanding like yeast when you soak it in water, and some families sort of slowly empty like a cookie jar that no one refills. Once, shiny and new, it was stuffed with multiple generations, group gatherings, weddings, and birth announcements, but now it sits, chipped and gathering dust on the countertop, and all that is left inside are the funerals and a fading family album.
But that doesn’t mean the cookies weren’t delicious.
It’s odd to say, but I think being part of a large, extended family is both an advantage and a drawback when it comes to hardships and death. I suppose the fact that I have been through much loss makes me better prepared to handle the tragedies when they come, on the other hand—they come more often.
I’ve learned things. I know who to speak to if you want to get the right care, I know not to harass nurses for doctors’ information, or challenge the insurance company without a lawyer, I know what details should not be allowed to fall through the cracks, I know people will lose it sometimes, that they will laugh inappropriately to keep from going insane, I know how much work it is to clean up after a life and dismantle a home, I know that relatives will fight over things they never cared for in life, I know that this too shall pass, and I understand that I will now have a new indelible date on my calendar—a death date.
Stepping back into caregiver role is familiar for me as it is for many people my age, especially women. It so often falls to us to care for the infirm or hold a hand as a spirit slips quietly over. I know what it is to have someone in room with you one second, and then they just aren’t there anymore. I truly believe that in general women have more strength for suffering of all kinds. Throughout our lives we have dealt with blood and pain on a monthly basis, seemingly irrational emotional upheaval has been a frequent visitor, and cleaning unthinkable messes is all too familiar to us. I don’t mean to discount the strength that men have, it can be profound, but it is seldom sublime.
The times in my life when I have forced myself to function while tears streamed uncontrollably from my eyes and my voice broke from the strain of debilitating emotion are too many to count. Inevitably when this happens to me whoever I am dealing with, confronting, or comforting, will tell me to calm down or try to sooth me. Mostly because an honest display of feeling makes them uncomfortable. To this I always say, “I am fine. My emotion is not a weakness, it is a strength. I can, and will, go on. I can feel all of this and remain standing”
So when people start to lose it around me, I double up on grit. I get so full of grit I might as well be made of sand, and sand, as we all know, melts into glass. I have never been through the fragility of a severe illness or a death and not come out of it feeling more beautiful and enriched than I was before. The hue of sand may be bland, but after it passes through the fire, it turns into colors that deepen and strike back at the sunlight that strives to pass through them.
But not everyone has that sense of recovery or the experience to know that they will. Some people have bad things happen and say, ‘why me?’ rather than, ‘my turn.’ So when I was talking with my Aunt-in-law, who has no children and made most of her life choices around herself all her life, my perspective was somewhat different than hers.
In the last ten years this aunt has lost her parents, in their eighties, her brother, in his sixties, and her much older husband. This is nature, this is the circle. Family members grow old and they die, and if there are no children, the family line eventually ends. This is a fact, not a punishment. So when she looked at me with tears in her eyes and bleated, “What is happening to this family?” I was able to look back at her with a smile as sure as dawn and say, “Every family goes through these things.” Then I told her that because of my charity I have often dealt with families losing a young child and pointed out the difference between losing a three year old and a husband in his eighties. I know it’s not any easier to lose a husband than a child, but I never met a parent who wouldn’t change places with their child, if only they had been given the choice. I told her that my great-grandmother buried all five of her children before her own death at 104. That shocked her into a different, much needed, perspective.
Then I sat down and took her hand. I told her the Buddhist story of a woman who lost her child and was so distraught that she went to the monk in her village and asked him what to do, she wanted nothing but to die.
He gave her an empty jar and told her, “Take this jar around the countryside, and every time you find someone who has not lost a loved one, ask them to put one pebble in the jar. When the jar is full, return to me and I will tell you what to do.” So the woman took the jar and went from village to village, from house to house, but she never did get even one pebble, for every family had lost someone beloved. What she did find were others who had suffered as she was suffering and and they comforted her, they understood and shared her loss. What she found was that she was not alone, that death and loss were an integral part of being human. At long last, she returned to the monk, gave him the empty jar, and thanked him before going on with her life, always taking time to help others through their losses and their own unique, but familiar, unfathomable pain.
The time came for me to return home for other family responsibilities and my husband stayed on, he’s still with his aunt. At the departure gate, I received a phone call that another family member (mine this time) has just been diagnosed with cancer, and so that journey begins. Already filled with leaden sadness, my trip home was one misadventure after another, nasty airline personnel, bad directions, a bumpy flight through storm clouds, lost parking ticket, and on and on until it cumulated in me leaning against a trash can in front of terminal two at San Jose International and crying from my gut just long enough to bleed that poison out before bucking up and getting on with it. If anyone bothered to notice, they may have thought I was weak or broken, but it was exactly the opposite.
Somebody needs me, and I need to be there.
We all get a turn. We all hold a hand, feel the desperation of not being able to make it better, we all wake up at night and dread the coming dawn, we all think we will not be able to take one more step. But we are not alone. Each of us knows devastation to our souls at some point. Though we may feel that no one suffers as we do, if we search for them, the jar stays empty, at least until we fill it with compassion and memories.
Recently, one of my most talented and positive friends asked on Facebook, “How do you reset when you are blue and stressed?” Wow, great question and there were many wise and humorous suggestions posted, most of them featured nature, music, or watching other people make fools of themselves, but I couldn’t help wondering if the better question would be “How do I keep myself from becoming blue and stressed?”
Which shows both my naiveté and a severe drop of IQ, probably due to early drug abuse combined with late menopausal symptoms, because the glaring truth of course is that you can’t. Anxiety, sadness, stress and frustration are all quite normal parts of being human and alive both at once.
You can try a few things; blunting, transference, isolation and alienation, but that doesn’t feel like much fun either, and ultimately, all of those things will only make you feel worse not to mention pretty much universally despised, which will make you angrier and more afraid which will make you stressed and anxious and well, we’re right back where we started, only deeper. That hasn’t stopped me from trying them all!
It’s the carnival ride of the insane. Climbing on the dark carousel of avoidance is a morose and discordant experience where the only appropriate exclamation is a wheezing gasp of despair. Nobody, and I mean nobody shouts, “Wheee!” when that funride gets up to speed. But we all seem incapable of avoiding being sucked into the line along with the rest of the crowd every once in a while.
In fact, the only people who don’t have a ticket to that not-so-merry-go-round is a true psychopath, and frankly a life without compassion, empathy and remorse is not a life worth living, so be grateful when you can recognize that the ticket in your hand was paid for by the yearning for unconsciousness and go get it punched in another part of the park. Oh look, over there, I can crawl into a cage and be the attraction for a bit, or see the circus freaks by entering the house of mirrors. It might be hard to keep your eyes open but at least you got the hell off the round-about and are moving in some direction, it might be down, but eventually it will lead to up.
So now that we’ve established that shit happens, we have to face it. And that’s where falling comes in, and here’s my advice.
Tuck and roll.
You might not spring back to your feet, you might lay on the ground moaning for a while— a lateral move to self-pity can be quite liberating actually, I personally recommend blaming everyone else from a hot bath from a view through amber whiskey in cut crystal—you might scream for mercy or smash crockery in a rage, you may stare at a blank wall and confess that you are nothing, less than worthless and there’s no hope for a bit, but believe it or not, those are all good. Well…better than pretending that life is a fairyland of sprouting wildflowers and gentle summer days. Because baby, I’m here to tell you, rain will fall and your best option is to dance in it, cry in it, rail at it, but damn it, get soaking wet. It’s the only way back out.
Now, wallowing is fine for a while, still you wouldn’t want to live there.
I was a competitive ice skater and falling was something I did several hundred times a day. You can actually get good at it, and you’ll never improve if you don’t do it, so suck it up and get bruised every once in a while.
It’s fascinating to me that science and experience are now showing me that we learn our responses to stimuli, like, say…your mom’s disappointed face, or your classmates mocking you, or a scary man yelling at you. Our brain actually memorises a chemical pattern that cannot be broken with logic, reason, or even intense self-examination and realisation. When the lady at the store twists up her little puckered mouth in judgement, those chemicals remember your mom’s criticism and start an instant chain of chemicals firing that affect a physical sensation your body and brain have diligently rehearsed. There is a perfectly good physiological reason for this: self-protection. When we are in fear or danger, we have responses that are necessary to our survival, but the odds are that someone attacking your political views on facebook don’t immediately threaten your life. (Okay, idiots who defend automatic guns and greed-fueled health care systems actually do endanger us all in the long run, but I’m talking about right now.) None-the-less, the reaction is the same in us. Trouble is, we don’t have any use for all that adrenaline and fear response so we can’t express or expel it.
And so, our hands shake, our head hurts, our hearts race, our stomachs churn with acid, and we generally feel like crap.
Which is not fun but it is unavoidable. We can’t help it, it’s what our amazing bodies learned to do to protect us. And those things are there to help us when we really need them. We can’t stop them from happening, nor would we really want to if you think about it. Should you stick your hand in a fire? Probably not, your brain tells you. When a car swerves into you lane, your adrenaline fires, time slows down, and you respond without even thinking to brake and avoid a collision. These responses are good and they are our friends.
But what about when they aren’t wanted or necessary?
Tuck and roll baby, tuck and roll. The chemical hit (anxiety, palpitation, increased blood pressure and the inevitable come down, i.e. sadness and depression) will still come, and all we can do it take the punch, lick the wounds and learn to let it go more quickly.
Best thing you can do, I think, is recognize that it’s happening. Identify where in your body it’s affecting you, and then change it up when you can.
That’s why nature helps so much, why the calming energy soothes us, especially water for most people, because the brain releases serotonin when your eyes gaze out over the ripples of a lake. That’s why music switches on a different reaction the strain cause oxytocin levels to surge. That’s why dancing and laughing stir a healthy dose of dopamine into the mix, exercise releases endorphins and that counteracts the overdose of other nasty chemical excretions that we unwittingly shot up with when we were triggered by the fear of loss of even very real exposure.
Aren’t I smart? Aren’t I so very capable of understanding and dealing with all of life and it’s many challenges? Aren’t I a ball of calm and light?
Oh HELL no! (Just ask hubby, he’ll be glad to tell you when he stops laughing.) What I have gotten better at is explaining it all to myself, that doesn’t mean I don’t weep in the back of the closet or wrap myself in a shell of bitterness or occasionally declare that I need nobody and nothing and I’ll show them…!
Oh yeah, living hurts sometimes like going over the handlebars a mountain bike downhill in rough gravel, which, I have done, recently.
But it’s nice to know that no matter how depressed I get, if I put a stupid, forced smile on my face and march around like an idiot clown on bungy cord springs singing “La la la la” in a ridiculously high voice I can actually change my chemistry! Works every time, at least a little bit, and sometimes when I’m desperate and beat all to hell I’ll take whatever I can get.
Tuck and roll baby.
The best thing I’ve found to make a permanent change is tapping, a process that can actually break and retrain those memorised chemical pathways and thought patterns but that’s for another day. I do recommend you look it up. Go on youtube and try a led session. It works. They use it for PTSD patients.
Meanwhile, drag your falling ass up off the carpet and look out the window at anything green. Smell some lavender, listen to Mozart or rap or whatever lifts your heart, and for Goddess’ sake laugh. Even if it’s not funny, even if there’s nothing to laugh at, even if it’s more-fake-than-bad-acting laughing, laugh. It will change the lethal mix of excretions and thought patterns that bludgeon you into an emotional pulp on a daily basis. It will smooth the ride through the Waring blender of life.
So I’m having a bad day, like you do. It’s not so much that bad things are happening to me as it is that anything that does happen is being processed through my filters as emotional torture. You know the kind of thing, someone is rude at the grocery store and you can’t let it go, someone else has four dogs off the leash on a walk in a state park where it is clearly marked ‘no dogs’ and when you mention this, you get a condescending, “Thank you,” before the bitch returns to her loud cell phone call while her dogs harass the wildlife and poop on the trail and as much as I’d like to I can’t bring myself to drop kick one of the canines into the stream, (the rules don’t apply to them after all) my daughters are criticizing me for ______ (fill in whatever works for you cause I am not alone in this), there’s a dead fawn on the road where everyone speeds like idiots because it’s their god given entitlement to kill everything in their path because they want to go fast. Pretty soon I’m stuck on the ‘people suck’ loop and I’m crying for no apparent reason and contemplating returning to drug addiction or wondering if anyone will notice if I just move to a remote village in the Abruzzi.
But no, people need me here. That’s what we tell ourselves anyway. I get overwhelmed by the sheer annoyance of not being able to end it all because eventually someone will need help moving, a recipe, a ride to the hospital, or a babysitter. And I, sigh, will raise my hand and volunteer.
Being needed is a blessing…and a curse. I suppose that’s because the required minimum—making small talk with people who watch reality TV, showing up at family events to be mocked by your siblings, listening to your father make racist jokes that he thinks are funny and innocent without taking his head off, and not letting the general public’s general bad behavior ruin every outing—take so much energy.
Okay, it saps my life strength. Over the years I’ve come to dislike people, not all of them of course, but the more I paid attention and shifted what is important in my life from surface success to actual kindness and decency on every level, the more disappointed I became.
So recently my 82-year old father and his wife were moving out of their home of 30-something years in Atlanta and the entire nasty pack up and move fell onto my only sibling left on the east coast, I decided I’d better go help. My oldest daughter, knowing that if I had to sit a house with Fox news blaring all day without emotional back up I might actually commit patricide, courageously offered to come and help.
Now there’s nobody who collects shit and hangs onto it more efficiently and pointlessly than wealthy white folks. I kid you not there were a dozen full sets of china, countless boxes of unused and unopened stemware, expensive suits and dresses with the tags still on them that were out of style in the late nineties, and three punch bowl sets, one of them with 52 cups. When my step mom said she wanted to keep it, I asked her how often she was going to have a garden party with 52 guests. She shrugged and said, “Who knows?”
I do. I know. Never. I used to entertain like that, but no more. Fact is, it got to the point that I realized I was throwing parties, spending thousands of dollars and weeks of effort, to entertain people who didn’t appreciate it at all. I think I swore it off after the time I used the Limoge china at a garden party only to find two broken plates shoved under chairs the next morning and cigarette butts ground out on my patio. Enough. And after years of taking in every orphan who had no where to go on holidays, including them in my family celebrations, putting them up, buying them gifts, and cooking for twelve, pretty much every one of those people completely blew me off when I divorced the last husband. My response to that when I climbed, still bleeding, out of the back of the closet where I’d been licking my wounds was ultimately, “Good riddance,” but it took a while to heal from that poison arrow puncture.
It’s come to the point that I’m in danger of becoming a recluse, which is fine, because my husband is the same way, but eventually and inevitably….somebody is going to need a hand cleaning their apartment so that they get their deposit back and I have all the pine-sol.
So after I get back from doing my good daughter deeds in conservative hell and I’m having this bad day, I’m driving around looking for a place I can pull over and just curl up in the leaf litter alone for a good hour or so of self-pity, otherwise I’ll go swimming with rocks in my pockets, when I get a text from older daughter. ‘Have you talked to my sister? She’s at the clinic at school.’
Time to be mom and shut down all concern for self. I turn the car around and drive to campus, find the clinic, and then find X-ray where she’s having her head examined, literally. Parking is a bit a challenge, but once I work that out I start trying to find a way to get into a building that was clearly designed to confuse and confound the non-student-or-faculty-visitor. Still fragile and feeling like my nerves are stretched thinner than five hundred feet of frayed, tangled dental floss, I see two young women sitting on a bench outside the building. They are hugging, one’s head tight into the other’s shoulder. I do not know if they are friends, lovers, or strangers thrown together in some difficult moment, but it does not matter. What I see is love, compassion, real connection. Tears start streaming down my face and as they both look up at me, I say in a choked voice, “That makes me happy. I’m having a really bad day and that really makes me happy.” I am aware that I look and sound like an emotionally unstable wreck and while I learned long ago that experiencing my emotions honestly is a strength not a weakness and that I cannot control what others think, I am just hoping that I don’t freak them out.
And then the miracle happens. They both make eye contact and smile with authentic warmth, the one with her head down says, “Oh, I’m so glad!” with such enthusiasm that the fog in my head and heart dissipate in an instant, clearing so that the light on the dogwoods around us and the shadows of the ferns on wall shine with fresh beauty. They were just as beautiful a moment before of course but as I said, my filters, like sunglasses smeared with pond scum, would not allow me to experience it.
I continue past them, tears coming harder, but joyous now. Yes, my pain and my fullness are my strength, I know this, and sometimes, just every once in a while, some one else sees that too.
My daughter turned out to have a sinus infection instead of leaking brain fluid, so…that’s good, and most important. But almost equally elating was the look on her face when I came into the exam room. The shy, almost child-like smile that let me know she was glad I could be there even as she told me I didn’t need to come. She doesn’t need me, this one, she was born independent, but she was still glad for my presence.
And that’s why I will continue to volunteer to be dragged over the searing coals of the emotional exposure BBQ. Few people in our lives will appreciate the percentage of effort or the sacrifice of our personal happiness that giving up our own peace of mind just to care—for them and their world—costs us. That’s okay.
I’m glad I went to help my Dad, even if my blood boiled at his willful ignorance and apathy. (We don’t recycle, it’s too much trouble. Global warming is bullshit.) I’m really glad I took a small portion of the responsibility off of my sister, the one of the four of us who always does what’s right. I’m glad I get angry when people treat others or their environment with disdain and arrogance. I will endure the exhaustion that comes from fighting for others who can’t fight for themselves and for a future I will not live to see. I’m glad that I can speak through tears when I needed to stand up to someone for treating me or others badly. So many people see those things as weakness, as unnecessary, as overwrought, or they just plain resent you because caring or calling them out makes them uncomfortable.
There is a moment in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” where Holly Go Lightly says she gets the reds and is corrected, “I think you mean the blues.” But she knows very well that she means the ‘reds’. I do too. It’s that muddy anxiety that starts with nervous prickling and grows until it’s as though sharp metal shavings and shards of glass are being power-blasted in your chest and stomach. The reds suck.
It happens to me more often that I would expect for someone who, let’s be honest, is having a pretty damn amazing life. I’m happy, strong, positive and lucky, yet it happens anyway. I can feel it creeping up on me, slithering into my body, my brain and my attitude, an actual chemical cocktail that I can now identify as surely as the flu. I know it is coming, and I know it will last a day, or two, or a week, or two. It sucks.
It is beyond my magic powers to just make it go away. I cannot reason with myself that it’s not real or worth the trouble, the shitty feeling is indifferent to debate. Like anyone experiencing ugliness and discomfort I’d love to simply make a different choice, but it isn’t simple. You can’t just shrug off the reds anymore than a virus or chronic depression. Talking about it incessantly or passing it on to others who are unfortunate enough to incur my wrath only exacerbates the situation. (Just ask the guy who tried to cut the line at the grocery store in front of me. He’s probably still muttering ‘bitch’ under his fetid breath. Oh how I hated him!) I feel as though I’ve been thrown from a car and then run over—scratched, bruised and bleeding, and even the mildest of irritants hit me like a switch on an open sore. Which sucks.
What does help is realizing what’s going on, naming it, and acknowledging its presence in the room. Of course, that doesn’t mean it will stay in the room while I sneak out and shut the door behind me. The reds are parasitic, they only exist because I do and the effects linger, mocking any attempt to shake them off. My efforts to muster a positive attitude are met with evil laughter like sniggers from a cruel sibling. So…that sucks.
There are some things I can do to lessen or even sometimes alleviate the worst of it. Exercise helps a lot, but getting motivated takes a herculean effort. Spending quiet time in nature, meditating, hot baths, massages, and comfort food can help, (though you have to watch out for overdoing alcohol and sugar which can both make it worse), and one of the best remedies is laughter. Which doesn’t suck.
On the worst days I cocoon. I lock the door, turn off my phone, and climb into bed with a good book, something that won’t hurt me like P.G. Wodehouse or Rex Stout. On these days I don’t read stories where children die or woman are abused. I don’t watch dramatic movies or violent TV shows, that would be like shopping for shock therapy.
It’s not that I’m weak or afraid. I am a strong woman, make no mistake. Once, at the funeral of a child I loved very much, my thankfully now ex-husband wanted to leave and when I refused he asked me, “How much of this can you take?” With a surge of fury, I looked through him and answered, “A lot. I can take a lot.” It wasn’t about him being comfortable, the son of a bitch, it was about the reality of pain and confusion and a horrible, sudden, gaping void for people whose loss was greater than mine. I was there to offer what small support or comfort I could. I was there to bear to witness. These are the things for which I save my strength, and I’ve come to learn that excess strength is finite, so I try to use it well.
Still, even with all the determination and will in the world, the reds come. Still, I have days where I find myself sitting in my car, slumped in my seat, feeling too vulnerable to face some random asshole cutting the line at the grocery store. (Oh how I hated him!) It’s not that I won’t stand up to someone, as that guy would probably love to tell you, it’s that to do so today will cost me far more any normal day. I am heavy, exhausted, sad and I do not know when my back will straighten and heart lift, I cannot see an end.
And then, miracle of miracles, a child laughs on the sidewalk and I find the strength to turn my head and watch his dancing eyes. The corners of my mouth twitch upwards. Right behind that beautiful boy two young women are walking hand in hand, clearly in love, and my heart soars with the realization that I have lived to see this freedom to love, it’s a gift for me. My forehead softens, the creases easing. A grey haired man walks up to a homeless family and offers them his lunch and couple of bucks, smiles and handshakes are exchanged and my heart flops like a fish in the mud, showing signs of life. Sounds dramatic, I know, but what do you expect from an author-slash-writer-slash-fully-alive-woman? I see the world in extremes sometimes. I did not choose a soft, easy, suburban life where the hard things are easily dismissed or wilfully ignored. I see it, I feel it, I know that I am a part of it. A part of what you ask?
All of it. Yep, even the reds. It may be hormonal, it may be a by-product of the evil that men project, I feel such things, I’m sure of it. I believe we all do, but very much like hearing or smell or vision, some of us have one sense that is sharper than others. When the reds sap my life force and defenses, the hits go un-deflected. Some days the reds leave me trembling and gasping for happiness, not for any reason that I can see, but oh boy, I can feel whirlpool sucking at my soul. Which…well, sucks.
Today is a red day. So I will look closely at flowers by the side of the road instead of the line of traffic in front of me, I will be still and listen to the river beneath my deck rather than the acidic news, I will go stand in the sunshine when my husband stresses over the real estate agent’s last text, and I will watch or read a comedy. I will laugh, I will heal, I will feel stronger tomorrow.
And slowly, the reds will fade, they will soften to vibrant orange, then pink, and finally blend into the myriad of colors that offer so much variety and vibrancy to my days, my months, my life. Until at last, I realize that I wouldn’t trade this experience, I wouldn’t choose to feel less. There is only so much of life and I will not live it numb.
I hope that when the reds get you, you remember that it will pass.