What’s good for us

Why is it so hard to do the things we know will make us feel better when we’re feeling down?

I know, for example, that the following things are both good for me and feel good:
taking a walk
reading a book

But when I’m sad, stressed, worried, or otherwise feeling like crap, I tend to plunk down on the couch, watch tv, and eat chocolate.

It’s not that I’m saying those activities are bad. I just know what opens me up, makes the world feel a bit bigger, more possible. And while tv and chocolate give me pleasure, they also numb me, make me sleepy–not just physically, but spiritually and mentally.

I’m not judging here. I’m not into self-judging or other-judging. I just wish I could remember to take care of my whole self better, including when I need it most. Perhaps I should get a tattoo inside my wrist–the right one, the one that reaches for the tv remote–that says, “Take a walk.”

I also wish I had an answer for my own question. One thing that comes up, for me, is the thought that when I’m really depressed, I tend to feel worthless. (Break that down–“worth less”–and you’ll see why the whole equal pay thing is so important, as well as the problematic ways in which we view worth/value in our materialist/consumerist society.) And so I feel I’m not even worth the effort to take care of myself. It’s a stupid cycle of pain.

One small moment of good can break that cycle for me. One person saying she likes my poems; one blooming gardenia; one shared smile with a friend or stranger.

And I’m lucky: I get those moments, frequently. So let me say it back to you–friends and those I don’t know–you are worth it, worth that tiny bit of extra effort it takes to truly give yourself some meaningful care. Take a walk.

Acceptable Grief

Today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 77. She died at 71. I don’t think she minded going at that age; she never expected to get old. But it was pancreatic cancer, so it hurt like hell.

There is so much to write about this. I will never be done with it, or even approach saying everything I need to say.

My mother was the one person who wanted me, and all my siblings, to be in the world, all the time–from before we were born. She wanted us in her life. She was difficult in her own way, but she universally wanted us to exist.

Last night in bed, my mind did some of its worst tricks. I wanted it to play dead, and it wanted to show me death. I thought of an upcoming trip with a friend to see horses, and my mind showed us in a car crash on the way to the barn. I thought of my sweet dog Ginger, 14 years old now but still happily eating, who loved my mother even when she was afraid of most other people, and my mind showed me finding her body in the yard. And I won’t even talk about the knives.

These were waking images. These are images I have when my emotions escape my control, like helium balloons I accidentally let go into the world. These are my disasters.

At last I told myself, “Tomorrow is Mom’s birthday.” And I knew my crazy grief ravens had come back to roost, yet again. I didn’t stop my morbid worries, but I knew where they had come from.

I don’t usually tell people these things. I say I am sad. I say I miss her. And these are true. But the feelings are more complicated than that, and these are my particular manifestations. They’re weird and they’re scary. They’re inappropriate and associative. What do these visions of pain and disaster have to do with my mother’s death?

I’m still working on figuring that out. But for now I have told someone. I have told all of you that, basically, I am crazy. Bat-shit-straight-jacket-cuckoo-for-coco-puffs-crazy.

But then, so are any of us who have lost a parent. As time passes, I care less and less about what is acceptable grief. Over 5 years and I’m still bereft. I still feel my personal torturous images gathering, and not just once a year on her birthday. Some days there is nothing–absolutely no trigger at all–and I’m moping all day about her gone-ness, anesthetizing myself with British tv murder mysteries and multiple naps.

Ok. This is how it is. Time does not heal all wounds, and there is no time limit on grief, and our feelings about the dead don’t all fold down to easily transportable size. My friends, I know you, too, grieve. Do it however you need to, acceptably or not. Let go of those goddamn balloons filled with strange images and feelings and smother the whole sky with them if you need to. I won’t judge, and I won’t tell you what’s normal, and I won’t try to convince you that you’re not crazy.

I Dream My Mother

They say when you dream a horse
that horse is your spirit.
—Judith Barrington
I dream my mother is a gardenia.
I dream my mother alive
still, her funeral
a fake, and she gradually recovering muscle,
mind, color and breath for the past three years
in Connecticut, where I would never
have thought to look for her.
I dream my mother as
Ophelia, drifting down the clear river,
singing. I dream my mother
a horse so she can ride across my back yard, leaving
hoof prints in the flowerbeds. I dream my
mother in feathers, flippers, fur. I dream
my mother in the morning, coffee mug in her hand, dust
in the pale light. I dream her carrying
a coffee can full of grain and whistling
in the barn. I dream her asking
questions of the air, and the air
answering. I dream her afraid; I dream her telling me
not to be afraid. I dream her on the phone,
inside an envelope, in riding boots, in tears.
I dream her asleep and I dream her waking
and, opening
my eyes to the mirror,         
I see—what?—an apology
of lashes, a seed in the iris that will take years
to bloom.
–Katherine Riegel, from What the Mouth Was Made For


Tonight I had my first walk in what I hope to be a daily routine of walks (apparently on the one-year anniversary of Michael Moore’s “take a walk” campaign, which I think is really cool). What I love about walks: the depth and variety of thoughts that appear to be considered; the smells (I caught hints of early-blooming gardenia and jasmine); the stars; animals (a toad on the sidewalk in front of me, cows moving bovinely in the dark pasture); the absence of my own inner critic telling me I should be doing X, Y, or Z instead of whatever I’m doing. It is rare for me to feel in-the-moment, to simply be. A walk does that for me.

And my favorite thought of the 30 minute experience? That it’s ok if I’m not good at everything, not perfect. I’m good at some things. I love many people and things, and I am lucky enough to be loved as well. So I suck at calling repairmen, getting estimates, talking prices and making appointments for them to come look at what needs to be done. So I suck at doing the practical things around the house that need to be done. And not only do I suck at these things; I really dislike doing them. Sure, I wish I was better at them, didn’t hate doing them.

But I just have this one life.

And so I will figure out what I can do to make better use of my resources, without beating myself up about what I’m not. I’m not a carpenter, plumber, electrician, personal assistant, accountant, insurance specialist, lawyer, chef, scheduler, organization expert, community organizer, political pundit, journalist, activist, or multi-tasker. I’m a teacher. I’m a writer. I’m a lover of nature and animals. My favorite color is green. Here I am, doing one thing at a time, not perfectly, but as well as I can.

And, always, sending out my love to you all.

AWP 2013, friendship, and connection

Other people will write funnier, more comprehensive posts on the 2013 AWP Conference. Those who are good at twitter (I try, but I just can’t get the hang of its nuances) already know that the big news from this year’s AWP is the “lockout”(popular panels scheduled in too-small rooms meant many people were turned away). I can’t speak for other people, give sage advice, or complain. After attending 10+ AWPs (I’ve lost count), I know each one is its own experience, like meals at a variety of restaurants with a variety of people.

This year, on the last night, I’m in my hotel room by 10pm, exhausted. And what’s on my mind is loneliness. Well, not loneliness, not quite, but that strange feeling of connections that were not long enough and are gone for another year; the loss of those possible miraculous encounters where you exchange a lot of intimate conversation in a few minutes standing in the bookfair; the loss of not seeing some of the people I care about because there are so many people and events and so little time and  limited energy.

In a huge convention center amongst 12,000 writers, I am struck by how many really good-hearted, warm and genuine writers I know. How many writers have big hearts and radiate friendliness, how many look me in the eyes and hug with affection (and without affectation). And what I really want: a chance to get to know these good people even better. An afternoon walking in the woods, with plenty of benches to stop and sit and talk before we stand again and refresh ourselves in the open silence. A dinner at someone’s house with low music in the background and plenty of space for laughter. A pot of tea and a good hour in a tea shop, with scones and Devonshire cream.

My writer friends and acquaintances, you are exceptional people. You open up the closed-in world with your words and your selves, your passion for teaching and for listening. I have crushes on you from reading your work and from watching you smile.

I think when I get home I’m going to remember to have these intimacies with the friends I am lucky enough to live close to. But I’ll have all of you in my mind as well, my once-a-year writer friends.