Demystifying Depression

It’s still light out, the overcast kind of day where indigo lines the clouds.  Birds chirp.  Children play.  My next door neighbor sits on his front porch, too.  It’s the kind of Hampton summer night with that dip in temperature that invites the average person outside to enjoy it.  I’m not average though.  I wrote half this post inside because going outside didn’t match my writing mood.

I still Google depression in varied search terms about once a day, figuring that someone out there must have found an effective, immediate cure for the abstract mental illness that’s found its home on me.  The causes seem logical.  My mother would name disillusionment and mourning as two potential culprits.  I’m mourning my old career at Kecoughtan and a relationship gone wrong, so disillusionment follows as two primary pillars of my life are in disarray, both being a part of a school community where I loved going to work every day and being a part of a marriage that would have likely led to a family.

But identifying the root causes hasn’t produced a cure, hasn’t snapped me out of this funk.  My searches have focused on unearthing coping strategies, always hoping I’ll find something I haven’t already read in another article or blog post.  Advice bears some commonality.  Exercise.  Eat right.  Go to social activities.  Engage in a hobby.  Talk to a cognitive behavioral therapist.  Write in a journal.  They’re all good suggestions.  I try them all, to some degree.  Nevertheless, I’m still not back to being me.

I can only guess that writing a blog post can’t hurt, if it does anything to help.  The problem is that I always write about what’s on my mind.  That’s the authenticity of blogging night.  And if I write about what’s on my mind, this channel is going to be all me, all the time, because that’s what depression is.  School’s out.  The days are long.  I think a lot.  And it’s always about depression.  I don’t know that I’ve come across anything published online by someone written while battling this illness.  There are plenty of survivors who over hopeful tips, but I imagine, like me, during the darkness, who wants to do anything, much less write about it on the internet.  Unfortunately, tonight that’s what’s on my mind.

School let out at a half day on Friday, a welcomed gift to most teachers.  I, however, didn’t know how I would use up the extra time.  I eventually landed at the beach.  It was one moment that, for me, defined depression.  If I wanted to explain what depression was like to someone who hadn’t experienced it before, I’d use my experiences – like this one, at Fort Monroe beach after school let out, to the spot I would have typically called my favorite place.

Depression is sunbathing at the beach, being aware of the way the skin warms even as the insides chill when subjected to prolonged cerebral conversation.  It’s hearing nearby children laughing while building a sand castle then reciting the pledge of allegiance that they’d probably just learned in school, now out for the summer, and it’s finding all of that is somehow absurd.  All the while, you tell yourself that that is normal, combating those negative thoughts, simultaneously only reminding yourself you’re still not normal.

Depression is plotting to fill all the empty hours between rising and sleeping again, searching for tasks to occupy those waking moments at a functional level and for purpose and worth at a spiritual one. It’s doing those things even though you don’t feel like doing them because you secretly hope that doing them will bring you out of the darkness. It’s knowing that just because you can’t feel God’s presence doesn’t mean He’s not real – in reality, you don’t feel anything anyway.

Depression is failing to see a photograph worth taking, browsing through the camera roll to discover what used to be worth capturing in digital, and wondering if you’ll ever see beauty in the horizon again.  And when you realize that, you force yourself to stop and snap a selfie, then frown at the image on your screen.  Depression is watching family home videos and trying to remember what all that joy and inspiration once felt like.  It’s questioning why, when you want it so badly, you can’t just be that person again.

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Depression is clicking “Delete” on every piece of junk mail in the inbox, instantaneously resisting any possible temptation, unable to fathom how one could possibly need anything at all.  More things would just require more to maintain and take care of and more locations and organizational systems to store them.  The muchness and abundance of life overwhelms you.

For years, I found comfort perched on my front porch in this white wicker love seat.  I long to feel that again.  I don’t know if I’ll write again next week, but I gathered the gumption to try and contribute something to the online community that might be beneficial to another human being that’s out there Google-ing the same search terms as I am.  I may have started this post inside, but I came out into the light when I realized what I was doing in avoiding the brighter mood.  Shouldn’t that be another sign of progress?

Doing Things Anyway

It wouldn’t matter if my street were alive or silent.  No outside factors could set the tone for writing night to be uplifting or chaotic.  I don’t feel like writing.  I don’t feel like doing anything these days.  Sitting down to put metaphorical pen to paper requires something inside me to generate content, and I’m not sure anything of value rests below the surface of my skin.

I long for one thing only: to feel like myself again.  I want this depression to lift and free me to experience joy and inspiration.  I want my thoughts to flow onto the page the way they used to every Tuesday night in a manner by which I could set my watch, so constant and dependable.  But you can’t fast-forward your way out of depression.  I’m learning that the hard way.  The only way out of it is through it, it seems, continuing to hope the next day is better than the one before.

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Every time I Google how to get out of depression, I find a blog post or article reminding me of the importance of physical activity.  I still go to the gym nearly every day, and while my workouts aren’t legendary, I put in my time on the elliptical and sometimes muster the energy to hit some machines.  During this period of my life, my time at Planet Fitness is what I look forward to most, not because of the exercise that’s supposed to boost my endorphins and give me natural good feelings, but because of Chuck, my gym mentor.  I don’t really need a paid therapist when I have Chuck to listen and advise roughly five days a week.  While I don’t doubt there are mental benefits to physical exercise, the relationship I have with Chuck is a more important constant to me.  While my own internal dialogue is more like a monologue in recent weeks, I find hope in his council.  He greets me with a smile and a hug, and he challenges me to take more steps… like writing this blog post.

In the last week, I’ve focused on completing tasks I assigned myself as actionable steps I could take out of this season of depression.  Some goals are physical like eating right with cheat days and drinking water.  Others are personal or mental like reading certain books.  Since I lack the internal motivation to do things, I’ve simply started filling empty blocks of time with these tasks, figuring the least I can do is try and make myself a better person while I’m fighting my way back to happy and healthy.  I committed myself to texting a friend every day, and after a few days, she sent me a text before I reached out.  The intentionality of making contact with her, a focus on someone other than myself, resulted in building a relationship.

Not every adventure has been successful.  My nieces graduated from pre-school last week, and while I sat with a smile, I didn’t feel the joy of the occasion like the others in attendance.  I smiled and hugged them but couldn’t name pride or excitement.  Last weekend, I went to Water Country, one of my favorite places.  I thought that surely I would laugh and scream with glee when dropped from the top of Vanish Point, but even the thrills of the rides couldn’t stir any genuine emotions.  At this stage, I’m not sure if it’s the depression or the anti-depressant medication that makes me largely numb, which is not a good set-up to try and write an inspiring post.  Instead, I’m writing about this very thing: not being able to feel the good or the bad of everyday life.  It’s like I’m perpetually bored from the inside out, and though I keep looking for fulfillment in external things, ultimately until what’s inside is right, I’m not going to find the emotional connections I’m looking for out there.

On Monday, I tackled a more difficult relational task.  I met with someone with whom I used to be very close, someone who I wronged deeply.  My actions led to the end of that relationship, and even on a good day, it’s hard to face someone you’ve hurt.  I pushed aside the numbness and hoped my apology would be sincere despite the emptiness I sensed at my core.  To my surprise, when sitting face to face with him, I felt the full weight of being sorry, and although it was painful, I realized what a gift he’d given me.  I didn’t know how much I needed his forgiveness.

Feelings are tricky when you’re battling depression.  You can’t trust them, and often they don’t come at all.  Rather, life becomes a mental battlefield.  I decide to wake up and go to work.  I decide to drive two hours to meet an old friend and be forgiven.  I decide to go to the gym and see Chuck.  I decide to send a text message and check on a girlfriend.  I don’t feel joy, but my feelings can’t be trusted.  I don’t want to write, but maybe this boring journey through depression will mean something to a reader.  I don’t feel like doing anything, but I do things anyway, and the results make life better to varied degrees.  And maybe when I’m finally out of this depression, I’ll be a better person for it.

When You Start to Notice

Though it’s after eight, the street is still buzzing with barking dogs and laughing children.  It’s hard to believe it’s been more than half a year since I sat at my writing perch and typed my way to sanity.  For nearly one hundred and ninety Tuesday nights, I protected my blogging binges at all costs.  That changed as I entered a particularly dark season of my life, one I’m still finding my way through.

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This morning while crossing the Hampton Roads Harbor, I noticed that the sun was shining, glistening off the surface of the water.  It didn’t make me smile or warm inside, but I noticed that I noticed.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had been aware of the sun.  For too long I’ve been going through the motions, driving to and from work, hitting the gym without enthusiasm, feeling time passing slowly like an hourglass that’s been jammed by grains of sand.  Winter’s always cold and dark, and I hoped my moods would lift with the arrival of spring.  The sun came, and with it warmth, but my world still felt cold and dark.

I’d been fighting through the darkness in silence, unable to identify its root or power.  I no longer felt interested in personal passions and hobbies.  It was February when I sat through a professional development session entitled “More than Sad”.  It was about understanding mental illness.  It was there, sitting amongst colleagues after school in the media center that I realized I was more than just sad.  I was depressed.  The trainer on the video screen had listed all my symptoms and put a name to them.

Even the sanctity of this white wicker love seat and the established practice of writing as therapy couldn’t inspire me.  For a woman once driven by impulses to find herself void of them was like opening coffers of gold to find the treasure had been stolen.  For a while I did the things I knew to do, but eventually, absent desire, I just stopped doing entirely.  That’s when it started to become a challenge to get dressed for work and wash my hair.  Even at my nephew’s soccer games, I felt disconnected and on the outside of the life happening around me.  Time slowed so much that proctoring a student test for three hours felt like actual torture.

And as I write those words, I know I’ve made progress.  Like noticing the shining sun, there are tiny glimmers of hope that I’m discovering myself again, if not a slightly changed version.  It started with seeking help.  I saw a counselor and then a doctor.  I was put on medication.  I ended the silence at work and confided with an administrator who was very understanding.  I sunk lower somehow and found that, after telling my friends what I was experiencing, they still wanted to be in my company even if I was feeling low.  I didn’t want to do anything, but often they encouraged me to go to the beach or meet for a drink, and those normal outings sometimes held glimmers of hope that things would be better.

One day a couple weeks ago at the gym I was feeling so low that I actually googled “How to get out of depression”.  I scanned some typical articles then landed on some blog posts.  One suggested that the motivation or drive to do something didn’t initiate action, so a person struggling with depression needs to act first instead of waiting for the desire to come.  It was the first piece of advice that altered how I approached life.  Since that day, I’ve scheduled tasks to fill up the empty hours between work and bedtime.  I rarely want to do them, but I have to admit there has been some level of satisfaction in the doing itself.

Another blog mentioned that the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns hadn’t cured her depression, but it had marked a turning point in her way of thinking.  Mostly, it totes itself as the non-medicinal cure, but ultimately, it’s a guide to understanding cognitive behavioral therapy.  Its premise is that there are certain dysfunctional attitudes and types of thinking that are at the root of depression.  In essence, I don’t want to be alone with myself because my brain is a negative space.  I might personalize an unreturned email from a colleague to infer an imagined problem when the email simply was filtered to a spam folder.  After reading this book, I’ve been intentionally trying to change my internal monologue to avoid dysfunctions like that.

With every Tuesday since October, I’ve thought about sitting down to right but always dismissed it for some reason or another.  Until tonight, I didn’t feel I had anything worthwhile to write about.  I don’t have a dream job or a man who loves me.  There’s no princes or weddings or lights at the end of the tunnel.  It was just this weekend while talking with a friend about his life problem’s that I realized my battle with depression is my reality and therefore my subject manner.  Since sharing my struggle with my administrator, I have gained confidence being open about what I’m experiencing.  And I’ve found, more often than not, that the people on the other end of the conversation have fought their own battles and understand.  I’ve mostly imagined the stigma attached to the diagnosis, too.

Perhaps the greatest change I made, inspired by Burns’ book, was to make a list.  It started out as “10 Actionable Personal Challenges”.  I began thinking about things that I could do to change my life circumstances, to make this season without impulse one framed by self-improvement in all areas.  At first, I wasn’t sure I could come up with ten, but the typed list grew and the table expanded until I had thirty things that I could do with all my uninspired time.  Having accepted that the will wouldn’t be there, I chose action.  I went from curling up on the coach after work to having more than enough to do in a day… not mindlessly watching Netflix, but reading books and completing meaningful tasks.

I’m on day four, and like noticing the sun shining, opting to curl up on my front porch on a Tuesday night again shows progress.  That’s the thing about depression.  When you’re in it, you lose all passion for life.  So when you’re coming out it, you get to appreciate the little things again, savoring them one at a time.  The street has quieted around me as I’ve typed, the sun past setting.  Chirping birds replaced the laughing children.  And I notice them, too.

Truth vs. Transparency

The Phantoms and the Hurricanes battle it out at Darling a couple of blocks south.  The stadium lights illuminate the treetops between us; though I can’t see the football game, a familiar voice announces the plays; though it won’t be quiet on my street tonight, the loudspeaker is drowned out by the devil on my shoulder, with a still more familiar voice.  My insecurities perk up when it heckles me, and the potential inspiration in my blossoming evening glories is subsequently vanquished.

My juniors explored a released writing prompt today asking them to form an argument supporting or defending the statement, “Failure is not the worst thing in the world.  The very worst is not to try.”  So far, this topic has been the most popular.  When asked to take a position about raising the driving age, these students struggle to move beyond the juvenile it’s-just-not-fair support that lends itself to ranting rather than arguing.  Failure and trying, however, teenagers have an opinion, and supporting their position comes more naturally when they’re convicted by reason and experience, not just required task.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to church.  Our discussions today left me marveling at the power of a young person’s shared voice, the collective sum of three classes weighted like a weekend retreat.  Some students offered age old adages like, “You never know what you can do until you try.”  Others supplemented diction, volunteering personal claims such as: “Failure can be a good thing because…”  Is trying and failing worse than having tried at all?  Year after year, Michael Jordan is provided as an example.  No one ventured to disagree with the statement about not trying being worse than failing, at least not out loud.  This discussion was the best all year in my lunch block class, and I am smiling into the eerie twilight and drum line’s solo because the crowd’s cheers from afar coincide with the previous sentence on my screen.

Of course, my students were inspiring.  It’s far more acceptable to try and fail when you’re a teenager than it is when you’re in your mid-thirties, or at least the world’s response is safer, cutting you slack as you learn to navigate with a new mindset.  I’ve come to expect a fair amount of anxiety surrounding writing nights these days, primarily because the things I most need to figure out aren’t fodder for public engagement.  My fingers try to type while bound.  I write honestly, week after week, and I’m discouraged because while I approached these writing nights with a priority for speaking truthfully, the personal details absent in my public narrative can be misconstrued.  I’ve been authentic about the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that I own.  Limiting my blogging topics might amount to a lack of total transparency, but I haven’t lied.  I’ve been as honest as I am free to be without violating others’ privacy or damaging reputations.

So, last week, I identified my flirtation with taking a sabbatical.  I’ve been doing community service at the library across from Darling Stadium a few hours a week, and the change of pace from a high school classroom is refreshing.  On Saturday, it would have been warm enough to walk home after close, just before the sun set.  I’d spent the last hour restocking books, marveling at all the thoughts people published that I hadn’t thought about before.  The abundance of knowledge, the power of print, and Dewey’s master plan ordered my footsteps as a tiptoed through the stacks, looking always to the top or bottom shelf when pulling items for a hold request.  People can be predictable.  Themes apply everywhere.

I thought I would fail at blogging if I stopped these Tuesday night writing ventures.  But I also thought I would write my way back to life again, so if no good can come from words typed by bound fingers, then why I am here?  If I take the risk to share always more than I should, and that is not enough, and I’m not able to violate others’ privacy, then not sharing anything at all would certainly please the devil on my shoulder, the one taunting me as accompanied by a distant drum line echoing into the night, reminding me of past transgressions as though they are in present tense, and I try to fight the message that no good can come from me, that no amount of true words can ever change false ones in the past.

I love working in the library.  It’s slow and quiet.  The smell of the books welcomes me.  It used to be that I felt most at peace and in God’s presence here on writing nights.  I’m not sure if God is here or anywhere.  The confession attached to judgment of my eternal soul should illustrate a willingness to be authentic about what actually matters, and even as I strike at the letters on the keypad, I chide myself for being more aware of the devil on my shoulder than the evening glories blooming beside me.

I didn’t plant them this year, didn’t water or feed or trim them, and yet I enjoy their unexpected arrival.  The evening glories are, perhaps, the opposite of trying and failing: somehow not trying and succeeding.  I appreciate the existence of a single white blossom because it’s rare such life and beauty comes without effort.  There’s still an angel on the other shoulder, and it shows up in the stillness of the library, when I’m quiet, and I’m at peace, and I finger the spines of books published by writers who believed they had figured out the meaning of life.

I haven’t, but maybe I should be writing the story of figuring it out instead of weekly blog installments, treading carefully not to offend, condemn, or incriminate.  I used to sense a brightness to the darkest of Tuesday nights, like the sunset beyond the library walls when I reconvened with the real world Saturday evening.  Inside the locked doors behind me, books full of claims and thoughts slept in darkness, myriad opposing viewpoints lining the same shelves, contradictory truths side by side.

And I, tasting the sunset warm my skin after an autumn breeze, saw truth as it is instead of as we try to make it be.  Black and white is easy, like the Dewey system; everything has a place… until you hit the CD collection, and you have evidence that even Dewey didn’t have it all figured out.  My kids spent all day convincing me that trying and failing is better in the long run, and learning from my failures starts with writer’s growth, which would mean writing a story that makes others uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s time for a sabbatical, after all.

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Should I Stop Blogging?

I invited the rain to accompany me for writing night.  It declined.  Instead, I type into the calm comfort of an October in Hampton Roads.  The stillness is punctuated only by the scent of my neighbor’s cigar and his R&B mix drifting over from next door.  I crave the quiet.  I prefer it, certainly.  Yet, I consider it writer’s growth that I’m not camping out on the back steps wishing things were different.

I’ve spent a lot of time wishing things were different, but I’ve never changed a moment in history.  My life stands full of new beginnings that were preceded by drastic failures.  I’m alive.  I’m here.  I’m waking up.  I’m working. I exist, and that requires survival, so I keep going through the daily routine.  It would be easier to still my soul if I could rest in the assurances my childhood faith provided.  Absent that foundation, everything feels like it’s falling apart.

Granted, that’s just a feeling.  Hating the drive to work didn’t make it any shorter.  It’s actually quite beautiful crossing the water after sunrise.  Often, I’ll leave Hampton, and by the time I’ve emerged from the bridge tunnel on the other side, the weather is completely different.  I think I remember learning that it takes thirty days for something to become a habit.  I don’t hate the drive to work anymore.  I stopped wishing things were different.  I accepted the interruption to my preferred plan before or after it became a part of my new normal.  It really doesn’t matter when.

Six months ago, it wasn’t just my relationship with Charming that fell apart.  I imploded.  I never returned to a normal routine.  There was no normal to return to.  Since then, I have been, essentially, rebuilding my life from the ground up.  The major problem there is that I haven’t found another foundation to replace the one I surrendered.  There were “Why’s?” before… but they were fewer in number.  I am quite certain I was the only one at my grandmother’s funeral who was mourning the loss of the coping strategy heaven used to be.

It’s never been safe to ask: What if there is no heaven?  Even in June, I couldn’t have asked it. I was still too programmed into protecting myself from shame or embarrassment. I teach teenagers to follow certain guidelines in what they choose to publish on the internet; would I be so reckless as to blog about my life or someone else’s if the public, permanent presence could do damage?  Yes, even in June, I was too scared to be myself, too scared to ask the what if’s?  I don’t know what to believe about heaven or hell.  I can’t change history.  I wake up and work, and I’ll do it again next week.  I share this, publically, because it is my story and my truth.  I can be most honest about events which concern me.

I’ve been trying to focus there in recent weeks in an attempt to fight the self-imposed writer’s block of avoiding telling other people’s stories. Over the years, I’ve written honestly about experiences where eight different people were involved and eight corresponding versions of the truth.  Recently, I’ve respected confidentiality when people in my actual life don’t wish to enter the annals of blogs, and thought it’s been difficult to navigate, I’ve experienced tremendous growth as a writer plowing through blocks that exist because what I write should promote growth, not disparage or expose.  It didn’t happen right away, but I’m finding a new normal in my weekly blog as well.

Don’t be distracted by the cute pictures of me with babies or food or nature.  You’re reading along on my journey to find my way back to life again.  You might miss the confidence, the faith, the hope, the story of falling in love and a promise of happily ever after… but you’re getting a deposit of authenticity each week.  I’m living.  I have it better than a lot of people.  I don’t expect or deserve more.  I wake up five days a week and focus on living my life now, seeing the sea of young people in front of me, and finding comfort in the reality that they are growing as writers and thinkers.

Much of my free time this past week has been devoted to grading personal narratives.  One of my AP kids chronicled succinctly within page requirements about how she came to terms with death’s inevitability.  I’d been grading for hours when I got to this one, and as she described attending her uncle’s funeral, I was standing in the cemetery across from Shoppingtown Mall in Syracuse before I realized my eyes were closed.  This young woman had selected just the right words and experiences to connect with me, and while I’m sure many others can relate, again, that’s not the point.

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The point is that when I do what I have to do, I grow. Just as driving to work every morning has given me the time to reflect quietly about my life while the sun rises and Mother Nature provides an inspiring setting, grading narratives reminds me of the individuals filling the seats in my college-level class.  They will likely encounter the question about whether or not there is a heaven, and I want them to ask it.  This year is about bravery.  Take the right risks.   Be intentional. I stopped grading the girl’s essay and let sleep come.  That’s a compromise I wouldn’t have made six months ago.  Sleep comes easier this fall than it has in ten years.

Maybe because I’ve been able to be honest about some, starting with tonight’s deposit.  I’m not happy and untouched by the broken road that led me here.  I’m not much to speak of, actually.  Just a high school teacher trying to make a difference in a small town with an inspiring drive, waiting for life to have meaning without a family legacy.

I’m not trying to convince myself that work and Pokémon Go are enough.  They fill the empty spaces, but they don’t fill in the blanks.  I don’t have it all together, and I’m learning to express that.  As it should be, I live my current life in the shadow of what was planned, but that’s not the point.  The point is I keep waking up and doing what I know to do, hoping the answers will somehow come to me without bringing me to my knees, though even Grams would have been praying for that at this point.  Life will bring what it will bring; like the music changing my trajectory tonight, I’m open.

Firsts, Lasts, and Always

The brisk air, nocturnal melodies, and charcoal smoke carried by a breeze from down the street make fall’s arrival undeniable.  Summer heat finally surrendered, having hung on far too long already, and autumn’s reign sees the colors changing.  Changing like I’m changing as I remember falling in love with fall three years ago while I fell in love with Charming.  Will carving pumpkins always remind me of our first date in Hampton?

It’s been nearly six months since I surrendered a certain future, an always and forever with him that was supposed to be the fulfillment of childhood dreams.  Like the smoke that appears from a chimney stack then disappears into the overcast, grey sky, I know that we were and that we no longer are, and in light of three and a half decades, three years might make for a handful of puffs of smoke.  Still, vivid recollections of moments when Charming and I first started dating seize me unexpectedly, and I’m not entirely sure what to do with the memories.

Is it strange that I’m simultaneously warmed and chilled when the breeze of Memory Lane settles on me?  I still smile in spite of myself when I’m reminded of bringing Charming to watch my nephew play soccer at Gosnold’s park or sitting on my front porch together reading G.K. Chesterton.  Though I tried to collect all the knick knacks from our courtship after everything fell apart, I still uncover some persistent reminder every time I clean the house.  We lived intentionally.  We crammed adventure after bucket list adventure into every weekend, making memories all along the East Coast from the Outer Banks to Upstate New York.  Now that it’s over, what should I feel when I think of the years we shared?

I don’t feel regret or disappointment.  There’s no anger or shame.  If I was going to experience that range of negative emotions at some point, it would have been with fall’s onset.  Maybe Charming will sneak into autumn winds for years to come, and I’m okay with that.  He certainly laid claim to all my best dates, and albeit the best of two proposals.  I remember keeping track of our dates the first few months on a worn receipt in my purse because there were so many amazing outings that I couldn’t keep track in my head anymore. The crumpled paper is in a box now, nestled between what remains of our three years doing life together.

The pitter patter of rain began moments ago, but it’s grown to a soft percussion band.  The weather is changing with my mood, or more likely, I with it.  The steady beat of raindrops on the treetops casts a net around my yard.  There is only this moment, this house, this laptop.  This life.  I’m still here, six months after Charming.  Fall still came, and it still inspires me.  I loathed this season all my life as summer’s kidnapper and winter’s promise.  Then, three years ago, it brought with it a man I would fall in love with and served as a stage to host the start of our relationship.

I bought bales of hay and welcoming pumpkins and scarecrows with smiling faces, arranging them beside this white wicker love seat.  An autumn wreath had seemed lonely on the red door once Charming came knocking, so I suppose I hoped it won me some good will to honor this budding relationship with some holiday décor.  With all our wedding plans and travel last year, I don’t think I even bought a pumpkin.  He agreed it would be wise not to decorate for Christmas given how many weekends I’d be away.  I should have realized then that something wasn’t right.

The best version of me couldn’t have compromised on Christmas, not even if I’d only be home one weekend out of five.  Eventually, I wound up decorating the yearbook hall with my staff as a winter snowman sales campaign.  I lost myself somewhere on I-64, driving back and forth from Hampton, the good life I’d built always in the rear view mirror, GPS drifting between the people I loved and those I would grow to.  Three years of cramming adult responsibilities into four days and enjoying the company of an incredible man on the weekends before and after one of us drove four hours… well, it took its toll.

I was living in Hampton, but I wasn’t mentally here.  It wasn’t visible – more like the transition of seasons where subtle changes collectively mark time’s passing. I gradually unplugged from my routine before Charming, typically declining invites because we had plans in DC.  After we got engaged, I stopped spending so much time with my brother’s kids.  I’d leave the soccer field and burst into tears as soon as my car door would muffle the sobs.  Every occasion was another “last”, and they collectively took their toll as well.

When I fell in love with Charming, I had everything I wanted right here within fifteen minutes of this white wicker love seat.  The rain had stopped, but the pitter patter is starting again.  On Saturday when I poked my head out the back door, the fresh scent of fall energized me for a cleaning spree.  While in the shed, the plastic bin of autumn décor caught my eye.  I pushed aside forlorn wedding decorations and, with them, the guilty tug of them collecting dust in the humid shed, discarded in disuse. There is always some reminder of him when I’m cleaning.  It was to be expected.  Path clear, I hoisted the tub up onto my hip and bolstered myself for the task ahead.

With every movement of my body, I was fighting a wave of nostalgia.  Surprisingly, though, the flood of memories wasn’t just the Hallmark movie type.  My nephew’s not playing soccer this year, and I was just chatting with a friend who coaches his kids’ teams about how much I miss watching him and playing with the twins.  It was good family fun.  While I positioned bales of hay and fake pumpkins, the loudspeakers declared from across the neighborhood that my old school’s team was playing, and I smiled recalling all the times I’d walked the two blocks with a camera in hand to snap pictures for the yearbook at Darling Stadium.  It was the way things had been before Charming in this good life I had built.

By the time I had propped up the smiling scarecrow to stand on its own, I recognized the merit of the fact that I was incredibly happy with who I was and where I was throughout the summer of online dating that preceded Charming’s introduction to my weekly normal.  While I wanted to find the right guy, get married, and start a family before my biological clock gives up, I hadn’t anticipated the fragmented mindset I’d develop when that guy wasn’t in Hampton.  I never really wanted to leave, but I had convinced myself and everyone else (a little too early on) that I was ready to start over with Charming wherever that would be.

I don’t want to leave Hampton; maybe someday I’ll have a desire to be somewhere else, but I’m not as young as I used to be.  I feel it more responsible to fall apart and face the disappointment than move across state lines.  I want to be there for as many of my brother’s kids’ “firsts” as circumstances allow.  I want to decorate for Christmas and be home every weekend to make the most of those lights.  It would have truly been a disappointment if last year was really a collection of “lasts” in Hampton.  I’d straddled cities for so long that I split, and I couldn’t get excited about leaving town… even if it was to marry Prince Charming.

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The rain stopped again, some time ago, I think.  The veil lifted.  I hear crickets.  The air is cooler now, too.  The sky is lighter having unburdened itself, and I along with it, where the setting and tone serve as unseen forces mutually acting upon each other as my narrative unfolds, driving me toward the peace of an honest, autumn night at home, alone on my white wicker love seat recalling memories with a smile.  Nothing lasts forever…. not relationships, not soccer games, not perfectly carved pumpkins.

And certainly not fall.  But another will be back next year, and it’s okay if it always makes me think of Charming.  The winds have stilled, and my front porch and I settle into the peace of another Tuesday night in Hampton.

Maybe Half Full

Writing nights don’t beckon me like they used to.  The ache to arrange words that manipulate my mind to self-discover still tempts me to settle back into this front porch cushion like 187 Tuesdays before; I’m just guarded, I suppose, and writing is most natural for me when I don’t have to avoid topics.  There’s a lot I can’t write about these days, though I estimate this challenge of balancing a respect for others’ privacy and a commitment to write authentically is not unique to me.

I get to write my story.  I own my thoughts and ideas.  I use a machine to transfer those ideas to a computer in the form of carefully arranged words and phrases, syntactically pleasing and wrought from repetitive practice.  I broadcast the product over the internet, and some keep flipping channels while others tune in.  From their unique corners of the world, my story takes on new lives as each reader brings his or her perception and personal application.  My most broken moments have been the fodder for my most popular blog posts.  When I stopped recognizing the names of new followers, I felt legitimized as a blogger; people relate to the real moments – the raw messiness of human relationships.

So, this reticence to sit still for a couple of hours and initiate this transfer of ideas shouldn’t surprise me.  I’m bound by obligation and plain good sense to avoid publicly writing about certain things.  Composing here centers me in a way little else does.  A lazy beach day at Fort Monroe is a strong competitor, but even the endorphin release of a sweaty session with the elliptical doesn’t reinvigorate my spirit like three and a half years dating this white wicker love seat.

There is this undercurrent narrative, concealed beneath weekly confessionals, that’s begging for time, pretense, feelings, and circumstances to realign and let it rise to the surface.  I’ve been told my most recent life experiences would make for a great novel, but it’s not a quality read or entertainment value that urges me to face my personal demons with an audience looking on.  When I write, I grow.  The things I can’t put on the page weigh on me daily, shelved out of reach as I go through the motions, but always there, neglected during Tuesday night writing binges to maintain status quo.

And the simple existence of things I can’t blog about serves as a giant red flag that reminds me how far from perfect I’ll ever be.  I’m learning to be okay with that, it’s just not happening out here.  The kitchen still greets me warmly, I’ve discovered it’s as solid a life instructor as the garden beds were.  This weekend, I was craving triple berry pie, so I searched online for a few recipes to satisfy my sweet tooth.  The first pie I made from scratch a few weeks ago was good.  I didn’t expect it to be perfect.  It was my first pie.  Maybe I expect perfection because I’m in my mid-thirties and I shouldn’t need to follow a recipe to get things right.

No, the first pie wasn’t going to be as good as this one because I didn’t know a month ago what I know now.  I could marry three recipes for the filling with confidence and substitute a lattice crust so I could tackle working with dough again.  As I prepared the ingredients, I was pleased at how functional my kitchen has become.  There was free counter space if I needed to set something down.  My most used tools and spices were within arm’s reach.  I don’t expect myself to be perfect in the kitchen, and after six months courting the hobby, I don’t expect anyone to be.  In fact, I dare say that I wouldn’t want them to be.  Missteps and stumbles in the kitchen have resulted in some of my favorite mostly-original dishes.

I’d like to see success in my attempts to follow a recipe, but missteps beyond the kitchen walls yield consequences and injury more critical than charred chicken.  I’m stunting myself by storing up secrets, accepting the necessary chains that encompass me like two commas encasing an appositive phrase when the meaning of the sentence would utterly change where they eliminated.  There was a basic recipe that kept me sane.  I lived and made choices, then I reflected and blogged, then I realized and grew.  I progressed through the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy somewhat out of sequence, but I grew.

This is not to say that I’m not growing now, it’s just much of the current growth I’m making isn’t measured by events, adventures, or bucket list achievements.  It’s more subtle, like the moon flower climbing up my front porch slats toward the roof that I didn’t plant this year.  It grew anyway, trained itself upward, climbed the fishing line I strung last summer, and bloomed for me last night though I never tamed or watered it.  It was just there, this white blossom that evidences one season of neglect couldn’t eradicate two years of tending the soil.

There isn’t one thing I can point out that made this triple berry pie superior to the first.  There’s a cumulative curve I’m working with, application of a collection of tips and tricks incorporated from other recipes.  I’ve relied on internet sources as much for cooking with what’s in my cabinets in the last two months as I did during two years of grad school.  If we assessed my pie based on a grading rubric like my graduate course work, it might not score well because it deviates from the recipe, but it’s the best triple berry pie I’ve had in years.  Cultural norms enforce similar grading rubrics.   I tend to score better when measured with category weights rather than holistically, these days.

When I write I grow, but I grew in the garden and I grow in the kitchen.  I’m finding new ways to process the latent storms, and all the ways I am not perfect seem to point to specific tweaks and modifications that, collectively, can still turn this creation into something good and pleasing like this triple berry pie in a pan, half full.

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