“We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.” ― May Sarton
“The ludicrous element in our feeling does not make them any less authentic.” ― Milan Kundera
The crow-flying distance between my home in Minnesota and the home of my darling sister-friend, Sasha, in Salt Lake City is 986.6 miles. There are 890.5 crow miles between me and my other dear one, Jennifer, in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s a great distance separating me from my kindred spirits and some days I feel it keenly. We tend to favor round-robin emails to help us stay connected. In a recent round-robin missive, Sasha, referring to my blog posts, said that I sounded “so goddamned together, cool, self-reflective and engaged. I, on the other hand, live moment to moment trying to remember if I have changed my pants recently enough to be allowed into decent society.” Bless it all, I love that woman. This perception, that I may be anything even approaching composed and collected, is the absolute height of absurdity. Sasha has loved me for twenty plus years, whether I am fit for decent society or no. She has loved me through many a time when I have been anything but together.
Before Jennifer, Sasha and I really knew one other, we knew of each other. Wells College, our alma mater on Cayuga Lake in New York, was a charmingly intimate setting. A body could walk from the one end of campus to the other in five minutes. Most everyone knew everyone else by name or at least by sight. I often trotted about campus wearing a pair of olive-drab, army surplus, long underwear, a Wells College hoodie and good old Converse Chucks. In the colder months, I wore jeans, black boots, a chambray shirt, a gray wool cardigan, and black leather gloves. These outfits were my standard uniform. I had a tendency to cling to outfits, clothing myself in costumes of what I wanted to be – sometimes the bohemian poet, sometimes the diligent academic, and the like. It was like trying on personalities, hoping to be the part by dressing the part. After arriving in Spain and getting to know Jennifer, I was surprised to learn that, having seen me thus on campus, she perceived me to be a rich, little preppy girl. And here I’d thought of myself as a mixed-up poet and orphan girl.
Perhaps, I ought to take comfort in my ability to create a desired likeness, whether in words or person. The truth is that, many, many days, I feel more like I’m walking wounded. There appears to be a substantial disparity between perceptions and reality. Perhaps it’s more important to note the space where the façade and the authentic self come together. I am flattered that I appear so cool and collected in my writing. Writing is my preferred method of communication, the thing I would rather be doing than most other things, certainly more than laundry and dishes. I like to tell stories and what I do here, in this blog, is a sort of creative nonfiction – trying to tell a true story with creativity. It seems to me that authenticity is essential to telling a good story, whether it be this sort of autobiographical meandering or any other storytelling medium. Stories, nonfiction or fiction, resonate with the reader when there is some sort of common human truth involved. With that in mind, I feel I ought to be as honest as possible and say to you that I have been having trouble writing lately, because if I’m going to be authentic, I need to say how much I am struggling of late and writing about struggles each and every week seems daunting.
So, here is a significant, though not necessarily defining, part of my truth. There is a biological hiccup in my body. It doesn’t produce enough of the neurotransmitter known as serotonin. In other words, I live with depression. Some imperfections are visible, others are not. While I might sound and appear to be ship shape and squared away, my insides are often a maze of tangled messages. This is the reality with which I labor. The brain and its messengers are tricky little suckers. A lay person’s guide to neurotransmitters and why they are important goes something like this.
• The brain passes messages along nerve cells.
• The nerve cells aren’t all joined together, so the cells have to send their messages across gaps via little chemical transmitters (serotonin is one of these chemicals).
• When the nerve cell on the other side of the gap recognizes the messenger it is stimulated and does a little happy dance.
• Then the messenger, that little neurotransmitter floating between the gap, is picked up again by a transporter and whisked away.
If the bullet points weren’t clear enough, here are a couple of doodles for illumination and levity. This glitch, that my body does not produce an adequate supply of these neurotransmitters to keep the happy messages flashing between nerve cells, makes a normal day can feel like a month’s slog through a swamp. In an effort to help my sweet little nerve cells do their happy dance, I take medicine. Its purpose is to delay the transport bus, allowing the little messengers to hang out between the gap a bit longer, stimulating the receiving cell and prolonging the happy dance. Here endeth the science lesson. Medication helps in managing my depression, though there are still periods of time when life gets swampy.
I tell you this in the spirit of authenticity. In previous posts I have mentioned my depression in passing. I wasn’t trying to be coy. It just wasn’t the main focus of the post. This is my particular brand of imperfection. It leaves me feeling fragile and vulnerable and at the mercy of who knows who or what. As a result, I’ve been having trouble writing lately. When I began this blog many months ago, my goal was to produce one substantial post per week on some topic related to my family, books, writing, or nature. You know, the things that sustain my spirit. Some weeks it’s easier to do than others. Lately though, I have been anxious about this self-imposed goal, because I’m maintaining the bare minimum of togetherness, just enough to feed my kids and communicate in more than monosyllabic grunts with those around me. It’s hard enough to just write, let alone to do so authentically.
I’m fully aware that this struggle is a tee-neensy problem in comparison to the larger issues facing humankind. And that it’s a problem that seems a sort of first world indulgence. I’m embarrassed by that admission. But it also makes it no less real or problematic for me. While I did not suffer any physical or immediate psychological wounds from the Boston Marathon bombing, such an event weighed on my spirit with crushing force. My tender little soul felt all the more battered and bruised by the news. I absorbed just enough to be informed and left the minute to minute coverage to hardier souls.
For many years, I kept weekly talk therapy appointments with a psychologist. I’m a big fan of talk therapy. My therapist just got me. She was like a jolly old crone for my psyche (though, for the record, she is neither old, nor a hag – I use crone here to mean wise woman and I mean it with kindness and reverence). She kept a basket of knitting needles and yarn in her office. It was a safe space for me to ask questions that I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted the answers to, but in the end there was a bounty of self-awareness to be gained. Eventually, I reached a place in my life where I felt armed with enough knowledge, self-awareness, and coping skills to forge ahead on my own. For the most part, that has continued to be the case, though, after the birth of both Bear and Goose, during that period in which women are so vulnerable to post-partum depression, I returned to dear Doc Crone for half a dozen sessions. When my beloved Uncle John died suddenly, I went back again. Doc Crone is a touch stone, of a variety, and every so often it serves me well to check in with her. Several weeks ago, I felt that it might be time for another tête-à-tête. It’s been helpful. I always leave the sessions with new purpose or hope. Though I still find myself weeping, or fitful, or panicked at odd intervals. I feel it rising in the core of my body, spreading up and out. Often, when I feel so tenuous and exposed, my body just wants to sleep. When I was single and childless, this was a reasonably do-able, if not highly productive, strategy. Not so much anymore.
My alternate strategy has been to go to church. That brings its own set of anxieties. How do I foster a spiritual life in myself, my children, and my family while staying true to my moral beliefs and sense of humanity? Oh, and how to do this within that parameters of the Catholic Church? That’s the kicker. What I’m finding is that I cannot. At least not on my own. This knowledge has brought me to tears at mass on several occasions. I was not a practicing Catholic for many decades. What I want is a church that welcomes women to participate not sometimes, not in token ways, but fully and equally. I want a church that doesn’t seek to influence legislation about my body and reproductive rights. I want a church that recognizes and welcomes marriages and families in all of their many forms. I want a church that focuses the vast majority of its energy and wealth on healing and justice. “Ah,” you say, “then what you want is not the Catholic Church.” But I do. For my own imperfect reasons, I do. However, in order to stay, I need to find a means to make peace with who and what the Catholic Church is and who I am. To that end, Doc Crone suggested that I seek out the Sisters of St. Joseph Carondolet. So, last week, I met with a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. She was more or less my own age and she blessed me with her gift of listening. It did my heart good to be heard. She was soft spoken without being meek and thoughtful without being preachy. Most importantly, she acknowledged my compelling urge to ride out, like Joan of Arc, and lay siege to the Catholic Citadel and its medieval proscriptions against more than half of humankind. The laying siege bit is metaphorical, of course, but the imagery it conjures up accurately conveys the powerful internal struggle I am experiencing. This lovely Sister of St. Joseph was also kind enough to suggest resources that might serve my spirit and help me find balance in my worship. I have a good deal more work and prayer ahead, but this and the therapy sessions have done quite a lot to restore some equanimity for me. Another blessing is that the spring has arrived finally, late to the party mind you, but here. A balm.
On a lighter note, Jude, another sweet soul dear to my heart (we served together in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, but now 630.3 winged miles away in Cleveland) made me chuckle this week. We stay in touch via Facebook primarily, though I think we must also be cosmically connected, because, on any given day, her status posts (be they pithy or prophetic or primal) have the ability to pierce my very core with some elemental truth. Recently, she posted this: “Oftentimes, the only time/place that I feel like I can truly BREATHE, is during a walk in the woods. And, it isn’t just because of all that fresh, oxygenated air. (And, admittedly, sometimes my breathing turns to hyperventilation, like, when I am alone, deep into some path, sans cell phone, and I hear the crunching of dry leaves getting louder and louder, as some murderous wood witch/rabid coyote prepares to devour me, but it usually returns to normal when I realize it is just a red squirrel that weighs as much as a packet of cream cheese.) Exhale. Notice.” Bless her sweet, melodramatic heart. So, as I plod through this latest patch of melancholy and spiritual longing, Jude has reminded me to inhale, exhale and notice.
My grandmother, in reference to my blog, recently asked me if this out-in-the-open variety of writing was a generational or personal thing. No doubt it seems too forward or too raw to her – being a girl from northern Minnesota and a woman from less confessional times. Sometimes I fear I’ll seem, to the outside world, to be pitifully and contemptibly wallowing in this selfish little depression while the rest of the world presses onward. I feel small in my doubts. But here’s the thing: I think authenticity is paramount. It’s required. In telling a story one must reach inward and pull out some nugget, some small kernel, some infinitesimal pebble of human truth. It’s sort of like walking in the woods and learning to breathe and notice the little miracles around you.
With that, I say to you, “This is my human truth.” I’ve got to believe that I’m not alone in it.