When it’s not depression, and yet…

sunset

Each Monday through Friday, between 7:30 and 7:35 a.m., I stand poised at the doorway that connects our garage to our family room, my right hand on the door frame, my left hand waving good bye to a shadow of Fred as Max backs out. As soon as the car straightens at the end of our driveway, I do one last wave to the two pairs of eyes that have already turned straight to face the road. As they drive away I attempt to close our temperamental garage door, cursing each time it rolls back up.

This is my daily ritual, and it is accompanied by a small wave of dread.

At this point in the day I march back to the kitchen to clean up after breakfast and lunch preparations. Since I work from my home my mind then moves toward, then rejects, the idea of some light morning exercise and a shower. So it’s onward to my computer to begin the daily run of checking work e-mail, work-related news, and client documents. I also remember that I need to call AT&T and a medical biller to resolve mistakes that they have made. It’s a waste of my time, poor customer service, and I make a mental excuse to put this off yet again. I think about what Max and I will do for lunch, and I am relieved if there are leftovers from the previous night’s dinner. Then I wonder what we’ll do for dinner, and realize I have to find time to squeeze in a trip to the market. And before I know it the school day will be done, Fred will be home, and while I can’t wait to see him, I brace myself for the inevitable nagging and negotiating over homework, snacks, and jackets and socks strewn on the floor.

My days are uneventful, but somehow I end up disliking myself at the end of each one. Yet another day will always go by where I do not call AT&T, do not exercise, do not make better progress on the ____ work project, do not clean the ____, and do not better restrain myself from nagging and scolding. The non-depression depression that I experience is well nourished by this parade of self-criticism.

Perhaps you have been there too. It’s that land north of depression but south of joy. It’s that place in everyday life where you climb out of bed on time but in slow motion. You pick at the work in your house. You talk to your children with just more irritation in your voice than is necessary. But you don’t need meds and you don’t have the time or the money to see a therapist (but oh how you’d love to talk to someone!). You get through each day doing what needs to be done, if even at a B- level in your book. It’s just the tedium of a script that never changes and yet you are treading too deeply in inertia to initiate any changes.

By coincidence I had an “eventful” and light bulb sort of weekend. Our Saturday started off with an early morning used book sale at our area high school, where Fred and I filled up a carton full of terrific finds. In the evening we enjoyed dinner and a music and dance talent show/fundraiser with good friends at the same high school. On Sunday, we went to see Life of Pi and treated ourselves to coffee and doughnuts afterward.

While my weekend can’t exactly be categorized as exciting, it was filled with my favorite things: books, bargains, the arts, food, friends and, of course, family. I did more than just accompany Fred to his weekend activities or run errands or watch Fred and Max play basketball. We did something that I enjoyed and, for me, I realized, anything related to the arts provides me with the spiritual and aesthetic lift that I don’t get enough of in my life.

Little did I predict that a box full of book bargains and a schedule to look forward to this weekend would vitalize me enough to clean out my closet and drawers, organize the bookcase, vacuum, cook (we usually eat out on weekends), clean our bathroom, do the laundry, change our sheets and bath mats and even pack for a family trip that isn’t happening for another two weeks. I even insisted to Max to hand over a new work project to me. I ended the weekend not just satisfied with our activities but feeling good about myself: I accomplished what I’d put off for weeks and I liked myself as a mother.

In Simple Abundance, Sarah Ban Breathnach tells about a woman named Joanna Field (a.k.a. Marion Milner) who in 1934 published a book called A Life of One’s Own. Field had kept a journal in which she noted daily the triggers of happiness in her life. Ban Breathnach writes, “It was written . . . in the spirit of a detective who searches through the minutiae of the mundane in hopes of finding the clues for what was missing in her life.”

And so, like Field, I have started my own journal and journey to find the simple daily pleasures that, in a mosaic, will hopefully become a life of contentment, energy and purpose.

Do you also find yourself languishing in this…”non-depression” depression? What are the simple daily pleasures that make a difference for you?

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On anger, forgiveness, and love

I’ve had this post sitting in my draft box for a couple of months now, but I finally felt brave enough to hit the “publish” button after reading Rudri’s heartfelt and emotional post On Lessons from Experiencing Loss. Thank you, Rudri, for sharing with us what you’ve learned from grieving.

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I’d written quite a bit about my difficult summer last year – about my broken ankle, the sudden death of our young colleague. But there was another event that I hadn’t shared, which was that for two very long and life changing days, I had believed I was going to lose my mother.

My mother was diagnosed with a condition carrying such words as “rare” and “aggressive.” When she called to update me on her post-surgery follow-up, she had, due to language barriers, misunderstood her doctor’s prognosis, and passed along to me her interpretation that, due to the sensitive location of the tissue in question, the doctor was unable to treat her completely. To be unable to remove everything, according to my research, meant basically a gradual but inevitable death. At my request, she arranged to have the doctor speak to me in two days.

I have written about how my leg injury led me to pledge to live life differently and certainly that is true, but in truth, it was those two days in between losing and regaining my mother that had changed me. By the time I got off the phone, my ankle had ceased to be something worth whining about. What a waste of emotional energy it had been to feel sorry for myself, to wonder if I could ever walk again. Of course I would walk again. How trivial every other “tragedy” becomes when a loved one’s life may be at stake.

My connection with my mother at this stage in our lives, with so many miles between us, is symbolized by our weekly phone call. Usually Sunday, usually around 9 a.m. But sometimes she would catch our answering machine and sometimes she would call outside of our unspoken time slot and I would get annoyed. More often than I am proud to admit, I had been unable – or unwilling – to talk to her, cutting her off because I was in the middle of something or on my way to something. “Yes, I know, you’re busy. You are always busy. There never seems to be a good time to call you,” my mother had said to me tearfully and more than once.

I had rationalized to myself, for many years, that I had gotten that way because of our complicated and sometimes painful relationship, that if she had criticized me less, or been less controlling of me, maybe I would have had different feelings of our relationship. I would tell her that it was her fault I didn’t want to talk to her, that I would get on the phone and feel paranoid she’d find more fault in me. I would tell myself that I was trying to achieve peace and self-acceptance, and I needed to push away all sources of potential toxicity. I’d forgiven so many people in my life, but not my mother. I had had nowhere to go with the raw and painful emotions I felt growing up, and somehow I had turned my mother into my scape goat.

I had been angry for over thirty years, and for the first time I softened. When I realized I might have only a few more years left with my mom, I softened.

I began picking up the phone patiently whenever she called me at work. I let slide any minor annoyances. I simply nodded “okay” when she nagged me. I listened to her vent about annoying colleagues. And, really, that was all. There were no criticisms. No attempts to control me. We talked and we laughed. She began looking back on her years as a mother, half laughing and half sighing, “Ay…I was so clueless…it’s a wonder you and your brother turned out okay.” And I began learning things about her I had never known – that her single mother in rural China had encouraged her – a girl in the 1940s – to be anything that she wanted to be and that she (my mother) used to love what few books she could find, and would stay up until 3 reading Russian novels by lantern light. In very quick time, I began to look forward to our weekly conversations.

Like that I let go of all the anger I had harbored against her over the last three decades. I let it go only to realize, with intense surprise and then regret, that the overly critical mother I had immortalized in my head all this time did not even exist. Or maybe she did, 10 or 20 years ago, but she had changed. Or, perhaps, I had changed…maybe I had stopped fighting her love and her attempts to get close to me, and I finally gave her the space and permission to be the mother she had always been trying so hard to be. I’ve had a lifelong fear of getting too close to people, of being loved too much, of being possessed and smothered. And I fought my mother the hardest…of course, because she had been the one person with the most love to give.

Our past is complicated and I am a flawed person from a family wounded by immigration, poverty, mental illness and cultural and generational differences…why I would want to push my mother away is a whole other, much longer story. But had I been willing to let go of my anger sooner, we could have had more quality years together. We could have been laughing longer. I could have seen my mother more clearly, instead of holding on to the image I may have created in my head as a way to avoid responsibility for my own healing. While the cancer did not reduce my mother’s years with me, my anger did.

I spoke to my mother’s doctor two days later. She’s fine. Everything was treated. They need to keep an eye on her condition but no, it is in no way a death sentence. So like my leg injury, the misunderstanding of the doctor’s prognosis turned out to be a gift. It was a 5-alarm fire call to let go of the past and a chance to reunite. I saw and chose love at the brink of loss, and, so luckily, I was given the gift of more time. I am late, but I made it.

 

Our sky: on having goals mid-parenthood

I received my college newsletter the other day. It opens with a pep talk by our class president, in the equivalent of a drill sergeant’s 0500 whistle: “We all need to have GOALS, people!” (I paraphrase; this is how her words sounded to me when I read them in my pajamas at 1200.) “We’re in our mid-40s! It’s time to GO!”

Continued, on page 2, is the feature article, written by one of our classmates whose recent novels have been nominated for awards and praised by Oprah. The books are being translated into multiple languages and there is discussion about a possible television series, or a movie. But she is not here to talk about success, she says; she’s here to talk about failure – the many failures that she had overcome before she won her first book deal, and the fear of failure that we can’t allow to stand in the way of our developing our goals.

Good ideas all around, except she was apologetic… apologetic for bringing up the taboo topic of failure to our class of female glass ceiling shatterers. My alma mater carries a long history of women who have changed the world, women whose names are too big for this humble blog.

The newsletter jarred me. My first instinct was to cry and crawl back into my own womb of girlfriends, writers/bloggers and fellow mothers with whom I have shared my real life these last three years, into this world where I never have to apologize for being anything less than human.

The truth is, I don’t feel like GOing. I’ve gone, I went, and I don’t want to go back. In fact, I want the opposite. I’m trying to slow down. There was a long time in my life when it was exhilarating to keep getting better than I was and to keep learning more than I knew. I threw caution to the wind and moved to Tokyo when I was 30, working 6 days a week and trying to absorb every ounce of intercultural newness. I had a seemingly permanent zip code in Outside My Comfort Zone. Then one day I turned inward. I wanted steady, and predictable. Maybe I needed that because this new project called parenting that dive-bombed into our lives was so new and explosive that I needed everything else around me to be constant and easy.

While I sat there momentarily judging my class president, I stopped to think about her pep talk. Ear-splitting whistle and whip cracking aside, maybe there is validity in her words. The idea that I have to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or break the frontiers of science or write a Pulitzer Prize winning novel are expectations that I read into her words, because I viewed her not as a friend or fellow mother but as a spokesperson for the alma mater that had long ago made the sky both our limit and our goal. We all need purpose, but perhaps we need to make it up to us in what direction we want to reach.

I’ll be honest. For the last 6 weeks or so since my work season has quieted down I have dragged my feet from one day to the next. I worked hard these 8 years to finally achieve this balanced life style that I now have, and instead I find myself feeling listless and without purpose. What do I want to do now? What will be meaningful for me? My relentless years of nursing and diapering and chasing a little child around are over. My years of trying to build up a fledgling business are over.

I need a goal and another form of purpose. But before I can figure that out I need to re-define my sky and know that it will be a different one from the alumna next to me, and from the one that shone on me a decade ago before I became a mother.

Do you have goals outside of parenting? Do you feel you’ve also changed in how “ambitious” you are since you became a parent?

My reading challenge: February in review

After my reading sprint in January I decided to take it easy in February. I put aside any “goals” and just read when I felt like it, and I read books that were easy on the brain (and heart).

My February list:

Miss Minimalist: Inspiration to Downsize, Declutter, and Simplify (Francine Jay)

The One Minute Organizer Plain & Simple (Donna Smallin)

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment (Jennifer Cody Epstein)

Wonder (R.J. Palacio)

The first two were fun, quick and easy reads on my Kindle. They’re part of my other goal this year, which is to get rid of all the figurative noise in my life, starting with the clutter that is my home and thereby my life (seeing how I am here 24/7). Many of the pointers in the books may be obvious to most normal people, but I’m convinced I’m not most normal people. I’m overrun by paper in particular and I am struggling to control it. Even worse is that I see my 8 year-old inheriting my disease and I need to intervene now and teach him some tools before the problem becomes too massive to turn around. I want to believe that organizational habits and ways of thinking and seeing things can be trained if done at an early age.

Anyway, I found inspiration in the books because they offer concrete tips on not only how to approach organizational projects but also how to lead a more streamlined life overall. If any of you are suffering from the same ailment maybe I’ll write some posts in the future updating my progress. (I’m finding that the best way to be accountable is to announce your intentions…)

The Gods of Heavenly Punishment was an advanced copy I received to review. (The Gods of Heavenly Punishmentbook is due out March 11.) It’s a novel about the intersection of 4 American and Japanese characters – among them an American fighter pilot and a Japanese girl caught in the air raid of Tokyo –  during WWII. The story touches on themes of loyalty, infidelity, survival, love and connection. I found it a lovely story and a very enjoyable read. Despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the novel didn’t feel at all heavy (readers who want something deeper and more raw may be disappointed) and it was good for what I needed in February. I also very much enjoyed Epstein’s writing. The story, to me, is perfectly balanced between the historical details and the personal stories of the characters. I actually emerged a new fan of both Epstein and historical fiction.

WonderFinally, I read Wonder, which as many of you know is the popular middle grade novel about a 5th grade boy, Auggie, who was born with a facial deformity. The story – about Auggie’s first year in a regular school (he had been homeschooled up to that point) – is told from the points of view of Auggie, his older sister, his sister’s boyfriend, his sister’s friend and his two best friends. (It sounds like a lot but it actually works.) This, too, is a story that deals with a lot of difficult themes like bullying, betrayal and loneliness but it is never heavy or depressing. I actually think of Wonder as an incredible love story because ultimately that’s what it is about – the power of love between parent and child, grandparent and grandchild, brother and sister, children and pets, and friends. And finally, it is about love for oneself. It’s uplifting and sweet.

This was a particularly special book for me because it’s the first book that Fred and I really read together, as in passed between and discussed together. Initially I read it to him, until he got so into it himself that he started taking the book to school or waking up early to read it. When he finished he handed the book back to me, reminding me to start from “November,” which he had remembered as the chapter where I’d left off. He would then check in with me every couple of days asking me what part I’d gotten up to. We had some good discussions, too, and best of all I saw how much Auggie had impacted him. In many ways Fred is such a “typical” action-packed boy who loves video games, fart jokes, insects, and things that go boom and bang. But I honestly think that this book, this book that is so much about feeling, really touched him in a way no other activity has. For several days after he finished he kept asking me if the author was going to write another book about Auggie. I know Fred misses him. So I suggested that he write to R.J. Palacio to ask her that question.

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I’m a bit excited that March is National Reading Month, and it looks like my recovering broken ankle has taken a wrong turn in the healing process (not excited about that), so I may be spending more time in bed/on the couch again. In progress this first week in March are:

The Painted Girls: A Novel (Cathy Marie Buchanan)

Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei (David Mura)

With or Without You (Domenica Ruta)

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (Cheryl Strayed)

I’ll report back on these in a month!

Do you have any good reads you want to share? What’s on your nightstand? And if you are not in that reading place right now, what are you up to and do you have any recommendations (music, movies, t.v., etc.)?

Head and heart

We had a rough morning today.

We’ve been working with Fred on time management, and today he was a half hour late coming down for breakfast after already being twenty minutes late for school yesterday. This despite the fact that both Max and I had, at different points, stopped by his room to remind him to get dressed and come downstairs.

Because this has been going on long enough – and we were at our wit’s end because we have tried everything – with Max’s nod, I “punished” Fred by asking him to come straight home after school today. Yesterday was supposed to be his last day at his after school program, but he and his friends agreed he’d come back one more day to say their good byes and play together.

I hadn’t anticipated the depth of his devastation. You can picture the rest: screaming, crying, negotiating, hyperventilating. If he can’t see his friends one last time today then, he protested, he was not going to school at all.

When the screaming and anger finally gave way to a momentary calm, he wept and said, “I’m going to miss my friends. It’s my last day.”

At that moment I looked over at Max, who shook his head hard at me. “NO…we are staying firm,” his eyes said.

And that is when I went upstairs to my room and fell apart.

There was no script for me to follow this morning, or any morning, or any day, for that matter, in this parenting business. In my mind this would be like any of the 100 or so days that we’ve had so far: Fred would saunter to the kitchen table by 7:05 or so, I’d give him his breakfast, he’d eat it, he’d put on his jacket and backpack, and he’d be off at school.

I didn’t know he was going to be half an hour late, because he has never been this late before. (He was in his room gathering all the toys he was going to take to after school.)

I didn’t have planned the best possible consequences for this behavior because, I don’t know…I’m tired, or busy, or lazy, or clueless. I flew by the seat of my tired pants – my mind one half on getting his snacks and lunch and breakfast ready, one half semi-functioning. But I needed to think fast, and I know my pent-up frustrations and concerns about his time management fueled my eventual choice of punishment.

So many times during parenting I feel like that guy in the action thrillers: the one who has to figure out in 60 seconds which wire goes with which, so the plane doesn’t blow up.

When Fred reacted the way he did I realized I had pushed the biggest button on his little body. More than toys, more than video games, more than sweets, his friends are what mean the most to him. “Why didn’t you warn me this would be my consequence? Why can’t you give me a different punishment?” he cried. “Why this one?”

When I realized this, I sat down with him and promised I would get the contact information of his friends’ parents. We’ll have his friends over for play dates. He can absolutely still stay in touch with them. But he should have planned his good-byes for yesterday, the official last day we’d agreed on. And his spending half an hour to prepare for his after school playing meant that he was prioritizing socializing over getting to school on time. This is the logic that I tried to use to voice over the crying of my own heart.

Logic…I have plenty of it. The problem, sometimes, is that my heart is bigger, and louder. As a parent I know I need to somehow find a place where the two can meet as equals.

Forty-five agonizing minutes later, we were able to calmly get our tear-stained boy in the car to school with the agreement that he would come straight home in the afternoon. And I went back to my room, to pick up the crying where Fred had left off.

Have you had moments or days like this?