Due to an unpleasant dental matter and another tomorrow–the actual extraction–I lack great inspiration today. Sometimes I think my dental escapades have more power over me than I can admit. I give more time and energy to them than I would like. Like today. As every Wednesday, I would love to be writing at length–several hours. But a lower left aching tooth has another idea. Enthusiasm can depend on pain-free vitality–it often corresponds to sharp mental faculties. And good humor.
“This is not what I need right now,” I mumble while leaving my dentist’s office. Dr. K. probed and examined, came up with the plan. Not pleasing but essential.
I hightail it to a favorite coffee shop–called, humorously, Insomnia–and order an Aztec Mocha, half-caff, almond milk, no whip. Then add a huge piece of cinnamon coffee cake. My reward, always. Plus I may as well indulge, as tomorrow will be another story. I slurp, nibble and smile despite the numb left side of tongue and face.
I had an issue with that tooth a few months ago; we had planned a lovely new (second) crown. But other experiences interfered: three deaths (loathe to bring this up again but they sure impacted life) and required travel, my husband’s sudden and lingering illness, the holidays with adult children and grandkids, a monster cold virus that held me hostage, diligent house hunting, then a random staph infection. Now I am packing and addressing tedious details of moving. Keeping in my sights my “true north” so I stay the course.
And now a small dental crisis…so it goes. One must cope–so many of life’s events are not very convenient. Writing time will be brief; tomorrow I will rest after the troublesome thing is pulled.
But now I realize I’ve already written a personal essay that states what fits for today. It’s about the first dentist I came to tolerate after my one childhood dentist (who I well admired–charming and excellent) and after that, forty years of dentists that I did not whatsoever. Then Dr. K showed up on the scene and all was better than I ever expected. Not that it is a thrill to go. There is still that slight resistance–a subtle urge to get up and slip out the door– as I settle into that chair. But I say my dental prayer. And she remains kindly, attentive, at times funny, ethical and expert at her work. She has completed very fine work with my problematic “pearly off-whites.” (She even fashioned new front teeth for the hairline-fractured ones; this triggered tears as I peeked in the mirror.) And since she believes in Divine Love–she says her own prayers before work– that compassionate attitude toward life makes an authentic difference.
So it follows that I care about Dr. K., her family (I have met a few folks) and the dentistry practice. How many dentists treat patients as part of their extended personal community? And make your teeth better as well as make you laugh? (“Here is that gold from the crown,” she said today as she handed it to me. “Go pawn it for good money!”)
Yes, I’ll heal up once more–such resilience our bodies have– and will inevitably see her a more this year. I keep faith despite lousy dental genes.
Whenever there is a hole or other opening within an ancient tree trunk or stump, or when a huge crooked root beckons, I try to fit inside or under, compacting my smallish frame smaller so as not to get snared by slivered wood or unknown bits. It’s best to avoid massive spider webs but unlikely that I’ll avoid their creators as I wedge myself in. After all, they thrive in Northwest forests, as well as scores of other bugs (very few mosquitoes, however) –and ubiquitous slimy slugs. I am on neutral terms with arachnids, though I’ve been bitten and at times not appreciated results. This happens least often when I am rambling about woodlands. I fit myself in with a peripheral awareness of other creatures and fill my nostrils with the powerful pungency of wood and loamy earth.
I crouch down, hands on thighs, and look about. It is semi-dark. Snug. The light above or beyond the tree and me is caramel-toned in fall and summer, a grey opalescent in winter, and green-yellow in spring. Birds seem livelier, brightly chirping and serenading as they flit above and around, or my ears hear better from the center of a tree. At this size and from this angle, I feel less intrusive there. I may rest in the insects’ hollow and this gives me pause, that I am so much bigger than they. I rest on spongy earth where mushrooms dot the landscape, garter snakes slip by and bees swoop and squirrels freeze then skitter off with their chittering. My breath is still, heart is quiet. I can stay this way a long while: at rest though alert, awake to this world even while captivated by powers mysterious, immense even if not always working in my favor. A big shiny black beetle trundles past my feet. The forest air rests on my tongue–savory, sweet-sour. I feel moved by the abundant density of life. It is beautiful and warm here, in this tree, in this solitariness, under canopies of leaves and sky.
Until I can see two feet and a long knotty branch used as a walking stick. Marc, my spouse, has waited long enough. Am I going to get up and out of there? I rouse myself and half-crawl out, then unfold myself, brush off the crumbs of dirt and pieces of wood, the webby coating on a sleeve. He thinks I am slightly daft–this obsession I have for smaller spaces in the outdoors, or for climbing beneath or up onto a big root or branch. I even sometimes ask for photos. I can’t say just why–I just know it gives me pleasure to recall being in those lovely spots, to feel that much closer to nature’s ways.
But it all started when I was growing up, this interest in discovering a unique spot, making a nest of my own, holing up in smallish spaces.
In a house full of people–seven of us in a two story, three bedroom place with one bathroom plus a half-finished basement–being cramped for space was a way of life. I saw friends’ bigger houses (some of my friends even had their very own bedroom, not one they shared with one or two other sisters, swimming pools and so on) but ours was homier. In fact, it was cozy and attractive to me, filled with interesting objects as well as persons. (Not just family or an occasional neighbor but Dad’s music students or customers who needed him to appraise and sell or repair instruments and people from church and my parent’s bridge partners and good friends or visiting musicians or school teachers there for luncheons/dinners and siblings’ friends as well as mine–well, it got tight, alright.) The doorbell and phone were forever ringing. Music took up residence in the rooms and talk floated about heads and people moved around furniture or sat in it or pulled out a chair at the long dining table so it got crowded, too.
In winter, when I was indoors more, I escaped under our baby grand piano in the corner of the living room. There I could watch people come and go but also read a book, trace a picture, make lists of names for characters in my plays, hum a new tune I had learned, play with dolls, make tents and houses for them with scarves with the aid of books, listen to those who played piano and watch their feet work the pedals, the vibrations entering my bones as the piece reached a crescendo. I also listened in on more private conversations, a favorite activity. (Or took a nap until age six or seven.)
Less satisfactory was the area in front of a heating register; it was on the wall behind an armchair. This spot did meet dual needs–warming as well as half-hiding me. But it was easy to get in the way as it was by a door leading to stairs so there was foot traffic; I could also get squashed if someone moved the chair back.
The best resort was the outdoors. I’ve written before of the giant maple tree with our regular swing and a rudimentary trapeze; of its sturdy branches which acted as steps that carried me aloft, one sturdy stretch of leg at a time to the very top. Talk about a fine look-out. I could see way across the small tree nursery behind our bush-and-fir-lined back yard, past the Benfers’ huge vegetable and flower garden, over the rooftops of another two-story house, a small medical office and beyond to the pretty subdivision on Richard Court and Manor Drive. And that Michigan sky!–much greater than one might imagine and full on goings-on with chameleon clouds, moveable light and later, glints of a trillion tiny stars. The cars I spotted on Ashman Street swished by, oblivious.
There was a certain crook made of two branches that held my weight well so I wedged myself there. Despite a need to shift every few minutes, I was content. Undisturbed and nearly invisible. Surrounded by robins, a cardinal or blue jay, wrens and sparrows all came and went as they pleased. Freedom felt democratic there. I could just be, dream of anything, imagine myself anywhere–a tall ship was a favorite. My world was full to overflowing within the natural intimacy of a tree’s branches, as if I was made to fit. I just belonged there.
And also in the northeastern corner of the yard’s bushes and pines. I had a couple of weathered, handmade benches–one like a table, one a chair– made of 4×4 wood remnants from the garage. There were variously dolls, notebooks and novels, art supplies, a ukulele, tea sets, snack and lunch detritus, a weak magnifying glass, a miniature flashlight, thermos of tea or water, forbidden matches, a stained old toss pillow and a cast off sheet for a makeshift door or more “seating” for buddies. It could hold maybe three if they pressed into undergrowth. The hideaway was full of branches that had to be tied back to enlarge the space and to be kept from poking out eyes. With all the pine needles on the ground, the place was so heavy with their perfume that I could smell pine for days on my sweater and jacket. Damp pine and warm, layers of fresh or old pine. It would get shadowy and then darker long before the outside darkened. Quieter than anywhere else on the property. There was the advantage of also being able to slip out and hightail it right across Stark Nursery’s land if I didn’t want to stay put or was eluding siblings who came poking about. There I would pretend I rode horses or carried on epic battles or slipped into a netherworld. My hideout was my fort of safety when pursued by ghosts or intruders, those either imaginary or real.
I tried to make another private cubbyhole at the end of the front porch. Alas, it was too noisy with nearby streets, people who stomped up and down the steps with annoying regularity. Plus, there were red juniper berries there that my mother was worried I’d eat like a scavenging explorer. I did pick them; I never ate one, certain I’d die. I also would make a mess behind those ample bushes; that wasn’t going to happen in our front yard. But I still sometimes hid there to watch the world between branches, especially during winter when it became igloo-like with snows. (I’d also make snow caves alongside our street after the snowplow made towering drifts.)
Often I roamed the 24 acre wooded park, Barstow Woods, a couple of blocks from our house. The winding trails and creek offered plenty of nature to examine, a whole territory to explore or to play hide and seek in with my friends. I was as at home there as I was on my own city block; it was a safe place back then. And I learned much about trees and animals and plants each summer as a “day camper” with other kids and adult counselors.
The northern parts of Michigan were visited often, and there I was just as accustomed to running wild on dirt side roads and trails, playing in the light-dappled woods and finding my way back, moving according to sensory input. And dwelt in happiness all those places.
Since those days of fearless play I have lived in the country a few times though never long enough. But I have always been drawn to it, awed, enchanted and daunted by it. Sometimes as an adult, I can become afraid of sounds and shapes I can’t identify and unexpected events that occur no matter the time of day or weather, no matter if I am alone or not. (Like the unseen cougar I learned later was in the area but that I felt along the trails.) Generally, I am secure in my instincts and there are many spots that accommodate me. The open rolling fields of the Midwest and its northern woodlands; the dense, humid hothouse of the South; the tinder-dry, quirky vastness of the Southwest, the rainy wilderness, mountains and high desert of the Northwest: they have each called to me. And I have found my place even in the hardest life circumstances. There is always a hollow near a waterfall or a gaping hole in an aged, giant tree. A river bank that offers green bushes where I can kneel, watch the current carry leaves and twigs, ducks and stones. And Pacific Ocean beaches with huge driftwood piles to sit on and within, and headlands with caves to settle into.
I live in the city but I am never far away from landscapes other than densely packed blocks. We have Forest Park. At over five thousand acres and stretching eight miles on hills above the Willamette River, it is one of our nation’s largest urban nature reserves. And other city parks and wildlife preserves are varied and well kept. A mere twenty-minute drive takes me to the Columbia River Gorge, a designated National Scenic Area where wildlife, waterfalls and rivers and rocky buttes flourish amid the Cascade Range, miraculous with beauty. When multiple wildfires ravaged that vast acreage last year I wept, sick at heart. This summer I will finally venture out into it once more.
Every one of us needs a place to find serenity, to be at ease apart from the world’s pressures, its craziness. And we are animal beings who need our comforts, spiritual beings who need deeper sustenance. For me, it is more often than not in the welcoming outdoors, within nature’s arms. But I am told that even in sleep I pull close the blanket and quilt, up over nose, to or even over shuttered eyes, making a little tent. Please don’t awaken me; I am a creature well nested and deeply at peace. Nurtured yet freed. I will emerge restored and bright eyed when good and ready.
There are occasional days I awaken as if slogging through a heavy mist of haunting dreams, feet unsteady on the floor, body trying to find a barest sense of consciousness amid a three-dimensional space. I perform preparations for further entry into daytime accompanied by a low groan or two. Dressed, wet hair dripping, I finally turn on the tea kettle. I manage to feel less weary as its soft sizzle of sounds hum through the kitchen. Curtains and windows are throw open in living and dining room; balcony door is cracked wide. Let come the light, come the fresh air, there we go.
The Irish Breakfast teabag greets boiling water and I stare into deepening amber. I must get more awake, greet my life with eyes fully open. I will meditate and pray longer, for this may be a day that will take more work to mine the beauty and hope that enliven my life. My love for the world–mine and our greater one– is straddled with grief. I am often surprised by this. Ask my spouse and he will tell you I am a person who is primarily even-keeled, rolling with the weather of life, even optimistic by nature. It wasn’t always that way. I learned a few things.
But am I feeling a little depressed those certain mornings (day, evening)? My training indicates it can happen that way, sudden brief lows, even mild yet disheartening. Close-up experience being myself may indicate otherwise; there is usually to be a reason. A lifetime of valuing the intelligence of emotion also chimes in. I know the voice or silence as well as the faces of depression, the energy and mass of it from repeated encounters with mental health clients. And I have known it in my personal journey when facing serious crises. It carried my burdens with bleak misery. But the older I become, the more I feel “the blues” is but one more variation of the expansive spectrum of emotions–if generally an indicator of other, less visible feelings. And it is not the enemy but another ally, nudging me to take notice. To see what else is going on. It’s a little like the relentless shriek of the tea kettle telling me it is liable to go dry, so time to take action.
That loaded word, “depression”, floats by our collective eyes and ears more times than I can count these days. It certainly was a major focal point all day long when I was a counselor. Also prior to that, while working with geriatric and disabled populations. It has become a dominant topic in literary, scientific and spiritual journals, even popular magazines. It often takes center stage during commercial breaks on television, courtesy of the octopus reach of Big Pharma. It can be a source of discussion among friends, acquaintances, family members. I have lost people to suicide; I don’t underestimate its debilitating, even lethal effect.
Clearly depression is entrenched in our socio-psychological lexicon following centuries of being a word not uttered if it could be helped. Or quietly, behind closed doors. And even then, it was called something else. The varieties of depression have been re-categorized or redefined to keep up with the evolution of diagnostic techniques and manuals. (Or the other way around; it depends on your viewpoint.)
Back when I was working in mental health agencies, powerful grief and loss usually underlay depression symptoms–it might have been an event that kept cropping up (say, ancient family dysfunction fueled by ongoing abuses or abandonments) or a very fresh experience. Anything from unemployment or medical issues to relationship trouble or moving to a new city, even loss of dreams and goals. Addictions of all sorts are also both symptoms and triggers. But right there I’m going to stop. I’m leaving the finer details to diagnosticians who are working away in the field.
I’m going back to my opening theme, those times when walking and thinking are reminiscent of trudging through noxious mud. Because I have worked at gaining self-knowledge a long time now, I also know the acrobatics my mind can perform and the poisons my spirit can let in. So I am ready when my response is needed. I know when and how I must take myself in hand.
If we are in large part what and who we tell ourselves, then I’m a curious human being with intellectual capability, decent physical equipment, rich emotional responses and a seeking soul. All these work together from what I can tell, for if one aspect goes a little awry, others tend to malfunction some. I am made of homeostatic systems that make a whole, one that runs well and without much fretting when systems do their work appropriately. All I have to do is see to insure my human beingness remains tuned up–attend to whatever is askew and appreciate its design and function. It is not so much to ask for; every creature has its work to stay alive and do what it can do.
If we stop to consider the intricate checks and balances that go on in our bodies, alone, that awareness can startle us with awe. We know the brain does countless jobs each moment and exerts tremendous influence– we haven’t anywhere near figured out the full scope of its powers. But we do know, for instance, that sleep is critically needed to provide to good health, and for the brain to efficiently process and park information. Otherwise, we cannot operate without paying the price. (I remind myself that those nights when I awaken at 2 a.m., then return to sleep somewhere around 3:30 am.–this would contribute to anyone’s moody ineptness the next day.)
Every part of who I am wants to work at maximum levels. It is far more interesting; I gain and also give more. This requires intellectual, emotional and spiritual support and care. I know, for example, if I neglect reading meditation books and studying guiding scripture, if I don’t allow enough time to seek the Creator’s wisdom for more clarity of mind and a compassionate heart, shadows of sadness and distress may find greater opportunity to cling more than a moment. I tend to manage, anyway; there is the will, a mighty thing, to help determine quality of life. (Or better yet, there is synergism, a theological assertion that renewal is a combination of will and divine grace.) But how much better to remain rooted in my strengths as well as curtail or transform my deficits? To create more possibilities for a fuller, truer life?
I manage my health needs and revel in the body’s capabilities. I’m not ready to leave this earth. I watch over my emotional wellness because I savor happiness and peace. But I am no longer afraid of sorrow, frustration, disappointment or even failure. I’ve been there; still standing.
So I locate and nurture wellsprings of wholeness. It isn’t too hard. I admit it’s less challenging since retirement, but even as a working woman I kept those operational needs met the best I could. This is my way since I am a person who has been intimate with the vagaries of life fortunes, the loss of health, money, housing, safety, love, hope and twice, nearly my life. Yes, then, I have been to some deep pits. I didn’t expect to step into or get tossed in them. Who ever does? The climbing or tunneling out was exhausting, lonely, left a few marks from hoisting mental, spiritual and physical burdens, from the clawing and gnashing of teeth as I searched for relief. That rejuvenating sip of air, illuminating pinprick of light–it can turn the tides of mind.
Yes, far easier to maintain the well-being I have developed– and take rapid action to repair breakage or malfunctioning than let things head sideways.
We likely agree it’s sometimes a strange and arduous thing to inhabit this human flesh. Optimism can be fickle, faith can get slippery and resources run out more than we’d like. How much we admire the creatures who carry on their business without, we suspect, any thought to the future, without consternation over much while driven by instinct. But we are not they. Let us live the parts we have been given, then seek to make them finer.
When a disenchanted melancholy swirls about then settles on my shoulders like a ill-fitting cape, I don’t panic. I wear it awhile. Acknowledge it. Let it visit me, talk to it, carry it about. Listen to any stories it has to tell, let clues surface. It has come to keep me company. But I don’t give it undue attention, either. The feeling will depart, either when it is ready or when I determine it is time. If a feeling hangs on to my detriment, I know what to do: reap spiritual sustenance; walk, hike, dance; eat smartly; rest even small pockets of time; visit and help others; make or bring life-affirming music and art and literature more deeply into my days and nights. And do not stay glued to electronic mediums, especially when it emphasizes negativity, subjects me to ever more violence. I–we–clearly need edification, more potent solutions born of thoughtful consideration.
But when there is a long and opaque shadow cast, it pays to well investigate the source. A shadow is only light blocked. Is it a circumstance that will pass? Is it a person whose presence is overwhelming the positive in my life? Is it something I have no direct control over, anyway–the complex state of this world, weather, my aging siblings’ health, other peoples’ beliefs? Or is it me? More often than not I am getting in the way, complicating things, being slow to mend a torn or sore spot. Maybe I just feel lazy; it requires strategy and effort to change.
I may be blocking the very light I need to thrive. If that is the case, I may find the deeper shadows suitable for encouraging self-pity, the last thing that’s needed. I can get out of my own way. Then I can influence the issues I can address. But I do not have to make it a big production, either. When a touch or full-on case of melancholy is experienced, quiet work usually gets the job done better than a dramatic response. Either way, its up to me.
Try this next time awakening with your own shadowy companion: give it your respect. What would we be without the mystery of shadow; it helps delineate our lives, as well, and gives us more depth and mystery. So make a fresh cup of coffee or tea to savor, open your window and let your lungs fill right up. Find that spot of beauty and absorb it. Praise the numinous Light of all. Spread it about. We can and should embrace even the homeliness of our lives, their misaligned aspects. We ought to love the weak moments and mad bits, and exercise mercy during baffling trials. It all works well when we accept the vast variations of our living, and help it along.
Sometimes you have to leave behind the daily routine, seek out fresh scenes and conversations (or savor silence), experience feelings and ideas from changed perspectives. Let go and give yourself over to moment-to-moment opportunities that will help you become more rooted and present in living.
And those of you who read my blog regularly know I have lost my dear sister in the last two months, then underwent a moderately harrowing couple of days in the hospital due to heart issues. A respite seems wise. And I am a person who is enamored of movement–I love to take physical, mental and spiritual action. Taking a mini-vacation fits my criteria.
So, I’m shutting things down at home, grabbing my partner’s hand and allowing the days and nights to surprise us more than usual. We are off to the beach and mountains, where symmetry and anomalies have a way of unfolding in eye-opening ways, and I am shaken up, even held aloft by visions and wonders.
I will seek to bring back a heart and soul clarified and infused by strong joy, a sacred serenity. And, of course, to find laughter, good companionship with my spouse, and lazy hours doing just as we please.
May your coming days afford you more kindness, curiosity, and fulfillment, as well.
See you next week with more tales, pictures and poems!