Archives for the month of: March, 2012

too few syllables
to capture a whole lifetime
i’ll miss your wit most

A few days ago, I reread the piece about the “drunken baby elephants.”  I’d forgotten their names and I chuckled aloud when I read the part about my boss commenting on the humidifier’s “piddling.”  Barb was funny.  Dry humor.  I’d forgotten the bit about the kiddie-pools until I read it again, three years after having written it and a year and a half after receiving the news that Barb had passed away.

One of the other things I loved about working for Barb, besides her wonderful wit, was the fact that she humored me.  I’d never had a boss before or since admire my peculiar sense of… order.  I think Barb could relate to my need to keep the conservation lab tidy and organized.  She ribbed me about it a bit, but I always knew she could relate and respected this trait of mine.

Yes.  I’d forgotten how much I missed her wit until I reread my silly essay about the humidifiers.  I’m so glad I have it documented somewhere.  I might have forgotten that detail without the desire to write about the experience.

are thirsty elephants here
in the museum

This blog was written in May 2009.

Originally I was waltzing with the drunken baby elephants, but as time went on I thought maybe it was more of a Tango. They weren’t terribly sure footed and I found myself slinking along, belly to them, one hand placed atop the head, the other on the hind quarters, side stepping like a Tango dancer might. Still, the slow movement necessary to not upset their stomachs was more like a waltz. If I kept the rhythm just right, there might not be an accident to clean up later.

* * *

Three weeks ago I started a new job as the Conservation Lab Assistant at a not-yet-open-to-the-public museum for musical instruments. One of my duties is to fill the three large humidifiers that occupy the storage area each morning and afternoon. These are needed to regulate the relative humidity in the huge warehouse space. It’s typical for museums to attempt to keep the relative humidity at a constant level to help maintain the longevity of the collection. In many cases this is done by an environmental control system for the whole museum. But since this is a new museum whose building is still under construction, I find myself filling the three humidifiers in the interim storage area twice a day. By day two of my new job I began calling it Waltz of the Drunken Baby Elephants.

Each baby elephant is a big box that measures roughly three feet across, four feet long, and a little over three feet in height, with vents covering each of the long sides for the air intake and outflow. They are encased in a skin of almond colored, powder coated metal. Added to one of the short sides is a grey electrical box that controls the humidistat; this I dub the head. Opposite the head side is, well, that’s where the water hose I use for filling the elephants is. Logically, this would be the mouth I suppose. But I’ve come to think of it as rather the opposite of the mouth and the source of my troubles, at least, some of them.

The other source of my woes is the elephant’s feet: Four sturdy casters each of which has a mind of its own. These feet are the cause of the drunkeness. The elephant’s belly holds up to 30 gallons of water. Imagine the most wily of shopping carts you may have encountered with 240 pounds of groceries in it. Now imagine navigating that unwieldy cart down an aisle crowded with priceless instruments and you have an idea what it’s like to waltz with drunken baby elephants. The only trouble with this comparison is that groceries are not generally given to sloshing. Water, however, is.

Last week I discovered something new. I was returning a very full Ned back to his stall from having been watered when he seemed to want to turn around. Instead of struggling against him, I allowed him to back into his stall. It was thrilling to find that there were no accidents with this performance! Ned is known as Humidifier #2 to everyone else on staff but me. His “stall” is a location in the southeastern corner of the warehouse near one of the two dock doors. Because of his location, near the large doors that lead outdoors and the frequent deliveries through those doors; Ned is one of the thirstiest elephants in my charge.

The name Ned came to me one day as I labored to pass through the increasingly narrow aisles of the warehouse. Ned, in my mind, is the name of a weasel-faced banker, in a poorly fitted suit, whose eyes are beady and too close set. His thinning hair should have been close cropped years ago, instead it hangs on, limply combed over the top of his shiny pate in a vague attempt to hide it. When the wind blows, the ruse is up. If Ned had been married, his wife would have told him to cut his hair. It’s not astonishing to note that he’s not, either married or cut his hair. His mannerisms are contrary to the flow of the natural world; Ned is out of synch with everything and everyone. In short, Ned is exasperating. This is how I came to name Humidifier #2.

The usual routine, until last Friday, with Ned, is for him to leave numerous messes along the aisles as we clumsily dance through the warehouse. By the time we’ve gotten to his stall, I’ve used several paper towels to clean up his mess. The biggest mess comes when our turn around the dance floor is concluding. The water he’s consumed burbles first from this side, then from that in a hugely watery mess. I water Ned first so I can get it over with and finish on a happy note rather than a wet one.

Next is Dora. (Insert a happy sigh here.) Dora is the sweetheart. She is sure footed and graceful, kindly, but not too bright. Were she a person, Dora might enjoy passing the time piecing together large jigsaw puzzles depicting exotic places she lacks the aplomb to visit. She would love to bring new neighbors in her apartment building tins filled with cookies and fudge. After all, she is a fantastic baker. Her secret desire in life is to be a dancer, though she lacks the physique for such an endeavor. Nevertheless, Dora is loveable. She maneuvers easily to and from the watering station and when I return her to her stall she charmingly pirouettes into place. I have never once had to clean up after Dora. It is for this reason I christen her Dora the Darling.

Hap is taller and thinner than either Dora or Ned. Where Dora likes to be cooperative and Ned can’t conceive of being anything but difficult; Hap just is. Like a Zen monk sitting in zazen, Hap is unflappable, focused and calm. If he had hands they would be steady and quick to create. Were it not for one tiny problem, Hap might be my favorite. The snag in watering Hap is not due to any character trait at all. Sadly, Hap has the misfortune to be incontinent.

At first I thought I hadn’t tightened the coupling that links Hap to the watering hose. But after a few warnings by my boss that one of my baby elephants was “piddling” I was sure something was amiss. It turns out, Hap’s coupling will unscrew itself if certain conditions exist, though I didn’t figure this out until The Big Spill of My Third Week.

I had gotten dressed-up that day; skirt, wide belt, pointed shoes, the whole nine-yards. As one might imagine, this is not the best get-up for dancing with the drunken baby elephants. But the man who has funded our entire museum thus far was making a big visit and I wanted to impress. As it happened, he asked me where I was from and not being sure whether he was asking where I was from, as in born, or where I was from, as in work experience; I dumbly bumbled through my answer. It was not one of my more articulate days. Luckily my boss cut in to extol some of my more impressive resume elements. He departed. I deflated. Suddenly my shoes were too tight, my hair too frumpy and the wide belt that had seemed smart that morning was now ridiculous.

It was in this frame of mind that I approached the final dance of the day. I wheeled Hap to the watering station, attached the hose, set my alarm to come back in ten minutes and walked away. I always set the timer and return to whatever I was working on previously. I abhor wasting time. Besides, listening to the elephant’s belly fill is tantamount to watching paint dry. Off I went, back to the zither in desperate need of cleaning. I returned ten minutes later to The Big Spill.

When Hap had piddled in the past, it was a small amount; a watery sock under the coupling. This was Lake Champlain. I quickly shut off the water, unhooked the hose and began my laughably earnest attempt to clean up the spill using paper towels. Not wanting to panic, or attract any attention to the sea that had spread under Hap, two large crates and a shelving unit four feet away I nimbly assessed that I needed something larger and infinitely more absorbent. I recalled seeing the woman who came to clean with a large mop in a wheeled yellow bucket. Regrettably, she arrived about the same time of day that I water the baby elephants. All the same, I ran to the closet where I hoped it was kept, breathed a sigh of relief that could have been heard a block away, and stealthily deployed my new recruit to the spill site.

By now, my adrenaline had kicked in. It’s nice and humid in the storage area which in this instance, made me perspire. The wide belt came off, as did the pointy shoes; neither was particularly helpful to getting down on my hands and knees to ascertain where the mop needed to go most quickly. The pencil skirt couldn’t be helped. I swabbed and sweated. When I was finished I furtively darted back to the maintenance closet. I hated to be caught yellow bucketed, barefooted, loose bloused, toting a mop. Grateful that most everyone departs right at five I slipped back into the storage area to don my shoes and belt. I paused for a moment to smooth the hair-wreck on top of my head and went to face my boss.

“Are the elephants watered?” My Boss had picked up on my joke about the elephants.

“Mm-hmm” I nodded with a smirk and pursed lips. “Had a little trouble with that one that likes to piddle again.” I chuckled convincingly, like I wasn’t the least bit alarmed a few minutes ago about Lake Champlain.

“Lara, you seem to be having a lot of trouble with those. Do we need to get you a kiddie pool?”

“Kiddie pool,” I laughed a little harder. I had to leave soon or my laughter would become some kind of uncontrollable fit. “That’s a good one. Yes! That is EXACTLY what I need.” I laughed even more and made a hasty exit past her to grab my things and leave for the day.

Two weeks later, Hap did it again. This time however, I was prepared. I don’t have a kiddie pool, but I do have a plastic bin that I’ve used under Ned, Dora and Hap since that day. Of course, I’ve only needed it for Hap. After one month and one Big Spill I feel I’ve successfully mastered the Waltz of the Drunken Baby Elephants.

These are the signs my husband made for me to put on the humidifiers.

two scars on one arm
one intentional one not
both times i fell down

This is the third (and final) in a series about my lifelong battle with depression.

Both scars are on my left arm. One has nearly faded to nonexistence. The other may someday be the same. One is a reminder of who I was. The other a reminder of who I’ve struggled not to be.

I was ten when, in the midst of a chopped pickle fight, I ran into the back room at N’s house to get away from her. We were at her house after school because that’s where the good snacks were. In this instance, the snack consisted of chopped dill pickles and… possibly American cheese slices on white bread. Or it could have just been chopped dill pickles. N and I ate a lot of weird stuff as kids.

In my flight from the kitchen and N’s mad pickle flicking skills, I tripped over something loud. Whatever it was made quite a racket. I paused to catch my breath and stop giggling. It was dark in their back room, a converted carport. N didn’t seem to be in pursuit. So I sought her out.

I found N in her bedroom, casually flopped on her bed as though the pickle flicking episode had never happened. (N was really good at nonchalance.) I animatedly told her about the back room, waving my hands around for emphasis. Her face went white.

“What?” I asked. “What’s wrong? Do you think I broke something?”

N pointed at me, “You’re bleeding.” Her eyes were wide.

I had a vague feeling in the upper regions of my left arm and I looked down to find that I had a one inch gash nearly in my armpit. “Ohmygosh! What do you think I tripped on?” Who cares about my arm, I was worried about what I’d broken in their back room.

Before we could investigate, N sent me out of her room to get something to staunch the bleeding. She was feeling queasy. In the back room, we discovered the gash’s culprit – her older sister’s science project, a solar oven. I had tripped over a series of knife edged, sheet metal angles.

Eventually, the wound healed. It reminds me of N, her family, sleepovers, after-school snacks, Backgammon games, Little House on the Prairie (both the books and TV show), her sister’s Vega and having to start it with a screwdriver, Airplane and Alien, Magic 8 Balls and all things good about my childhood.

On the same arm, but closer to the bend of my elbow is another scar. The day I fell down for that one was several decades in the making.

Around the same time I was hanging out with N and her family, I started struggling with my own demons. How can a ten-year-old have demons? I don’t know. But I know from that early age I struggled against the desire to hurt myself.

I made it to thirty-three before I finally took the advice of a therapist I was seeing to, “just take the drugs.” She couldn’t prescribe them for me so she sent me to someone who could. That doctor misdiagnosed me, and in doing so, put me on some heavy-hitting drugs. Those drugs took me down a hellish rabbit hole. I had been down, for a long time, but I was maintaining even if I wasn’t totally joyous. What happened while on the drugs was a nightmare from which I fought hard to wake.

First, my cognitive ability went. Later, I would joke, “I didn’t know what a fine mind I had until I lost it!” In the meantime, shortly after starting the new drugs, I couldn’t form a simple sentence. My thoughts started down a path that soon petered out to nothingness.

For example, what I wanted to say: We need to go see Joe, to pick up that Japanese sculpture so we can get it to Photography, then back to storage and stage it for the Curator.

What came out: We need to (insert 20 second pause while my coworkers started making guesses as to where I was headed) go to that place (another long pause, because I knew there was a name for where we needed to go) get that thing (another long pause as panic hit, knowing I couldn’t come up with the word for “sculpture” either) and take it to that other place. (By now I was mortified and humiliated, though my coworkers, amazingly, got the drift of what I was saying.)

That form of communication and panic lasted about two weeks before I took a medical leave of absence from work. Contrary to what the doctors were saying, things did not improve from there.

First came the suicidal thoughts. Followed by anxiety and panic and depression like I’d never experienced before. I wanted to kill myself so bad. I guess the Universe’s sense of humor was at work because I couldn’t keep my thoughts clear enough to figure out how.

It was agonizing.

Next, my contemplations, usually lovely, renewing, relaxing, balancing, exercises that connected me to the divine each morning, turned into hideous experiences. It was a bad acid trip – I would close my eyes hoping for solace and respite, only to see things that were violent and terrifying. I felt alone in a way I had never felt.

I couldn’t handle the experience and took myself off one of the three drugs (convinced it was the worst one for me). Bad idea and good idea. The really suicidal thoughts subsided and were replaced by vertigo that meant I couldn’t drive a car, go for a walk, or do much more than stay in my apartment for several weeks. The cognitive spaciness stayed. So did the depression. I didn’t want to kill myself, but I also felt as though I had a five-hundred pound rock sitting on top of my head. I might not have contemplated suicide, but I also felt like I would never, ever experience happiness again.

For several months I struggled with how to proceed. I stayed on a drug that sounded like an elephant tranquilizer and something else. Then, I took matters into my own hands again. I stopped taking those drugs too and stopped seeing my doctor.

The next seven months were dicey and difficult. Slowly and surely though, I got myself back. I could speak and made sense. I could walk alone. I could drive. I had moments of hopeful happiness.

Some of the residual effects of the drugs were a very strange heightened emotional state. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was even in my body when I had some of the experiences I had – they were very trance or drug-like experiences, transcendental even. Interesting, but not grounding.

In the eighth month I fell down. I don’t remember what triggered me, but I found myself emotionally spiraled out of control.

That’s when I took the kitchen knife and made the cut across my left arm.

I was at once dismayed and relieved. I’d fought so hard for twenty-some years trying not to hurt myself. Fighting the good fight against that darkness in me. Yet I was relieved. The struggle was over. I’d done it. I’d hurt myself and I knew, I would never do it again.

audio lifeboat
sailed across many miles
on currents of love

This is the second in a series of essays about my lifelong battle with depression.

In the fall of 2010, I found myself in one of the darkest wells I’d inhabited yet.  Try as I might, I was having no amount of success pulling myself out of the depression.  And, I was headed into the worst time of the year for me – winter.  The short days, long nights, and often cloud-laden days, wreak havoc on my brain chemistry.

As I faced winter 2010-2011, I was worried about myself, and my ability to hold back the darkness.  I was more worried than I’d been in a decade.

For my birthday at the end of September, a dear friend of mine had taken the time to compile a wonderful CD with an eclectic selection of music.  As I listened to it that first morning, on my way to a job that for reasons best explained in a different essay, felt like a prison to me, I was transported away from my life.  I thought of her and our wonderful friendship.  I thought about things other than myself, and the weights in my life that pulled me downward.  I was buoyed in a way I’d been unable to attain for myself.

When I arrived at work, in a moment completely uncharacteristic to me, I reached out.  I composed an email to a few close friends who knew me well enough that I could express my vulnerability and fear.  I also knew these friends had vast libraries of music that I didn’t.  This was an important part of the rescue plan.  All my music was old and worn to me.  It was frayed around the edges and brought me no solace.  Most of it would, in fact, transport me to another time and place in my life.  That wasn’t helpful to me.

I needed to be reminded of dear friends and love.  I was convinced that as I listened to new music from old friends, I would wear new, happier thought patterns, like grooves in a record, into my brain and beingness.  Some, if not all of these friends, had struggled themselves with depression at some point or another.  I knew they would understand my plea for help.

Reaching out so boldly scared me a little, but I sent the email.

The first to arrive was a package that to this day brings tears of gratitude to my eyes.  It was from L who I knew, from back in the days when we had cassette players in our cars, liked to make mixed tapes.  Today, L is a busy, working mom – active in all kinds of endeavors. It was, and remains, a miracle to me that she put this package together at all, let alone as swiftly as she did.

To get to the CD I had to open an envelope on which she had written, my nickname “is…” surrounded by twenty-one adjectives and phrases that made me cry so much when I first saw them, it took me twenty minutes to get myself together enough to open the envelope.  Inside I discovered not one, but six CDs each with an image of us, taken from the personal scrapbook of L, on the sleeve.  I cried even more when I looked at each one.

The next morning on my way to work, I began my journey through the six CDs.  Beginning with Maroon 5’s version of Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” and ending with U2’s “Some Days Are Better Than Others,” the first CD is like a surreptitious note passed during a dreary middle-school social studies class.  It’s a funny, sweet, brilliant, life-saver.  Discs two through six run the gamut from putting a boogie in my butt to deeply spiritual and healing – making me want to invest in myself in every way.

Over the next month, discs came in from NYC, Washington DC, and Jackson.  Those audio lifeboats got me through the next few months to spring and another opportunity to find balance yet again.

Undying gratitude to you who sent CDs – I love you all more than words can say.  And now you can say, you saved someone’s life.

Churchill’s big black dog
ever present in his life
hounds me endlessly

I’m not sure where I first read that Winston Churchill suffered from manic depression, and that he dubbed his depression a “black dog.”  But I could appreciate it the moment I read it.  I thought too that the metaphor was unique to him.  But, it seems likening depression to a black dog goes back to at least the middle of the 18th century when the compiler of the first major English dictionary, Samuel Johnson, is known to have used the term “black dog” in correspondence, as a metaphor for depression.  Moreover, it likely goes much further back than that – to Roman or Greek times.  (According to Paul Foley, an historian from New South Wales, Australia.)

In a letter to his wife, Clementine, Churchill writes:

“I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns.  He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief.  All the colours come back into the picture.”

Churchill had just met with a friend who told him of a doctor that cured his friend’s depression. I can relate to this statement – the “colours” being gone from the picture.  Some days, it seems I am sucked into an endless black well where all hope drains from my life and my vision of the playground of possibilities I tend to imagine at other times narrows to a pinprick of dim light.  I am alone and lost at these times.  A black dog would seem friendly.

It’s times like these the following Churchill quote feels peculiarly and painfully accurate:

“I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through.  I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train.  I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water.  A second’s action would end everything.  A few drops of desperation.”

A few drops of desperation indeed.  I have stood perilously close to my own metaphorical express train platforms.  I have managed to step back from harm’s ledge.  Mostly.  At this juncture in time, I live in the world of color, hope, and reprieve from the black dog.  Churchill was right.  It is a relief.

A few weeks ago a friend posted something on her blog that got me thinking.  I had already written three posts to go with haiku I’d written in the past few years, but I wasn’t sure if I should post them or not.  However, in reading the blog from “shoe on the other foot” – I thought maybe I would.  Here is the link to the post:

What stood out to me was the story about the pastor who committed suicide.  The next three blogs I post will be about my lifelong struggle with depression.  I would like to say (and I’m very grateful to be able to type these words) that I am not lately in the place where I am wrestling with the darkness.  It is in a blessed ebb. My hope in sharing these essays is to talk more openly about those dark places within us – as well as publicly thank those who have reached out to me.

quiet yet mighty
soul’s sotto voce guides us
mundane to sublime

Intuition. Sixth sense. Nudge. We all have a unique inner voice. This, I am convinced, is Soul’s sotto voce. In the crowded and often overwhelmingly noisy cocktail party of life, Soul hovers at our elbow, waiting to whisper insight and direction directly in our ear. It is so quiet as to be nearly imperceptible. It is meant for us alone. No one else can hear this voice. And, it is up to us to hone our listening skills because, like the cocktail party, there are many competing voices and visions in our lives.

We’ve all heard Soul’s whisper. Turn right here. And maybe we follow it or maybe our mind overrides it saying, “That’s stupid. I never turn right here,” as we sail past the right turn headed for the other turn we are used to taking.

Or maybe it’s not a voice but a nudge. Take down the model number of those eyeglasses. And our mind butts in again, “Ugh. Please. They’re glasses. It’s not like they’re going anywhere.” Yet when we return? The glasses (or shoes, or book, or, or, or. Insert your own story here.) we wanted are gone. The sales person asks if we have the model number. Inwardly, I kick myself, (maybe we all do this, maybe it’s peculiar to me), my mind ready to switch sides with lighting ease, “Ugh! What an idiot. I told you to write that number down!”

But it wasn’t the mind. It was Soul.

Recently, I had an experience with this that makes me wonder, if I followed that voice as often as I could, would my life be more… sublime? More magical? Would I feel like I’m more in tune with my life and the Universe? Because here’s what happened:

I wasn’t feeling well. I was feeling poorly enough that I begged out of going for a walk with a friend of mine even though it was an amazing spring-like day. My head hurt and I had a general feeling of queasiness. I wanted to curl up on the couch with a book and nap. But I kept getting a really clear nudge to go to a specific shop to look for a necklace. I had been given a gorgeous, glass seahorse pendant, but had no way to wear it. I tried to ignore the nudge. But it was really strong.

Here is the thing about Soul’s sotto voce, for me it often, in fact nearly always, defies reason and logic. Logically, I could list several reasons not to go to this store. I wasn’t feeling well. I didn’t need to spend the money. They might not have what I need. I was tired. Blah. Blah. Blah.

Yet, logic is of the mind and Soul doesn’t care about its flimsy excuses. Soul is in the know and always has our best and highest good at heart. I am convinced of this because although I have been disappointed when I didn’t follow a nudge or that quiet inner voice, I have never been disappointed when I have. I might add too, that sometimes when I didn’t follow Soul’s quiet direction, I later saw how following it would have been beneficial in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious to me at the time. (Oh how my mind likes the immediately obvious!)

I listened to the nudge and went to the store. It’s a sweet little boutique in a neat neighborhood. It’s one of my favorite places. The owner of the shop directed me to the necklaces then went back to her conversation with another woman, the only other person in the store.

It’s not a big place and I couldn’t help but overhear what they were talking about: Life, big changes, taking risks and trusting the Universe to provide what we need. I went up to the counter to check out and showed them the pendant and necklace I’d picked out to go with it. This spurred a continuation of the conversation they were having, prompting me to blurt out my recent plans to move across the country on nothing more than nudges and intuition. I felt a moment’s sheepishness, which was quickly engulfed by their kindness and kinship.

I walked out of the boutique with far more than a necklace. I walked out with a renewed sense of excitement about our move, that it was part of a larger plan, and that unseen, highly loving forces were at work in my life. And to think, I would have missed all that if I hadn’t listened to my quiet inner voice.