That’s what the owl said to me, in the voice of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland. However, unlike the caterpillar, it delivered the question without disdain, and the owl was not expecting an answer.
We were walking around Town Lake for my birthday, moseying northwest under the high leafy canopy of pecan trees just before the Lamar Street Bridge when I spied a fluttering of wings out of the corner of my eye. I stopped, looked up and saw a giant barred owl staring at me from a tree branch above. “Look!” I said with awe, and Gage followed my pointing finger to the owl. His eyes grew big and he grinned.
“I’ll go get Dad and Jack!” He raced off ahead, his sneakered feet pounding the packed gravel. Owl’s head turned and followed Gage’s progress with mild interest. Then it turned back to me. Eyes big and round, calm, attentive, curious.
Who ARE you?
I watched and snapped pictures as Owl stared, turned its head to survey the surroundings, adjusted its stance in the tree, and stared again. Owl glided to another branch facing the water, then swiveled its head in that impossible, 180-degree way and made eye contact again.
Who are you?
As I watched Owl, a calm resoluteness came over me. I was not intended to answer the question. I was meant to be it, go out and find it, in the world and inside myself. Owl’s was not so much a question as an invitation, one posed without judgment or attachment. Then, Owl soared away.
Days later, an owl landed in my inbox. A raku potter I follow, the Alchemist, had made some. I picked one who spoke to me, and my very own owl arrived, carefully wrapped, in my mailbox a short while later, all the way from Canada. It was addressed by hand.
Now Owl sits on my desk. I smile when I see her. She watches me type, and she is always asking….
For someone who is pretty attentive to all the shit that goes on in her head and whatever the latest science/space/blackhole news is, I can be oblivious to the walking, talking, irl stuff. Early concrete example: my dad built me a Barbie house for Christmas when I was eight. While it was a work-in-progress, he threw an old paint-stained olive green bedspread over it in the garage. I walked past its five-by-five Snuffalupagus-like bulk every day for months to access my bike and roller skates. I didn’t notice it.
My mother said, when I was young, sometimes kids would make fun of me in that subtle, it-sounds-like-a-compliment-but-any-sentient-adult-can-tell-it’s-not kind of way. It hurt her heart, but upon realizing I had no idea anything was going on beneath the surface of “I like your hair,” she decided perhaps ignorance was bliss and kept it to herself.
I am still like this. Although, at forty-five, I may get an inkling that your “that sweatshirt looks so comfortable” comment may be your way of passive-aggressively saying, “You look like a slob, and now I feel better than you,” I am still too exhausted to try to figure that shit out. Whatever. You are dismissed.
I was just reading an advice column in which a person asked, “When a guest brings a bottle of wine to my house for dinner, do I have to serve it with the meal?” Figuring out what social custom dictates you do in situations like this is so incredibly tiresome. If you bring me a bottle of wine, please, for the love of god, tell me what to do with it. “I thought it would go nicely with the chips and queso” or “Save this for yourself for later” are welcome directions. Better yet, take liberty, get comfy in my house, and open that shit yourself or shove it in my wine fridge, which is probably empty because stocking up on wine is not something I’m capable of.
Whatever you do, don’t give me a choice and expect me to say the “right” thing. If you say, “Whatever. Open it if you want.” I will circumvent trying to read your true desires in your face like tea leaves and do exactly what I want. I’ll ask, “Are you sure?” That’s your one out. If you don’t take it, you’ve no one but yourself to blame.
Look, I will pick up on your mood. I am annoyingly empathetic. If you are having a shitty day, I will know that you are sad, tired, pissed off, depressed, whathaveyou. But if you are trying to send me subtle social cues to tuck my bra strap under my sleeve, I will absolutely not notice. Then, you will make fun of me to your “friends” later, which will feel delicious at first but leave you with that horrible hollow feeling after the fact, and I will go home none the wiser.
I used to think this lack of social awareness was a failing of mine, but every time I have gotten a clue that I didn’t use the right fork or someone was smirking at my shoes, it hasn’t done anything for me except make me feel bad (when I was younger) or annoy me (when I was older). Plus, Jason says he loves this about me, and with all the other shit he has to put up with, I oughta throw him a bone. So…oblivious. Yeah, I think I’ll keep it.
I didn’t realize how apt the name of this blog was when I came up with it. At the onset, it just described how moody I am — how I can be in love with the world one minute and convinced it’s utterly doomed the next. I can even hold both of those feelings at the same moment. The “riding” part refers to my attempt to gently navigate these mood swings instead of trying to beat them into submission.
But wave riding is not just for my personal emotional ambiance; it has applied, very much, to weathering this forced shelter-in-place, quarantine, socially-distant experiment to which we’ve all, necessarily, been subjected. People are sick, and essential employees are out there doing their jobs in the face of immense challenge and fear. I salute them. This post is for the rest of us.
Telling It Like It Is, Part 1
I could tell you that, since we’ve all been sequestered here in our house, I’ve been cooking more. The kids have been helping around the house, and Jason has ramped up his woodworking. I could wax philosophical about how we’ve learned to appreciate the little things — stocked grocery shelves, a walk around the block, our own good health. Our kids are visibly excited about toilet paper, for godsakes. I could tell you we’ve hiked and done crafts and that in a way, we feel closer as a family than ever. I could mention that this time has caused me to reflect on what is truly important and in what direction I’d like to take my career. I love the simplicity this situation has brought us. All of this would be true.
Telling It Like It Is, Part 2
I could also tell you that Jason and I had a loud, emotional argument right before bed one night last week that took us days to recover from. I could tell you how I cry into my hands in front of my computer screen at least once a week, the job sites staring back at me with offers from companies I will never hear back from — a recurring non-event that chips away at my self-worth. I could reveal that my kids, though they don’t complain anymore about isolation, long for their friends. I could mention how, introvert though I may be, I have recently started fantasizing about going OUT to dinner, about seeing a movie or having drinks at a bar with friends, about drinking a coffee IN the shop. All of these things are true, too.
Just Like Oz
Things are great and terrible. It is the best of times and the worst of times. Isolation is blissfully relaxing, centering even, and yet also distressing and identity crisis inducing. Part of being human (at least I hope so because if not, it’s just my weird, overly-complicated bullshit emotions) is the ability to hold these seemingly conflicting feelings simultaneously. So if you are also having your waves — peaks where you feel like self-distancing has changed your life for the better, troughs in which you want to run away from home and never come back — know that some of us, hell probably most of us, are going through the same thing. And it is possible to feel it all at once, too.
Comparison, Thief of Joy
When you scroll through your social media feeds and see all the crafts and baked goods and post-workout sweat shots, don’t compare yourself to that. Remember, those people have their troughs too. We all do. Don’t be too hard on yourself (she says to remind herself the same thing.)
I quit social media again today. Okay, so “quit” may be a strong word since I’m posting this, but I am definitely dialing back. I do this periodically when it starts making me feel like a failure in my own life. And since the response to Covid-19 has ramped up, I definitely feel like I’m falling short.
The internet is saturated with ideas for those of us fortunate enough to be healthy but also stuck at home.
Make a schedule!
Go for a walk!
Have a family game night!
Read these 18 self-care tips to stay happy and healthy at home!
Do these 47 education crafts!
Here are some video links to free yoga! Free online classes! Free footage of California Condors doing the congo!
Here’s what happens to me as I scroll through all of those helpful posts (sooo much help): I start to feel pressured. I begin to feel like I am falling short, like I am not enough. I haven’t hand-sewn any face masks for healthcare workers, I haven’t made my kids do any school work yet, I have availed myself of zero free YouTube workout videos. We are basically acting like it’s summer vacation around here, sans day camps.
We’ve been on some hikes and some walks. We are making the kids do housework, and we are discovering some new shows to watch. I am enjoying our lax schedule and the idea of distance learning as a fun social experiment. It will be interesting to see what we learn as a society from all this, what will change permanently. <— See! Positive attitude!
I have also learned that even when you do chores, go running, read a book, play a board game and make everyone rake leaves, there is still a LOT of time left in the day to binge-play video games.
The Not So Great
Here’s what else has happened in our house since social distancing began: Jason yelled and threw things because (not really because) he lost at a video game. The kids have gotten in fights. I have cried in my morning coffee because I don’t have a job. Ou dog is driving us all nuts with her constant scratching because her foot thumps on the floor, and when she does it upstairs, it’s like a seventy-pound Thumper from Bambi is sounding the alarm for approaching doom. Our very own pandemic herald.
It’s Okay if You’re Not Okay
You can do all the “right” things. You can meditate, make schedules and mentally list everything you have to be grateful for, and still have a hard time. This IS a hard time. Whether your stress is derived from health issues, financial worries, being cooped up in the house with your family or a combination thereof, it is okay if you’re not totally okay.
We all feel better when we take good care of ourselves and our families. I’m not suggesting everyone spend the next several weeks wallowing alone in dark bedrooms with nothing but Netflix for company. Not the entirety of it, anyway. But there’s nothing wrong with you if all those helpful suggestions don’t make the anger, worry or fear disappear.
The big stressors are there in the background, so if you still grind your teeth, get irritable and yell at someone or close your bedroom door and cry, congratulations! You’re having a normal human reaction to things that are stressing out the entire damned globe. No amount of family game night is going to fix the downward-sliding economy, make a sick loved one well or get us back to our normal lives any faster. It just might make it a bit more tolerable, that’s all. Those big things will take time; we can’t repair them with essential oils or apple cider vinegar.
“These Uncertain Times”
I have a hard time answering when people ask me how we’re doing in these “uncertain times” as the media like to put it. We’re doing pretty good. We’re not too stir crazy or bored, and we all still like each other. With more free time, we’ve been getting outside a lot and spending some actual quality family time together. And also, Jason and I are worried about our finances and the medical vulnerability of some of our relatives. Sometimes that leaks out as irritation and anger. But at least we’re talking about it.
I’ve only got one suggestion to go with the mountains of advice you’ve read lately: If you are scrolling through your newsfeed, and you start to feel bad about the way you’re handling the Covid-19 crisis, close the app and social distance yourself from social media, just a little. Hell, you don’t even have to put your phone down; go play Words with Friends or something. Call a real-live friend and vent to them everything that’s pissing you off lately.
Bottom line, at our house, we’re okay, but we’re not totally okay, and as I remind myself daily, eventually, all of this will be okay. If you’re not totally okay, either, that’s okay. Don’t make not being okay even less okay by feeling not okay about feeling not okay. Okay?
So I don’t really do New Year’s resolutions, and the past two Januarys, I’ve ranted here and here about why. But I have in recent years, used the beginning of the year to reflect on how I could make my life a little better and set a focus for the upcoming months. That may sound like a bullshit way of saying “New Year’s resolution,” but thinking about it as a focus has less baggage for me. The term “resolution” makes me feel like I have to come up with a socially acceptable goal related to exercise or finances and achieve it so I have thus performed the act of being a good, responsible adult for the approval of everyone else…..
…or, more realistically, failed at it and felt like I also am failing at being the right kind of person who exercises, eats right, saves her money and never says an unkind or negative word. Then, I can simultaneously feel like a bad person whilst feeling resentful about social pressure to make and keep resolutions.
Some of you relate to this. Others of you are thinking, Jeezus, why do you have to make things so complicated? Others, I don’t know; I’m just lucky, I guess.
What Happened Over the Holidays
I had kind of forgotten about setting my yearly intention until I read Candid Kay’s recent blog about how she does pretty much the same thing, picking a word she can focus on for the new year. Then, I remembered this that happened over the holidays:
We were in Telluride, staying with Jason’s family, for a ski vacation. This particular day, lots was happening. Our oldest wanted to ski, the youngest didn’t, a bunch of the family was going snowmobiling, and it was approximately six degrees outside. Jason and I were trying to decide which of us would ski with the oldest and which would snowmobile with the youngest, when he asked me, “But what do YOU want to do?”
I suddenly noticed I was thinking, “Well I should probably spend time with this one, Jason probably wants to go skiing, but I should take advantage of my lift ticket I’ve already activated today…” It was all practicality and what other people might want. So when I paused and asked myself, “Yeah, April, what do YOU want to do?” I couldn’t even tell what that was. In the midst of that house full of people, noise, wants and needs, I couldn’t begin to discern what my own were. I silently excused myself to the bedroom to think, because I hate crying in public. I was distressed I could be so out of touch with my own desires.
I’ll Tell You What I Want, What I Really, Really Want.
Not being able to tell what I want is a pattern born from a people-pleasing past and having small children, who until their recent maturity, haven’t known Moms even had preferences. So my focus for 2020 is to take the time and space to figure out what I want to do, whether it’s what movie to see or which direction to take my career. That doesn’t mean I never compromise (in a family of four, it’s inevitable) but I, at the very least, want to KNOW what I’d prefer. I don’t want to perform my life so that everyone can see that I am a “good person.” I want to feel it for myself.
So, do you set a New Year’s resolution, intention or focus? Do you say “screw it” to the whole idea? What’s your take on it? What are your plans, if any, for the upcoming months?
I’m not sure what this post is about. I just got tired of seeing my poem, The Doldrums, at the top of the list. It’s a good poem, but it is depressing, and I need a break from it. That poem is not how I feel about life, generally speaking, but it was how I felt that one day that I wrote it.
Over the years, I have learned to wait out my emotions. I can start the day feeling lethargic and unmotivated, move on to serene, through energetic, then punch my way through pissed off, and end up feeling grateful I have a family. Then, it’s lunchtime.
I used to try to fix my negative emotions: Why am I feeling this way? Do I need a new job, new relationship, new approach to life? No, odds are, I need a nap, a coffee, a run, or just some time, and it’ll pass. These days, I don’t spend too much time analyzing myself if I wake up feeling irritable or sad. I try to do some things to help my mood, and I know it probably won’t last too long.
There’s this fine balance between acknowledging emotions and wallowing in them, between moving on with life in the face of them and denying them. Wallowing too long can send you tumbling to the bottom of the pit from whence it feels impossible to extract yourself. Denial is like trying to cram silly putty into a too-small container — you can’t get the lid on; it’s going to pop out somewhere and make a mess.
I’ve been both places many times. I’ve been in the pit, where everything seems pointless and terrible, and there are no stairs, no handholds to climb my way out. I’ve been through denial, which is like pretending a volcano is dormant and then it blows half its top off and spews lava over all with the misfortune of being near. I don’t want to be either of those places again if I can help it.
Wrestling with depression and PMDD does make me appreciate the good days, like today, where I can feel the warmth of the goodness of my life. And it has made me stronger, forced me to improve my emotional coping skills.
I do what I call “real self-care” — not expensive spa days or massages, but things like getting enough sleep and allowing myself alone time. I know that the doldrums are not a reality, but the filmy lens through which I see things that particular day. It is a real feeling, and it deserves acknowledgment. It craves its own poem, and I shan’t deny it. (We start talking poetry, and I start saying things like “shan’t.” I’m so pretentious sometimes.) That is what allows me to let it go, to move past it.
The thing is, when I look not just at the doldrums or the shallows but at the whole ocean, there are storms, shipwrecks, beautiful sunsets, pretty shells, calm and choppy waters. There is the rare tsunami and the occasional island paradise. But you don’t get to stay in one place, and if you try, you’ll drift anyway. Or that weather will come to you. Change is inevitable.
That ocean is not just confined to this earth. It is vast and limitless. Who knows what great and terrible things lie within its depths — structures, beings, ideas we can discover, ponder, and some beyond the limits of our human imaginations.
The only sure thing I know we have is our lives on this earth, and the time we have here is too short not to spend it appreciating the full and complex range of human emotion.
You know it well because you jog it daily. You see where the cracks and potholes have grown. There’s grass creeping into its edges here and there. It’s weathered, but you still like it. For years it was smooth, but as the imperfections appeared, you learned to navigate them after turning your ankle once or twice. You’ve even gotten good at jumping the large ditch that’s appeared lately, in one particular spot, though you fell in a few times before you got the hang of leaping over it.
You’re running one day, congratulating yourself on avoiding all the small cracks and holes. You leap over the big pit, sail through the air, land on the other side, take a few steps and WHAM!
You’re in a hole.
There’s a brand new one just a few strides from the old one. How did this get here, you wonder? You haven’t actually fallen to the bottom of it but are clinging to a ledge on the far side. You begin to try to climb out, grasping at roots and rocks embedded in the earthen wall, but they all dislodge in your hands and tumble to the bottom, which you’re beginning to realize is very far down indeed.
Fuck. You sit on the ledge, knees to your chest and think. It disturbs you these holes keep appearing. You’re afraid your beloved track is going to completely fall out from under you one day, and there will be nothing left but dark holes. A few joggers run by, but they don’t notice you down there, and you are too busy worrying to think to call out to them. You stand on your ledge. You look up. You know the sun’s still there, you can see the light, but you can’t feel it’s warmth. It’s cold down here.
This is what PMDD is like.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder is menstrual-cycle-related depression. It also comes with fun physical symptoms like sore joints, bloating and fatigue, just to name a few amongst many. PMDD is relatively predictable, usually beginning a week to ten days before a period starts, but like all things hormonal, it’s hard to pin down, especially if your cycle’s not regular because you’re young and not ovulating yet, older and not ovulating regularly, or just because it’s not.
Looking back, I’ve likely had PMDD for most of my adult life. It only got to a point where it couldn’t be ignored seven or eight years ago when being depressed while caring for a toddler and a four-year-old became untenable. I took antidepressants, I learned things about cognitive behavioral therapy, I did a lot of reading and introspection and visiting with other sufferers online. Over the years, I have become intimately knowledgeable about the nuances of my hormonal and emotional cycles, just like you know every bump and cranny of that track you run every day.
A brand new pit of despair
This month, as a gift from perimenopause, the new hole appeared after my period started. I sat crying in my office yesterday, sad and pissed. Sad because no reason, sad because depression. Pissed because it tricked me. Jason said, kindly, “I thought you usually got better now,” mirroring my more caustic mental response, What the fuck? I just shrugged, threw my hands in the air, and continued leaking out of my eyes and nose.
The new hole shows up unannounced. There is no earthquake rumble to warn you it’s developing. You didn’t trip, you didn’t lose your job or your family or your house. It’s a hole with no rhyme, no reason. You know the great job/family/house/life is still there, but it is unreachable from the hole.
Throw me a rope.
Jason doesn’t have a ladder, but luckily he’s got a rope — one woven with hugs, errands, gentle offerings and patience. He secures it, throws it down, and encourages me as I struggle to pull myself up — using arms, legs, the scratchy rope, the crumbling dirt walls — everything at my disposal to get out. And I will get out. I always do. New hole or old one.
If you suffer from depression of any sort, I hope you have someone. Know that sometimes you have to find that person and tell them what you need. And if you have someone in your life who sometimes falls in that hole, know this: you can’t make them feel better any more than you can climb out of the hole for them. But you can throw them a rope.
When I was a kid, I wrote a lot of poetry, but this is the first one I’ve done in decades. If you are a poetry buff, a word of warning: this poem follows no rules or structures, because I don’t remember any of them from high school. This has been sitting in my “drafts” folder for months because I was afraid it wasn’t “real poetry.” But if ee cummings can write without any capital letters or punctuation, screw it. Here’s my pome:
Back when my maternal grandfather was still here and the last of my living grandparents, I wrote, The Fighter Still Remains. With diabetes and heart problems, his health was poor and his morale was even worse. On the way home from seeing him, The Boxer, by Paul Simon was echoing in my head.
I was driving back from visiting and caring for him. The thirty-minutes of travel was enough for me to mull over his life, our generations, what the future holds, and by the time I was halfway home, I was sobbing.
When I got home, it came pouring out of me in the only way I know how to cope effectively. I wrote this essay. It’s been edited, but it’s not far off from that first, emotion-laden waterfall of words.
That was five years ago. I’ve just now entered “The Fighter Still Remains,” in an essay contest. Winning entries are based on writing quality and votes/likes/comments. Please read and like or comment if you enjoy the essay and don’t hesitate to share it with others. Thanks for your support, friends.
“If you don’t want to watch me fuck it up, then DON’T WATCH ME!” my best friend shouted at me as I hovered over her shoulder micromanaging her filling out an application for a Blockbuster card. This was 20 years ago, which you probably guessed by the video store reference.
Back in the college days I’d rather put a fork in my eye than admit I was wrong, but I walked away without another word. It’s hard to defend yourself when you’re trying to tell your super-intelligent friend which line to write her name on like she’s a kindergartener. (Maybe that’s why I majored in child development…hmmm.)
Kelly and I occasionally bickered, but we mostly got along. We’d been close friends since mid-high school, and by the time we parted ways in our mid-twenties, we’d lived together for almost five years. And we still liked each other. We were prone to long strings of free association that sent us into hysterics but baffled the rest of our friends who thought our fascination with Beavis and Butthead was juvenile and beneath them.
We were weird, we were sometimes (often) obnoxious, and we were even depressed together that first year living in Jester Dorm together. Who wouldn’t be? It was designed by a prison architect and looked like something out of the Eastern Bloc in the ’80s. We who lived there had a specific odor even outside the building. It was a uniquely horrific combination of industrial Lysol and urine.
Kelly and I had a complex yet solid relationship. She once threw books at the inside of our dorm room door because I was sitting outside, talking loudly with a bunch of people from our floor while she was trying to sleep. While she passive-aggressively hurled literature instead of coming out to ask us to pipe down, I inconsiderately and passive-aggressively ignored the thunks on the other side of the door instead of taking the hint and moving somewhere else.
She once confronted me (which took a lot of guts back then since I was never wrong) about the fact that I couldn’t take any criticism whatsoever and it made me hard to live with at times. She did it in the gentlest way. I was embarrassed, but I knew even then it took a lot of guts and a true friend to say something like that. And she was 100 percent right.
Best Worst Movie Choice Ever
We once went to see a movie together because we were both bored and a little depressed. We went to see Seven, because you know, Brad Pitt. Bad fucking choice. So then we were even more depressed together, which is a lot better than being depressed by yourself.
More Misplaced Literature
Once, bored again, we gathered up all the unread newspapers we had accumulated whilst paving our road to hell with the good intention of being more well-informed and dumped them on our former roommate’s doorstep, ding-dong ditched him and drove off giggling. We thought it was hilarious and promptly forgot all about it until we ran into him several months later. ‘Turns out we had really freaked out his new roommate.
Call Out the Cavalry
One time I ran off to San Antonio on a whim one Thursday afternoon with a boy and forgot to tell her where I was going. Running off with boys was a habit of mine, but it was usually just around the corner at a party, not two hours away. By the time I got back that evening, she had half the dorm looking for me. I had no idea she’d be so worried. I felt warm and fuzzy and also guilty.
Another Great Use For Fortune Cookies
When her boyfriend broke up with her, I drove her around while she cried. We went back to my house and stuck fortune cookies up our noses with my sister and took pictures until Kelly laughed. When that same boyfriend got back together with her and then broke up with her again, I almost killed him, even though I did actually like him, just not for her.
Growing Closer Apart
Kelly and her family came for a visit last weekend. It had been four years since I’d laid eyes on her, but we’ve become even closer. We told our old jokes and made a few new ones, but we also reflected on who we were back then and who we’ve become. Somehow, we have grown together, despite being states apart. Somehow, we’ve both evolved into writers, feminists, people who are real about the not-so-shiny side of mental health and motherhood.
I do not know why this happened — why she and I are so alike and yet different and fit together so well on a primal level, why we are able to stay friends across the country, why I am always able to learn something from her — but it is one of the best things that has ever happened to me.