I am the Worst Swimmer

I am the worst swimmer. 

Seriously, I sink like a stone, despite my fairly compact size. Maybe because of my compact size,  I suffer an excess of density.   Worse still, I tend to panic in deep water.  When I was a child, my mother who grew up in a fishing village and was a very elegant swimmer, sent me for private lessons.  Shy and self-conscious, I hated the one-on-one attention from the instructor. One class he told me he had a cold and wouldn’t be going into the pool with me.  The end result of his self-care was that I found myself in the deep end in a terror.  He stuck his leg into the pool for me to grab onto.  I can still see it, glowing white, a disembodied calf floating towards me.  

I returned for the next several lessons, but I was never able to breath correctly in the water again.  The only time I can, the only stroke I can do for any length of time, is when I’m on my back looking up, floating.  And even then, the tendency to strive is strong, so I start moving my limbs and the next thing I’m turned round, face in the water, thrashing away in a mad woman’s attempt to swim.  

Needless to say I avoid the ocean.  Any shark within a ten mile radius would think there’s some plump baby seal in distress out there ripe for the eating. 

We talk about people floating through life, and I’ve always been one to scorn that sort of thing.  If it ain’t hard, it ain’t worth doing.  There’s a point there, many good and desirable things to take effort.  Strong long-term relationships, new skills, mountaintops, depths.  There is however also something to be said for floating.  For surrender.

I don’t do surrender any better than I do swimming.  You won’t find me on the beach very often. For me, it’s the mountains, cool clear air, the scent of pine, mossy rocks, cairns above the treeline. I love the scramble, knees scraping against the rock, squeezing through splits in the granite.  I arrive at summits glasses foggy, drenched in sweat, triumphant.  

It’s exhausting.  A good kind of exhausting, exhilarating even, but nevertheless, not something you can do day in, day out, literally or metaphorically speaking.

Several times over the years, I’ve worked at surrender.  I’ve sat visualizing myself unloading boxes of stresses and faces to lay at the feet of some version of god.  I’ve ritualized letting go of what no longer serves.  I’ve run great distances to get away.  None of that really works.  Oddly enough, I’ve found all you need do is ask.  Ask and it shall be given to you.  You just need to notice that it happened – pay attention- which is something again I don’t always do.  

I suffer from revelation envy.  You read these stories of people whose lives turned on the dime.  Those grand epiphanies where everything became clear, scales falling from their eyes, paradigms shifting like curtains on a new act in a play.  Maybe we’re not all meant for that. LIke body types that need different exercises and nutrients, we each have different routes.  I’m not a floater and I may never get the hang of that.  It doesn’t make me wrong or less spiritual or farther from Truth or God or anything.  I have my own path.  It’s more switchback going from deep cool sometimes very dark and frightening woods to opening vistas and aback again into the bush.  Surrender also means accepting that, loving it, and being excited to see where it goes.  It might be nice to float for a while, like when you hit a plateau in climbing.  Necessary even – when you hit those vistas, you’re crazy not to stop and drink them in, refresh yourself.  Otherwise you’re not going much farther, not on those shaky legs.   We need to rest, to soak, to take it all in before moving forward again.  Otherwise how will you incorporate the insight that climb has granted you?  

Live like Otis

My nemesis and incessant companion is an elderly overweight beagle named Otis.  My sons and I rescued Otis from a nearby shelter; he was a two-time loser, having been left first in Indiana and then again once he came to the Northeast.  It wasn’t hard to figure out why; at 3 years he was barely housetrained, totally undisciplined, and aggressive with other dogs.  He was also singularly unemotional.  

Now I’m not one to attribute human characteristics to animals.  Dogs are at their core instinctual beings as opposed to rational.  Nevertheless most dogs have personality, playful, protective, feisty, and so forth.  Otis however was and is a blank slate.  Once he got over his fear of other dogs, he ceased to have any dominant characteristic at all, save his houndlike love of food, especially Special Breakfast Sunday.  His favorite 30 seconds of the week. 

People have been known to walk hesitantly onto my lawn, calling his name, because they feared he was dead.  He can lie in the sun for a very long time.  Seriously, the dog never moves.  Now that he’s old, he must sleep 20 of the 24 hours of the day.  Movement is limited to enforced marches, getting up for breakfast and dinner, and about 4 positional shifts each day depending on the position of the sun and me. 

Nevertheless, Otis is an unlikely inspiration.  My neighbor across the street called to me the other day.  As we were chatting in the shade, she said, “Otis has taught me so many lessons.”    “He has?” I asked incredulously.  “Yes!” she replied.  “I see him and remind myself, take a break.  Those dishes will be there tomorrow.”  

Come to think of it, Otis has the right of it.  Whenever possible, live like Otis.

Eat when you can, whatever you can, as much as you can.  Enjoy it. 

When you’re sad, howl.  Let it out.  Let someone know, ask for comfort.  

Stop and smell the roses.  Or who peed on the roses.  Take in All The Smells. 

Rest when you’re tired.  Rest when you feel like resting.  Just rest all the time.

None of the other dogs are thinking about you.  Live your own life. 

Follow the sun. Roll in its warmth. 

Every day is special breakfast day.

Prufrock’s Well

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

For me there is no more tragic, aching line of poetry than this from the closing of T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.  There is a beauty, sublime and magical, out there that is beyond our reach and worth.  The tragedy of J. Alfred and many of us is that we do not bother to listen, because we think we can never hear.  We do not ask the “overwhelming questions” because we fear.  We fear to ask, we fear the responses, we fear what those responses might require of us.  We live in a constant state of treading water, arms flailing, the waves threatening to overcome us.  If only we can get ahead, swim to shore, we’d be safe.  Whole.  Happy.

I have struggled with depression my entire life.  My first bout was as a young child, 5 or 6.  Back in the late 60’s, no one looked for signs of trauma or mental illness in children. My homelife was unstable, wracked with alcoholism and anger, which, while not always directed at me, nevertheless seemed to me to be all my fault.  As an adopted child, I lived in fear of being sent back.  To what, I had no idea.  I had been adopted when I was old enough to speak, but too young to recollect.  As a girl, I would listen at the door of my room for hints that my parents were making arrangements for my removal.  These were my childish imaginings.  My parents never threatened or alluded to such a betrayal.  Nor did I ever voice the terrors that woke me at night for fear that discovery would force their hand,  so there was no way for them to assuage my paranoia and deep sadness. 

Thus it grew over the years, sullen and silently as a teenager, rebelliously as a 20-something.  I gathered to me relationships with people who confirmed my unworthiness.  I sought experiences that would help me to justify my existence.  The outward face of Sister Margaret, shy, church-going, innocent, belied the angry, desolate soul that cannibalized itself in quiet hours.  It would take decades to exorcise that demon and surrender the rage and hopelessness, to overcome the ineffable worthlessness of my being.  

Even now, as I edge toward my 60’s, that well of inadequacy can still start to form around me.  Depression for me is rarely connected to circumstances or a surfeit of any one emotion.  I’m not sad, or unhappy, or grieving. Far from there being overwhelmingly emotion, there is an utter absence of emotion. I’m hollow, numb, amorphous.  Shape without form, shade without colour.

It’s like walking around in a cylinder made of wavy glass blocks.  You know, the ones that populated 80’s kitchens, clear but warped, light comes in diffracted and indistinct.  You can see the people outside; their voices float down from the open roof – we wouldn’t want to be protected from the rain in our funk after all! – but they do not penetrate.  They do not sing to me.

It has been several years since I’ve fallen into the well.  I have from time to time caught sight of the walls forming in the periphery of my gaze.  At such times, there are warnings that allow me to make choices that kick down the upper bricks.  It’s rare for one to spring up fully-formed anymore, but it has recently and with staggering force. The worst part is that you realize you’re not nearly as evolved as you had thought you were.  How dangerous to let those thoughts take hold.  How much more dangerous to fail to examine them from a distance and thus fail to grow.  

I started writing this blog as a travel journal preparing for my spiritual awakening in Nepal.  I’ve meandered through the past year’s pandemic induced maze, touching on this or that, never quite finding a path once Nepal was postponed (2023 now.)  Maybe I’ll just write about climbing out of the well, the small, arduous steps that takes each and every day.  

Step One.  Here we are.  

The Day Tipper Gore Saved my Life

There was an afternoon maybe 6 months after the birth of my second child.  The baby was secured in a little bouncy seat, my 2 year old playing in the sun on the window sill of cinder blocks in the boys’ dorm room that doubled as our apartment.  I was wearing, honest to God, a shift.  Yes, really.  Those of you with Italian grandmas will know what that is.  The same shift I had been wearing for several days, I might add.  I was still carrying a few stone of baby weight and the after-effects of eclampsia.  My father was recovering from a colostomy reversal; my mother had just been diagnosed with the lung cancer that would in less than a year claim her life at 65.  My husband was working on campus, a short walk away and yet somehow never available.  I was fat, tired, overwhelmed by the responsibilities of motherhood, mourning the loss of my career – I had quit my doctoral program to focus on my family.  Nothing seemed within my control.  I sat on the couch in the shift, eating doughnuts and watching bad daytime TV.

Suddenly, there was Tipper Gore on the screen. The wife of the Vice President appeared before me, regaling the talk show host with details of her own battle with depression.  She mouthed all the usual platitudes:  you’re not alone, help is available, there’s no shame.   I stared at the screen, recalling being in the hospital after the birth of my first child, while a woman in the next room cried without ceasing.  She would stagger to the door and the desk nurse would pop up to usher her back to bed, smoothing her hair and saying “it’s ok – we’re getting you your happy pill.”  

I felt a stab of aversion that I was on the verge of needing The Happy Pill.  Wasn’t I stronger than that?  More self-aware?  I had been through rounds of therapy already.  I knew what my problems were.  Medication is for the weak.  

Nevertheless, I called the scrolling number below Tipper’s head for a 5 minute phone screen.  Nailed it.  I’ve always scored very well on tests.  The screener on the other end of the phone had the appointment booked before I could refuse. 

In the end, although I credit Ms. Gore, I think it was the shift what done it for me.  I mean, who wears one of those?  Whatever the impetus, that call set me on a path.  Not a straight path by any means, but the first healthy step on the journey to where I am now.  

Thanks Tipper.